Combat in the American Civil War I

In purely military terms, the War between the States had one foot in the past and one in the future: part Napoleonic and part World War I. It was a war that for the first three years of its four-year course was rooted in the tactical tradition of the black-powder warfare of the previous 150 years or so. And yet, the sheer scale on which it was fought and the advances in weapons technology it utilized—rifled muskets, conoidal bullets, repeating guns, breech-loading rifles, and rifled artillery—would shape the wars that followed.

The increase in the rifled musket’s range and accuracy compared to its predecessor, the smoothbore musket, brought death more surely to more men than ever before. Or so the standard argument goes. In fact, such innovations did not make as much difference to the experience of combat as might at first be thought. The innovation of greater importance was the application of the power and skills of an already powerful (and soon to be preeminent) industrial state to the business of war—with all the prerequisites of business: capital, organization, manpower, and natural resources. It was this that predetermined victory, however hard fought and close run it was to be at times.

On one level the Civil War was acted out on the thrilling stage of heroic and bloody theater; on the other, its outcome was determined by the victory of the industrial over the agrarian. Renewable resources of treasure and men, as well as courage and determination, predisposed the outcome. The North, even though hampered by shoddy military leadership during the earlier part of the war, could afford much higher losses of manpower and matériel—in absolute and proportional terms—than could the South, with its smaller population and underdeveloped manufacturing capacity. Even though in many battles fewer Confederate soldiers were killed in action or died of wounds than Federals, those who did represented a higher proportion of the fighting force. It was an actuarial reality that smashed the heart of the Confederate cause as mercilessly as a bullet or shell fragment. The South was forced into a war of attrition that eventually and inevitably ran it into the ground. And it is this aspect of the Civil War that foreshadowed the strategic architecture of the world wars of the following century. Resources provide the stage on which warriors with courage and fortitude, sacrifice and determination, play out their drama. The South had no shortage of all these martial virtues, but it was bled to death. It would lose about one-third more men killed as a proportion of those engaged than the North. And this was the bloody arithmetic that Grant understood when he sacrificed his own warriors at Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor during the endgame of the war.

Numbers, recorded quantities of the dead, estimates of expenditure, the ledger book of life expended and advantage gained: These were the mark of the age. But even in an era that had begun to revel in the mechanisms and skills of bureaucracy, record keeping (especially in the Confederacy) could be a little inexact, to put it mildly. In addition, toward the end of the war swathes of records of the South’s fighting units were destroyed. Numbers were also manipulated. Robert E. Lee became alarmed at the willingness—the almost masochistic relish, even—with which some of his commanders advertised the high casualties they sustained as though they were badges of honor. Lee was forced to issue a General Order in May 1863 discouraging such displays, for fear they gave heart to the enemy, and after the devastating losses at Gettysburg he “seems to have quite systematically and intentionally undercounted his casualties.” The manipulation of “body count” was not something invented in the Vietnam War. Ambrose Bierce, who fought on the Union side and wrote Gothic spooky stories about it, describes the aftermath of a battle in his story “The Coup de Grace”: “The names of the victorious dead were known and listed. The enemy’s fallen had to be content with counting. But of that they got enough; many of them were counted several times, and the total, as given afterward in the official report of the victorious commander, denoted rather a hope than a result.”

In the North, tallying was better, reflecting the organizational strengths of an industrializing society, strengths that would, in their own prosaic but important ways, help win the war. Even so, William F. Fox, a Union officer (who would later compile one of the great statistical books about the war, Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, 1888), remembered the waywardness of record keeping on campaign: “After a hard-fought battle the regimental commander would, perhaps, write a letter to his wife detailing the operations of his regiment, and some of his men would send their village paper an account of the fight, but no report would be forwarded officially to head quarters. Many colonels regarded the report as an irksome and unnecessary task.” (Ironically, even record keeping could prove fatal. In 1893, twenty-two clerks were crushed to death when the floors of Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, which was being used to store Civil War records, collapsed.)

Disease, as in all previous wars, was a greater killer of soldiers than combat (it accounted for 66 percent of all fatalities in the Civil War). Of the approximately 2,100,000 men who took up arms for the North, 360,000 died (17 percent of all who served), of whom about 110,000 (5.2 percent) were either killed outright in battle (67,058) or died from wounds (43,012). Although the high rate of death from disease is shocking, it was an improvement on the Mexican War of 1846–48, in which seven men died of disease for every one killed in battle. Of the approximately 880,000 Confederates who served, about 250,000 (28 percent) died from all causes. Of these Fox estimates that 94,000 (10.6 percent) were killed or mortally wounded. Thomas L. Livermore, reviewing the statistical evidence in his classic study, Numbers & Losses in the Civil War in America, printed in 1900, concludes that “any summing-up of the casualties from [the Confederate] reports must necessarily be incomplete, and the number … arrived at by Colonel Fox can be accepted only as a minimum.” The numbers may be merely indicative, but they suggest that the South lost about 11 percent of its soldiers killed outright or died of wounds, compared with just over 7 percent for the North—a 30 percent greater killed rate for Confederate warriors.

It needs also to be borne in mind that the numbers of men killed outright or who died of wounds expressed as a percentage of those “who took up arms” needs to be tempered by the fact that not all who wore butternut or blue were involved in combat. Obviously, the death toll rises considerably when viewed as a percentage of combatants only: a computation of quite daunting complexity.

There is often an ambiguous attitude to the number of men killed in war. On the one hand, we are saddened, horrified even, at the price paid. But on the other, the sacrifice is intimately involved with our national mythology. It makes us intensely proud. They underwrite our sense of national worth with their blood. A great mortality is a badge of honor, as Fox puts it, “amply heroic.”

Some historians of the Civil War point to its “unprecedented” mortality. “Numbers seemed the only way to capture what was dramatically new about this war: the very size of the cataclysm and its human cost.” Fox states categorically that casualties were “unsurpassed in the annals of war.”

Having complained that too many commanders in the Civil War “claimed losses for their regiments which are sadly at variance with the records [of the muster rolls of the regiments],” Fox goes on to say that to “the thoughtful, the truth will be sensational enough: the correct figures are amply heroic.” As comparison Fox cites the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, in which 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 causes. There are no figures on record to show that, even in the Napoleonic wars, there was ever a greater percentage loss in killed.”

At Borodino in 1812 (“the bloodiest battle since the introduction of gunpowder”), Fox reckons that of 133,000 French troops engaged, 28,085 became casualties; of 132,000 Russians, “there is nothing to show that its loss was greater than that of its antagonist. Although the number of killed and wounded at Borodino was greater, numerically, than at Waterloo and Gettysburg, the percentage of loss was very much less.” It is as though Fox is determined to raise a homegrown American red badge of courage that will stand up proudly in comparison to the Old World.

The point Fox makes, though, is a valid one. It is battle deaths as a percentage of men engaged that defines the intensity of combat and thus the lethal risk to individual soldiers. Looking at the history of warfare generally (and particularly over the period of nation-state rather than dynastic conflict), we see that the sharp end (those who actually experience combat) tends to get smaller as a proportion of the total number of men involved. The administrative, supply-and-support “tail,” on the other hand, becomes larger. (This “progress,” ironically, increases the risk to the combat soldier of becoming a casualty.)

Obviously, averages do not reflect what we might call “localized risk” where certain units took massive casualties. The infantry could expect to take about 14 percent casualties (an average taken over twenty-five major battles), compared with 5–10 percent for artillerymen. But it was not unusual for an infantry unit involved in the front of an attack to take 50–60 percent casualties.

For example, on day two of Gettysburg the First Minnesota was ordered to make a suicidal counterattack against the Confederates after they had broken the Union line around the Peach Orchard area. In some accounts, 262 Minnesotans started off to attack the 1,600 Alabamians under General Cadmus Wilcox, and 225 Federals became casualties (85.8 percent)—“the highest percentage of casualties suffered by any Union regiment in a single engagement in the entire war,” according to a historian of the regiment. He adds that the “annals of war contain no parallel to this charge. In its desperate valor, complete execution, successful result [the rupture in the Union line was plugged], and in its sacrifice of men in proportion to the number engaged, authentic history has no record with which it can be compared.”

Other Union units also suffered horrifically. The Irish Brigade attacking Marye’s Heights at the battle of Fredericksburg had 1,150 men hit out of a total of 1,400 (82 percent). The First Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment, being used as attack infantry against the Petersburg defenses, lost 632 out of 900 (70.2 percent). The Fifth New Hampshire sustained more killed in action than any other Union regiment during the whole war—295 men—and, says Fox, they “occurred entirely in aggressive, hard, stand-up fighting; none of it happened in routs or through blunders.”

On the Confederate side, the First Texas took 82 percent casualties at Antietam (Sharpsburg) and had the highest percentage of killed to men engaged (20 percent) of any Confederate regiment in a single battle during the whole war; the Twenty-First Georgia lost 198 out of its 242 effectives at the second battle of Bull Run (Manassas)—just shy of 82 percent—and with 16 percent of its effectives killed in that battle was the second in the mortuarial league table for Confederate regiments in a single battle.

Books have been written about what might be called the addiction of Confederate soldiers to the attack, as though lemminglike, they looked for a tactical cliff over which they could throw themselves in some death-embracing ecstasy, responding, so the argument goes, to a Berserker gene passed down from their ancient Celtic forebears. It is a theory that has been much derided (the North, too, after all, did not shy away from taking extraordinary casualties in frontal assaults, as Marye’s Heights, Kennesaw Mountain, Cold Harbor, and many others attest. Nor was there a shortage of men of Celtic origin dressed in blue), but there is an interesting idea at its root: that soldiers may be swept to their deaths by the powerful undercurrents of cultural heritage. The frontal attack becomes not only a tactical option but also one driven by expectations of manly valor and national pride. General D. H. Hill remarked on Confederate tactics in the earlier phases of the war: “We were very lavish of blood in those days, and it was thought to be a great thing to charge a battery of artillery or an earth-work lined with infantry … the kind of grandeur the South could not afford.”

The addiction to the frontal attack had long antecedents, but for the officer class of the American Civil War its most recent and nurturing wellspring was revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Officers who would become influential in both the Confederacy and the Union had attended West Point, where Francophile sentiment was strong, and many had been influenced by the writings of such military theorists as Henri Jomini (a Swiss who fought in the French army attached to Ney’s and Napoleon’s staffs) and others like him, who placed great emphasis on the moral virtue (courage, obedience, patriotic self-sacrifice) as well as the tactical benefit (covering the killing zone quickly and ejecting the enemy at the point of the bayonet) of the swift and determined frontal attack. Implicit in this philosophy was a rejection of the fancy footwork of the limited warfare of the earlier eighteenth century and an embrace of concentrated force and confrontation: an embodiment of what Victor Davis Hanson calls “the Western way of war.”

It was a philosophy that looked back to the heroic tradition of the ancient Romans, with its emphasis on sacrificial courage in the service of the state. It embraced a way of fighting total war, furiously energetic and uncompromising, in the service of an ideological cause, be that revolutionary or imperial France. Although it drew its inspiration from the past, it would also inspire soldiers of the future, be they Confederate, Union, or, in a much more terrible incarnation, military theorists and generals (particularly the French) of World War I.

It is worth remembering, however, that tactical orthodoxy has to be based, to some extent, on the successes of experience. Not all frontal attacks ended up like the Confederate attack at Malvern Hill in 1862, or Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, or the Irish Brigade at Marye’s Heights. There were also many successes, such as Jackson’s bayonet charge at the first battle of Bull Run (Manassas) and the Union assault on Missionary Ridge in 1863, as well as the Confederate attack on the first day of Shiloh.

To a large extent the emphasis on the frontal attack was a reflection, as it always had been, of the inadequacies of weapons to inflict battle-winning casualties at long distance. The battle could only be won, it was firmly believed, by literally driving the enemy off the field. The killing had to be done close up. But conventional wisdom has it that the “unprecedentedly high” casualties of the Civil War were due to innovations in weapons technology, particularly the rifled musket, which increased the range of lethality, bringing death to the advancing attackers at much greater distance than hitherto—Napoleonic tactics smacking up against modern weaponry. And yet there is plenty of evidence that the lethality of the rifled musket was less impressive than its specifications might have us believe.

Both armies had British-produced Enfield or American-produced Springfield rifle-bored muzzle-loading muskets (although it was not until 1863 that the Confederacy could claim to have comprehensively rid itself of old smoothbores and, in fact, at the start of the war even the Union relied heavily on smoothbores as rifled muskets tended to be the preserve of regular soldiers). The South had a preponderance of Enfields (it bought three hundred thousand from Britain) because its relatively weak manufacturing capacity made it more reliant on imports. The caliber was a little smaller than that of the Springfield, and the gun was a little lighter, but to all intents and purposes the weapons were pretty evenly matched.

Compared with the smoothbore, the rifled musket was a great improvement. A trained rifleman, firing a conoidal slug under controlled conditions, had a fifty-fifty chance of hitting a man-sized target at 500 yards. If sighted at 300 yards, the bullet of a rifled musket described an arc, within which were two killing zones. The first was the initial 75 yards in which the bullet was on its upward trajectory and could be expected to hit a man of average height. Between 75 and 250 yards its arc took it above head height. Between 250 and 350 yards it descended into its second killing zone, capable of hitting a soldier’s head at 250 yards, his torso at 300, and a lower limb at 350.

Battle conditions alter pretty much everything about shooting. Men under pressure, even if well-trained, cannot achieve the accuracy or rate of fire of the firing range. In the Civil War, “many recruits went into battle without having fired a single practice round.… Whether firing a Model 1863 muzzle-loader or a gas-operated M1, the average citizen cannot hit the proverbial bull in the behind with a bass fiddle.” A sentimental notion persists, however, as it does among some historians of the War of Independence, that Americans had a natural familiarity with muskets because, unlike their European counterparts, they were raised as hunters and would already have had a great facility with firearms. It is true that the South was largely rural and that the single largest group in the army of the North was of farming background (about 48 percent) and therefore might be expected to be familiar with hunting guns. But even for those with some hunting experience the chaos and psychological pressure of battle makes it difficult to translate those skills into combat effectiveness. “The huntsman who loads carefully and then stalks his inoffensive prey is surely in a very different state of mind from the soldier who has to fire off forty rounds in double-quick time against an enemy regiment which is busy returning the compliment. The assumptions of the close-order firefight … are surely located in a quite different universe from the genteel expectations of game shooting.”

The physical exertion of repeated firing, the vicious recoil, the relative intricacy of reloading procedures, and lack of training all tended to lower the lethality of the rifled musket. A soldier of the Twenty-Sixth North Carolina Regiment on the first day of Gettysburg described a specific difficulty of fighting with a rifled muzzle loader: “[The] men had difficulty in ramming down their cartridges, so slick was the iron ramrod in hands thoroughly wet with perspiration. All expedients were resorted to, but mainly jabbing the ram-rods against the ground and rocks.” During the battle of Shiloh in 1862, the Englishman Henry M. Stanley, fighting as a gentleman volunteer in the Dixie Grays (and in later life to become famous as a journalist and explorer), described the “impossibility” of advancing and firing accurately, “owing to our labouring hearts, and the jarring and excitement.” The surgeon of the Second Maryland observed that men in battle “drop their cartridges. They load and forget to cap their pieces and get half a dozen rounds into their muskets thinking they have fired them off. Most of them just load and fire without any consciousness of shooting at anything in particular.”

Some military theorists before the war predicted a revolution in infantry tactics because of the theoretical extension of range and accuracy over the old smoothbores. Battles would start sooner and would cover a larger area—a prediction of the “empty” battlefield of the twentieth century—but despite the technical possibility of accuracy up to 1,000 yards and “irresistible” fire at 600, the rifled musket was used, as the smoothbore musket in an earlier era had been, at fairly close range. “What is much less clear is whether or not the average soldier in combat actually obtained very much benefit from these improvements, since many of the same factors which had limited range and accuracy in Napoleonic times continued to apply throughout the Civil War. Fields of fire were often very short, the soldiers unskilled in the use of their weapons, and the officers were anxious not to engage in indecisive long range fire … tactical theory still rested upon the idea of massed fire at close range.”

Of a sample of 113 actions in which range was mentioned by eyewitnesses, 62 percent were at 100 yards or less, and none took place at more than 500 yards. In short, infantrymen were more likely to be killed by musket fire not because the rifled musket was more accurate at longer range but because they were in a confined killing zone close to their adversary. At New Hope Church on May 27, 1864, for example, Sherman sent in Hazen’s brigade against a well-established Confederate defensive line. A firefight ensued across a narrow killing zone that, try as they might, the Federals could not penetrate. They left about a third of their men dead or wounded in that zone not more than 15 feet from the rebel line; no one got closer than 10 feet.

If the enhanced range of a rifled musket was not a deciding factor, what about the rate of fire? Compared to the smoothbore, the rifled musket could not deliver lead as speedily. It took longer to ram the ball down against the groove of the rifling. An experienced soldier armed with a smoothbore could get off about four shots a minute in battle conditions, whereas his counterpart with the rifle might manage three. Breechloaders such as the Sharps could increase that rate by about three times, and repeating rifles even more: twenty rounds per minute for the Spencer and about fifty for the Henry. However, these faster-firing rifles, although enormously significant for the future of warfare, had only a limited impact on the general equation of Civil War combat. The South had few of them (and those were captured rather than manufactured), and the North mainly deployed them in their cavalry arm, where they could be highly effective in dismounted action, as Buford’s cavalrymen proved in the opening phase of Gettysburg.

In any event, one of the military establishment’s main objections to fast-firing rifles was that they promoted the wasteful expenditure of ammunition, which was, after all, a major problem even with single-shot muzzle loaders. The gun maker Oliver Winchester put up a self-serving but prescient defense of repeating rifles that became a tactical given for all future wars in which America was involved—“the greater the expenditure of ammunition the happier the soldier.”

If, as we think, it is a consciousness of power that makes men brave, and a sense of imminent peril that makes “cowards of us all” … it is not unreasonable to suppose that such a weapon would give a soldier the courage and coolness needed to send each of his fifteen shots with more unerring certainty than his trembling opponent could send with his single shot? If to save ammunition, it is essential that every soldier should remain for sixty seconds while reloading, a helpless target, to receive his opponent’s fire from one to fifteen shots, why not reverse the order of progress and turn the ingenuity of inventors to the production of a gun that will require twice the length of time or more to reload, and thus double the saving of ammunition? Saving of life does not appear an element worthy of consideration in this connection. Yet this is West Point opinion.

The task of the field commander was often, ironically, to prevent men from firing, at least until they were at close range. The Confederate attack at Gaines’s Mill in 1862 was a classic example. A high-risk, high-casualty attack was ordered and the men were to charge “in double-quick time, with trailed arms [the weapon carried horizontally, i.e., not in firing position] and without firing. Had these orders not been strictly obeyed the assault would have been a failure.” The oncoming lines took a beating (one thousand casualties), but no one stopped to return fire, “and not a step faltered … the pace became more rapid every moment; when the men were within thirty yards … a wild yell answered the roar of the Federal musketry and they rushed for the works.” Speed is a cornerstone of assault tactics, whether it is Gaines’s Mill or Passchendaele or Iwo Jima or Omaha Beach. The massed frontal attack will result in many men being killed; but if done at speed, there will be fewer killed than if the attackers stopped en route to engage in a firefight. Stopping midway simply increases the time the attacker is in the killing zone, and no matter how seductive a protective shelter might be, it could be fatal, as Henry Stanley discovered during the attack of the Dixie Grays at Shiloh:

Continuing our advance, we … were met by a furious storm of bullets, poured on us from the long line of bluecoats.… After being exposed for a few seconds to this fearful downpour, we heard the order to “Lie down, men, and continue your firing!” Before me was a prostrate tree, about fifteen inches in diameter, with a narrow strip of light between it and the ground. Behind this shelter a dozen of us flung ourselves. The security it appeared to offer restored me to my individuality. We could fight, and think, and observe, better than out in the open. But it was a terrible period! How the cannon bellowed, and their shells plunged and bounded, and flew with screeching hisses over us! … I marveled, as I heard the unintermitting patter, snip, thud, and hum of the bullets, how anyone could live under this raining death. I could hear the balls beating a merciless tattoo on the outer surface of the log.… One here and there, found its way under the log, and buried itself in a comrade’s body. One man raised his chest, as if to yawn, and jostled me. I turned to him, and saw that a bullet had gored his whole face, and penetrated into his chest. Another ball struck a man a deadly rap on the head, and he turned on his back and showed his ghastly white face to the sky.

“It is getting too warm boys!” cried a soldier, and he uttered a vehement curse upon keeping soldiers hugging the ground until every ounce of courage was chilled. He lifted his head a little too high, and a bullet skimmed over the top of the log and hit him fairly in the centre of his forehead, and he fell heavily on his face. But his thought had been instantaneously general; and the officers, with one voice, ordered the charge; and cries of “Forward, forward!” raised us … and changed the complexion of our feelings. The pulse of action beat feverishly once more; and, though overhead was crowded with peril, we were unable to give it so much attention as when we lay stretched on the ground.