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Civil War Casualties

Updated on October 10, 2014

The Battle of Bull Run - Beginning of a Long War

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The American Civil War began uneventfully with the Battle of Fort Sumpter on April 12, 1861. After a two day "battle," the Union garrison gave up the fight, being badly outgunned and disastrously low on food and other supplies. The Confederate forces had been successful in blocking the resupply of Fort Sumpter. After the two day siege, the only casualties were two dead. The men were not killed as a result of the engagement but, ironically, from an cannon explosion during the surrender ceremony.

But while the war may have begun without much bloodshed, what ensued would shock both the North and South, and it still does.

The first major engagement of the war was the Battle Bull Run on July 21, 1861. It is known in the South as the Battle of Manassas. Because there would be another battle in that location a little over a year later, you often hear reference to First Bull Run or the First Manassas. The Union named the battle after nearby Bull Run Creek. The South named it because it occurred in Manassas, Virginia.

Give the beggars a good thrashing at Bull Run, the thinking went, and those rebels will soon come to their senses. If only it had happened that way.

A Modern Warship time travels to the Civil War

Good Bye to the Idea of a Short War

The Battle of Bull Run was a shock, a psychological jolt, especially to northerners. It was widely expected that the South would be crushed in short order, and that Bull Run would force an early capitulation. The North had the benefit of an advanced industrial capacity that could grind out armaments and ammunition that the South could not match. The North also had a superior network of transportation by rail and water. The Erie Canal, finished in 1841, provided an path to the sea from Buffalo, New York to Albany, and thence down the Hudson.

Give the beggars a good thrashing at Bull Run, the thinking went, and those rebels will soon come to their senses. If only it had happened that way.

Hundreds of civilians had been alerted to the coming battle, and many streamed toward Manassas Junction to picnic and watch the fun as the Union was about to give the South a good comeuppance.

Instead of the expected resounding Union victory, Bull Run turned into a rout, a sound defeat of the Northern forces. The inexperienced armies of General Irwin McDowell for the Union and Generals Beauregard and Johnston for the South clashed. It was Johnston's reinforcement to the Beauregard forces that turned the day to the South's advantage. McDowell's retreat began in an orderly fashion, but soon led to panic as roads clogged with civilian picnickers prevented an organized retreat.

The Union lost 2,896 men, included 460 killed. The Confederate forces lost 1,982 men, including 397 killed. It was the largest and costliest battle in American history up until that point.

Both sides were chastened by the slaughter. But it was only the beginning.

A Field Hospital

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The Civil War resulted in more American casualties that all wars involving the United States up to Vietnam.

Disease

Over half the casualties were from disease. Most of the disease was spread by unknowing battlefield doctors and nurses, spreading infection from patient to patient. A doctor might amputate a leg, then go to the next victim and treat his wounds without even washing his hands.

The accepted theory of disease spread in the mid-nineteenth century was the miasma theory, the belief that disease was spread through the air by vapors released by rotting matter or fetid water. A person would breath in a bad vapor, the thinking went, and disease would result.

It would be many years before germ theory was accepted by the medical profession, the idea that infection can spread by microorganisms. In the decade after the Civil War, an English surgeon named Joseph Lister, working from the microbiological theories of Louis Pasteur, would develop the concept of a sterile operating environment. Until then, Hospitals were not much better than battlefield operation tents. Civil societies created hospitals as places where people would go to get better, to have their wounds treated or their diseases cured. The sad irony was that, in mid nineteenth century America, a hospital was the most dangerous place to be if you needed medical help.

Civil War Casualties in Perspective

The commonly used number for all casualties of the Civil War is 620,000, 360,000 from the North and about 260,000 from the South. We may never know the exact number of those killed. According to an article in the New York Times, these numbers may be far too low. "New Estimate Raises Civil War Death Toll," Guy Gugliotta, April 2, 2012, The New York Times, The article cites a study done by David Hacker, a demographic historian from Binghamton University in New York, which raises the estimate to 750,000.

The Civil War resulted in more American casualties that all wars involving the United States up to Vietnam. That, of course, includes World Wars I and II. The Battle of Antietam alone resulted in more casualties than on all of the beaches of the Normandy invasion. It was the bloodiest single day in American History.

Picket't Charge

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Weaponry and Tactics

In the Civil War, the weapons got ahead of the tactics. Old military doctrines of infantry maneuvers had not yet caught up to the advances in weaponry. Muskets, during the Civil War, had rifling in their barrels. This simple innovation, carving grooves along the inside of a rifle barrel, made for far better accuracy. A rifled musket could be accurate at 300 yards. But the tactics still called for men to march shoulder to shoulder. So a man could hide behind a tree and fire his rifle at an orderly advance of enemy soldiers. The result was long range death at 300 yards. Artillery advances also proved deadly. The famous Picket's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg highlights this. On the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Major General George Picket, under direct order from General Robert E. Lee, launched a frontal assault on the middle of Union forces with 12,500 men in nine infantry brigades charging three-quarters of a mile across an open field. Cannons, loaded with shot, blasted away, as did Union riflemen at the hapless oncoming rebels. Picket lost over 50 percent of his men in that single charge. The scene of Picket's charge is well maintained at the memorial site at Gettysburg. When you look across that field, you wonder: what could they have been thinking? As the speaker on the rental audiotape poignantly said: "It was the end of the romantic era."

The American Civil War, the great crucible that forged a new nation, came at a terrible price.

The writer of this article is the author of The Gray Ship, a novel of time travel, where a modern nuclear warship winds up in the Civil War.

Copyright © 2014 by Russell F. Moran

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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You covered this aspect of my favorite subject very well. It was a brutal war. As you pointed out, military tactics were woefully prepared for the advanced weaponry that was invented....it was a slaughter from start to finish. Well done, Russ!

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Bill. It's hard to believe the mass slaughter the Civil War was.

    • Angela Blair profile image

      Angela Blair 4 years ago from Central Texas

      Great piece and as a Civil War buff -- right down my reading alley. I had never read the casualty figures and they are astounding. Best/Sis

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Sis. Amazing and shocking numbers, no?

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      An interesting outlook on the Civil War Casualties, a well written hub and to the point.

    • moonlake profile image

      moonlake 3 years ago from America

      My great-great uncle died at Shiloh with my great-great grandfather at his side unable to really help him but the Confederates waited for him to hold his son before he died.

      Interesting hub I enjoyed reading it. Voted up.

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