Fox's Regimental Losses
Every story, even a statistical one, has its moral, and some suggestions pertinent to the subject seem proper here. The official records of the Civil War, though voluminous and rich in valuable information, are too often deficient in the facts essential to a proper statement of a regimental loss in action.
Only a few of the regiments, comparatively, made official reports for the actions in which they were engaged. After a hard-fought battle the regimental commandant would, perhaps, write a long letter to his wife detailing the operations of his regiment, and some of his men would send to their village paper an account of the fight, but no report would be forwarded officially to headquarters. Many colonels regarded the report as an irksome and unnecessary task; something to be avoided if possible, something to be attended to only when compelled by the repeated urging of a superior. They were evidently not aware that their only chance to gain a place for their regiment in the archives of history was through the medium of such returns.
Of the official battle reports which were made by regimental commandants, but few gave the figures for their casualties. Hard fighting and heavy losses were often claimed, but as these terms were used without discrimination they became meaningless. Sometimes allusion was made to a nominal list of casualties appended, but its totals were not included in the report, and so when the accompanying list was lost, as was often the case, there was nothing to show what the colonel's idea of a heavy loss was.
Again, mention was seldom made of the number of men taken into action, without which any statement of casualties was, to a large extent, meaningless, and for purposes of comparison was worthless.
In the nominal lists of wounded men no distinction was made between the mortally, seriously, or slightly wounded; and the list of missing failed to show whether the men were captured or belonged to the class whose fate was unknown. Too often, no return of casualties whatever was made. As a result the statistics of our last war are, in many instances, meager and unsatisfactory; and, in some cases are wanting entirely.
At the close of a war the Government should be able to publish the regimental losses in form similar to Dr. Engel's "Verluste der deutschen Armeen im Kriege gegen Frankreich, 1870 und 1871," an admirable official work which was given to the public by the German Government. The Staff of the German Army directed successfully the operations of a great war, but they still found time to supervise carefully the items of the "butcher's bill."
In a conversation with the late Colonel Robert N. Scott, U.S.A., concerning these matters, that officer remarked, "We will do these things better in the next war." The question arises, will the "we" of the future do these things any better? In the turmoil and excitement will not "these things" be again overlooked, and gallant regiments be again disbanded without leaving scarcely a trace to show how well they fought ? Will not History be again neglected or despoiled ?
Is it asking too much that, now, in time of peace, the National Military Academy provide in its course of instruction against any repetition of such neglect. Or, if such provision belongs within the province of the Adjutant-General's department, let the Blue Book containing the United States Army Regulations include the blank forms and paragraphs of instruction necessary to such end.
In future wars the rule requiring regimental commandants to hand in an official report after each battle, should be rigidly enforced. Each colonel should be instructed to order a count made of his men just before going into action, instead of referring to the morning report for information regarding the strength of his command. Commandants should not only hand in a casualty list, but should see that it is properly classified, and that a copy is promptly transmitted to the proper bureau or to some place of safety. The totals of the casualty list should be included in the official report, accompanied by an accurate statement of the number of officers and men in line or actually engaged.
In each regiment there should be some officer, attached to the non-commissioned staff, who should be entrusted with the care and preparation of the regimental statistics and casualty lists; and this person should be exempted from all liability to accidents in battle, and should not be allowed to go into action. During such times as the regiment was not engaged in an active campaign, this officer would find ample employment in ascertaining the fate of missing men, and of the wounded and sick who were absent in hospital or on furlough. All statements of casualties in battle made by him should be accompanied by a report of the number engaged, and such statements, together with all other mortuary reports, should be made in manifold, one copy to be forwarded to the War Department and one to the Adjutant-General of the State to which the regiment belonged. There should, also, be a definite agreement between belligerents that all captured records of this class should not be destroyed; and, that a full record should be carefully made of the fate of all prisoners within their respective lines.
To all this some may sneer and some will say, "Cui bono ?" If so, let it be remembered that there are other reasons than money or patriotism which induce men to risk life and limb in war. There is the love of glory and the expectation of honorable recognition. But the private in the ranks expects neither. His identity is merged in that of his regiment.
To him the regiment and its name is everything. He does not expect to see his own name on the page of history, and is content with a proper recognition of the old command in which he fought. But he is jealous of the record of his regiment, and demands credit for every shot it faced and every grave it filled.
The bloody laurels for which a regiment contends will always be awarded to the one with the longest Roll of Honor. Scars are the true evidence of wounds, and the regimental scars can be seen only in the record of its casualties. In our last war many a noble regiment lost the place in history to which it was entitled through a failure to file the proper records of its gallant deeds. Will it always be so?
This Page last updated 02/23/02
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