Losses In The Battles Of The Civil War And What They Mean
Statistics of losses in battles do not furnish an unfailing test of courage. Mistakes of officers, unavoidable surprises -these, now and then, occasion losses that soldiers did not knowingly face, and there are sometimes other reasons why the carnage in a particular command in this battle or that does not with accuracy indicate steadfast bravery. Such statistics, however, as all military experts agree, do tell a graphic story, when exceptional instances are not selected.
Colonel Dodge, in his " Bird's-Eye View of Our Civil War," exhibits statistics showing the percentage of losses in the most notable battles fought since 1745, and from them deduces this conclusion, "It thus appears that in ability to stand heavy pounding, since Napoleon's Waterloo campaign, the American has shown himself preeminent."
Colonel Dodge would have been justified in going much further. Waterloo itself, the most famous of the world's battles, does not show such fighting as Americans did at Sharpsburg (Antietam), Gettysburg, or Chickamauga.
In "Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War," by Lieutenant Colonel G. F. R. Henderson, a British military expert, is a complete list of killed and wounded in great battles from 1704 to 1882, inclusive. Since Eylau, 1807, there has been no great battle in which the losses of the victor-the punishment he withstood to gain his victory-equal the twenty-seven per cent. of the Confederates in their victory at Chickamauga.
The Henderson tables give the losses of both sides in each battle, but indicate the percentage of those suffered by the victors only. These show fighting losses. In losses by a defeated army,' those received in retreating cannot be separated from those received in fighting. If, however, a defeated army is not routed, but retires, still in fighting condition, and the foe is so crippled that he cannot make effective pursuit, as was the case at Chickamauga, or if the defeated army does not leave the field at all, until, say, twenty-four hours after the battle, as was the case with the Confederates at Sharpsburg and Gettysburg, the losses on both sides are to be counted as fighting losses, and their percentage is a fair measure of " capacity to stand pounding."
Gaged, then, by this standard, which for large armies in a great battle is absolutely fair, Waterloo is eclipsed by Gettysburg; Gettysburg is eclipsed by Sharpsburg, and Sharpsburg eclipsed by Chickamauga.
Here are some of Colonel Henderson's percentages, which tell the story, the percentage of the Federal losses at Chickamauga being calculated from Henderson's figures. At Waterloo, the victors' loss was twenty per cent. At Gettysburg, the victors lost also twenty per cent. But, at Waterloo, the French army dissolved; at Gettysburg, the Confederates held to their position nearly all the following day, and the majority of the Confederates did not know they had been defeated there until after the war.
At Sharpsburg, their victory cost the Federals not twenty, but twenty-three per cent., and the Confederates held fast to their position all the next day.
At Chickamauga, their victory cost the Confederates twenty-seven per cent., and the Federals, inflicting this loss, retreated; but General Thomas, the " Rock of Chickamauga," still held fast to prevent pursuit, and Rosecrans' army was ready to fight the next day. At Waterloo, the entire loss in killed and wounded, of the French, was thirty-one per cent. This loss utterly destroyed the army. The Federals at Chickamauga withstood a loss practically the same-thirty per cent -and still successfully defied the Confederates to attack them in Chattanooga.
The percentage of loss in battle by an entire army is, of course, obtained by including all present--those participating slightly, or even not at all, as well as those who bore the brunt of the fight.
Bearing this in mind, the reader will note to the credit of these troops that the dreadful losses sustained at Sharpsburg by the Fifteenth Massachusetts, Twenty-eighth Pennsylvania, Ninth New York. Twelfth Massachusetts, First Delaware, and other regiments; at Stone's River, December 31, 1862, by the Eighteenth United States Infantry, Twenty-second Illinois, and other regiments; at Gettysburg, by the Twenty-fourth Michigan, One hundred and eleventh New York, First Minnesota, One hundred and twenty-sixth New York, and One hundred and fifty-first Pennsylvania, were all suffered while the Federals were winning victories-suffered fighting, not in retreating.
So, also, the losses at the Wilderness of the Second Vermont, Fourth Vermont, and Ninety-third New York, occurred when the Federals, for the most part, held their ground. And nearly all the astonishing losses of the Confederate regiments were suffered when they were either winning victories or stubbornly holding on to the field of battle.
Altogether, the casualties in the greatest of the battles of the Civil War, whether considered in the aggregate or in the tragic light of regimental losses, make up a wonderful record.
In "Etude sur les caracteres generaux de la guerre d'Extreme Orient," par Le Capitaine Brevete F. Cullmann, Paris, 1909, the percentage of Federal losses at Gettysburg is given as twenty-three, the Confederate loss as thirty-two; the Japanese loss at Mukden as 14.1 and at Lio-Yang as 18.5. These were the bloodiest of the much lauded Japanese victories. This fighting does not compare with that in the American Civil War.
In the great Franco-Prussian war there is but one battle in which the percentage of the victor's loss is at all in the same class in the American Civil War, and that is Vionville, 1870, where the victor's loss was twenty-two, as compared with twenty-seven at Chickamauga. So it may be said fairly that, for a century, the world has seen no such stubborn fighter as the American soldier.
In studying the statistics of the various regiments whose losses are tabulated in this volume, the reader will discover that very many of these were suffered in great battles, the nature of which has been told briefly; and he must remember that neither of the armies suffered at any time any such signal defeat as would account for very heavy losses. The First Manassas (Bull Run) is no exception to this. The Confederates did not follow, and their losses in killed and wounded were heavier than those of the Federals.
What some of the foreign military experts think of us as fighters we may learn by extracts taken from their writings, italicizing at will. The late Lieutenant-Colonel Henderson was professor of military art and history at the Staff College of Great Britain. He says, in his " The Science of War ":
The War of Secession was waged on so vast a scale, employed so large a part of the manhood of both North and South America, aroused to such a degree the sympathies of the entire nation, and, in its brilliant achievements, both by land and sea, bears such splendid testimony to the energy and fortitude of their race, that in the minds of the American people it has roused an interest which shows no sign of abating.
Further on in the same essay he states:
Now, if there is one thing more than another apparent to the student of the Civil War, it is that the soldiers on both, sides were exceedingly well matched in courage and endurance.
The forces here credited with these "brilliant achievements" in 1861-65 are now thoroughly united, and would stand shoulder to shoulder against a foreign foe. Our population has increased threefold, while our military resources, our capacity to equip and to convey food to armies, to manufacture arms, and to build ships, even in the interior if need be, has increased tenfold. Our rivers still traverse the land, but the art of mining waters, practiced with some success by the Confederates, has developed until no foe would think of exploiting these rivers with vessels in advance of troops.
Aye, but the spirit of our people, say the alarmists -- we have lost patriotism, become commercialized, money-mad, and have now no militant instinct. To an old Confederate this prattle about our people being "commercialized " is especially amusing. It carries him back to 1860-61. In the hot sectional animosities that brought on the war he bad imbibed that same idea about the North--the "Yankee" now worshiped "the Almighty Dollar," and in his all-absorbing struggle for it bad lost the spirit that animated his forefathers at Lexington, Bunker Hill, and Saratoga. When the news of Manassas came, many an ambitious Confederate who was so unfortunate as not to have been there, felt like going into mourning. He was never to have a chance to "flesh his maiden sword." But the young Confederate was miscalculating. The exasperated North roused itself, after Manassas, like an angry lion pricked by the spear of the hunter, and soon we were to bear its roar.
In reference to inexperienced volunteers, it must be said, as every veteran of the Civil War knows, that it was not always the oldest regiments that were the bravest. In the gallant, though finally unsuccessful, assault that was made by the Federals at Salem Church, May 3, 1863, just where the Confederate line was broken for a time, the official reports show that the One hundred and twenty-first New York was in the fore front, and its gallant Colonel Upton in his report says this was the regiment's first battle. It's loss, as officially reported, was two hundred and twenty-two killed and wounded.
At Fredericksburg, December 13,1862, Franklin with the Federal left broke through Jackson's lines. The Confederates restored their line after heavy losses, and in this counterstroke a North Carolina regiment, fresh from home, drove headlong through the Northern lines and was with difficulty recalled. The apology of one of its privates, when it got back into line, caused a laugh all through the army. " If we had a-knowed how to fight like you fellows, we could have done better!"
In the work: " Der Burgerkrieg in den Nordamerikanischen Staaten," by Major Scbeibert, of the German Engineer Corps, the author says:
After the European cavalry bad been discredited in the wars of 1854 and 1859, the American mounted troops brought genuine joy to the heart of every true cavalryman, showing by their service and bravery that a better future might yet be in store for the European cavalry. We could not help sympathizing with the rise of the true spirit of knighthood without fear or blame, and with the many gallant deeds which promised better results.
We could multiply indefinitely these extracts, but space forbids. From the preface to the work of Cecil Battine, Captain, Fifteenth, The King's, Hussars, entitled: "The Crisis of the Confederacy, and History of Gettysburg and the Wilderness," the following is taken:
The history of the American Civil War still remains the most important theme for the student and the statesman because it was waged between adversaries of the highest intelligence and courage, who fought by land and sea over an enormous area with every device within the reach of human ingenuity, and who had to create every organization needed for the purpose after the struggle bad begun. The admiration which the valor of the Confederate soldiers fighting against superior numbers and resources excited in Europe; the dazzling genius of some of the Confederate generals, and, in some measure, jealousy at the power of the United States have ranged the sympathies of the world during the war and ever since to a large degree on the side of the vanquished. Justice has hardly been done to the armies which arose time and again from sanguinary repulses, and from disasters more demoralizing than any repulse in the field, because they were caused by political and military incapacity in high places, to redeem which the soldiers freely shed their blood, as it seemed, in vain. If the heroic endurance of the Southern people and the fiery valor of the Southern armies thrill us today with wonder and admiration, the stubborn tenacity and courage which succeeded in preserving intact the heritage of the American nation, and which triumphed over foes so formidable, are not less worthy of praise and imitation. The Americans still hold the world's record for hard fighting.
This extract brings to mind that what impressed the Confederate in Lee's army with most admiration for the Army of the Potomac was, not its brave stand at Malvern Hill following a series of disasters, not its dogged perseverance when attacking an impregnable position at Marye's Heights, not its indomitable spirit at the "bloody angle," Spotsylvania, but the fact that no mistakes of its generals or of the authorities at Washington ever caused it to lose heart. Always and everywhere it fought bravely when given a chance. There never was but one Bull Run. Three successive changes were made in its commanders, from Yorktown to the Wilderness, and yet that gallant army never lost faith in itself, as the following incident illustrates. In the winter of 1863-64, the writer, then an officer in Lee's army, met between the picket lines near Orange Court House, Virginia, a lieutenant of a New York regiment. During our conversation the lieutenant said, " Well, we are on the road to Richmond again." " Yes," was the reply; " but you will never get there." " Oh, yes, we will after a while," said the lieutenant, " and if you will swap generals with us, we'll be there in three weeks." Just before we parted, the lieutenant proposed, 'Here's my toast: May the best man win! " and we drank it heartily.
Major G. W. Redway, referring to the volunteers of the Army of the Potomac, 1864, writes as follows:
The American volunteer who had survived such battles as Bull Run, Sbiloh, Antietam, and the Seven Days' fighting around Richmond, was probably such a soldier as the world had never seen before. He needed no instruction as to his duty in the field, and, in fact, often exercised the functions of instructor both to officers and men less experienced than himself.
The impressions Federal and Confederate soldiers made on foreign critics were not lost on themselves. They were testing each other's courage, endurance, and patriotism, and coming to understand the situation as well. Four-fifths of the Confederates had never owned a slave. It was not slavery -both armies were fighting for the preservation of the same free institutions, for what each believed to be his Constitutional rights.
The first step toward reunion was being taken when picket shooting was stopped; and the armies of Northern Virginia and of the Potomac went far beyond that, when encamped on opposite banks of the Rappahannock, near Fredericksburg, during the winter and spring of 1862-63. They chatted, traded tobacco for sugar and coffee, and frequently visited each other across the narrow stream. A Confederate officer riding along the bank visiting his outposts was often saluted by a picket across the river, within easy gunshot. Similar compliments passed between pickets in gray and officers in blue. These soldiers were testifying their respect for each other, with little idea, on the part of the Confederates, that they would ever again be fellow countrymen.
Eventually both generals, Hooker and Lee, issued orders strictly forbidding all intercommunication. Just after these orders, an incident occurred which the writer long ago gave to the newspapers in the hope, which proved vain, that he might hear from the Union soldier. A Confederate officer rode suddenly out of the woods on to his picket-post at Scott's dam, just above Banks' Ford. A Federal soldier was nearing the south bank of the river, newspaper in hand. The soldier reluctantly came ashore, insisting that he should be allowed to return; the Confederate pickets had promised it. " Yes," was the reply, " but they violated orders, and you violated orders on your side when you came over, and I happen to know it. Orders must be obeyed. You are my prisoner." The soldier, who was a big, manly fellow, stood straight as an arrow, looked the officer in the face, and with tears in his eyes, said: " Colonel, shoot me, if you want to, but for God's sake don't take me prisoner. I have been in the army only six weeks. I have never been in battle, and if I am taken prisoner under these circumstances, I will never get over it-it will always be believed that I deserted."
The officer hesitated for a moment, and then said, " Give me that paper and go, and tell your people you are the last man that will ever come over here and get back." Such an incident at the outset of the war would have been inconceivable.
It was in this spirit of kindly regard for each other that the war between the two armies went on, from Fredericksburg to Appomattox. It manifested itself with increasing tenderness after every bloody battle. It inspired Grant when be said to Lee, " Your men will need their horses to make a crop." It animated Grant's soldiers when they gave no cheer at the surrender, and when they divided their rations with the men who, in tears, laid down their arms. It did not die when the Confederates accepted the results of the war.
Time has only hallowed the memory of the glorious manhood displayed in those days by the men of both armies. The soldiers, had their sentiments prevailed, would soon have bound up the wounds of war, as they did those received in battle. But politicians, for a, time, interfered.
Of untold benefit have been the meeting of the Philadelphia Brigade and Pickett's men at Gettysburg, the visits of Massachusetts soldiers to Richmond, and of Virginia Confederates to Boston, and many similar occasions. These, coupled with the strewing of flowers, in 1867, by Southern women at Columbus, Mississippi, on the graves of Union soldiers, which brought from a Northern man that beautiful poem, " The Blue and the Gray," and a thousand similar incidents, have resulted in those acts that passed in Congress by unanimous votes, one providing for a Confederate section in Arlington Cemetery, the other looking to the care of the Confederate dead at Arlington and around the Federal prisons in the North.
Presidents Cleveland, McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft have each and all, by deeds and words, bad their full share in the work of perfect reunion. And all over the land there are monuments to the dead of the Civil War, bearing inscriptions that will outlast the marble and bronze upon which they are written. Such is the legend on the monument built by the State of Pennsylvania to its dead at Vicksburg, " Here brothers fought for their principles, here heroes died to save their country, and a united people will forever cherish the precious legacy of their noble manhood."
Another such is on a monument erected by the State of New Jersey, and the survivors of the Twenty-third New Jersey Volunteers at Salem Church, Virginia. On one side is an appropriate inscription to their own dead; on the other, a bronze tablet bearing this magnanimous tribute, " To the brave Alabama boys who were our opponents on this field and whose memory we honor, this tablet is dedicated." That is a tribute, not by a Government, but directly by the men who fought to the men who fought them. It is truly noble.
Source: The Photographic History of the Civil War, Volume V, article by Hilary A. Herbert,
Late Colonel, Eighth A1abama Infantry, Confederate States Army, and late Secretary of the Navy of the United States
This Page last updated 02/16/02
RETURN TO CIVIL WAR POTPOURRI PAGE