Why were Civil War casualties so high?

Why were Civil War casualties so high?

  • 1. Because Civil War generals employed outdated tactics?

    Votes: 25 36.8%
  • 2. Because it lasted four years?

    Votes: 13 19.1%
  • 3. Because death and sickness due to disease were common in that era, especially in cities?

    Votes: 50 73.5%
  • 4. Because the United States did not fully and properly engage its advantage in naval power?

    Votes: 3 4.4%
  • 5. Because Grant was a butcher?

    Votes: 3 4.4%
  • 6. Because Jefferson Davis did not want to admit that the Confederacy was beaten?

    Votes: 4 5.9%
  • 7. Because minie`ball wounds could not be treated with existing medical technology?

    Votes: 21 30.9%
  • 8. Because casualties of both combatants are counted as US casualties?

    Votes: 17 25.0%

  • Total voters
    68

Zack

Sergeant
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Aug 20, 2017
Location
Los Angeles, California
The lack of smokeless powder I think negated a lot of the perceived deadliness of rifles and rifled muskets. Combine that with bad training, and Paddy Griffith estimates that fighting occurred around 100 yards or less with the decisive range being very close indeed. On page 149 of Battle Tactics of the Civil War he writes, "Nevertheless, it is clear from the record that the real effectiveness of musketry was negligible at all but point-blank range. Even at the noted 'slaughter pens' at Bloody Lane, Marye's Heights, Kenesaw, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor an attacking unit could not only come very close to the defending line, but it could also stay there for hours - and indeed days - at a time. Civil War musketry did not therefore possess the power to kill large numbers of men, even in very dense formations, at long range. At short range it could and did kill large numbers, but not very quickly."

Without smokeless powder, it's very hard to hit what you can't see.

And, speaking of deficient training, when Grant came east in 1864, one of the things he did was try to institute regular target progress and weapons training.
 

Pat Answer

Sergeant Major
Forum Host
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“...somewhere between NY and PA”
In agreement with everyone here who notes that the Civil War was the first military experience in US history on a scale that Europeans had known for a couple of centuries, "high" is at best a relative term.

E.g.,
- Grant and Lee together lost ~80,000 men during the six weeks of the Overland Campaign; Napoleon and Kutuzov lost ~79,000 men in two days of fighting at Borodino.
- Bragg and Rosecrans together lost ~34,000 men in two days at Chickamauga; The Allied army of Marlborough and Eugene fought the French under Villars at Malplaquet for one day in 1709 with total casualties of 31,000.

Paddy Griffith, Brent Nosworthy, and Earl Hess, among others, argue persuasively that proposed answer #1 ("the weapons were way ahead of the tactics") can be rejected outright. Tactically the Civil War fits right in with other major horse-and-musket (or predominant single-shot, black powder infantry weapon) conflicts.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
And, speaking of deficient training, when Grant came east in 1864, one of the things he did was try to institute regular target progress and weapons training.
I've seen the circular, but it's a bit minor:



'Circular, Headquarters, Army of the Potomac, April 19 1864
To familiarize the men in the use of their arms an additional expenditure of 10 rounds of small-arm ammunition per man is hereby authorized... Every man should be made to load and fire his musket under the personal supervision of a company officer. It is believed there are men in this army who have been in numerous actions without ever firing their guns, and it is known that muskets taken on the battle-fields have been found filled nearly to the muzzle with cartridges...
By order of Major-General Meade




And it doesn't seem to have taken.
One of my sources for the Union army being very badly trained is actually from the Army of the Potomac after the Overland Campaign.

November 1864 Warren said:
'The command... consisted, first, of the First Division... 4,707 strong, of which 1,247 were ignorant of the manual, and 2,803 had never fired off a musket. Second, of the Second Division... 4,704 strong, of which 104 were ignorant of the manual, and 812 had never fired off a musket. Third, of two brigades of the Third Division... of which 298 were ignorant of the manual and 298 had never fired off a musket.'
So this force of somewhere around 12,000 men has about 4,000 who've never fired a musket.
 

Sbc

First Sergeant
Joined
Aug 18, 2015
Location
Easley, South Carolina
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 is overlooking several key factors in this area that he and I have previously debated.
Napoleonic armies were larger, consisting of highly trained conscripts (compared to ACW troops). Officers had plenty of field experience by comparison as war was nearly continuous since the French Revolution. The telling statistic for comparison if one must be made is PERCENTAGE of loss.
Read “Bird’s-Eye View of Our Civil War”(Dodge) and Henderson’s list of losses in his work on TJ Jackson.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Napoleonic armies were larger, consisting of highly trained conscripts (compared to ACW troops). Officers had plenty of field experience by comparison as war was nearly continuous since the French Revolution. The telling statistic for comparison if one must be made is PERCENTAGE of loss.
Er... that was what was looked at here:


Which major Civil War battles are outside the expectations for the Napoleonic Wars, in terms of % casualties? If none of them are, doesn't that tell you something?
 

wausaubob

Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
The war lasted too long. The US had the power to end the war in one additional year after June 1862, and did not use it. When the full force of the US war effort was applied in August of 1864, the war ended in 8 months. The initial problem was repeated strategic errors by the US. But after November 1864, the continuation of the war was due to intransigence on the part of the Confederate leadership. They had lost and they were not improving their position by continuing to fight.
 

wausaubob

Colonel
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Location
Denver, CO
First, Henry Halleck did not follow up after Shiloh and attempt to support Farragut at Vicksburg. A delay of approximately 1 year ensued. Second, if Halleck and Lincoln did not like McClellan, they should have just sacked him. But they should have maintained a fortified position in eastern Virginia which would have a constant problem for Lee. The ferocity of the attacks during the 7 days campaign is strong evidence that McClellan was on the right path. General McClellan just needed to be thinking a little more about the logistics of the Confederate capitol and the Confederate army.
 
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wausaubob

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Location
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The US had an enormous advantage in naval power. And in that era, naval hygiene, diet and medical care was far in advance of army practices. Too many army officers on both sides were engineers or tacticians, and had not studied the revolution in hygiene that was occurring in England and France, even prior to the acceptance of formal germ theory. They did not admit to themselves that in both the US/Mexican war and the Crimean War, germs had been more deadly than bullets. Which implied that a large number of men were going to die in camp during any training period, and unless training was highly structured, the combat effectiveness gained was unlikely to outweigh the deaths to due illness. When Grant and Porter began a new combined arms operation which succeeded in forcing the Vicksburg garrison to surrender, the administration omitted to form a plan to continue on to capture Mobile and Fort Fisher in North Carolina. After all the successes achieved in 1862, in 1863 Lincoln turned his attention to setting up friendly state governments before the war was over.
 
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wausaubob

Colonel
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Location
Denver, CO
I'm not sure how this follows from what you said in the rest of the post?
General McClellan was close to the correct operational plan. He did not think about getting south of the James River and making a threat on Richmond's connections to the rest of the Confederacy. But it was early and he would have realized it in time. I still think McClellan found out that running the army was much harder than he thought it was going to be and he had less time to think about strategy once he was engaged in a contested operation.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Just to clarify my short answer, as you know, the use of the Minie ball would not in of itself produce greater casualties; rather the more destructive impact of that bullet would have caused more deadly or fatal wounds. So that's really not the same question asked.
It's not a more destructive impact - it's actually less. It's got less muzzle energy, owing to being a slower ball.
(Brown Bess: .75 cal, 1.14 ounce ball, ~1,800 fps at muzzle. Enfield rifle-musket, .577 cal, ~900 fps at muzzle, 1.21 ounce ball.)
So the impact energy is about 1/4.

It's just that it pushes a lot of common battle injuries from "instantly dead, doesn't reach hospital" down to "terribly wounded, goes to hospital".


General McClellan was close to the correct operational plan. He did not think about getting south of the James River and making a threat on Richmond's connections to the rest of the Confederacy. But it was early and he would have realized it in time.
But he did. In May and June he was forbidden from going to the James river anyway, but in July he sent to Washington to get the pontoons necessary to bridge the James; they didn't arrive until after he was ordered to retreat.
 

Sbc

First Sergeant
Joined
Aug 18, 2015
Location
Easley, South Carolina
Er... that was what was looked at here:



Which major Civil War battles are outside the expectations for the Napoleonic Wars, in terms of % casualties? If none of them are, doesn't that tell you something?
Take the first one on the comparison list for the two——2nd Manassas versus Austerlitz. It’s right there in black and white mate.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Take the first one on the comparison list for the two——2nd Manassas versus Austerlitz. It’s right there in black and white mate.
So 2nd Manassas is

battleCSA Loss %USA Loss %
Second Manassas18%21%

So about 20% casualties on each side.

But look at these two:

battleFrench Loss %Enemy Loss %
Eylau19%35%
Borodino23%33%

Casualties here are higher than 2nd Manassas.

I asked for a battle in the Civil War which was outside the expectations for the Napoleonic Wars, not for a Civil War battle which happened to have higher casualties than a single Napoleonic Wars battle.
 

wausaubob

Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
It's not a more destructive impact - it's actually less. It's got less muzzle energy, owing to being a slower ball.
(Brown Bess: .75 cal, 1.14 ounce ball, ~1,800 fps at muzzle. Enfield rifle-musket, .577 cal, ~900 fps at muzzle, 1.21 ounce ball.)
So the impact energy is about 1/4.

It's just that it pushes a lot of common battle injuries from "instantly dead, doesn't reach hospital" down to "terribly wounded, goes to hospital".



But he did. In May and June he was forbidden from going to the James river anyway, but in July he sent to Washington to get the pontoons necessary to bridge the James; they didn't arrive until after he was ordered to retreat.
Good to know. Halleck and Lincoln let it become a contest of personalities and repeated their mistake of not expanding these east coast enclaves to cut communication in the Confederacy. The US had the power to conduct water based logistics, and it took far too long to get back to doing it. If they did not like McClellan, OK, get rid of him. But don't squander what he had achieved. Find another way to exploit what he had established.
 

wausaubob

Colonel
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Location
Denver, CO
The US became distracted from completing Winfield Scott's plan. Completing the external and internal blockade was necessary to win the war. Every time the US became sidetracked, the war was prolonged. As for McClellan's Virginia campaign, the opposite was true. There were probably other ways to win the war without capturing Richmond. A final siege there could have produced a surrender agreement. But the events of the war demonstrated that if the blockade was completed, the fall of Richmond left the Confederate armies with no base of support. Capturing Richmond was more or less sufficient to scatter the Confederate government and end the war, if everything else had been taken care of. Both Scott and McClellan had part of the solution. But the US was slow to realize how much naval power gave them a mobility advantage over the Confederacy.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
The US became distracted from completing Winfield Scott's plan. Completing the external and internal blockade was necessary to win the war. Every time the US became sidetracked, the war was prolonged.
Scott's plan was essentially to march down the Mississippi, blockade the coastline, and wait for the Confederacy to surrender, explicitly envisaging no other offensive operations.
The US pretty much was not distracted from doing those elements, because most of them were naval and the one which was not (blocking the Mississippi) was one for which Scott's original plan allocated radically insufficient manpower.*


* the Siege of Vicksburg alone involved as many men as Scott intended the entire campaign to involve (or more), and remember that in Scott's plan there's no other offensives happening.
 

wausaubob

Colonel
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Location
Denver, CO
Scott's plan was essentially to march down the Mississippi, blockade the coastline, and wait for the Confederacy to surrender, explicitly envisaging no other offensive operations.
The US pretty much was not distracted from doing those elements, because most of them were naval and the one which was not (blocking the Mississippi) was one for which Scott's original plan allocated radically insufficient manpower.*


* the Siege of Vicksburg alone involved as many men as Scott intended the entire campaign to involve (or more), and remember that in Scott's plan there's no other offensives happening.
I disagree. To complete Scott's plan, the US had to capture Mobile Bay and Wilmington. The blockade had to be made absolute and the US had to establish numerous entry points into the 5 Atlantic states + Alabama. And while doing that they had to maintain unrelenting pressure on Richmond, and accomplish a few more things.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
I disagree. To complete Scott's plan, the US had to capture Mobile Bay and Wilmington. The blockade had to be made absolute and the US had to establish numerous entry points into the 5 Atlantic states + Alabama. And while doing that they had to maintain unrelenting pressure on Richmond, and accomplish a few more things.
But that's not what Scott's plan was. You are free to consider that an evolution of Scott's plan, but Scott's plan as actually outlined was to conduct a naval blockade, march down the Mississippi to the sea (to met the Navy at New Orleans) with a force of 60,000 or 80,000 men, and conduct no other offensive actions with the army.

He specifically said that his plan was better than the alternative of raising an army of 300,000 men to reconquer the South, which would take years and be expensive and bloody.


I should also point out that Scott's plan envisaged no offensive operations in 1861.
 
I assume this wasn't mentioned by the Youtube commentator, since it's not among the eight choices, but what about morale? As the war progressed, both sides fought with ferocious determination. In the combatants' attachment to incompatible ultimate values, the struggle had the characteristics of a religious war. Any room for compromise quickly disappeared. Neither side was willing to yield its perceived "inheritance" from the Founders under any circumstances short of total defeat.
 
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