Courage Past Vs. Courage Present in the Armed Forces

The Civil War demanded of soldiers a level of bravery and fortitude we can scarcely imagine today

battle wilderness kurz and allison
Battle of the Wilderness, by Kurz and AllisonLibrary of Congress

I concluded my last post by saying that we no longer produce soldiers such as we had in the Civil War. Readers Damn Bureaucrats, formerly Rocky Squirrel, and Gunny Newman, made the point in the comments section that there is no shortage of brave people in uniform today, and that if you go back for five, six, seven deployments, you're certainly not short on guts.

Amen to that.

But in the Civil War, more people faced death, and died, and did so under conditions that don’t exist any more, than would be endured today.

For many years, it was thought that 620,000 soldiers on both sides died between 1861 and 1865. Now, the more accurate number is thought to be 750,000. This means that somewhere between 2 and 3 percent of the then-population of the United States perished in uniform. It’s the equivalent of over 6 million young men today. As was said in Ken Burns’ documentary, “Everyone knew someone who should have been alive, but wasn’t.”

Your chances of dying from disease were greater than dying from wounds. However, if you had the bad luck to be shot in a limb, you’d almost certainly lose that limb. If you were hit in the chest or stomach, it was a death sentence. Wounded soldiers typically lay on battlefields for days with no help. If you did make it to a doctor, you were beginning a journey through hell.

After Gettysburg, Lee’s army loaded its thousands of wounded into unsprung wagons for the trip back to Virginia. Many of them begged to be shot instead. A Confederate officer said that he learned more about the horrors of war from watching that exodus than he did from all the fighting he saw. At the Battle of the Wilderness, in 1864, there were 30,000 casualties, and many of them burned to death because the fighting took place in underbrush that caught on fire.

If you had the awful bad luck to be captured, you were aware that the Confederacy would send you to Camp Sumter, at Andersonville, Georgia, where you would be reduced to a diseased skeleton if you survived at all. The Confederates could not feed their own army, much less prisoners of war. The Union could, but nonetheless had a P.O.W. camp near Elmira, New York, and one near Chicago, that were as horrendous as Sumter. After the war, the Union Army court-martialed the commandant of Sumter, one Captain Henry Wirz, and hanged him.

If you fought in the Confederate Army, after the first year, you would be in rags, and likely shoeless. You would also be starved, or half-starved, all the time. You would likely come from a small farm, and have to live with the knowledge that your family was starving as well, because your wife could not run it by herself. You would also be aware that men who owned more than five slaves did not have to serve. “Rich man’s war, poor man’s fight,” was how you’d put it.

If you fought in the Union Army prior to 1863, you knew that many of your officers were incompetent, and that the higher you went on the chain of command, the more incompetent they were, and that whatever you achieved on the field of battle, they would manage to piss away though their tactical and strategic bungling.

If you fought in either army, you knew that your commanding generals had not yet grasped what rifle muskets could do, and would order you to make a suicide charge that would wipe out your regiment or brigade altogether. Lee did it at Gettysburg. Grant did it at Cold Harbor, where 7,000 Union soldiers fell in 20 minutes. (The night before the battle, Union soldiers, who knew perfectly well what was going to happen the next day, wrote their names on slips of paper and pinned them to their uniforms so their bodies could be identified.) Burnside did it at Fredericksburg. John Bell Hood did it at the Battle of Franklin and the Battle of Nashville.

The Civil War was a series of slaughters on a scale that would get any modern American general relieved, and probably court-martialed. Antietam produced 23,000 casualties in 12 hours. At Gettysburg, in three days, both sides took a total of between 46,000 and 51,000 casualties. And these bloodbaths went on for four years.

None of this was secret. Newspapers published casualty lists with names, and how the men died. Conditions in hospitals on both sides were so horrifying when the armies ran them that civilians took over caring for the wounded. And yet those who served continued to serve, and new men came forward, albeit fewer as time went on. And neither side quit until the North destroyed both the Army of Northern Virginia and the South’s ability to wage war.

Could we do something like this today? I doubt it very much.