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Civil War Killed More Americans than Any Other War for a Reason

Updated on April 22, 2010

   The civil war was fundamentally different and bloodier than any other war in American history. More American soldiers were killed in the civil war than any other American conflict, even when only union casualties are considered it is still second behind ww2 and only by a few thousand deaths even then. More telling however are the casualty and mortality rates of the civil war, which no other American conflict even approaches. 1 in 6 union soldiers were killed in the civil war while for enlisted personnel in ww2 it was only 1 in 40. To the country at the time the losses were even more unimaginable, more union soldiers died than had even enlisted or been drafted in every previous American war combined though not much time had passed between them. The staggering casualty rates of the Civil War were caused by the rapid and far reaching technological advancements of the industrial revolution combined with insufficient time for military tactics, strategy, and Americas basic understanding of how wars were fought to adjust to the utter lethality of the weapons they could now wield in unheard of quantities.

   During the time period of the American Revolution, the war of 1812, and European wars such as the Napoleonic Wars armies used terribly inaccurate smoothbore muskets. These weapons were so inaccurate that in order to hit anything opposing armies would form blocks of shoulder to shoulder infantry. These long lines of men would stand no greater than 200 yards apart and fire in huge salvoes, each unit firing at the same target in order to assure that they would hit their target by weight of numbers. So inaccurate were these weapons that charging into hand to hand combat (a maneuver first used by Greek hoplites when they fought the first organized battles in recorded history; centuries before the birth of Christ) was still a practical method for breaking a portion of an enemy line quickly.

   These toe to toe slugfest tactics are a certain path to horrendous bloodbaths when combined with the weapons of the early 1860s. The Mexican American War was so brief and one sided that the need for new methods of engaging enemy troops did not dawn on American military commanders. While their tactics no longer involved marching shoulder to shoulder 200 yards in front of the enemy and stopping to fire and other cosmetic differences, their styles and approaches for how to wage war were still essentially the same. Have large quantities of massed infantry advance over mostly open ground and attempt shoot at the mass of troops in front of them faster than they could return fire. This was a sure path to massive casualties because the new more accurate weapons of the day meant that a large portion of the shots fired would connect ensuring that men not in some sort of cover would get hit almost immediately. The bayonet charge was such a romanticized thing that commanders did not seem to realize that in this new kind of war they would not work. As one southern general said after the war, “It was thought to be a great thing to charge a battery of artillery or an earthworks lined with infantry. We were very lavish with blood in those days.”

   One of the largest causes of the bloody battles of the Civil War, especially Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg, was the outdated belief that one decisive engagement should end the war in one violent battle. This belief meant that generals, Grant in particular, were prone to sacrifice thousands of their own troops in order to try to crush the opposition in a single large scale maneuver. They would try to soak up the casualties they received by greatly outnumbering the position they advanced on. Generals would view any number of casualties as acceptable because of the belief that this charge, this attempted flanking, this sacrificed unit, etc would end the war once and for all. With such powerful weapons such maneuvers were never able to succeed, for the defending troops were able to inflict such enormous casualties on the advancing line that the number of troops required to overwhelm a position was unobtainable. The most famous example of why a decisive bayonet charge would never again be anything short of suicide was Picket’s Charge at the battle of Gettysburg. General Lee ordered three divisions, over 13,000 men stretched out over a mile and a half, to advance and charge Seminary Ridge in order to break the Union line. Many of Lee’s subordinate officers saw the folly in this action and tried to talk him out of it, for they knew; in the words of General Longstreet, “There never was a body of 15,000 men who could make that attack successfully.” Nevertheless Lee would not reconsider and on July 3, 1863 over 13,000 confederate soldiers under the reluctant command of General George Pikett charged. Advancing at about 100 yards a minute on Seminary Ridge the confederates came under heavy fire from Union artillery on Little Round Top and Seminary ridge killing them by the hundreds. In order to conserve ammunition Union infantry, in cover behind a stone wall at the crest of the ridge, were not to fire until they ordered. Finally, when the advancing confederates were about 150 yards away, the Union troops were ordered to fire. Seventeen thousand rifles and 17 artillery pieces fired simultaneously and continued to fire until they could no longer see any confederate soldiers other than those that were fleeing or wounded. Only 150 of the 13,000 confederate soldiers who advanced on the hill made it to the stone wall every one of them were killed or captured. A total of 6,500 of the troops who charged the ridge were killed as well as all of the 15 regimental commanders who led the charge. Most of the survivors of the charge would die from disease and infection in their wounds.

   The rifles and to a lesser extent the artillery used in World War 1 were for the most part only refined versions of what had been used in the Civil War. WW1 was not the all out blood bath that the Civil War was because by the 1910s commanders knew how to fight with those types of weapons. They had learned the lesson that troops needed to be in cover at all times and so they dug trenches, bunkers, and foxholes to make sure they remained in cover at all times. They had learned to slowly wear down the enemy over time instead of trying to destroy their army in a single day. It is worthy of note however that frontal infantry assaults were still attempted in the first world war even though widespread use of machine guns had made them even more suicidal.

Their New Technology

   The most significant development in technology since the revolutionary and 1812 wars was the large scale rifling of weapons. Before the development of rifling the barrels of sidearms and cannons had been smooth bore which meant the led balls they fired to begin to veer off course almost as soon as the bullet left the gun’s barrel. It was discovered that having spiral grooves in the barrel of a gun caused the bullet to spin making it far more aerodynamic. The more aerodynamic a bullet is the more accurate it becomes. One of the two most common firearms troops were equipped with was the .69 caliber Harper’s Ferry rifle which was capable of killing a man at a half mile.

   Before the Civil War, rifles existed in limited numbers. Due to the cost and size of bullets that could catch the grooves and begin to spin, rifles had been restricted to elite groups of marksman. The invention of the mini-ball changed that. A mini-ball is small, light, and hollow making it cheap to mass-produce and easy to transport in large quantities. When placed into a rifle the mini-ball appears too small for the barrel, however when fired the heat from the exploding powder causes it to expand and catch the grooves. Because it is lighter than earlier rifle ammunition it does not drop as much and travels farther with greater velocity, which drastically increases the weapons accuracy. This meant that the average soldier was capable of hitting a target 250 yards away with ease, and a skilled marksman could expect to nail targets up to a half mile away.

   The development of revolving pistols and (towards the end of the war) rifles meant that one man with a .44 caliber Henry repeating rifle could kill 15 people in one go without having to stop to reload. This circumvented the one remaining weakness of the weapons of the age; a slow rate of fire. All the advances in small arms meant that the weapons used in the Civil War could be just as deadly as those used in the First World War.

   The final technological development that facilitated the level of carnage in the Civil War was that the industrial revolution enabled both the North and the South to equip and arm their entire army with such potent weapons as these. Armies of the past had largely been limited in size by how many men could be equipped and how quickly; now that industrialization allowed both the union and confederacy to produce massive arsenals the size of their armies swelled to greater and greater numbers, numbers previously unheard of.

   All these factors combined to repeatedly bring massive armies into contact with each other beginning battles that continued far longer than they would have had their been a modern chain of command maximizing the carnage their outdated tactics instigated.


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    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 

      5 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      I think Cold Harbor completed Grant's education about the futility of frontal assaults against entrenched opposition. That's why he pushed Lee back into Richmond by repeated moves on Lee's right flank rather than trying to overwhelm him head on. With that one exception (Cold Harbor) Grant did not waste his men. But he understood the price of victory, and unlike McClellan, for example, was willing to pay it.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      How many people died in the civil war scares me.

    • Emily Smith profile image

      Emily Smith 

      7 years ago from the great plains

      The amount of death and suffering during that time period is unfathomable to us today.

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 

      8 years ago

      Great job. It is impossible for us to imagine the casualty rates of this war. Many Americans are fed up with the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan even though the number of deaths in these conflicts is a small fraction of what occurred in the Civil War. I just wrote a hub along these lines which questions whether or not the conflict was worth it.

    • Robwrite profile image


      8 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Very interesting and well written hub. The Civil War was such a tragic yet fascinating period. Of all the wars we've fought in America, its probably had the most long lasting and important repercussions.


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