Civil War: The price of freedom

Richmond Times Dispatch
February 05, 2012

No conflict in American history can match the carnage of the Civil War. Approximately 620,000 men died, almost one of every four who served. Many historians now claim that figure is too low.

How does that equate to today’s population? After 10 years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, American fatalities have numbered more than 6,200. Using comparable death rates based on the total U.S. population, the toll today for the Civil War would be 6 million in only four years.

Two key factors explain why the war killed Americans on a scale never seen before or since — outdated tactics confronting modern weapons, and ignorance about the treatment of disease and wounds.

Civil War generals were schooled in tactics perfected by Napoleon earlier in the 19th century. They learned to mass their infantry in tightly packed formations and attack on a narrow front. If losses were not heavy, their men could break through enemy lines like a sledgehammer.

This tactic was based on the use of short-range, single-shot smoothbore muskets that had an effective range of a hundred yards and smoothbore artillery pieces. In 1861, both sides were armed mostly with smoothbores, yet within a year, the armies began to replace their old weapons with new rifled muskets and cannon.

The result was a dramatic increase in accuracy and range, which in turn led to much heavier casualties. In the hands of well-trained soldiers, these new weapons could hit opponents at distances four to five times that of smoothbores. Toward the end of the war, many units acquired repeating rifles that fired at a rate three times greater than single-shot muskets.

Although generals modified infantry tactics in response, they never fully changed their approach to battle. Despite overwhelming evidence that the old methods rarely succeeded, even great commanders such as Lee, Grant and Sherman relied on massed-infantry assaults well into the war, resulting in wholesale slaughter for the attackers.

While Civil War soldiers most feared enemy shot and shell, invisible killers were far more deadly. For every man killed in combat, two died of illness or disease. Dysentery, typhoid, measles and pneumonia devastated the ranks.

The makeup of the armies, North and South, reflected the mostly rural and diffuse American population then. The new soldiers had rarely congregated in large groups in confined spaces. Relatively few had been exposed to common communicable diseases, making them easy prey for the deadly microbes to which many of their urban-raised comrades were immune.

Unfortunately, Civil War-era doctors were ignorant of germs and viruses. They did not understand the need to wash their hands and medical instruments to prevent infections, which often killed soldiers rather than their wounds.

Wounds to the extremities of the body usually resulted in amputations without anesthesia or proper cleansing of the affected limb. Care of patients was frequently conducted in homes, churches, schools and barns that were hastily converted into hospitals with little regard for sanitation.

For the men who died, the loved ones left behind suffered in numbers even greater. Parents, wives, children, siblings and close friends anxiously awaited word after each major engagement, knowing "their boy" had been in harm’s way. There were no official protocols to soften the blow for families. The dreaded news might come by letter from a commanding officer or a comrade in arms, sometimes months later. Newspapers published unadorned casualty lists. Often the news came by word of mouth.

For many families, information about their soldier’s fate never came. Their loved one had marched off to war, only to vanish without a trace.

Because soldiers were not issued any form of identification, nearly 250,000 of the dead were never accounted for. Many were hastily tossed into mass graves after a battle, while others were never interred. As a result, their families were plunged into grief and deprived the certainty and closure that a body provides.

In her remarkable book, "This Republic of Suffering," historian Drew Faust notes that the war left a scar on America that has never fully healed. It’s little wonder. How can a people forget the pain inflicted by such a vast slaughter?

As we near the end of the first year of the Civil War sesquicentennial, we should not forget the huge price in blood this nation paid to remain united and to make all Americans free. Was it worth it? The words of a great soldier and student of the Civil War, Dwight D. Eisenhower, seem appropriate: "I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity."

That said, what we must pay for something as precious as freedom often comes at a staggering price in human lives.

©2012 Media General Communications Holdings, LLC

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