Why were Civil War casualties so high?

Why were Civil War casualties so high?

  • 1. Because Civil War generals employed outdated tactics?

    Votes: 12 33.3%
  • 2. Because it lasted four years?

    Votes: 6 16.7%
  • 3. Because death and sickness due to disease were common in that era, especially in cities?

    Votes: 25 69.4%
  • 4. Because the United States did not fully and properly engage its advantage in naval power?

    Votes: 2 5.6%
  • 5. Because Grant was a butcher?

    Votes: 1 2.8%
  • 6. Because Jefferson Davis did not want to admit that the Confederacy was beaten?

    Votes: 2 5.6%
  • 7. Because minie`ball wounds could not be treated with existing medical technology?

    Votes: 10 27.8%
  • 8. Because casualties of both combatants are counted as US casualties?

    Votes: 11 30.6%

  • Total voters
    36

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
I was watching a commentator on Youtube discuss the high casualties of the Civil War, so I thought I would give all of you a chance to contribute to the discussion.
I do caution you to keep in mind @Saphroneth 's previous comments that Civil War battle casualties were not particularly high for mass formations engaged in combat with artillery, muskets and rifles.
Other than that I will keep my opinions to myself for the time being.
Enjoy.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
So, the first question is - what is high casualties?

The answer is that casualties in the Civil War were on par with the casualties in Napoleonic War battles, in terms of % casualties to the formations engaged.
Since the Napoleonic War is the closest immediately comparable set of wars, casualties were not high.
 

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
So, the first question is - what is high casualties?

The answer is that casualties in the Civil War were on par with the casualties in Napoleonic War battles, in terms of % casualties to the formations engaged.
Since the Napoleonic War is the closest immediately comparable set of wars, casualties were not high.
Total casualties for the entire war were very high. Especially high for a US war. All previous US wars had been much less fatal.
 

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
So, the first question is - what is high casualties?

The answer is that casualties in the Civil War were on par with the casualties in Napoleonic War battles, in terms of % casualties to the formations engaged.
Since the Napoleonic War is the closest immediately comparable set of wars, casualties were not high.
Battle by battle the casualties may not have been high, but maybe there were too many battles.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Total casualties for the entire war were very high. Especially high for a US war. All previous US wars had been much less fatal.
That's of course the operative term - all previous US wars.

Napoleon's invasion of Russia for example involved about a million dead (including civilians), and on the order of 900,000 military casualties from all causes. That's in a single six month campaign (with army strengths of about 600,000 campaigning on each side).

It's just what happens if a big war with lots of people involved in it lasts for a significant period of time. The Battle of the Nations saw 140,000 casualties in a single four day battle, and the German campaign of 1813 it was part of saw over 700,000 casualties.





I would say that the biggest single contributing factor to the length of the war (and thus the magnitude of the total casualty count) is that the Union government refused to mobilize early on to the same extent as the Confederates. This meant that it was something close to a peer war (or at least within shouting distance) for a lot of the time; if the Union had mobilized a similar population % as the Confederates by June 1862, even allowing for the limitations of the number of rifles they had on hand, then the Union would have been able to overwhelm the Confederates across the continent and make it a quick war.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
(To explain that - the US government had over 100,000 good rifles in stocks in June 1862, and about 300,000 long arms of all types. Imagine the impact on the June-July-August campaigning of another 250,000 disposable Union troops!)
 

wausaubob

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Location
Denver, CO
(To explain that - the US government had over 100,000 good rifles in stocks in June 1862, and about 300,000 long arms of all types. Imagine the impact on the June-July-August campaigning of another 250,000 disposable Union troops!)
I disagree with that. Fighting more and larger land battles only played to the Confederate strength. Jefferson Davis was probably one person that was betting that properly armed and properly motivated infantry could make the war too costly to the US for it to continue. It did not quite work.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
I disagree with that. Fighting more and larger land battles only played to the Confederate strength. Jefferson Davis was probably one person that was betting that properly armed and properly motivated infantry could make the war too costly to the US for it to continue. It did not quite work.
But what is meant by "overwhelming" is presenting threats that are too large to counter without a major commitment, in ways more numerous than one can make major commitments against.
If there is a threat to Richmond large enough that it need much of the Confederate army to defeat (the historical scenario but reinforced by about 2 divisions so Lee can't force it away from Richmond) and a threat to North Carolina that takes multiple divisions to stop (Burnside's expedition reinforced by another ~2-3 divisions) and a threat going after Corinth (historical) and a threat pushing down the Mississippi (say 6 divisions) and a threat pushing up the Mississippi (say 4 divisions), then the Confederacy simply cannot counter them; losing Richmond is ruinous to the idea of the Confederacy fighting a long war, losing Corinth isn't exactly beneficial, and avoiding giving the Confederates a chance for any significant victories means the will to continue the war is eroded much more quickly.

I allocated fifteen divisions over the historical amount - that's only half the extra the Union could have had if it had mobilized in June 1862 to the same extent it did later that year.


Shortening the war helps even if there is the same number of battle casualties - fewer camp casualties from disease etc. But this would also result in fewer total casualties, because the progress scored in this alternate 1862 would come more easily (fewer casualties) than the historical amount of fighting for the same amount of progress.
 

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
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Location
Denver, CO
Based on CWT discussions I doubt that Civil War infantrymen every became very skilled in shooting rifles. But starting 1862 I suspect the rate of fire that the infantry achieved increased. Civilians became soldiers and became much more familiar with their rifles and ramrods. Men who survived, on both sides, became more capable and more ready to shoot to kill.
Close order formations were used early in the war, because they worked. The advantage to the defender became more obvious in 1863-64 and by 1865 the US went back to a war of cavalry raiding and infantry movement.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
The advantage to the defender became more obvious in 1863-64
I don't think this is the case. It was doctrinally prioritized before the war and there were several instances of heavy defences either deterring attack or incurring massive casualties unless the attacker treated them with respect in 1862.

(e.g. Mechanicsville, Gaines Mill for massive casualties; Yorktown, Corinth for incurring respect.)
 

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
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Location
Denver, CO
That's of course the operative term - all previous US wars.

Napoleon's invasion of Russia for example involved about a million dead (including civilians), and on the order of 900,000 military casualties from all causes. That's in a single six month campaign (with army strengths of about 600,000 campaigning on each side).

It's just what happens if a big war with lots of people involved in it lasts for a significant period of time. The Battle of the Nations saw 140,000 casualties in a single four day battle, and the German campaign of 1813 it was part of saw over 700,000 casualties.





I would say that the biggest single contributing factor to the length of the war (and thus the magnitude of the total casualty count) is that the Union government refused to mobilize early on to the same extent as the Confederates. This meant that it was something close to a peer war (or at least within shouting distance) for a lot of the time; if the Union had mobilized a similar population % as the Confederates by June 1862, even allowing for the limitations of the number of rifles they had on hand, then the Union would have been able to overwhelm the Confederates across the continent and make it a quick war.
Were the casualties in Russia really that high for the Grand Armee? Didn't most of the army just stop advancing past Smolensk? I don't know so your answer would be informative.
 

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
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Location
Denver, CO
Still that did not prevent Fredericksburg, the assault on May 22nd at Vicksburg, or the gamble Lee took at Gettysburg. And there were still some attacks on prepared positions in 1864.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Were the casualties in Russia really that high for the Grand Armee? Didn't most of the army just stop advancing past Smolensk? I don't know so your answer would be informative.
There were a lot of sickness casualties, basically, is my understanding. Lots of typhus.

Still that did not prevent Fredericksburg, the assault on May 22nd at Vicksburg, or the gamble Lee took at Gettysburg. And there were still some attacks on prepared positions in 1864.
Well, my point is that I don't think it developed during that period, I think it's just an artefact of the commanders being more willing to launch big assaults for various reasons relating to change-over of commanders. We don't count up the number of times commanders declined assault so well, but there were plenty of fortified positions in 1862 as well as 1863-4.
 
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3 gets my vote although the list doesn't take into account lengthy transportation time to get the wounded treated. MASH units per say were a long ways down the time road in that era.
 

DixieRifles

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Collierville, TN
I do caution you to keep in mind @Saphroneth 's previous comments that Civil War battle casualties were not particularly high for mass formations engaged in combat with artillery, muskets and rifles.
I probably missed that comment. The original question was very general. It didnt refer to casualties recorded for large battles.
In my early years of reading histories, they talked about the high number of casualties. In actuality, the % of casualties is below 20% or lower. So were these books inflating the casualties— or over dramatic with the description?
Did 19th Century battles in Europe have higher casualties? It seems that some of European battles, the defeated army would have extremely high percentage of losses.
My vote viewed the losses in the eyes of the Home Front who read long lists of dead. There being no category as to cause of death. Killed, mortally wounded and disease are all lumped together.

These Americans were shocked at the losses because they had NEVER seen massed armies like this before. Some battles of the American Revolution had a total of combatants that was less than the casualty count of some of the larger battles of the Civil War.
The Mexican War was the only example they many Americans had lived through. The armies were not as large nor were the weapons quite as deadly.
 
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