Author: James R. Kelly
The Civil War was the deadliest war in American history. Altogether, over 600,000 died in the conflict, more than World War I and World War II combined. A soldier was 13 times more likely to die in the Civil War than in the Vietnam war.
One reason why the Civil War was so lethal was the introduction of improved weaponry. Cone-shaped bullets replaced musket balls, and beginning in 1862, smooth-bore muskets were replaced with rifles with grooved barrels, which imparted spin on a bullet and allowed a soldier to hit a target a quarter of a mile away. The new weapons had appeared so suddenly that commanders did not immediately realize that they needed to compensate for the increased range and accuracy of rifles.
The Civil War was the first war in which soldiers used repeating rifles (which could fire several shots without reloading), breechloading arms (which were loaded from behind the barrel instead of through the muzzle), and automated weapons like the Gatling gun. The Civil War also marked the first use by Americans of shrapnel, booby traps, and land mines.
Outdated strategy also contributed to the high number of casualties. Massive frontal assaults and massed formations resulted in large numbers of deaths. In addition, far larger numbers of soldiers were involved in battles than in the past. In the Mexican War, no more than 15,000 soldiers opposed each other in a single battle, but some Civil War battles involved as many as 100,000 soldiers.
Any hopes for a swift northern victory in the Civil War were dashed at the First Battle of Bull Run (called Manassas by the Confederates). After the surrender of Fort Sumter, two Union armies moved into northern Virginia. One, led by General Irvin McDowell (1818-1885), had about 35,000 men; the other, with about 18,000 men was led by General Robert Patterson (1792-1881). They were opposed by two Confederate armies, with about 31,000 troops, one led by General Joseph E. Johnston (1807-1891), another led by General Pierre G.T. Beauregard (1818-1893). Both Union and Confederate armies consisted of poorly trained volunteers.
McDowell hoped to destroy Beauregard’s forces while Patterson tied up Johnston’s men; in fact, Johnston’s troops eluded McDowall and joined Beauregard. At Bull Run in northern Virginia 25 miles southwest of Washington, the armies clashed. While residents of Washington ate picnic lunches and looked on, Union troops launched several assaults. When Beauregard counterattacked, Union forces retreated in panic, but Confederate forces failed to take up pursuit.
An Indiana soldier describes life in his camp a day after the First Battle of Bull Run.
…This is a dreary wet day, it has been raining all day long so hard that we cant do anything but write to our friends…. Something must be terribly wrong in the post office department, there has been but 2 letters recd in our regiment, since we left Indianapolis…. I tell you now there can be no pleasure for any man in the army, & especially while on the march. I don’t know what I should do if I should take sick here in these mountains. Most of the time it has been wet & cold, especially at night, a sick man has but little chance for his life here…. The tops of the mountains have been completely enveloped in dense clouds all day–the high ranges of mountains in the distance have the appearance of a volcano in full blast, with the fog curling above the dark clouds below….
We had an alarm last night at 10 o”clock. We all expected a fight, one of the Sentinels got frightened, & fired his gun, & then the alarm paged all around the camp until some guns were fired, all the men was called out, & placed in line of battle, where we stood ready to fire on any one approaching the camp, all in the most perfect silence for three long hours. When we were told the alarm was failed, & ordered to our quarters. It was amusing to see the boys…coming out half dressed, some without their guns, others their shoes and hats….
Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute