A Halloween Tale: Ichabod Crane, Washington Irving, and the Civil War

    Most of us are familiar with Washington Irving’s 19th century classic Halloween story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in which the lanky Ichabod Crane is chased through the woods by the Headless Horseman and disappears when the Horseman throws a pumpkin at him. It was a well-known and popular work in the 19th century and remains one of our most enduring pieces of American folklore and storytelling and has shaped how Americans view Halloween.

The Headless Horseman rears his horse as he prepares to throw the fatal pumpkin at a terrified Ichabod Crane in John Quidor's 1858 depiction of Washington Irving's famous short story. 


          Interestingly, the protagonist of the The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane, drew his name from someone Washington Irving had met in real life, a rather husky U.S. Army officer named (you guessed it) Ichabod Bennett Crane. The real Ichabod Crane was born in 1787 in Elizabeth, New Jersey and served his country for 48 years, 46 of them in the U.S. Army where he eventually rose to the rank of colonel. Crane served in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, and the Seminole Wars in the 1830s and when he passed away in 1857 was “much respected and beloved by all who knew him.”

Colonel Ichabod B. Crane served his country ably for 48 years, the first two years being in the U.S. Marine Corps. This tough old soldier didn't care for his name being appropriated for a literary character depicted as a wimpy scarecrow-like schoolteacher. 


Irving, himself a veteran of the War of 1812, met Crane while on an inspection tour of the fortifications at Sacket’s Harbor, New York. A few years later, Irving remembered Crane’s name and used it as his protagonist in his new short story which was published in serial form as part of a collection of short stories from 1819-1820. However, whereas the real-life Crane was a solidly built man of stature and commanding presence, Irving depicted his Crane as a ridiculously lanky schoolteacher more akin to a goofy old scarecrow than to a burly Army officer. It was later said that Colonel Crane was none too pleased to have his name so intimately connected with such a character.

So, what does this have to do with the Civil War? Well, there are some interesting connections to be made here. Colonel Crane had two sons, one of whom served in the Union Army. His eldest son Charles Henry Crane attended Harvard Medical School and upon graduation in 1848, he joined the U.S. Army where he saw service in both the Mexican War and Civil War. Dr. Crane eventually rose to the rank of brigadier general after numerous years in the army medical service and during the Civil War, Crane served as a chief medical officer and as the Medical Inspector for Prisoners of War for the Union Army. More importantly, Dr. Crane was in Washington, D.C. on the night that President Abraham Lincoln was shot and was among the attending physicians that night who were with the President in his final hours.

Brigadier General Charles Henry Crane

That wasn’t the only connection. A New Jersey resident bearing the name of Ichabod L. Crane enlisted in (rather appropriately) the 3rd New Jersey Volunteer Cavalry on August 31, 1864. Crane joined his regiment in the Shenandoah Valley shortly thereafter and saw action in numerous engagements including Opequon, Fisher’s Hill, Front Royal, Waynesboro, and Cedar Creek. The 3rd New Jersey Cavalry then rejoined the Army of the Potomac and fought in the final engagements of the Petersburg campaign including Five Forks. Private Crane served with the regiment for nine months before being honorably discharged on June 6, 1865, at Cloud’s Mills, Virginia, having apparently kept safely away from any headless Confederate horsemen that may have sought him out.  

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