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The Civil War
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Page 1234

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The Nature of the War

One reason the war was so bloody is because men on both sides were fighting for a cause they believed in to the root of their being. Another has to do with the nature of war. Once begun, war acquires a momentum of its own. Soldiers, generals, and presidents start doing what it takes to win.

War starts to control them. War brutalizes everyone involved in it because to win you have to kill and kill and kill. And when you kill that much, you start to get used to it. You get hardened.

[Picture of soldiers with rifled muskets]

Changing military technology made this war especially brutal. The most lethal weapon in the War was the rifled musket. It was responsible for up to 90% of combat casualties.

In the American Revolution, soldiers fought with smooth-barreled muskets that fired iron balls. But the barrel of the Civil War musket was "rifled." It had spiral grooves cut into it. And the projectile wasn't an iron ball. It was a mini-ball, which is really not a ball, but a cone-shaped bullet. When fired, it expanded in the barrel and the rifling gave it a spin, which made it travel further and more accurately.

In combat, this rifle had an effective range of about 400 yards, over four times that of a Revolutionary War musket. The rifle was doubly deadly because of the failure of military tactics to keep up with military technology. Civil War soldiers fought in Napoleonic style, in the open, standing up, moving forward in long lines, the men marching shoulder to shoulder. The purpose here was to fire in unison, creating the effect of a gigantic shotgun.

And this could be intimidating, but with a rifled musket these marching columns took a lot more hits, and more accurate hits, than attacking soldiers had in the American Revolution. This threw the advantage to the defense, fighting in trenches or behind fortifications. Even though the defense won 9 of 10 Civil War engagements, generals still charged heavily defended positions, recklessly stubborn.

Military technology was also ahead of medical science. And that increased the butcher's bill even more. Civil War bullets had low muzzle velocity. They rarely cut through the body like a modern steel-jacket bullet. Instead they tumbled around inside the body cavity, causing tremendous damage. A soldier shot in the head or trunk was simply left to die.

[Picture of a Civil War medical tent]

A man hit in an arm or leg had his wounded limb amputated. And it was the surgeon who sawed it off who was often the patient's worst enemy. Doctors then knew nothing about bacteria. A surgeon would move from patient to patient, without washing his hands or instruments, carrying infection with him, killing the men he was trying to save.

But it was actually disease that was the greatest Civil War killer. Twice as many soldiers died of disease as were killed in battle. Living on isolated farms, many men hadn't been exposed to common childhood diseases like measles and mumps. When they came into contact with infected soldiers in big, unsanitary army camps, they died in horrifying numbers.

This is how soldiers died, in camp and in the field, in the very start of the war. But over time, the nature of the war changed. And it changed in ways that soldiers couldn't have foreseen. And this increased the intensity of the fighting and the bloodshed.

The Geography of the War

What began as a limited war, a war of soldiers against soldiers, and a war to restore national unity, became, by l863, a total war, a war against civilians as well as soldiers. And more than that: a social revolution, a violent upheaval that destroyed a slave-holding civilization that had lasted for two and a half centuries.

To understand this war, you have to start with geography. The Civil War was fought in two main theaters: the East, where most of the fighting occurred in Virginia; and the West, where most of the fighting took place in the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River.

In the East, the North's main objective was the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, which was defended by Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Out West, the North's objective was to reopen the Confederate-controlled Mississippi River, and to use the river as an invasion highway into the South.

[Picture of a nval blockade]

The North also employed its navy to blockade southern ports, hoping to cut off rebel trade with Europe, and England particularly. The blockade became increasingly effective as the war proceeded, but the Union Army's Richmond campaign was frustrated by the military genius of Lee and his chief lieutenant, "Stonewall" Jackson, and by the extreme, and almost inexplicable, caution of General George McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac.

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