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 Because Civil War generals employed outdated tactics?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

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
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.
I think assuming that to be distinct is rather assuming that other countries never fought under similar circumstances.
 

jackt62

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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".
That is good information. But much of what I've read about the Minie is that it caused grevious wounds by shattering bone and internal organs. Is this accurate or are there more factors to consider when comparing injuries caused by various bullet types?
 

Sbc

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Location
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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.
Your question is imprecise. What specifically do you mean?
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
That is good information. But much of what I've read about the Minie is that it caused grevious wounds by shattering bone and internal organs. Is this accurate or are there more factors to consider when comparing injuries caused by various bullet types?
It's a case of "if someone got hit by that with a smoothbore musket ball, they died".

Your question is imprecise. What specifically do you mean?
What I mean is this.

If Civil War battles saw a higher casualty rate than Napoleonic battles, in % terms, then it should be possible to point to - at minimum - one fairly major Civil War battle which has a higher casualty rate in % terms than any Napoleonic Wars battle of similar or greater size.

That is the least it would require to demonstrate that Civil War battles had a higher casualty rate - that at least one Civil War battle had a higher casualty rate.
 

Sbc

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It's a case of "if someone got hit by that with a smoothbore musket ball, they died".


What I mean is this.

If Civil War battles saw a higher casualty rate than Napoleonic battles, in % terms, then it should be possible to point to - at minimum - one fairly major Civil War battle which has a higher casualty rate in % terms than any Napoleonic Wars battle of similar or greater size.

That is the least it would require to demonstrate that Civil War battles had a higher casualty rate - that at least one Civil War battle had a higher casualty rate.
Given that criteria then in list cited by the OP, nearly all of the the French losses are a lower percentage than the CSA losses. Fredericksburg is an anomaly and should be tossed out.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Given that criteria then in list cited by the OP, nearly all of the the French losses are a lower percentage than the CSA losses. Fredericksburg is an anomaly and should be tossed out.
Which battle are you thinking is an example of a Civil War battle which has higher percentage casualties than any Napoleonic Wars battle of comparable (or greater) size? Remember that that article only includes a few examples because there were far more big battles in the Napoleonic War, but I won't hold you to just that list for Civil War battles either.

If you don't give an alternative I'll assume it's Gettysburg.
 
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Pat Answer

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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.

The religious war idea is an interesting comparison. Europe's last great one, the Thirty Years' War, came during the transition from "pike" to "musket" tactics (completed around 1700 with the socket bayonet). It was more common then for the losses on the defeated side to average about twice that of the victor once units were broken. But 15 to 25% actual combat casualties per side was still pretty normal. Determination to fight (which I agree is in clear evidence in the ACW) does not necessarily correlate to how armies operate on the battlefield.

Speaking of percentages, does anyone know offhand if any horse-and-musket battle topped Zorndorf in 1758 (Frederick the Great inflicts almost 40% on the Russians and suffers 30-35% of his own army doing so)?
 

wausaubob

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Denver, CO
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.
There is a lot of content there. When Grant was visiting Germany he mentioned this contrast between the US Civil War and European wars. The German wars of the later half of the 19th century were territorial wars. The existence of the belligerents in the aftermath of the war was rarely in doubt. To this extent they were like wars between monarchs over who could collect the rents from various territories.
But the in the US Civil War, the Confederates were fighting for the existence of their experimental republic, and the US forces were fighting not just for the Confederate territory, but for the principal that side that wins an election governs the entire country. Any settlement in which the Confederacy continued to exist was a defeat for the US, and would probably lead to a later war. And the element of slavery, and the incentive of the freedmen and freed women to destroy the institution reinforced the escalation to total war.
But it has never been stated by historians in the terms you suggest. Former President Grant saw it the way you describe.
 

Zack

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Is there any scenario where a single, decisive battle could have been fought? I know that's a massive what-if, but I'm curious as to peoples' thoughts. If McDowell had won at First Bull Run (or someone else was in command and won or it was delayed and was more decisive) could that have been the end of the war? Would the fall of Richmond in July 1861 have led to the collapse of the Confederacy?

On a similar line of thought, part of the reason we don't see decisive battles could in fact be the result of cavalry. I leave it to those with more experience in this field of study to debate the merits, but rather than lack of decisive use of naval resources, it could be lack of a decisive cavalry arm that drew the war out. Even during World War I, European doctrine was to achieve a breakthrough and then send in the cavalry to break up the enemy and harass the retreat. Though cavalry was certainly used in pursuit functions during the Civil War, it was not in the same manner as we see in Europe (I think).

I think it's too simplified to argue that rifles rendered cavalry ineffective on the battlefield. It's not like rate of fire dramatically increased and with all the smoke the rifles weren't particularly more deadly than the muskets that came before. Are there instances of Civil War battles in which commanders desired or attempted to use cavalry to exploit a break in the enemy line? I beg ignorance on the topic.

The article I posted earlier in the thread suggests that decisive combat simply was not possible at the time of the Civil War or would have required pretty substantial doctrinal changes. Here's the link again:
http://johnsmilitaryhistory.com/cwarmy.html

Emphasis is from the original article.

"In terms of grand tactics, Napoleon would typically threaten the enemy's flank, forcing him to commit his reserve. He always kept a large reserve available, a vitally important part of his system, to either exploit success or stave off defeat. Most often, with the enemy reserve committed, Napoleon would send his own reserve into the weak point in the enemy line and secure a decisive victory. Co-operation among all three combat arms was key to Napoleon's system, and the reserve decided the battle. Does this sound like Civil War tactics to you? No, far from it! Civil War armies kept few reserves, and Civil War combat featured little in the way of combined arms cooperation. Unlike the Napoleonic Wars, and more like the 18th century, reserves were a rarity in the Civil War, and a commander had few options once a battle 'developed' to maturity. Civil War tactics were NOT Napoleonic, at least not in the sense of Napoleon I."

"Could Civil War battles have been decisive? Maybe. Skirmishers weren't consistently well used. In the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars, skirmishers could all but decide a battle, but we don't see that in the Civil War. The Confederate army improved in this respect through the war, forming elite sharpshooter battalions in each brigade, but the Union army allowed its light infantry to decline over time. Why couldn't the Union army have formed units similar to the Confederate brigades' sharpshooter battalions and one-upped them by giving their skirmishers more repeating rifles? Properly organized Union skirmishers with repeaters firing rapidly from a prone position might have easily dominated Southern light infantrymen - and possibly even repulse full scale attacks. Could the cavalry have advanced with and supported infantry like in Napoleon's time? If you accept the argument that rifled muskets were little better than smoothbores, then maybe they could. Although admittedly an occurrence of the smoothbore era, Jeb Stuart successfully attacked Union infantry at 1st Manassas. Later examples were not as successful. At Gaines Mill and at Cedar Mountain, Union cavalry unsuccessfully attacked infantry, but these failures should come as no surprise since these were desperate attacks by small units against unbroken advancing infantry.

Perhaps fences and broken terrain with numerous woodlots made cavalry attacks on infantry impractical. At Chancellorsville, for example, a single Union cavalry regiment attacked down a narrow road, unable to change direction. Failure was the predictable result. Lack of training and experience in the cavalry arm may also have made it impractical. In the Confederate service, the men owned their horses, making them less willing to risk them. Regardless of who paid for them, horses were expensive, and it was difficult to find forage for them in a country more sparsely populated than Europe. European cavalry was the product of years of training, a horse alone requiring three years to train. Further, Union cavalry were armed with repeating rifles, and in many cases served as mounted infantry, which meant that they largely abandoned the full potential of shock attack, their traditional battlefield role. Late in the war, the Union cavalry did occasionally mount large scale shock attacks against infantry and conducted after-battle pursuit only late in the war - at Third Winchester, Cedar Creek, and Sailos Creek to great effect, for example. We may never know what could have been.

The Union cause was handicapped by Winfield's Scott's attitudes toward cavalry at the beginning of the war. Believing that cavalry was obsolete because of advances in weapons technology, Scott raised few cavalry regiments at the beginning of the war - a war that would soon be over, so he thought. Only with the rise of McClellan were significant numbers of cavalry regiments raised. Even then, it took time to train them, and many were used to protect lines of supply or were dispersed throughout the army. It was only late in the war that the Union army had large bodies of cavalry available. Even then, it wasn't always properly used. Having a good body of cavalry available for the Overland Campaign, Grant sent it on a raid to Richmond, losing not only any usefulness on the battlefield but also its usefulness with screening and reconnaissance."

Perhaps I'm completely off-base with this argument, but I think it merits consideration.
 

Zack

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Location
Los Angeles, California
Another article on the site argues that Civil War commanders were consistently thwarted by poor coordination and staff work. Inability to control their armies prevented decisive battles which dragged the war out and led to more battles and therefore more casualties.
http://johnsmilitaryhistory.com/CWStaff.html

An excerpt:
Confederate artillerist Edward Porter Alexander had this to say on the number of staff officers used during the war,

"Scarcely any of our generals had half of what they needed to keep a constant and close supervision on the execution of important orders. And that ought always to be done. An army is like a great machine, and in putting it into battle it is not enough for its commander to merely issue the necessary orders. He should have a staff ample to supervise the execution of each step, and to promptly report any difficulty or misunderstanding."

An authority on Napoleonic warfare, "Last Chance for Victory", a book on Gettysburg co-authored by Scott Bowden and Bill Ward, it is stated that Napoleon had more staff officers in a division than Lee did in his entire army at Gettysburg. At Austerlitz, Napoleon had nearly 200 men in his headquarters staff. Each of Napoleon's corps had thirty or more staff officers, and each division had 20 or more. Napoleon was supported by a staff roughly ten times the size of Lee's staff. For the Seven Days, Lee's staff consisted of just 12 officers plus couriers. With time, the size and efficiency of the staff was increased only slightly. Bowden argues that an inadequate staff made it impossible for Lee to coordinate his army effectively. On July 2nd Lee launched an en echelon attack, a favorite technique of Frederick the Great, perhaps because it was impossible to coordinate anything more complicated - each division would attack at an interval after the division to its right. To get all of his divisions to attack simultaneously, for example, would not have been possible. So when Gen. Pender was hit by enemy fire, his division remained in place and the army's attack broke down as it was approaching Cemetery Hill, perhaps saving the Union army.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
I think the idea there were problems with combined arms is totally valid, and furthermore that it's actually kind of inevitable. Combined arms involves units which are comfortable with their own specialities (they need a basic level of skill to be synergistic) and the old rule was it took a year to train infantry, two to train cavalry and three to train artillery to actually be good at their job. You could sort of fudge that with a good base of trained NCOs in a newer force, but the ACW didn't have those.


There's a level of articulation involving management of reserves by some commanders in the ACW, meanwhile, but it's not very good in many cases. This is probably because of how quickly most commanders rose to the higher levels of command and didn't get the proper level of seasoning - Meade fights basically one battle as a corps commander (Chancellorsville) and then he's army commander - and so there was little chance to learn the "right" way of doing things.

Gettysburg actually does see Napoleonic-style ways of doing things in some respects (mostly from Lee) and there are other cases of the same sort of thing happening - Antietam has recognizable management of reserves going on on both sides, for example.
 

wausaubob

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Denver, CO
The opponent that achieved naval superiority and dominance could achieve decisive victories. If a garrison was trapped against a river or bay, and had no possibility of reinforcement by water, it had to flee or surrender. The US achieved several such victories including the surrender of the forts protecting access to the Mississippi River. But if an army trapped an opponent on a river on which river the opponent had warships and transports to ferry over reinforcements, than a decisive victory was unlikely.
Later in the war the railroads took the place of the rivers. Trapping a beaten army against a functioning railroad did not accomplish much that was decisive. But at Jonesboro and later at Five Forks, the US realized that if it captured or even threatened the last rail connection of a city occupied by the Confederates, the Confederates would have to abandon the city. Decisive victories were accomplished that way.
 

wausaubob

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If the US captured Richmond early in the war, but the Confederate army of Virginia continued to exist, the war would continue. But when all the east coast ports were occupied by the US, and Richmond fell to the US, that was a different situation and the Confederacy would have had to resort to partisan warfare.
 

Saphroneth

Major
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Feb 18, 2017
But at Jonesboro and later at Five Forks, the US realized that if it captured or even threatened the last rail connection of a city occupied by the Confederates, the Confederates would have to abandon the city. Decisive victories were accomplished that way.
I'm not sure that's a late realization? It seems to come in well before that.

If the US captured Richmond early in the war, but the Confederate army of Virginia continued to exist, the war would continue. But when all the east coast ports were occupied by the US, and Richmond fell to the US, that was a different situation and the Confederacy would have had to resort to partisan warfare.
The capture of Richmond early in the war is devastating to Confederate war fighting capability. It's their only domestic steam hammer early in the war, if nothing else (and there is "else").
 

wausaubob

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I'm not sure that's a late realization? It seems to come in well before that.


The capture of Richmond early in the war is devastating to Confederate war fighting capability. It's their only domestic steam hammer early in the war, if nothing else (and there is "else").
:smile coffee: I'll take that as an approving message. 🙂
 

wausaubob

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The casualties were high because the Confederates successfully escalated the land battles at Shiloh and the Seven Days campaign. That jolted the US off balance, as Halleck neutralized both Grant and McClellan temporarily.
The US regained its strategic focus when Grant had the Vicksburg garrison trapped. But when the garrison surrendered, occupying Tennessee and Arkansas, and non strategic expeditions in Florida and Louisiana weakened the US war effort. Lincoln's escalation was making emancipation an implicit war aim.
In the process the US lost focus and closing Mobile Bay and Wilmington to blockade runners. The US administration also delayed re-establishing a position on the James River, until Grant got there another way. When Lincoln and Seward and others saw with their own eyes want a forward depot in Virginia looked like, they supported it.
 

wausaubob

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The US did not spend enough money on the steam sloops and ocean worthy ironclads. This meant they were not prepared to complete the blockade in 1863. Its uncertain that the Confederates could have maintained large armies, with nitre and gunpowder smuggled through the blockade. Percussion caps, friction primers and fuses might have been another choke point if the blockade had been tighter.
As someone suggested above, the US did not fully mobilize in early 1862. That was probably because the US was having trouble paying for the war with its ad hoc currency reforms and ad hoc borrowing. By not spending money in 1862, they made the total cost in lives and money escalate.
 

DaveBrt

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Location
Charlotte, NC
The casualties were high because the Confederates successfully escalated the land battles at Shiloh and the Seven Days campaign. That jolted the US off balance, as Halleck neutralized both Grant and McClellan temporarily.
The US regained its strategic focus when Grant had the Vicksburg garrison trapped. But when the garrison surrendered, occupying Tennessee and Arkansas, and non strategic expeditions in Florida and Louisiana weakened the US war effort. Lincoln's escalation was making emancipation an implicit war aim.
In the process the US lost focus and closing Mobile Bay and Wilmington to blockade runners. The US administration also delayed re-establishing a position on the James River, until Grant got there another way. When Lincoln and Seward and others saw with their own eyes want a forward depot in Virginia looked like, they supported it.
In effect, the US could not decide on what type of war it was fighting -- destroy the CS army and take key points OR pacify a rebellion (ie occupy the enemy country). Campaigns in Florida, Texas, western Louisiana, Arkansas and the North Carolina Sounds did not effect the winning of the war, but were political and pacification projects (all of which failed). The US in the Pacific in WW2 is a great example of bypassing unimportant enemy units and positions in order to defeat the main enemy force.
 

DaveBrt

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Location
Charlotte, NC
The US did not spend enough money on the steam sloops and ocean worthy ironclads. This meant they were not prepared to complete the blockade in 1863. Its uncertain that the Confederates could have maintained large armies, with nitre and gunpowder smuggled through the blockade. Percussion caps, friction primers and fuses might have been another choke point if the blockade had been tighter.
As someone suggested above, the US did not fully mobilize in early 1862. That was probably because the US was having trouble paying for the war with its ad hoc currency reforms and ad hoc borrowing. By not spending money in 1862, they made the total cost in lives and money escalate.
The blockade could also have been completed in 1863 by capturing the remaining entry ports -- Mobile and Wilmington were especially important and easy to take. Charleston was a tougher nut and would still have required the ships freed by taking Wilmington.
 
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