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Casualties of the Civil War: Statistics & Causes

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  • 0:07 Civil War Casualties:…
  • 2:10 Civil War Deaths
  • 4:27 Wounded!
  • 7:30 Civil War Prisons
  • 10:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will discuss the casualties of the Civil War. We will begin by taking a look at a few statistics before examining common causes of death and wounds, and learning about battlefield medicine and treatment of prisoners of war.

Civil War Casualties: The Numbers

To begin, we must answer the question, 'What is a casualty of war?' Most people think that to become a casualty, a soldier has to be killed, but this is not so. Technically, casualties were those soldiers who were killed, wounded, or missing.

We will examine all three of these categories, but first, let's take a look at a few statistics. It is difficult to pinpoint an exact number of causalities for the Civil War. Using documents like enlistment rolls, muster rolls, and casualty lists, scholars work hard to provide their best estimates.

According to most sources, there were about 1.5 million casualties during the Civil War. This number incorporates both Union and Confederate dead, wounded, and missing, and it was about 2% of the national population at the time. More Americans, again, both Union and Confederate, ended up as causalities in the Civil War than in any other war in U.S. history.

Let's break that large number - 1.5 million - down a bit without getting too detailed.

  • About 620,000 soldiers were killed during the Civil War
  • About 476,000 soldiers were wounded
  • About 400,000 soldiers were declared missing
  • Of those killed, about 360,000 were Union soldiers (about 23% of the total Union army)
  • Of those killed, about 260,000 were Confederate soldiers (about 24% of the Confederate army)

What these numbers show, more than anything else, is that nearly everyone in America, both North and South, was affected in some way by the Civil War. Most people knew someone who was killed, wounded, or missing, or at least knew a family member or friend of a soldier who became a Civil War casualty.

Civil War Deaths

Most people think of a Civil War death as a battlefield death, and certainly this was true in many cases. Weaponry in the mid-1800s was becoming more and more dangerous, able to kill or seriously wound more people in a shorter period of time.

One of the greatest dangers for Civil War soldiers was the minié ball, a conical bullet made of soft lead that flattened and splintered when it hit something, especially a human being. Minié balls tore through flesh and shattered bones, inflicting instant death if they hit critical areas and grievous wounds if not.

Civil War artillery fire also killed many soldiers. While Union and Confederate artillery units still used the traditional spherical cannon balls, they also employed exploding projectiles and the dreaded canister shot. Canister shot was actually tin canisters filled with metal balls or shrapnel that disintegrated in flight, showering the soldiers below with sharp, deadly pieces of metal. Soldiers also faced close range combat, often hand-to-hand, as well as fire from rifled guns, which were more accurate at a longer range than previous models. There were simply many ways to die on a Civil War battlefield.

Even if a soldier was not instantly killed on the battlefield, he had a much greater chance of dying from his wounds than today's military members. Wounds that would not normally be fatal turned mortal when they became infected or filled with gangrene due to the lack of sterile conditions in the field and general hospitals.

Actually, however, fewer than half of deceased Civil War soldiers died in battle. Disease was a much more common killer. Diarrhea, dysentery, and typhoid ran rampant through the army camps, where men lived in close quarters with little sanitation and often a tainted water supply. Nearly 45,000 Union soldiers lost their lives due to diarrhea. Malaria, chicken pox, mumps, and measles also proved to be deadly enemies, with malaria alone killing well over 10,000 Union soldiers.

Wounded!

Let's follow the journey of a soldier who has managed to avoid disease in camp only to be wounded in battle. His wound is serious, but he is not killed instantly. He will probably lie on the battlefield for quite a while, hours or perhaps even days, waiting for medical assistance. The battle continues around him, showering him with a hail of bullets, and he is threatened by dangers like fire, exposure, starvation, and dehydration.

If our soldier survives his time on the battlefield, he will eventually be visited by fellow soldiers and medical personnel who have the difficult task of deciding which wounded soldiers to remove from the battlefield first. They tried to take those who had a chance to live and left those they thought were sure to die.

Our soldier is loaded onto a horse-drawn ambulance and taken to the regimental hospital, which is really just an open area next to the battlefield. Here he is stabilized and receives a bit of initial treatment. Then he is sent on to the divisional field hospital, which is further back from the battlefield.

At the field hospital, the surgeon on duty examines our soldier, finding that his leg has been shattered by a minié ball. The surgeon, following the typical philosophy of his day, determines that the only way to save our soldier's life is to amputate his leg. He has already amputated so many limbs that he has lost count. In fact, there is quite a large pile just outside.

He uses chloroform to knock out his patient, applies a tourniquet to control the bleeding, and begins making a circular incision, leaving a flap of skin to cover the stump. He is an efficient surgeon, so the whole procedure takes about ten minutes. Then, wiping his instruments on his apron, he goes on to the next wounded soldier.

Next, our soldier is moved to a general hospital in a nearby city to recover. There were very few general hospitals before the war, but by 1865, the Union boasted around 200 hospitals and the Confederacy over 100. Some of these were located in former warehouses, factories, schools, hotels, or even private homes. Hospitals tended to be overcrowded and unsanitary.

Mid-19th century medical personnel had no concept of germs, so they didn't pay much attention to disinfecting surfaces or providing proper hygiene. Infections and contagious diseases spread quickly through hospitals. Soldiers who survived their wounds could easily die in the hospital days or even weeks later.

Our soldier, however, does survive. He is among the 30,000 soldiers who lost limbs during the war, 75% of whom lived, and he will experience life-long effects from his wound. Many soldiers never completely recovered from diseases they contracted during the war. Others faced daily pain from old wounds. The life of a survivor was not usually easy.

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