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Rivers of Blood

 Rivers of Blood

Rivers of Blood
by Phil Andrade

Almost exactly a century separated the Battle of Waterloo and the outbreak of World War One, and, almost exactly half way in time between these two events, was fought the American Civil War. This war enjoys a unique reputation. Fought between democratic and mainly volunteer armies, it has been described as the first modern war, or, perhaps more accurately, as the last of the old wars and the first of the new. It was an intense and dramatic struggle, closely fought and desperately contested. Above all, it was bloody.

This very bloodiness aroused the interest of historians and military commentators, who saw something phenomenal in the casualty lists of battles such as Antietam and Chickamauga. Indeed, referring to the latter engagement, French commentators at the time expressed their astonishment. Said the Paris Figaro of Chickamauga "…These Americans are fighting on a military system inaugurated by the Kilkenny cats .The two armies meet and fight and slaughter each other with the utmost fury. Then they fall back and reorganise for another general massacre. Positively, the war will end when the last man is killed…" In the generations after the war, this perception was presented in a more analytical form, especially by British military historians. Prominent among these was Lieutenant- Colonel Henderson, who, in his "Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War", tabulated an impressive list of casualties in great battles from 1704 to 1882 inclusive. The statistics revealed the total of killed and wounded suffered by both sides in the battle, and indicated the percentage casualty rate sustained by the victorious army.

The bloodshed sustained by the victors of Waterloo, expressed as a percentage of the number engaged, is in this statement exceeded by the loss suffered by the Confederates at Chickamauga. Another British soldier historian, Captain Cecil Battine , in his "The Crisis of the Confederacy" summed up this perception most succinctly when he wrote in his preface "..The Americans still hold the world's record for hard fighting..." This was written in 1904, as the Russo – Japanese war began.

Far from eclipsing the American Civil War, the Russo –Japanese struggle was deemed not to have approached it. Thus, a French military commentator, Captain F.Cullman, in his 1909 survey of the recent oriental conflict, reckoned the Federal loss at Gettysburg at twenty three percent, the Confederate loss at thirty two: while in their bloodiest victories at Mukden and Lio –Yang the Japanese lost 14.1 and 18.5 respectively.

Bolstered up by these extravagant claims from European writers, American veterans of the Civil War were only too keen to endorse them. For example, writing fifty years after the event, H.Herbert, formerly a Confederate Colonel of the 8th Alabama Infantry, stated

"…Waterloo itself, the most famous of the world's battles, does not show such fighting as Americans did at Sharpsburg…...Gettysburg, or Chickamauga…"

But by far the most meticulous and far reaching investigation into the battle casualties of the American Civil War was conducted by William F.Fox.

Fox's "Regimental Losses in the Civil War" is the magisterial definitive history of the war's casualty statistics, an invaluable work. And here we find the same theme, stated tersely in the opening words to chapter five " It was the greatest war of the century…"

How far is such a statement justified?

This essay seeks to examine the casualty lists of the American Civil War, both in the overall context and in relation to specific battles, and to reveal how far the war's reputation for extreme bloodiness is merited. This will entail comparisons with other wars and battles, whether they were fought before or after the Civil War.

" Wars and battles are considered great in proportion to the loss of life resulting from them…" These are the opening words of Fox's treatise. In this respect, the American Civil War stands out as a "great" war, certainly among the greatest of the nineteenth century. There is general agreement among historians that the loss of life in that war totalled approximately 620,000. The fatalities on the Union side have been meticulously compiled – 360,222 in the army, and 4,804 in the navy. Not only were these figures authoritative – they are also tabulated with precision according to the cause of death. The figure for the Confederacy is notoriously incomplete, but this presents a sombre enough account…133,821 officially recorded deaths. The actual total of Southern war deaths is believed to have been virtually double that total, the most widely accepted estimate, based on careful study, extrapolation and conjecture, amounting to 258,000 killed or died from all causes.

This death toll, approaching two thirds of a million, was catastrophic for the American people. It is sometimes stated that more American lives were lost in this conflict than in all other wars combined. It is probably true that all the American war dead from World War One, World War Two, Korea and Vietnam combined did not exceed the number who perished in the conflict of 1861-1865. In proportionate terms, the fatalities in the Civil War were shocking: roughly two per cent of the entire population of the United States, as assessed in the 1860 census. This is comparable with the death rate suffered by the British nation in World War One.

Such sobering statistics, however, must not be sensationalised. They are not unique. The conflict of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, between 1790 and 1815, caused millions of deaths, with hundreds of thousands dying in the 1812 Russian campaign alone. The Crimean War claimed more than 600,000 lives , and this in a shorter time than that of the American Civil War. And in the years 1864 to 1870 there occurred a war in South America – the Paraguayan War of Independence – so horrific that the manhood of Paraguay came close to literal annihilation. Even this was eclipsed by the Tai'Ping Rebellion in China, which really was a multi million massacre.

It is apparent that the human cost of warfare was not pushed to new limits by the American Civil War. In terms of actual bloodiness, however, there is a significant difference between the record of this war and others that preceded it. Between 1793 and 1815, it has been estimated that 240,000 British soldiers died: of these, only about 27,000 were killed in battle or died from wounds. Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812 resulted in the death of 300,000 of his troops…..five sixths of this number perished from disease and hardships rather than as a result of enemy action. In the Crimean War, the total battle deaths of all the belligerents amounted to 118,000, but 491,000 succumbed to disease and other hazards. In the American Civil War, it was still the case that disease took more lives than battle, but the proportion of combat fatalities accounted for a substantially higher proportion of the overall mortality than in the earlier wars. In the Union Army, 110,070 battle dead were recorded, 67,058 of them being killed in action and 43,012 dying from wounds. In addition, 1,804 Federal sailors died in battle. The figure for the army is probably understated: there were many "missing" in action, whose fate was not clarified, and who should really have been counted among the killed. This being so, it is perhaps a reasonable reckoning that one third of the total Union fatalities were battle deaths. For the Confederacy, the available official statistics tabulate 52,954 killed in action and 21,570 died from wounds – a total of 74,524 battle dead. These reports were obviously very incomplete, and nearly all the Alabama rolls were missing.

Colonel Fox wrote "…A summing up of the casualties at each battle and minor engagement – using official reports only, and in their absence accepting Confederate estimates – indicates that 94,000 men were killed or mortally wounded on the Confederate side during the war…." This, too, may be regarded as a minimum estimate.

In all, it is fair to say that at least one third of the 620,000 or more men who died were either killed outright on the battlefield or died from wounds. This amounts to nearly twice the battle dead of the Crimean War, with the sobering reflection that they were all American. In terms of bloodshed, then, measured purely by killing and maiming on the battlefield, the American Civil War is deservedly notorious. The loss of well over 200,000 men, many of them barely more than boys, slain in battle, along with 400,000 more who were killed by the squalor, hardship and other accidents of war, is a grievous loss, especially when accompanied by the psychological wounds of an internecine struggle. All the previous wars in American history had produced an aggregate of barely 10,000 deaths in battle, a toll exceeded by the fighting at Gettysburg alone.

It is hard to reconcile this image of slaughter with the fact that, expressed as a proportion of the total population, the battle dead of the Civil War did not exceed two thirds of one per cent of all the inhabitants of the United States and Territories as enumerated in the 1860 census. Compared with the carnage of 1914-1918, this seems a modest toll. The Western armies of World War One sustained virtually 90% of all their fatalities in combat….the water borne enteric diseases that killed so many in nineteenth century armies had been sufficiently controlled, and the mortality from disease was remarkably low. The ratio of combat deaths to total population reached one and a half per cent for Great Britain, and three per cent for France and Germany. In World War Two, more than three percent of the entire population of the Soviet Union was officially recorded as having been killed in action or died from wounds. Viewed beside these statistics, the toll of the American Civil War begins to pale. It must be emphasised, however, that the burden of loss was much heavier in the states of the Confederacy, where the total white population was fewer than five and a half million. In South Carolina, the loss was extreme. From a white population of 291,623, the official archives record the deaths of 12,922 troops, killed in action or died of battle wounds, or nearly four and a half per cent of the State's entire population. And this, it should be noted, is compiled from the incomplete muster rolls mentioned earlier, and does not take into account the thousands who died from disease. The same incomplete reports show that North Carolina sustained a loss in excess of three per cent of its white population, killed on the battlefield or died of wounds. These statistics should dispel any complacency about the demographic effects of the battlefield slaughter of the American Civil War.

Apart from a general survey of battle fatalities in proportion to population, it is necessary to assess them as a percentage of the total size of the contending armies. There is a vexatious problem here, since historians and commentators failed to agree on the question of numbers. Thomas L. Livermore produced a major statistical treatise "Numbers and Losses in the Civil War in America 1861-1865", with the avowed intention of demolishing the view that the South succumbed to mere force of numbers His conclusion was that just under 1.6 million yankees took the field against nearly 1.1 million rebels, whereas Southern historians and apologists preferred to suggest that six hundred thousand heroes in grey battled against three million bluebellies. In his meticulous investigation, Fox surveyed the Federal muster rolls and concluded "..these various enlistments were equal to 2,326,168 men recruited for three years' service.." but qualified this by stating "…It is doubtful if there were 2,000,000 individuals actually in service during the war…"As for the Confederate armies, Fox is content to state that "…The eleven States of the Southern Confederacy had, in 1860, a military population of 1,064,193 with which to confront the 4,559,872 of the same class, belonging to the other States and Territories….The Confederate States, however, could send to the war a far greater proportion of their military population than the Northern States, as they possessed a large agricultural population of blacks who were exempt from military service…….Many will hold, and with good reasons, that 600,000 is too low an estimate for the total number that served in the Confederate Armies. Their military population and sweeping conscription acts indicate more…"

Despite this uncertainty over the total size of the contending armies in the Civil War, Fox made the following assertion "..The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 was one of the greatest of European Wars. Larger armies were never assembled. The Germans took 797,950 men into France. Of this number, 28,277 were killed, or died of wounds – a loss of 3.1 per cent. In the Crimean war, the allied armies lost 3.2 per cent. in killed, or deaths from wounds. In the war of 1866, the Austrian army lost 2.6 per cent. from the same cause. But, in the American Civil War the Union Armies lost 4.7 per cent. , and the Confederates over 9 per cent. ….there are no figures on record to show that, even in the Napoleonic wars, there was ever a greater percentage of loss in killed...."

It is significant that Fox, referring to the Napoleonic wars, is somewhat equivocal. By stating that "..there are no figures on record.." he draws back from a definitive claim that the American Civil War was proportionately bloodier. Fox was prudent, because there is statistical evidence a-plenty which shows that Napoleonic battles such as Aspern-Esling, Wagram, Borodino and Waterloo were prodigious bloodbaths, which, in both relative and absolute terms, were even bloodier and more lethal than the worst battles of the Civil War. It is also apparent that Fox might have understated the bloodiness of the Crimean War. The British army kept the most accurate statistics of all the belligerents in that conflict, and these show that, from a force of 98,100 that " took the field", 2,755 were killed in action and 1,847 died of wounds, a total of 4,602, or almost exactly the same as the 4.7 per cent. combat fatalities that Fox attributes to the Union army. To be fair, the 4.7 per cent figure cited by Fox is also an understatement, allowing for the fact that it is based on an inflated number of enlistments, and does not take into account that the official 110,000 battle deaths might be increased by ten per cent if the fate of all those missing could be ascertained. Reassessed on this basis, the Union battle deaths could be as high as six per cent, and those of the Confederates well over ten per cent, of the total number who actually served. And it is worth mentioning that the Federal Army, in three days at Gettysburg, and from a smaller force, sustained a higher loss in killed than did the British army in the entire Crimean War. But battles, however bloody, do not by themselves constitute a war. Whereas in the Napoleonic era battles were often immensely bloody, they also tended to be spasmodic. One of the features that endowed the American Civil War with its "modernity" was the unremitting nature of the fighting in Virginia in the campaign of May 1864 to April 1865, a characteristic that compounded the lethality of warfare and increased battlefield mortality to horrifying levels. This relentless form of warfare was a function of industrialisation, which allowed for the development and refinement of "total" war. It was carried further in the First World War. On the Western Front, 1914-1918, 5,399,563 British and British Empire troops suffered battle fatalities of 677,515 killed in action or died from wounds, or more than 12.5 per cent of the total strength. Metropolitan France suffered more heavily…1,150,000 deaths from enemy action from a total of 7,900,000 under arms on all fronts, or more than 14.5 per cent. The most appalling example is the experience of the Soviet Union in World War Two….from a total of 34,476,700 military personnel, between 22nd June 1941 and 9th May 1945, 6,287,517 were officially reported as killed in battle or died of wounds, a total of over 18.2 per cent. These percentages apply to the overall numbers of military personel, including rear echelon units and support services of all kinds. The loss that was sustained by the front line troops, particularly the riflemen of the infantry, was often unbearable, since, in World War Two, fewer than one fifth of the troops mobilised were infantrymen, and these bore more than four fifths of the loss. The battlefield fatalities of the British Army in World War Two were much lower than they had been in World War One, and appear trivial besides those of the Soviet Union, but they still imposed a terrible toll on front line infantry. For the United Kingdom, 1939-1945, the statistics show that the total number who served in the army amounted to 3,788,000, and, of these, 126,734 were killed in action or died from wounds, which represents 3.3 per cent. But on D-Day, 6th June 1944, the 1st Battalion, The Gordon and Sutherland Highlanders landed in Normandy with 27 officers and 565 men .By the end of 1944, the four rifle companies of this battalion had lost 9 officers and 149 men killed or died of wounds, and 30 officers and 351 men wounded. This unit, of course, received replacements to keep its fighting strength effective, but the record still reveals how deadly combat was for the rifleman of World War Two, and how overall casualty statistics for the nations in arms fail to convey the frightful toll that is levied on those who experience war "at the sharp end."

Fox certainly conveyed the statistics of the Civil War's "sharp end" with clarity .A tabulation of the Union regiments that suffered the heaviest loss of life in battle compared with total enrolments shows that none of them lost more than twenty per cent of their total enlisted complement in killed or died from wounds. The heaviest proportionate loss was endured by the 2d Wisconsin, which enrolled 1203 men and suffered a loss of 238 killed or mortally wounded or 19.7 per cent. The heaviest numerical loss fell on the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery (deployed as infantry), which enrolled 2202 men and lost 423 of them, killed in action or died from wounds, or 19.2 per cent. Fox qualifies this tabulation "… But the figures…fail to show the full percentage of loss: the actual percentage of loss was much larger. The figures given are based upon the total enrolment of the regiment, and necessarily include the non – combatants - the musicians, teamsters, company cooks, officers' servants, Surgeon's assistants, and Quarter-master's men; also the sick, the detailed men, and absentees of all kinds. If the percentage were based on the number of men who were accustomed to follow the colors into action, the figures would be still more startling….These figures, let it be remembered, include only the killed and the mortally wounded. To understand their full significance, one must bear in mind the additional loss of wounded men who survived their injuries – many of them surviving only to drag their marred and crippled lives along a lower plane of existence. In the Second Wisconsin nearly 900 men were killed or wounded, leaving but few unharmed of those who carried arms…."

Fox was unable to provide any comparable tabulation for overall loss in Confederate regiments, although he highlighted their losses in specific engagements. It is abundantly clear that even on the basis of incomplete reports, North and South Carolina lost, dead in battle, 17 per cent and 23 per cent respectively of their entire population of white men of military age in 1860, and this necessarily implies that individual regiments in the Confederate armies must have sustained percentages of battle deaths very much greater than those suffered by the 2nd. Wisconsin.

A reference to the service record of the 2nd Wisconsin, and to the 1st Maine, and hundreds of other Federal regiments, indicates that despite the developing phenomenon of "unremitting" combat that was apparent in the Virginia campaign of 1864-65, it was individual and isolated battle on certain days that accounted for most of the bloodshed. For example, of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery's 423 battle deaths, the battle at Spotsylvania on May 19th 1864 accounted for 147, and the murderous repulse at Petersburg on June 18th cost another 210. In other words, it was the sporadic outbreak of battle, rather than the attrition of relentless warfare, that accounted for the great bulk of the casualties.

In this respect, the American Civil War resembled Napoleonic warfare more than it did the Western Front warfare of 1914-1918. To illustrate this, there were thirteen days of battle in the Civil War in which, on each of these days, 10,000 or more men were killed or wounded. The overall cost of these thirteen days amounted to approximately 95,000 for the North and 88,250 for the South, a total of 183,250 killed or wounded. More than a quarter of all the bloodshed in the American Civil War was attributable to those thirteen days of battle. In the Crimean War, nearly a quarter of all the British soldiers who were killed in action perished in a single day at the terrible Battle of Inkerman. By contrast, the experience of unremitting warfare on the Western Front 1914-1918 meant that, for the British Armies, the bloodiest ten days of battle combined did not account for one tenth of the total casualty list, and this despite slaughter such as occurred on July 1st 1916, when, on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, 57,470 British casualties were sustained, 21,392 of them fatal.

The bloodiest day of the Civil War, at Antietam on September 17th 1862, resulted in the killing or wounding of 21,000 men , of whom perhaps 3,800 were killed outright and 2,200 died of wounds received in the battle. The Battle of Gettysburg, in the first three days of July 1863, accounted for 36,000 killed or wounded, 11,000 of them being slain on the field or mortally wounded. The casualty figures from these battles, and the gruesome photographs taken of the bloated corpses in their aftermath, still retain the power to shock .There had been no comparable media coverage to convey the horror of Napoleonic battle. If the photographs of the dead of Antietam and Gettysburg had appalled the folks at home, how might they have reacted to the scenes from Borodino or Waterloo?

Fox's statement that the Civil War was the greatest war of the century does not bear up if casualty lists from Napoleonic warfare are scrutinised. A list of officers in the French army who were killed and wounded between 1805 and 1815 includes some 60,000 entries. It should be emphasised that French officer casualties in that era probably did not exceed five per cent of the total for casualties among all ranks…..this implies a total of 1,200,000 killed or wounded for France and her satellites alone. Certainly, available statistics from individual battles make such a total plausible for ten years of war on the grand continental scale. At Wagram, 5th and 6th July 1809: the French and their allies lost 30,000 dead and wounded, of whom 7,859 were killed, while the Austrians lost 5,631 killed on the field and 18,119 wounded. At Aspern –Essling, on the 21st and 22nd of May that year, the victorious Austrians reported 4,286 killed and 16,314 wounded, heavier casualties, both in absolute numbers and in proportion to strength engaged, than the Union army suffered at Gettysburg. The generally accepted figure for killed and wounded at Waterloo, 18th June 1815, is 47,000, of whom 26,000 were French. A more precise tabulation revealed 10,813 dead on the field and 36,195 wounded, well over double the total for America's bloodiest day at Antietam. The worst day of all, the real extreme for slaughter, was at Borodino , September 7th 1812. Here the French and their allies lost 6,600 killed and 21400 wounded, and the Russians perhaps 43,000 killed and wounded, a staggering combined total at least three times greater than Antietam's, with a higher proportion of the casualties being killed. The enormous Battle of the Nations, fought at Leipzig 16th -19th October 1813, cost the Grand Armee , in officers alone, 397 killed and 2,546 wounded, and in other ranks no fewer than 43,500 killed and wounded, and the Allies 1,792 officers and 51,982 men killed and wounded. This aggregates just over one hundred thousand killed or wounded, enough surely to refute any claim that the American Civil War was the greatest war of the century.

The Anglo-American school of historians, exemplified by Henderson and Fox, tended to stress the American Civil War casualty rate in terms of percentage of numbers engaged, and indicated an abnormally high proportion of loss, which, it was claimed, was unequalled by other battles of the modern gunpowder age. This claim also fails to stand up to analysis. Not only were the numbers of killed and wounded in the great Napoleonic battles gigantic, they also exceeded the American battles of 1861-1865 in proportionate bloodiness.

In very few battles of the Civil War did the total number of killed and wounded exceed twenty per cent of the overall number of men engaged. The Confederates, who usually fielded the smaller force, on rare occasions suffered a casualty rate of twenty five per cent or more in killed and wounded. This was the case at Shiloh, Antietam, Murfreesboro, Gettysburg and Chickamauga . The maximum percentage loss sustained by the more numerous Federals in a major battle was 22.3 % at Murfreesboro, closely followed by Chickamauga and Gettysburg, with about 21% in each. Since the wounded outnumbered the killed by roughly five to one, it was almost unheard of for an entire army to lose five per cent of its total number killed outright in a single battle, although this probably did happen to the Confederates at Gettysburg, and possibly at Shiloh and Antietam. A suicidal assault by the Southern army at Franklin, Tennessee, on November 30th 1864 produced a freakishly high number of killed in its ranks, perhaps in excess of five per cent. It must also be remembered that the burden of slaughter was very unevenly spread among the different units engaged, and that often at brigade and divisional level, and sometimes even at corps level, there were engagements when over five per cent of the complement was killed in action . At Gettysburg, for example, the Federal 1st, 2nd and 3rd Corps, aggregating some 34,000 troops, lost more than six per cent killed outright….and, according to Fox, it is doubtful that four fifths of the reported strength of these units was carried into action. This implies that approaching 45% of the troops from those three corps that were actually engaged were hit in the battle, nearly 8% of them being killed on the field. To put this in perspective, it is probable that nearly nine per cent of the 72,000 men that Napoleon fielded at Waterloo were killed in a single day, and that well over a third of his entire army suffered death or wounds.

The victorious allies suffered heavily, with five per cent of the British contingent of Wellington's army being killed outright. At Borodino, five per cent of the 130,000 soldiers of Napoleon's Grand Armee were slain in a single day, with a total casualty rate in excess of 20%, and anecdotal evidence suggests that well over ten per cent of all the Russian troops engaged in the battle were killed. The appalling death rate suffered by Russian soldiers in battle was also apparent in the Crimean War, when, at the Battle of Inkerman on 5th November 1854, 3,288 of them were killed and 11,664 wounded, a casualty rate of one man in three. Statistics for Soviet casualties in World War Two, as cited earlier, prove all too clearly how prodigal of its blood Russia has been throughout warfare in modern history.

Bloodshed in battle is not to be assessed merely in terms of the number, or percentage rate, of men who are killed. There is also the number of wounded to be reckoned with. Hundreds of thousands of men were wounded in combat in the American Civil War, and it is generally acknowledged that the sights, sounds and smells of their ordeal constituted the most harrowing of all experiences in that conflict. The actual number of wounded is unknown, but the most authentic records indicate 318,000 cases of battle wounds in the Union army, of whom 43,012 are known to have died, a mortality rate of thirteen and a half per cent. This is almost exactly the same as the mortality rate endured by wounded British troops in the Crimean War. Very incomplete records tabulate 194,000 cases of wounds in the Confederate armies, but it is hard to believe that the actual total was less than a quarter of a million: indeed , a tabular statement presented by Fox, displaying the official records that the Confederate armies maintained for individual actions, battles and campaigns, lists 150,048 wounded in those engagements that were recorded. Many actions were not recorded at all, even some mighty engagements such as the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, and, when official records were available, they were often too incomplete to be reliable indicators. Fox was able to make a well informed estimate that 275,115 wounded Union soldiers survived, and, using this criterion, their Confederate counterparts may be reckoned to have numbered some 225,000. The overall toll of battle, then, in the American Civil War, amounted to more than 700,000 – a minimum of 204,000 dead and approximately half a million suffering wounds, which, though not immediately mortal, too often impaired or shortened remaining life. Add to this the frightful toll taken by disease and hardship, whether in army camps and hospitals, or on the march, and the vile and frequently fatal experience suffered by hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war….small wonder that this war has been described as America's "Time on the Cross".

At this juncture it is appropriate to move from an overall survey of the war's mortality to an investigation and analysis of its specific battles. It is difficult to do this without becoming embroiled in a dreary recital of statistics, but it is to be hoped that the study of casualty figures reveals something of the desperate character of the war.

One thing is immediately apparent from the casualty figures: it was not only a hard fought struggle, but also astonishingly closely contested. The battles of Shiloh, Stones River and Gettysburg resulted in uncannily evenly divided bloodshed. Perhaps this is not so remarkable after all, given the similarities of the opposing armies and their leaders, but it is still a striking feature of many Civil War engagements. As stated above, the total killed and wounded for the thirteen bloodiest days of the war amounted to an estimated 95,000 for the North and 88,250 for the South, or an average of 7,307 Northerners and 6,788 Southerners for each of those thirteen days, or 93 Confederate for every 100 Federal – a close run thing indeed. It is no exaggeration to claim for the American Civil War the distinction of being , in terms of casualty statistics, the most closely contested war ever fought. If any one battle is worthy of scrutiny in this regard, it is surely Gettysburg, the most celebrated battle of the war, and the one most often compared with Waterloo.

The Army of Potomac, commanded by General Meade, sustained 23,049 casualties at the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1st-July 3rd, 1863. This figure includes a small number inflicted in skirmishing and a cavalry action on the 4th of July. Of the casualties, 3,155 were posted as killed in action, 14,529 wounded and 5,365 missing. The strength of the Federal Army engaged at Gettysburg has been estimated by Livermore to have been 83,269 effectives, although other historians place the total at over 90,000. For the Confederate army, the most thorough investigation places the total strength at 70,923. The official casualty reports of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg were very incomplete, but in themselves amounted to 2,603 killed, 12,757 wounded and 5,150 missing. A meticulous work of investigation and revision of these Confederate casualties has been carried out by Robert Krick for the army as a whole, and by the historians Harrison and Busey for Pickett's division. There was also revealing research into the casualties of the 11th Mississippi Regiment carried out by B. McFarland, published in 1918. This regiment originally reported its Gettysburg loss at 32 killed and 170 wounded, but McFarland's research showed the real total to have been 270 killed and wounded, of whom 102 were killed outright or died of their wounds. For Pickett's division the official returns showed 237 killed, 1,235 wounded and 1,499 missing. Harrison and Busey have since discovered that 498 of Pickett's men were killed and 1,476 were wounded, of whom 233 died of their injuries. The evidence from all this research makes it abundantly clear that the officially reported total of 15,360 Confederate killed and wounded needs to be adjusted upward by no less than 20%. Extrapolation from the revised figures suggests a total of 18,642 killed or wounded. This, set against the Federal loss of 17,684 killed and wounded, shows all too clearly how closely fought the Battle of Gettysburg was, perhaps the closest fought engagement in history.

Waterloo, as Wellington remarked, was also an extremely closely contested affair. The number of troops fielded by Napoleon in that battle was remarkably similar to the size of Lee's army at Gettysburg. While Lee sustained casualties of twenty six per cent killed or wounded at Gettysburg in three days, Napoleon at Waterloo lost thirty six per cent in one day. The casualty rates for the victors in the two battles are more comparable. Indeed, if the size of the Prussian contingent at Waterloo is taken into account, then it was the Federals at Gettysburg who sustained bloodier losses than did the Allies at Waterloo. If the comparison is confined to the Anglo-Belgian – Dutch forces under Wellington's control, then there is a similar proportion of about one fifth killed and wounded in each case. It was the British contingent of Wellington's army that sustained the greatest punishment, with rather more than a quarter of them being hit in the battle. Apparently about five per cent of the British force at Waterloo was killed outright, compared with fewer than four per cent of the Union troops at Gettysburg. On the other hand, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Corps of Meade's army took the majority of the casualties. The combined strength of these three corps aggregated 34,244 – rather more than the total of British at Waterloo - their battle casualties at Gettysburg were 2,056 killed in action, or six per cent of their total strength, and 9,454 wounded, which means that more than a third of these men were killed or wounded ( there were also 3,129 missing), a higher loss rate than that sustained by the British at Waterloo.

The loss of life at Gettysburg was much greater than the officially posted number of killed. The mortality rate among the wounded was high, and among the missing there were undoubtedly men who were killed. The Federal army was victorious and enjoyed possession of the field, so very few of the Union missing were killed. Even so, Fox was able to discover, by examining the rolls of each Federal regiment that fought at Gettysburg, and identifying by name those men who were killed or died of wounds, that 5,291 Union soldiers lost their lives as a result of the battle, a total two thirds greater than the original return of 3,155 killed. The difference of well over two thousand represents those who died from wounds, three quarters of whom, according to Fox, died within a week. The mortality for the three Federal Corps cited above comes to 3,386, virtually ten per cent of their entire strength being battle fatalities.

For the Confederates, the ordeal of defeat and retreat entailed the abandonment of their dead and many of their wounded. The Union archives list the names of 6,802 wounded Confederates in Federal hands between July 1st and July 5th, while Confederate records only admit to 776 wounded being left behind. These incomplete returns have aroused the investigations of the historians mentioned above, who have been able to ascertain, with some accuracy, that, of the 10,455 cases of Confederates killed or wounded at Gettysburg that could be identified by service record, 3,202 lost their lives, or just under thirty one per cent. This rate, applied to the above cited estimate of 18,642 killed or wounded, implies that 5,779 of the Southerners who fought at Gettysburg were killed in the battle or died from their wounds. Bearing in mind that thirty per cent of the Federals who were hit died, it is hard to imagine that the fatality rate for the Southerners could have been lower, especially in the horrific conditions of defeat and retreat endured by the Army of Northern Virginia.

This disparity between the reported number of killed and the actual total of men who died was more marked in other battles of the American Civil War than it was at Gettysburg. When the casualty lists of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Chickamauga are seen, the impression is that while the total number of casualties is huge, the figure posted as killed seems rather low. At Fredericksburg, the Union loss was reported as 1,284 killed, 9,600 wounded and 1,769 missing. At Chancellorsville, it was 1,575 killed, 9,594 wounded and 5,676 missing. At Chickamauga, the loss was recorded as 1,657 killed, 9,756 wounded and 4,757 missing. The aggregate total of Federal casualties in these three battles, 45,668, produced a total of only 4,516 posted as killed, or just under ten per cent of the total . Here again the research of Fox provides an invaluable means of ascertaining the true fatality of these, and other, battles of the war, even though they are necessarily confined to the Federal armies alone.

Fox conducted a meticulous investigation into the rolls of regiments that suffered conspicuous loss in battles, and thereby provides a revealing comparison between the original number reported killed and the true number who died . The difference is attributable to the men who died from wounds and to the number of men reported missing who subsequently turned out to have been killed. For the Battle of Fredericksburg, Fox examined a large number of regiments, which, in the aggregate, reported losses of 504 killed, 3,450 wounded and 656 missing. When the fate of the missing and the deaths from wounds were taken into account, the fatalities from these same regiments was revised to 1,221. Extrapolating from this, it must be assumed that the real Union death toll from Fredericksburg was at least 3,110, or nearly two and a half times the return for killed in action. The difference was here largely attributable to hundreds of men reported as missing in the desperate assaults against Marye's Heights, who were in fact either killed or left dying in front of the rebel defenses. A similar study of 48 regiments at Chancellorsville shows that while these regiments reported losses of 739 killed, 4,051 wounded and 1,210 missing, their actual deaths from that engagement totalled 1,401. Since the other regiments that were not listed sustained a much higher ratio of missing, it is almost certain that the total Federal deaths fom Chancellorsville were more than double the 1,575 reported as killed. For Chickamauga, Fox identified 30 regiments that reported a total of 431 killed, 2,424 wounded and 1,052 missing, and discovered that these same units actually lost 879 men killed or mortally wounded, which suggests that Chickamauga caused the deaths of some 3,400 Federal soldiers. At both Chancellorsville and Chickamauga the Union army was defeated and retreated, and while most of the missing men were captured, a significant number were killed. The Battle of the Wilderness was fought on almost exactly the same ground as Chancellorsville almost exactly one year later, with even heavier loss of life for the North. Grant's army reported 2,246 killed, 12,037 wounded and 3,383 missing, but Fox tabulates the loss of 47 regiments which fought there and reported their casualties as 958 killed, 4,635 wounded and 1,173 missing…..their total dead amounted to 1,793, suggesting that the Union mortality in this frightful encounter exceeded 4,200. Some of them were no doubt originally reported as missing, but were in reality wounded and then burned to death in the forest fires, making the battlefield a literal holocaust. This horrific occurrence had also characterised the Chancellorsville fighting a year earlier. If the true lethality of battle in the American Civil War is to be appreciated, it is necessary to look beyond the official casualty reports. An original report of 100 men killed in action might imply 200 or even 250 deaths, given the subsequent accounting for missing and the mortality rate among the wounded.

As far as can be ascertained, the wounded in the Civil War outnumbered the killed in action by 4.8 to 1. This compares with the ratio reported by the British Army in its return of officer casualties in the campaigns under Wellington's leadership 1808-1815, when just over five were posted as wounded for every one killed in action. In the Crimean War, the British Army counted 4.15 wounded for every one that was killed on the field. A glance at the list of casualties in the Civil War's various battles reveals an anomaly: in the war's earlier engagements the ratio of killed to wounded, as officially reported, is much higher. At the battles of First Bull Run (July 21st 1861), Wilson's Creek (August 10th 1861), Ball's Bluff (October 21st 1861), Belmont (November 7th1861) Fort Donelson (February 15th 1862) and Williamsburg (May 5th 1862) , the combined total reported killed in action was 1,778, and the number of wounded 5,790, a ratio of about three and a quarter wounded for every one killed. This was on the Union side only. For the same engagements, the Confederates reported 1,547 killed and 5,427 wounded, or about three and a half wounded for every one killed. Again, the evenly balanced nature of Civil War combat is apparent in the closeness of the casualties sustained by the protagonists, but it is also tempting to speculate as to the reason for the much higher proportion of killed to wounded in the war's earlier battles. It is possible that raw troops were more clumsy in their tactical deployment, tending to rely excessively on mass formation, and failing to exploit the use of cover or to utilise the principles of fire and movement. Maybe there was an ardour for close combat in the early fighting which faded with experience. It is also possible that the zeal of new recruits dissuaded many from reporting light wounds. A more feasible explanation might lie in nature of the weaponry. The Civil War was characterised by the use of the rifled musket – the American Springfield and the British Enfield – which lent greater range, hitting power and accuracy to infantry firepower. Indeed, this is often cited by historians as the reason for the bloodiness of the war, their perception being that tactics were not adapted to deal with this new firepower, resulting in high casualties. In the first year of fighting, however, the infantry on both sides may have been using more smoothbore muskets than rifled ones, and this might have impinged on the incidence of artillery casualties. The greater firepower bestowed upon infantry by the rifles made it too dangerous for artillerymen to engage their guns at close quarters, and this necessarily suppressed the effectiveness of artillery as a cause of casualties. In early battles, when the older smoothbore muskets predominated, it might have been more usual for gunners to blast foot soldiers with impunity, and this would significantly increase the proportion of killed. The high proportion of killed outright among the casualties of Pickett's division at Gettysburg attests the effectiveness of artillery as a killing agent, since the men of this division were exposed to both long range cannonading and canister at close quarters. Lee remarked on this phenomenon when he wrote to President Davis on May 6th 1864, reporting on the Battle of the Wilderness "….Our loss in killed is not large, but we have many wounded; most of them slightly, artillery being little used on either side…" At the Battle of Gettysburg, where the Federal artillery fired some 33,000 rounds, the official Confederate casualty returns show 4.9 wounded for every man killed, while at Chickamauga, where heavy woods prevented artillery, the Union army fired only 7,325 artillery rounds, and the Confederates reported 6.3 wounded for every one killed. For the war as a whole, one statistic shows that only 5.5 per cent of wounds treated were from artillery fire, compared with 94 per cent from bullets, but the number is somewhat misleading since, as Napoleon remarked, canons kill men. Many of those smashed by artillery projectiles never reached the surgeons to have their wounds recorded. An expert on Napoleonic warfare, Rory Muir, reckons that just over 20 per cent of all casualties were the result of artillery fire in the Napoleonic Wars, against an upper limit of 12 to 15 per cent in the American Civil War. The disparity was due partly to the wooded terrain of many Civil War battles, but more perhaps to the increased firepower of infantrymen who could shoot down gunners from a longer range.

It is intriguing how, irrespective of weaponry, the lethality of combat varies from field to field and from unit to unit. Rory Muir draws attention to the disparities in the battles of the Peninsula War "…At Salamanca, in 1812, the 30,562 British and German troops in Wellington's army lost 3,129 casualties (just over one in ten), and only 388 men, or one in seventy- nine of those present, killed…….At the terrible, bungled Battle of Albuera no fewer than four in every ten of the British and German infantry under Beresford's command were killed, wounded and missing; one in twelve of those present being killed…." The deadliness of Albuera was due in large measure to the destruction of a brigade of British infantry, which was caught in line and flanked by French cavalry and Polish lancers, a horrific onslaught that cost three British battalions 319 killed and 460 wounded, not to mention 479 missing, out of a strength of 1,648 officers and men. There are comparable disparities in the Civil War. Shiloh ranks as one of the war's bloodiest and closest fought engagements, attested by these casualties… Union: killed 1,754, wounded 8,408, missing 2,885. Confederate: killed 1,728, wounded 8,012 and missing 959. In the Union forces which fought this desperate battle on the 6th and 7th of April 1862, the Army of the Tennessee, under Grant's command suffered a loss of 1,513 killed, 6,601 wounded and 2,803 missing, nearly all on the first day of fighting, while Buell's Army of the Ohio, which arrived in time to counter attack the next day, lost 241 killed, 1807 wounded and 55 missing. The much higher proportion of killed to wounded in Grant's army indicates how much more lethal it was to be overrun by a surprise attack, and to retire under pressure, than to mount a prepared counter attack against an exhausted foe. It is significant, though, that more of Buell's men died from their wounds than the 241 who were reported as killed in action, suggesting that an orderly and successful advance allows for the recovery of badly wounded men who would otherwise have been left to die on the field. Two other Western battles reveal a similar example of the proportion of killed being especially high in an army that is initially overwhelmed by a fierce attack. At Perryville, Kentucky, on October 8th 1862, the attacking Confederates inflicted an initial reverse on the Union army. The casualties were: 845 killed, 2,851 wounded and 515 missing for the Federals, against 510 killed, 2,635 wounded and 251 missing for the Confederates. The disparity in the number killed is remarkable. At Stones River, or Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a violent Rebel attack shattered a large part of the Union Army on December 31st 1862. Two days later the Confederates attacked again and were repulsed, but the record for the battle produced a rather heavier burden of killed on the Federal side….1,677 killed in action, 7,543 wounded and 3,686 missing against Southern losses of 1,294 killed, 7,945 wounded and 1,027 missing. Another remarkable example of a higher than usual ratio of killed to wounded on one side was the terrific contest at Gaines' Mill, Virginia, on June 27th 1862. In this battle the Confederates attacked and were repeatedly repulsed, suffering much heavier casualties than the defending Federals. Eventually, a concerted assault broke the Union line, and it is apparent that much slaughter was then inflicted on the retiring Yankees, who suffered a loss of 894 killed, 3107 wounded and 2,836 missing, while the Confederates lost 1,483 killed, 6402 wounded and 108 missing. Sometimes a particular unit might suffer an extreme ratio of killed to wounded because the fighting was simply murderous…thus Starke's Louisiana Brigade reported its loss at Antietam as 81 killed , 189 wounded and 17 missing. Two days after these rebels were slain, Alexander Gardner photographed their bloated, twisted bodies lying in clusters along the line of a rail fence bordering a road they died trying to defend, one of the most powerful evocations of battlefield horror to emerge from this or any war. Another nightmare was the notorious struggle for the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania where, on May 12th 1864, McGowan's Brigade of Confederates held its ground in frightful close quarters fighting, and recorded its loss as 86 killed, 248 wounded and 117 missing. Undoubtedly many other brigades on both sides suffered comparable losses in that engagement.

If any one action of the American Civil War is deservedly notorious for carnage, that must be the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, fought on November 30th 1864. This fighting combined the grandeur of a Pickett's Charge with the gruesomeness of a Bloody Angle. Only the Federal Army presented an official casualty return for this action: 189 killed, 1,033 wounded and 1,104 missing. It was reported that when the Federals returned to Franklin in December, they counted 1,750 Confederate grave sites on the field, along with 3,800 wounded rebel soldiers in the town's hospitals, and that 702 Southern prisoners of war were sent to Nashville. These totals, aggregating 6,252, were thenceforward accepted as the authentic record of Confederate losses in that battle. Some historians claim that the attacking Confederates lost as many men killed in action as the Federals lost in the Battle of Shiloh, citing the 1,750 mentioned by the Federals and accepting this figure at face value. There can be no doubt that the Confederate loss in this dramatic and futile assault was staggering, and the proportion of fatalities amongst the Southern casualties was surely inordinately high. The mortality among the Rebel high command was catastrophic, with five generals being killed outright and one more mortally wounded, and that this slaughter was apparent in all the other ranks of the army is attested by the 1,481 Confederate graves that can be seen in the McGavock Confederate cemetery at Carnton Plantation – all of them victims of the Battle of Franklin. To be sure, some of these men died from wounds rather than being killed outright, which makes the usually quoted figure of 1,750 killed rather too high to be treated without circumspection. On the other hand, it is probable that more than five per cent of the 27,000 Confederates who were engaged in that horrific battle were killed outright, nearly all of them in five hours. That this should occur near the war's end, despite all the accumulated experience of defensive firepower, with troops deployed in mass formation over open ground, advancing against a well entrenched and prepared enemy, of whom some were equipped with breech loading rifles, is grotesque. All the same, the attack nearly succeeded, and was only stopped after bitter hand to hand fighting in which the Federals also lost heavily. The official Union casualty report has now been scrutinised by battlefield enthusiasts, who have discovered that the total of 189 posted as killed in action needs to be revised. The latest research identifies, by name, 439 Federal soldiers who were killed at the Battle of Franklin, or died of wounds received there, and this does not include the Missouri regiments that fought on the Union side. Here again it is obvious that many of the 1,104 missing, perhaps 10 per cent of them, were actually killed, and that 150 or more of the wounded Yankees died. The Federal army, despite its lethal defence, abandoned the field to the enemy. Was there ever a more tragic and futile battle than this? It does, however, serve as a reminder that all reports of casualties in battle, whether official or not, need to be treated with caution.

This outrageous slaughter at Franklin is perhaps the best way to exemplify the American Civil War as the "last of the old wars" rather than the "first of the new". The casualty figures that have been cited belong to the era of black powder warfare, when men used muzzle loading weapons and advanced in line or column with the colours. That the men who suffered and inflicted this slaughter were mainly volunteers from democratic society, who might have been free to enjoy the development of the world's most modern nation, only serves to heighten the sense of incongruity. It was not, as some claimed, a uniquely bloody conflict. Its combat followed in the tradition of Waterloo, Inkerman, Solferino and other more or less terrible battles. But it was still a very bloody war indeed, characterised by incredibly closely fought battles. Let Winston Churchill have the last word "…Thus ended the great American Civil War, which must upon the whole be considered the noblest and least avoidable of all the great mass conflicts of which till then there was record. Three-quarters of a million men had fallen on the battlefield…"

Rivers of Blood written by Phil Andrade
Copyright © 2003 Phil Andrade