The Butcher's Bill
Casualty Creation in the American Civil War
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Making casualties in war is always a primary tool for victory, but in the 19th Century just the threat of war forced mobilization and that was all that was needed to create a bulk of the casualties. Combat just added to the butcher’s bill. This essay addresses the Union figures because they are better documented, even if the figures given here are still in dispute.
Disease: First Wave
By the 1860s, the mass armies of the industrial age had devised new ways to destroy human beings in large numbers and with alarming speed, but the most common casualties came from causes other than combat. The biggest single killer of soldiers on both sides by far was disease, killing over 149,000 (of 294,000 total fatalities) in the Union army alone. Throughout the conflict, the primary killer on both sides was diarrhea, which could dehydrate a victim to death in a day and a half. Disease struck the armies in two separate waves, each with its distinct causality. The first wave was primarily the diseases of exposure, which included modern childhood maladies such as measles, mumps, chicken pox, and whooping cough, mostly accompanied by pneumonia. These diseases appeared at the initial camps of instruction as early as April 1861, where large populations of unrelated men first gathered together. Those who were immune to these diseases, or had already been exposed, were sometimes carriers. This wave lasted until late in 1862.
Disease: Second Wave
Beginning in the winter of 1862-63, most second wave maladies were “camp” or “prison” diseases, including typhus, typhoid, tuberculosis common in dense populations with poor sanitation and nutrition. The second wave also included yellow fever, malaria and nutritional deficiencies (which took some time to show up) including scurvy, which weakened the immune system, making the victims more susceptible to whatever opportunistic affliction came by. Since the cause of most disease was still a mystery to medical science of the time, treatments (other than anti-ascorbics for scurvy and rickets, and the palliative care provided by various opiates) ranged in efficacy from harmless to deadly. This second wave lasted until the end of the war and caused more casualties over a longer period.
The second biggest casualty creator in the Civil War was desertion, which claimed over 190,000 in the Union. The Confederate figures for desertion are almost certainly higher, especially in the winter of 1864-65. Men deserted for several reasons, and some even had to do with combat. Simple fear was one reason, but privation, hunger, loneliness or needing to take care of loved ones at home were the most common. There was also a large number (probably 15%) of men who accepted a bounty in one unit, deserted, and joined another for another bounty. These “bounty jumpers” were almost unique to the North, though they existed in small numbers in the South where substitutes could be purchased. In the winter of 1864-65, these and a certain sense of inevitable defeat drove many Confederates to just give up and go home.
The third highest killer, combat, claimed just over 61,000 men in the Union army killed outright. Most combat casualties (about 51%) came from small-arms fire, and 40% from artillery (primary and secondary projectiles). Bayonets accounted for less than 100 casualties treated in the Army of the Potomac, and cooking implements (a fry pan) for one known. Numbers for swords and other edged weapons are unknown, but were probably small. As the war progressed, the location of the wounds on the body moved upwards. In 1861-2, most wounds from small arms and artillery were in the abdomen and chest. By 1865, the predominance of wounds was in the head and shoulders. This phenomenon is probably because of the development of entrenchments as the war went on.
Died of Wounds
The fourth largest category of casualties was “died of wounds,” or sometimes of treatment. Civil War medicine knew little of antiseptics, nothing of antibiotics, and practically nothing of sanitation. Though many clinicians knew of anesthesia, training in its use was uneven, and supplies frequently ran out, especially on the Confederate side. A soldier brought to the surgeons for treatment was often better off (and usually survived longer) waiting for the surgeons to get to him. Amputation was a common treatment for wounds in the extremities (infection and shattered bones being just two reasons). Doctors rarely treated severe wounds in the chest and abdomen. The best that we can say about Civil War medicine was that they kept records that could provide their successors with valuable insights into the development of medicine. Died of wounds is also one of the most irritating cause of death in Civil War studies because there is and was no agreed-upon time limit for the classification. Since it sometimes took decades for wounds to kill the sufferer, and some (not all) chroniclers faithfully adjusted numbers when it suited them, the casualty figures for some battles can vary widely from source to source, or from decade to decade.
Suicide accounted for just over three hundred Union soldiers, the most common being hanging. There were just over a hundred homicides, often by gunshot or knife, but beatings were known. One hundred and twenty-one Union soldiers were executed for crimes committed (rape and looting being the most common offenses); most of these were shot, they hung a few.
Missing, Accidents, and Mysteries
The totals on the missing are elusive, as most of those “missing” may have been maimed beyond recognition in battle, or changed names and left the field (or not) or some other cause or another that could confound researchers for centuries. About 800 were killed by accident, but that number is almost certainly low (in July 1945, accidental casualties in the US services were about 1,400 a week), and some must have been homicides or suicides. There are about 3,200 “unknown” causes, though many may have been natural causes of which Civil War doctors knew nothing, though some are probably part of the other totals. But the usual ways for people to die—heart attacks, stroke and heat exhaustion—account for some 4,100 deaths, which also seems low.
Numbers for the allowed “housewives” attached to the regiments (three for every company) and the many camp followers uncertain at the best of times are to this day unknown. Since these undocumented people (which included not only the expected ladies of negotiable virtue but also soldier’s wives and other family members and the many vendors from sutlers to cutlers to embalmers, scriveners and laundresses) were uncounted at the time and the armies never seemed to care about them enough to document them, their casualties shall be forever unknown. However, it could be assumed that the conflict killed them at similar rates and by similar causes, albeit with somewhat smaller numbers than in combat.
The Devil’s Own Day chronicles the first “big” battle of the Civil War, where some 23,000 men were killed, wounded, or went missing.
There were many ways to become a casualty in those pine barrens, and I describe only a few. From your favorite bookseller or from me if you want an autograph.
Anniversaries can be…odd
"Und Vin Ze Var…" And Other Myths
On 20 January:
1937: FDR is inaugurated, the first presidential inauguration on 20 January. Except for Washington’s first inaugural (30 April) presidents had been sworn in on 4 March, the day of the year when the Constitution went into effect. Amendment XX changed the date in 1936.
1996: Yasser Arafat is elected leader of Palestine National Authority in Ramallah. Arafat held the office until his death in 2004. While ostensibly a governing body, Fatah ,a social democratic political party, is the only party in the PNA, which has held only one election since.
And the third Saturday in January is NATIONAL USE YOUR GIFT CARD DAY, the day you fetch out those gift cards from those generous souls who couldn’t figure out what else to give you. Nearly half of all gift cards go unused every year—about $21 billion worth. Talk about leaving money in the drawer…if you don’t want to use them, there are charities that can.