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 Because Civil War generals employed outdated tactics?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

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
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Location
Denver, CO
Both sides saw what was happening by the time of Shiloh and Antietam, and continued the war. Battle by battle, there was nothing extraordinary about these casualties. As far as combat casualties, once gunpowder weapons were involved, this is what they produce.
In terms of disease casualties, the risk posed to congregations of young men without vaccines had been part of the US/Mexican war and the Crimean War, though Florence Nightingale and sanitary reforms slowed the losses due to disease at least among the allies.
No one has an offered an explanation of why the war continued despite the enormous losses.
In the US, the administration and Congress both thought that blood letting signified hard fighting.
In the US, they failed to adhere to the economic and logistical design of completing the blockade and disabling the Confederate railroad system. When the US armies and the navy returned to that strategy, the war ended in 8 1/4 months. So human error has to be part of the explanation, which foreshadowed events in WWI.
On the Confederate side, after correctly aiming for a political victory in which the Democrats won the national election, the EP was repudiated and the USCT quit in mass, the failed to heed that it had failed. Everyone who died after Lincoln was re-elected died because the Confederate leadership was using the army to insulate themselves from accountability.
 

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
In the US Civil War the US had naval mobility. It had logistical mobility and could set a forward depot almost anywhere. It had the larger agricultural economy and could much more easily create cavalry mobility. When it finally used those resources there were many fewer big blood lettings, and the war ended in less than a year.
 

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
The high stakes battles of Borodino and Waterloo sufficiently illustrate the casualty rates that could be expected in a gunpowder battle with 19th century weapons. The rates were posted earlier in the thread.
By the time of Antietam and then at Gettysburg, the Confederacy was fighting to turn the war around, when things in the other theaters had gone well for the US.
By 1864, when the Confederacy was on the ropes each battle was a high stakes contest like the Borodino and Waterloo.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
In the US, the administration and Congress both thought that blood letting signified hard fighting.
I think this is part of it, but there's also a case where the public wanted easy, decisive and cheap victories to happen as soon as possible. They wanted Richmond easily taken after a battle at Yorktown with less than five hundred friendly casualties, that kind of thing - the newspapers seem to have created and reinforced a meme in 1861-2 that the enemy would simply give up.
 

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
I think this is part of it, but there's also a case where the public wanted easy, decisive and cheap victories to happen as soon as possible. They wanted Richmond easily taken after a battle at Yorktown with less than five hundred friendly casualties, that kind of thing - the newspapers seem to have created and reinforced a meme in 1861-2 that the enemy would simply give up.
Both sides under estimated the issues involved. The southerners saw a way of life that had been established as early as 1690 threatened and the US military people saw the prospect of continual war as the outcome of Confederate victory. The issues were much bigger than people thought at the start of the war.
Napoleon defeated the Czar's army, but Russia still rose up against him. So there was support for Russian nationalism that exceeded support for the Czar. Waterloo was the chance for Napoleon and the elite part of the French army, and the English and Prussians saw Waterloo as a chance to end the episode of Napoleon. When the stakes get, the battles and campaigns become bloody and deadly.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Napoleon defeated the Czar's army, but Russia still rose up against him. So there was support for Russian nationalism that exceeded support for the Czar.
I don't think you can infer the second one from the first. It would apply if the Czar was deposed and then the uprising didn't restore him.
 

Package4

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Jul 28, 2015
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.
I haven’t taken the time to read the entire thread, so forgive me, but POW and missing were considered casualties so Vicksburg, Ft Donelson, Harpers Ferry, Gettysburg all contributed to the high “casualty“ rate.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
I haven’t taken the time to read the entire thread, so forgive me, but POW and missing were considered casualties so Vicksburg, Ft Donelson, Harpers Ferry, Gettysburg all contributed to the high “casualty“ rate.
We've looked at both "including MIA" and "excluding MIA" over the course of the thread.
 

Sbc

First Sergeant
Joined
Aug 18, 2015
Location
Easley, South Carolina
What I am trying to do is to get at a numerical consequence of your contention, clearly stated in advance, and then find whether it holds. I am also asking for specifics so that I am not misunderstanding what you have said, which is apparently easy given that you agreed to something (post 98 agreeing with my post 97) and then - when I provided an example that fit the criteria I had stated - you disagreed.
Yes I agreed after reading too quickly and believing you actually saw the light. When I realized your tack I saw that it was a trap. No dice mate. Gave you plenty of examples to refute. Crickets
 

Sbc

First Sergeant
Joined
Aug 18, 2015
Location
Easley, South Carolina
Well, I am an expert on geology, but this is a largely pseudonymous board. It's the weight of one's arguments which should be treated as the primary determinant on whether you think someone's correct or not.


As it happens, there is a general drop in combat casualties from major peer combatant battles (as a % of those engaged) across the board as combat becomes more modern and the "empty battlefield" develops. This happens everywhere, and is visible with for example the Franco-Prussian War (where the advent of magazine rifles, early machine guns and so on drives combat lethality up but total casualties down).


In that light, one could answer that it's simply that the Civil War is the only large American war fought while the "empty battlefield" was still developing, and if it's compared to other American wars then you're comparing wars of different periods.

Asymmetric combat (e.g. the post-WW2 wars in which the US was engaged, which you mention) is different. The battles generally involve highly lopsided casualties on one side and highly lopsided expenditure of money on the other side.
Lmao who mentioned treasure in this thread? More obfuscation…
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Yes I agreed after reading too quickly and believing you actually saw the light. When I realized your tack I saw that it was a trap. No dice mate. Gave you plenty of examples to refute. Crickets
What I would like is for there to be a situation where you have stated what you believe to be the thing that makes Civil War battles higher in casualties - that is, by what definition they involve more casualties - and for me to then be able to see if there is a Napoleonic battle which fits this description.

It's not "a trap" if I've summarized what I believe to be your position and you've agreed with it - it's me trying to make sure that we're talking about the same thing before bringing up a battle, so that I am arguing against your actual position.


So, given force A and force B had a battle, which force A won, which of each of these in your opinion defines how Civil War battles are higher casualty:

- Higher total casualties, or higher % casualties
- Casualties KIA, or KIA and WIA, or KIA, WIA and MIA/Captured
- Casualties to a victorious army, or a defeated army, or both armies put together
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Lmao who mentioned treasure in this thread? More obfuscation…
It's because post-WW2 combat came up, and the nature of that is distinctly different. There aren't many situations in the Napoleonic period where one side is using weapons that are so drastically out of technological step with the other in the same way as post-WW2 counter insurgency combat - no matter how good Napoleon's armies were, he couldn't blow up an entire enemy field force for negligible French casualties just by spending several million livres on an airstrike (or the period equivalent, except there is no period equivalent).
 

Sbc

First Sergeant
Joined
Aug 18, 2015
Location
Easley, South Carolina
What I would like is for there to be a situation where you have stated what you believe to be the thing that makes Civil War battles higher in casualties - that is, by what definition they involve more casualties - and for me to then be able to see if there is a Napoleonic battle which fits this description.

It's not "a trap" if I've summarized what I believe to be your position and you've agreed with it - it's me trying to make sure that we're talking about the same thing before bringing up a battle, so that I am arguing against your actual position.


So, given force A and force B had a battle, which force A won, which of each of these in your opinion defines how Civil War battles are higher casualty:

- Higher total casualties, or higher % casualties
- Casualties KIA, or KIA and WIA, or KIA, WIA and MIA/Captured
- Casualties to a victorious army, or a defeated army, or both armies put together
I don’t think you really understand how logical argument works. I stated my position in this thread and our previous argument. Percentage of loss is comparable and sometimes exceeds Napoleonic battles. I have provided examples aplenty. Refute or be silent. We can discuss the why after you have proven your thesis.
 

Pat Answer

Sergeant Major
Forum Host
Joined
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Location
“...somewhere between NY and PA”
If I may,
I think “percentage of loss is comparable and sometimes exceeds [while at other times does not] Napoleonic [or other ‘horse-and-musket’ era] battles” is something everyone in this thread can agree on. There are of course some individual ACW battles which see K/WIA higher and some lower than the 15-20% (~?) average of the ‘horse-and-musket’ era. Rarely are there losses greater than 40% unless a surrender was involved, which is why I mentioned Zorndorf (neither Napoleonic or ACW…).

The ultimate answer to @wausaubob ’s OP question may simply be ‘because the ACW was one of the larger conflicts of modern history.’
(And even then scale remains important: the Taiping Rebellion is ripping Qing Dynasty China apart at this time - it lasts longer (1850-1864) and kills ~25 times more people.)
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
I don’t think you really understand how logical argument works. I stated my position in this thread and our previous argument. Percentage of loss is comparable and sometimes exceeds Napoleonic battles. I have provided examples aplenty. Refute or be silent. We can discuss the why after you have proven your thesis.
Lest we forget, in this thread previously I stated a proposition (casualties not counting prisoners should be higher in the Civil War) which you agreed with, and then once I provided an example that refuted that proposition you said you didn't agree with the proposition at all.

I want to be absolutely certain that I am refuting the right thing first.

So.

Is your argument relating to an army being able to sustain a large % of casualties (with or without MIA) and to continue fighting, thus becoming the victorious army?
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Now, to be clear, my position is that the Civil War was not anomalously high in casualties (relative or absolute) compared to conflicts of comparable technological sophistication (i.e. battles involving muzzle-loading musketry).

What this means in practice is that, for the highest-casualty Civil War battles (by whichever definition) there is generally a comparable Napoleonic Wars battle in casualty terms (by whichever definition).

I am not unaware of the differences in the nature of combat between ACW and Napoleonic combat, and it is my opinion that this generally manifests in that battles do not tend to be followed up to a decisive conclusion in the Civil War. In turn this means that high-casualty battles may form a higher percentage of the total battles fought, since a high-casualty battle does not necessarily wreck one army such that it is vulnerable to the other.
 

trice

Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
If I may,
I think “percentage of loss is comparable and sometimes exceeds [while at other times does not] Napoleonic [or other ‘horse-and-musket’ era] battles” is something everyone in this thread can agree on. There are of course some individual ACW battles which see K/WIA higher and some lower than the 15-20% (~?) average of the ‘horse-and-musket’ era. Rarely are there losses greater than 40% unless a surrender was involved, which is why I mentioned Zorndorf (neither Napoleonic or ACW…).

The ultimate answer to @wausaubob ’s OP question may simply be ‘because the ACW was one of the larger conflicts of modern history.’
(And even then scale remains important: the Taiping Rebellion is ripping Qing Dynasty China apart at this time - it lasts longer (1850-1864) and kills ~25 times more people.)
Statistics are slippery things to work with. The Taiping Rebellion is certainly long and bloody. If we want to consider "scale" in a different way, though, the Taiping Rebellion is about as bloody as the American Civil War. It lasts 14 years instead of 4 years; the population of the US in 1860 is 31.5 million; the population of China is estimated at 430 million in 1850. Adjust for length and population, the carnage is probably about the same.
 

Pat Answer

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Location
“...somewhere between NY and PA”
I am not unaware of the differences in the nature of combat between ACW and Napoleonic combat, and it is my opinion that this generally manifests in that battles do not tend to be followed up to a decisive conclusion in the Civil War. In turn this means that high-casualty battles may form a higher percentage of the total battles fought, since a high-casualty battle does not necessarily wreck one army such that it is vulnerable to the other.

Paddy Griffith among others is right to point out the various reasons ACW battles tended to produce less decisive (i.e., army “destroying”) combat results than some of Napoleon.
Here I would also add the political dimension. Napoleon fought a series of wars in a relatively delicate ‘balance of power’ political arena. Austerlitz, Friedland, and Wagram may not have been as physically destructive to the opponent as Leipzig or Waterloo - and none matched Jena and the subsequent absolute butt-kicking of isolated Prussia in 1806 - but all were decisive. In contrast the ACW was a ‘caged match’ to the political death (assuming an independent CSA means the end of the 1787 Federal experiment). Both sides continued to replace losses rather than accept defeat; in that sense Nashville and Five Forks-Appomattox come late in the war as much because the Confederacy could no longer do so as because, say, cavalry has come into its own as a mobile arm of strategic pursuit.

Statistics are slippery things to work with. The Taiping Rebellion is certainly long and bloody. If we want to consider "scale" in a different way, though, the Taiping Rebellion is about as bloody as the American Civil War. It lasts 14 years instead of 4 years; the population of the US in 1860 is 31.5 million; the population of China is estimated at 430 million in 1850. Adjust for length and population, the carnage is probably about the same.

So very true! And the civilian portion of the deaths in China far exceeded that of the US in relative terms, so when comparing K/WIA I would be surprised if the figures weren’t in the same ballpark. Nothing is as important as the context for understanding these things, and if my chosen example of ‘large modern conflicts’ failed to point that way I do apologize.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Here I would also add the political dimension. Napoleon fought a series of wars in a relatively delicate ‘balance of power’ political arena. Austerlitz, Friedland, and Wagram may not have been as physically destructive to the opponent as Leipzig or Waterloo - and none matched Jena and the subsequent absolute butt-kicking of isolated Prussia in 1806 - but all were decisive. In contrast the ACW was a ‘caged match’ to the political death (assuming an independent CSA means the end of the 1787 Federal experiment). Both sides continued to replace losses rather than accept defeat; in that sense Nashville and Five Forks-Appomattox come late in the war as much because the Confederacy could no longer do so as because, say, cavalry has come into its own as a mobile arm of strategic pursuit.
I think this is a bit of a case of two possible causes for the same conclusion.

The powers of Europe were willing to roll the iron dice again and again against Napoleon, even after suffering a humilating peace treaty, so we have to ask why it is that they weren't willing to refill their own ranks in the same way.
I think it's more a question of how severe the holes created by the campaigns are. Austerlitz sees the Allies needing to make up a deficit of 36,000 men out of an army of 90,000, and honestly I think if a problem of that scale had happened for an ACW army it would have led to a pretty major crisis - and it came on the heels of the Ulm campaign two months previously in which another ~60,000 casualties had been inflicted to the Austrians.

I think if you had that kind of defeat sequence inflicted on either side in the Civil War then it wouldn't matter whether it was a battle to the political death!
 
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