America Had Not Seen A Tide Of Death Like The Civil War. Neither Before Or After.

by Daniel Russ on September 1, 2013



The American Civil War caused more death in the United States, and in the United States military than all other wars in US history compiled. The staggering numbers of dead and the even more staggering numbers wounded were something that Americans were utterly unprepared for. On April 14th, 1861, when Pierre T. Beauregard ordered a cannon volley on Fort Sumter a few casualties resulted. No deaths. And the Southerners thought this would last a while and then the country would be divided and that was that. In fact Lincoln’s call to arms was for only 90 days. This sent a message to Americans that the rich industrial north would crush the poor south and make short work of the ‘rebellion’. Armies north and south struggled to put themselves in order. About a million and a half were called up for the Union army and 800,000 called for the Confederate army.


During the first three months of the war, the armies simply maneuvered around each other and produced 20 casualties.


Then came Manassas, July 21st, 1861. The rich industrial Union Army was routed in a clash of 60,000 men total – and out of this fell 900 dead and 2700 wounded. This itself was one half of the total death knell for the Mexican War.


Then came Wilson’s Creek,  August 10th, 1861. There were 2,349 casualties and 488 dead.


Then came Pea Ridge, March 6th to the 8th, 1862. 3,384 casualties – 400 dead. 


Then came Seven Pines May 5th  and 6th, 1862. 11,165 casualties – 1770 dead.


Then came Shiloh on April 6th and 7th, 1862.  23,741 casualties – 3477 dead.


For the first time in US history, dead men lined roads and fields after battles and rotted in the elements. Wild dogs and hogs scavenged the corpses that would otherwise simply grow fecund and rot to bones, home to maggots and carrion. Some of the most disagreeable duties assigned to the armies were burial. Mass graves were dug and bodies piled in. Sometimes remains were burned.


For millions of Americans, their dead relative might never be identified, recovered or confirmed dead. They disappearance as filed as Missing in perpetuity. Often a last letter or a letter from a camp mate might be the only confirmation one way or another.


This all led to a realization, that the US had no formal policy or infrastructure for caring for the dead. There was no protocol, for identifying the dead, collecting the body, securing the effects, transporting the body, there were no rituals or burial duty. There were no ambulances, or hospitals or recovery procedures for grievous wounds. There was no infrastructure for notifying the family, paying back any monies due or returning horses, weapons and so forth. The US didn’t have a method and the army didn’t either.


The sudden massive aggregation of troops into camps begat communicable diseases like typhoid and yellow fever and dysentery. Two thirds of the 750,000 Americans who perished in he Civil War died of diseases contracted in camps. The total number of dead represents 2.5% of the total population.


The noxious tide of death also showed Americans that the wounded, which outnumbered the dead had to be dealt with. The absence of even the most rudimentary medical relief meant a wound was often a portal to a slow and agonizing death. Clara Barton was a volunteer in New York and she and other angels like her convinced Lincoln to produce funds for the American Sanitation Society. This was the beginning of what would become the ambulance and emergency medical system. She preached the necessity for disinfected operating environments, for fighting disease and infection primarily after treating the wound. She filled wagons with clean bandages and took them to the battlefields.


The dead kept piling up. July 1st, Malvern Hill 8869 casualties and 1261 dead.


Second Manassas in August 1862 showed 25,251 casualties and 3205 dead.


Death in America in the Civil War was a Victorian ritual. The ill were supposed to die at home, surrounded by friends and after they make peace with God. It was all a liturgy of corpse, mourners, prayer, transport. War changed all that. Soon Americans were headed to the train station or city hall to read public notices  listing the fatalities after great battles. Sometimes, the listings were incomplete, and many were simply wrong.  


Learning to deal with the dead was a long and slow process but it was a beginning. Eventually the ceremony of the dead and wounded was expressed in its own military cultural vernacular. The military funeral that we have all grown up with is a recent invention.



Secrets Of The Dead, History Channel. Wikipedia.



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