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The American Civil War Experience: Death and Injury on the Battlefield – 1

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I previously posted a piece on the impact of disease on soldiers in the Civil War [see "The American Civil War Experience: Lice, Disease and Quinine" ]. The following discusses the other side of death during the war, the experience on the battlefield. Please be aware the the following is very graphic.

Dead soldier_Ewell's Corp

Dead soldier_Ewell's Corp

One of Ewell’s Corps as he lay on the field, after the battle of the 19th May, 1864.

Battle injuries in the civil war were horrific and many led to death. The journals of soldiers and photographs of the dead tell of injury and death caused by cannon balls, grapeshot, canister, musket balls, bayonets, clubbing and more. Men were decapitated, cut in two, blown apart, shot in head, body, and/or extremities, bashed in the face or skull, disemboweled, burned, dragged, drowned, and/or suffered broken bones. John Beatty provided a glimpse of the carnage typical on most Civil War battlefields in a journal entry describing his pass through the battlefield of Stone River in Tennessee, early in 1863.

Dead Horses

I ride over the battle-field. In one place a caisson and five horses are lying, the latter killed in harness, and all fallen together. Nationals and Confederates, young, middle-aged, and old, are scattered over the woods and fields for miles. Poor Wright, of my old company, lay at the barricade in the woods which we stormed on the night of the last day. Many others lay about him. Further on we find men with their legs shot off; one with brains scooped out with a cannon ball; another with half a face gone; another with entrails protruding; young Winnegard, of the Third, has one foot off and both legs pierced by grape at the thighs; another boy lies with his hands clasped above his head, indicating that his last words were a prayer. Many Confederate sharpshooters lay behind stumps, rails, and logs, shot in the head. A young boy, drCivil War Dead horse essed in the Confederate uniform, lies with his face turned to the sky, and looks as if he might be sleeping. Poor boy! what thoughts of home, mother, death, and eternity, commingled in his brain as the life-blood ebbed away! Many wounded horses are limping over the field. One mule, I heard of, had a leg blown off on the first day’s battle; next morning it was on the spot where first wounded; at night it was still standing there, not having moved an inch all day, patiently suffering, it knew not why nor for what. How many poor men moaned through the cold nights in the thick woods, where the first day’s battle occurred, calling in vain to man for help, and finally making their last solemn petition to God![1]

Linderman posits that, even though the men fighting in the Civil War should have been more used to gore and death than those fighting in the next century, “when young soldiers first saw bullets, cannonballs, grapeshot, and canister strike others, their shock was profound. The first surprise was death’s suddenness,” a man alive and animated next to them one moment, and the next, lifeless and shattered.[2]  Men splattered with the insides of the man next to them were even more impacted. Also shocking was the magnitude of death. It was not uncommon to see thousands of bodies after a single battle.[3]

Many men died agonizing deaths after lying injured on the field for hours or days. Contributing to this were standing orders that prevented a man from stopping his forward motion to help a fallen comrade. Some men were also fearful that doing so would imply cowardice on their part. Also, rarely could a truce be made to remove the injured and dead from the battlefield. The resulting experience for the injured was atrocious. Methods and procedures that would allow for application of first aid and then rapid transport to field hospitals were simply non-existent.

Civil War Dead

Library of Congress

Disposal of bodies was often done carelessly and with little decorum if at all. Given the magnitude and ghastliness of the task, it is little wonder. Depending on the season, bodies awaiting burial, or even after careless burial, bloated and decayed in the heat and could be eaten by animals and insects. Next installment… “Injuries on the Battlefield.”

Civil War Dead Burials

Photo depicts the burial of soldier on one side and while an enemy soldier is left unburied. Library of Congress

© 2010 L. Rene Tyree

Photos from the Library of Congress

[1] John Beatty, The Citizen-Soldier: The Memoirs of a Civil War Volunteer [book on-line] (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1998, accessed 28 September 2007), 211; available from Questia, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=26979264; Internet.
[2] Gerald Linderman, Embattled Courage: The Experiences of Combat in the American Civil War, 124.
[3] Ibid.

The American Civil War Experience: Lice, Disease and Quinine

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William Fletcher

Hood

The statistics of those who died during the Civil War, not from injury but from disease, are shocking. Of the 360,222 men known to have died on the Union side, a quarter of a million were lost due to disease rather than the enemy. While the Confederates didn’t keep records, it is estimated that seventy-five percent of the 258,000 Southern deaths could be attributed to disease.

For many, the cycle of illness started soon after joining up. Those from the less populated countryside found themselves in large groups after mustering in – perhaps for the first time in their lives – and were exposed to childhood maladies like the measles, mumps and smallpox. Confederate soldier William A. Fletcher’s experience appears to be not uncommon. A young man from Texas who first signed on in 1861 as a member of the 5th Texas Infantry of Hood’s brigade, he wrote in his memoirs that in the first large camp he was assigned to after signing up, he contracted the measles. While in the hospital recovering from an associated extremely high fever, he became infested with lice and before being released, he contracted the mumps.

Civil War soldiers encampedIn this camp we suffered a good deal with sickness—the most fatal I guess was measles. I had an attack of measles and was sent to the hospital in Richmond and remained there a few days and got tired of hospital life, so I tried to be a good boy and please the woman who had charge of the ward in which I was. I soon persuaded her to get me a discharge, and I returned to camp one cold, frosty morning; the next day I was hauled back a very sick man; was put in a small room that had a coal grate and was instructed to stay in bed and keep well covered up. I lay there a few days with a burning fever, taking such medicine as was prescribed. I had learned the “itch” [from lice] was getting to be a common complaint in the hospital, and after the fever had somewhat abated, I found I had it, so when the doctor made his next visit I drew my arms from under the covers and showed him the whelps or long red marks of itch, and he said he would send me some medicine that would cure it. [i]

FredericksburgWhile encamped near Fredericksburg, Fletcher suffered from a severe attack of jaundiceEmbattled Courage and was given a permit of sick leave. Rather than moving with his unit, he took a room in a Fredericksburg hotel where he received no medical care and almost died of food poisoning. [ii]  Cases like this – and worse – were common due to a lack of sanitary conditions, adequate food, clean water and trained medical care. Gerald Linderman confirms that “each army suffered two waves of disease,” the first being “acute infections of childhood.” [iii] Because those who survived the first wave developed immunities, the incidence abated over time. But it was followed by a second wave that decimated the ranks in ever increasing numbers. Considered “camp” diseases, dysentery, malaria, and diarrhea, took men in their tents and in hospitals by the thousands, reducing the effective fighting force of many units dramatically. [iv]

John D. Billings, in his memoir Hard Tack and Coffee, brought up two important points about health in army camps. The first was that many men Hard Tack and Coffee by John Billingscame to the army already ill. This was particularly true of the recruits in 1864 and 1865, “for those who have occasion to remember will agree that a sufficient number of men too old or diseased came to the front in those years – no, they did not all get as far as the front – to fairly stock all the hospitals in the country.” [v] Billings attributed this to both the incompetence of some of the doctors providing physical examinations for enlisting recruits and the desperation of the government willing to use marginal physicians and accept men clearly unfit for duty.

Billings also spoke of the presence in every company of men who feigned illness to escape duty. As might be expected, these men were seen as shirkers who burdened others in the company with the work they did not perform. These “beats on the government” showed up routinely at the sick tent to receive the care and, in some cases, medicine administered by the doctor. Quinine was the drug du jour “whether for stomach or bowels, headache or toothache, for a cough or for lameness, rheumatism or fever and ague.” [vi]  Some who feigned illness went so far as to refuse food and so created a real health crisis for themselves with varying consequences ranging from transfer to a hospital and eventual release from the service, to susceptibility to more severe and long term conditions. [vii]

The fact remains that many, many men died of very real and unwanted maladies. Diseases flourished in camp because of poor nutrition, inadequate sewage disposal, dirty water and infrequent bathing. Typhoid, measles, cholera and dysentery killed hundreds. Even General Lee contracted dysentery on his way to Gettysburg.  Billings spoke eloquently of his many friends who suffered and died of wasting illnesses, either in the field or in hospitals, away from the families who could have unquestionably cared for them better at home. [viii]

As James I. Robertson, Jr. pointed out in his book, Soldiers Blue and Gray, “more confederates died of illness during the seven week aftermath at Corinth than fell in the two days of intense fighting at Shiloh,” an aftermath not at all uncommon during the war and certainly after every battle. [ix]

Disease was – without question – the war’s biggest killer.

Copyright © 2010 Rene Tyree

i.  William A. Fletcher and Richard S. Wheeler, Rebel Private: Front and Rear: Memoirs of a Confederate Soldier, (Meridian: New York, 1995), 7.
ii. Ibid.
iii. Gerald Linderman, Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War,  (The Free Press: New York, 1987), 115.
iv. Ibid.
v. John D. Billings, Hard Tack and Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life (originally published in 1887 by George M. Smith and Company, Boston.), 173.
vi. Ibid., 175-176.
vii. Ibid., 175.
viii. Ibid.
ix. James I. Robertson, Jr., Soldiers Blue and Gray, (University of South Carolina Press: Columbia, South Carolina ), 145.
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A Slapdash War

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Historian Bruce Catton

A common theme among authors I have read this term who have written about the experiences of Civil War soldiers is the informality with which the war was conducted. Historian Bruce Canton called it

slapdash.”

Now there’s a word we don’t use much today. I looked it up. Here’s Princeton’s take:

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Slapdash

adjective – marked by great carelessness; “a most haphazard system of record keeping”; “slapdash work”; “slipshod spelling”; “sloppy workmanship” [syn: `haphazard]

adverb – in a careless or reckless manner; “the shelves were put up slapdash”

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It started with loose regimental recruitment methods. Drill and discipline were a far cry from today’s standards. Gerald Linderman, in his book Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War, spoke of the common practice of men within a community signing up together so pre-war relationships were undoubtedly difficult to set aside. Winter quarters; soldiers in front of their wooden hut, Catton supported this indicating that “in the average regiment of officers were people whom the enlisted men had known all their lives.” Election of officers by the men was a practice that continued long into the war and contributed to the problem. Even though recruits pledged to obey their officers, informality remained the rule. Catton’s quote of an Indiana soldier illustrates this point perfectly.

We had enlisted to put down the rebellion and had no patience with the red-tape tomfoolery of the regular service. Furthermore, the boys recognized no superiors, except in the line of legitimate duty. Shoulder straps waived, a private was ready at the drop of a hat to thrash his commander – a thing that occurred more than once.

“Regular army” officers shared frustration with this lack of regard for authority on both sides as it wasn’t unique to one army or the other. Catton noted astutely that men “could be led anywhere, but they could hardly be driven at all.”

A very fine lecture by Gerald Linderman covering more on this topic can be found here.

Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree

Embattled Courage

W. Bruce Catton, America Goes to War: The Civil War and Its Meaning in American Culture, (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press), 51.
Gerald E. Linderman,
Embattled Courage: The Experiences of Combat in the American Civil War,
(New York: The Free Press, 1987), 40.
slapdash. Dictionary.com.
WordNet® 3.0. Princeton University. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/slapdash(accessed: November 19, 2007).

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