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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.