Jack, a young mastiff, was to become one of the best-known mascots of the Civil War because his story was reported by a reporter with Harper’s Weekly in 1862. Jack was said to have begun the war as a Confederate but then joined the Union Army.
Americans today generally assume that Americans in the northern states were pro-Union; those in the southern states were in favor of the Confederacy. However the truth was that there was divided loyalty in families, within towns, and within states in both the North and the South. For that reason, newspapers that favored one side or the other were very likely to tell stories that presented their side as the favored one.
This is what seems to have happened with the story of Jack, who is depicted as a Confederate who turned pro-Union.
His original owner was a Confederate jailer in Front Royal, Virginia, and Jack’s story begins there.
The First Maryland regiment, on behalf of the Union, launched a battle near Fort Royal, but they were soundly defeated and taken prisoner by the Confederates. They didn’t give in easily, however. Before being taken by force, they took down their regimental flag and cut it into pieces to divide among the men so that the flag itself would not fall into enemy hands.
Even after capture, they were a spirited lot. Three days later, the Union soldiers were being marched through Winchester, Virginia where a group of Confederates were serenading Stonewall Jackson outside the house where he was staying; they were singing The Bonnie Blue Flag. In response, the Union men began singing The Star Spangled Banner very loudly as they were marched past.
And of course, marching along with them was the new recruit who had decided to leave his Confederate owner and accompany the Union fellows. In the article in Harper’s Weekly (November 8, 1862), Jack was described to be “of medium size and jetty blackness, except a white breast and a dash of white on each of his four paws.”
The Union prisoners were divided into two groups. Enlisted men were sent to Belle Island prison in Richmond, and the officers to a prisoner of war camp in Salisbury, North Carolina. Jack opted to accompany the officers.
Reporter Meets Jack
The reporter actually meets Jack after a prisoner exchange when the men were encamped at Fortress Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. (Though located on the southern peninsula of Virginia, Fort Monroe remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War.) Here we have the reporter’s opinionated description:
“His manners are very gentle and even timid among his friends, but he is suspicious and fierce as a lion when among his enemies. Although born in Secessia [this must have been a way to describe states that seceded], and breathing constantly the air of treason, he is intensely loyal to the Union, and betrays a hatred of anything in the shape of a rebel, which many of our “conservative” and “neutral” loyalists in the North would do well to imitate.”
The officers shared with him stories about Jack:
While they were being marched to North Carolina and were terribly parched, the officers said that Jack would run ahead, and when he found water, he would rush back, barking loudly, to tell them about it.
“When they were supplied with only five crackers to each man for five days—with no meat—and our poor fellows were literally dying from starvation, this noble animal has been known to go and catch chickens for them and bring them back in his mouth!”
Another story concerned an exhausted Union soldier who couldn’t continue. Jack stayed with him until a wagon returned to pick him up.
Knew Roll Calls
Jack was also said to know the various roll-calls, and he answered only to the one for the officers. He would then run around gathering his group and then lined up with them taking his place by the drummer.
Late in 1862 the regiment made its way back toward Baltimore with plans to have a beautiful silver collar made for their four-legged friend.
The Regiment returned to active duty in early 1863 but no records show whether Jack accompanied them or whether he found a home in Baltimore and remained there.
While many of Jack’s deeds are probably accurately described, the reporter certainly attributed to Jack political leanings that we all know the dog couldn’t have had. As anyone who has been around dogs knows, a far better explanation is that Jack was either getting better treats from the Union men, or perhaps he took a particular liking to a few of the fellows.