The Deadliest War

Drew Faust speaks on how the Civil War’s astounding death toll reshaped American society.

Dead Confederate artillerymen grouped near one of their limbers after Antietam. In the background is a Dunker church, built by a German Baptist pacifist sect.
A cemetery for Union prisoners of war, 13,000 of whom died in a brutal prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia.

The single bloodiest day of battle in American history occurred near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862. Robert E. Lee attempted to invade the North with a 50,000-man Confederate army that was intercepted at Antietam Creek by 70,000 Union troops under the command of George McClellan. The next day, Lee retreated across the Potomac, having lost 25 percent of his forces, including 2,700 dead and 10,000 wounded or missing. Union losses in this "victory" were equally grim: 12,000 casualties, including 2,108 dead. "The most central fact about the Civil War was its astounding death rate," says professor of history Drew Gilpin Faust, dean of the Radcliffe Institute. "The sense of organized mass slaughter that we associate with modern warfare began in the Civil War. The United States experienced these death tolls long before the rest of the world."

Faust is a native Virginian and her previous Civil War scholarship, including her prizewinning 1996 book Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, focused on the Confederacy. But her next book, which she is currently researching, will examine the causes and many-layered effects of the war's death toll in both North and South.

First, there were the unprecedented, grisly logistics of clearing battlegrounds so filled with corpses that, as some horrified observers reported, one could have walked across the field atop them. Sheer numbers are indicative: 618,000 soldiers died--2 percent of the American population, comparable to 5 million perishing today. All other American wars combined, through the Korean War, claimed fewer lives than the Civil War alone. In World War II, 30 out of every 10,000 men in uniform perished. Civil War combat was six times as deadly, killing 182 per 10,000. Based on 1860 census figures, 8 percent of all white males aged 13 to 43 died in the war, including 6 percent in the North and an extraordinary 18 percent in the South. Of 180,000 African Americans who served in the Union army, 20 percent did not survive. What killed so many men "wasn't subtle military stratagems or 'beautiful' battles," says Faust. "This is modern warfare: it's not bravery, nor brilliance. It's just slaughter."

Civil War casualties, like those of World War I, reached catastrophic levels, Faust explains, in part because "technology changed without a concomitant change in strategy." For example, the invention of the Minié ball, a conical bullet that expanded to fit the rifling grooves when fired, gave rifles far longer range and greater accuracy than smooth-bore muskets. Consequently, enemy troops--especially attacking troops--were exposed to fire for much longer distances, says Faust. Another innovation, introduced in mid war and used almost exclusively by the Union, was the breechloader rifle. Where the older muzzle-loaders required a 17-step procedure to load, the breechloaders allowed an infantryman to shoot many more rounds per minute.

Disease claimed even more lives than combat. For each white soldier who died in battle, two were lost to illness, and among blacks the ratio was a catastrophic 10 to 1. "The size of Civil War armies was enormous, compared with anything known previously," Faust explains. "Many soldiers came from rural backgrounds and had little exposure to pathogens. Bringing all these people together into army camps created breeding grounds for disease. Lots of them died of measles, typhoid, typhus. The germ theory was still unknown; army camps polluted their water supplies with human waste, and a common ailment was dysentery, which picked up local nicknames--the Tennessee Trots, the Virginia Quick-Step."

Death on this scale led to new forms of accountability to survivors. At the start of the war, soldiers were little more than cannon fodder. There were no formal procedures to identify the dead or notify their families, and more than half of those killed died anonymously. Parents would simply kiss their sons goodbye and never hear of them again. Many were buried in mass graves, without benefit of a coffin or even a covering blanket. But as the war unfolded, the ethos changed, and the federal government began to acknowledge a responsibility to both the families and the soldiers themselves. "There were two reasons," Faust says. "First, so many people were affected, because of the number of deaths. Second, this war was tied up with human-rights issues about ownership of slaves: the right to one's body, personhood, identity, was part of the war cause."

Voluntary organizations in the North began to identify and bury soldiers, and to notify their families of where they were interred. By the end of the war there was the beginning of a military graves registration unit, charged with identifying each fallen soldier and making sure that he was properly buried. The United States began a huge and costly reburial program; by 1870, according to Faust, 300,000 Union soldiers had been reinterred in 73 national cemeteries such as the one at Gettysburg, and 58 percent of these bodies had been identified. The Confederate dead fared less well, despite efforts by volunteer organizations, usually headed by Southern women. The U.S. government generally left rebel corpses to rot where they fell.

The death toll changed society in countless ways, Faust says. The American funeral industry, for example, got its start in the efforts to embalm bodies. Although identifying "dog tags" first appeared in the Boer War (American troops had them in World War I), Union infantrymen had improvised an earlier version before the battle of Cold Harbor, Virginia, in 1864. Soldiers about to launch a suicidal attack on entrenched fortifications wrote their names and addresses on pieces of paper and pinned these to their uniforms, so that their bodies could be identified and sent home.

The carnage among the Blue and Gray ended an era of military history, and perhaps of social history as well. "Death touched nearly every American family in the Civil War," says Faust. "The deaths and slaughter of the Civil War inaugurated the loss of innocence, the threat of meaninglessness, that characterize modern life."

Read more articles by Craig Lambert

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