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AHHS — Chapter 29

Section Five: After the Conquest – Consequences of Political Sectionalism and Horrific War

Chapter 29 – The Cost of the War in Lives Lost and Families Shattered, by William Cawthon of Alabama, S.I.S.H.


The War Between the States was the most horrific conflict ever fought by United States troops.  Of those Federals who fought, 400,000 died.  That is a huge number.  If you went to your computer and took an image of each one of these 400,000 dead Federal soldiers and sailors, stretched his arms up high, put a tall bouquet of carnations in his right hand and laid him down on the highway that runs from the White House in Washington, D. C. to the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina – If you kept laying down those dead bodies, the toes of one touching the flowers of the next; one after the other; until you laid down the last of the 400,000 – then the flowers in the right hand of the last soldier would dip into the seawater in Charleston harbor, within sight of Fort Sumter.  That is the image of the WBTS that we hope you always remember, for those Federal dead had been duped into going to war to enable political domination by a Sectional Republican Party – a sad cause for which to die.  The Confederates lost 350,000 in their defensive effort.  Their bodies, when laid out with carnations in a similar fashion would reach well into North Carolina.  Author William Cawthon tells the story of lives shattered and lost, including a range of estimates of deaths suffered by Southern civilians, Black and White.

History Relevant

The War between North and South between the years 1861 and 1865 was the epic war of American history and one of the epic wars of world history.  This is so for any number of reasons, the most searingly brutal the magnitude of the loss of life.  Modern Americans cannot even begin to truly comprehend the extent of the slaughter and wholesale and widespread destruction in every facet of life, uprooting people from their homes, the wholesale destruction of property, a violent and brutal tearing apart of the society of the South from which the South has in truth never recovered.

Historian Drew Gilpin Faust in her book, This Republic Of Suffering:  Death and the American Civil War (2008), presents the horror of the hand of death “everywhere in the land” in a manner that makes it feel palpable to us today, yet her work, by combining the suffering of North and South, cannot begin to reveal the many times greater death and devastation wrought upon the South.

The long-standing “official” death tolls, with which anyone who is interested in the war is familiar, are 360,000 Union dead and 260,000 Confederate dead, or a total of 620,000 soldier deaths.   These figures, however, were approximations which two Union veterans developed in the late 19th century.  They recognized that their figures were not final and were based on incomplete records, particularly on the Southern side.   The last year of the war was very catastrophic to the South and many records were lost.  Records on the Northern side also were inadequate.  Evidence for the lack of knowledge about the deaths is the remarkable statistic that only 54% of Northern men who lost their lives in this terrible war were identified.

A new estimate of the number of soldiers who died based on U. S. Census data analysis estimates that 750,000 soldier deaths would be a more accurate figure than the ones cited.  The author of the Census analysis, J. David Hacker, believes that the Confederate deaths from disease and accidents are particularly undercounted.  He notes that Confederates hailed from rural areas to a much greater degree than Northern soldiers, and were therefore less likely to have been exposed to infectious diseases than Union soldiers.  The Union blockade of Southern ports contributed greatly to the hardships of life in the Confederate armies.  Food and clothing were often in short supply, increasing the rate of death from exposure and reducing resistance to disease.  During the last year of the war the blockade and the Union’s scorched earth policy toward the land and civilians of the South significantly increased the chance of death to Southerners by sharply reducing the availability of medicines, leading to malnutrition and avitaminosis.

Therefore, it seems reasonable to assign 70% of the increased soldier deaths to the South, and this may be a conservative estimate.  This brings the death toll among Confederate soldiers to approximately 350,000 men instead of the former 260,000.  The Union death toll would be increased to 400,000.  These figures include soldier deaths during the early years of Political Reconstruction caused by the War and the disruptions of those years incident upon the War.  To begin to comprehend how this number of soldier deaths impacted the people who lived during the war, one must compare these totals to the men of military age and to the total populations.

It has long been said that the 260,000 Confederate soldier deaths represented approximately 25 percent of her white men of military age, dead, either killed in battle or died of disease, and to a much lesser extent, as in all wars, from accidents and other minor causes.  This is a toll which the modern American mind cannot truly comprehend.  Its impact on our society would be far beyond anything we can with any degree of real life experience imagine.  If this proportion of men aged 18 – 48 died as a result of a war today, 17 million Americans would be dead.  In Vietnam, America’s losses were a mere 58,000, and the trauma wrought to the U. S. was great.  Even in World War II, the loss of life was but 405,000.  The figure of 17 million dead is approximately 300 times the number of men who died in the Vietnam War.  But, if 350,000 Confederate soldiers died, the proportion of the white men of the majority Confederate areas of the South who died defending Dixie is close to 30 percent.   Applying this ratio across today’s American population, 21 million deaths would result from a war so deadly fought today.

The Southern proportion of dead was about three times the Union rate, the Union losing around 8 percent of its population of military age to the War by the 360,000 estimate, and about 9 percent by the 400,000 estimate.  This rate of loss would result in 5,500,000 and 6,000,000 military deaths from a war fought today.

The Southern loss of life was so great that a prominent historian of the war, James McPherson, has estimated that the total mortality rate of the South from this war was greater than that of any country during World War I, which itself was so deadly that it set Britain, previously the world’s great power, into a permanent decline and caused such severe disillusionment in the Western World that confidence in Western Civilization has been in serious decline ever since.  Only the region between the Rhine and the Volga in World War II suffered greater total mortality than did the South in America’s epic war, according to calculations by McPherson.

A “harvest of death,” a common term in the war, swept both North and South.  Americans had never seen anything like it before, and have never seen anything like it since.  But it was in the South that “the harvest of death” reached truly epic proportions.  Two Southerners, one in a journal, one in a letter, expressed the ubiquity of the heart-wrenching commonality of death that Southerners came to know first-hand.  Kate Stone in her journal recorded: “nearly every household mourns some loved one lost.”  A Confederate soldier, C. W. Greene, in an August 1862 letter, early in the war, before the bloodiest of the battles, wrote that death “reigned with universal sway.”  Some families lost many members; some, almost all.  The Christian family of Christiansburg, Virginia lost 18 members in the War.

New studies have shown as never before the death and destruction to the civilian population of the South, to both blacks and whites.  This is a topic scarcely touched upon in most histories of the War, concentrating as they do on the generals, the major battles, or political, cultural, and social issues, but not on the phenomenal death and destruction.

Civilians were caught up in the war in countless ways.  “The war killed civilians as well, as battles raged across farm and field, as encampments of troops spread epidemic disease, as guerrillas ensnared women and even children in violence and reprisals, as draft riots targeted innocent citizens [the most famous one in New York City, involving Irishmen who lynched and killed a hundred or more blacks in expressing their opposition to the Union’s draft law], as shortages of food in parts of the South brought starvation.” (Faust, This Republic Of Suffering).  Civilians were killed as the Union forces bombarded Southern cities.  Some of these sieges lasted for very long periods.  No one had been killed at the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Lincoln’s excuse for beginning the invasion.  But, later, the City of Charleston underwent the longest siege of any city in U. S. history.  In these prolonged sieges not only were many buildings and much personal property destroyed, people were injured, maimed, and killed.  Disease spread due to the confined conditions and serious catastrophic lack of food, medicines, and supplies of all kinds.  The citizens of Vicksburg, Mississippi were so reduced that they ate rats.  In these horrendous conditions disease and malnutrition spread, and people died.  It was extreme malnutrition and accompanying disease which forced the well-publicized desertions from the Confederate ranks late in the war, when the Confederate Cause, to many, had come to seem hopeless.  McPherson points out that until the last hard winter of the war, the desertion rate in the South and North was about the same, even though the Northern economy and war effort was flush with food, medicine, and the other necessities of life, as opposed to the meagre circumstances of Southerners under the blockade.

We will never know how many civilians died as a result of this bloodiest of America’s wars, fought almost entirely on Southern soil.  But if we count those who died during the early years of Reconstruction from the effects of the War, from wounds received, from diseases incurred during the War which brought death later, and especially death from starvation in the extremely harsh and disordered conditions of the post War South, as well as those who died of all causes during the War itself, we can see why civilian casualties were so large.  The Northern armies had ravaged many of the richest and most productive areas of the Southern countryside, and much of the remainder of the South besides, leaving a destitute people barely able to find enough to eat, stripped of their control over their future, seemingly helpless against the victorious foe.  There are even cases of the deliberate killing of Southern civilians by invading Yankee soldiers.

James McPherson, the leading historian of the War today, who is very partisan for the Northern side, though a very good historian, gives in his latest book (2015) a highly abbreviated look at the devastation to the South: “. . . . the victorious power . . . did all it could to devastate the enemy’s economy as well as the morale of its home-front population.  The Civil War wiped out two-thirds of the assessed value of wealth in Confederate states, two-fifths of the South’s livestock, and more than half of its farm machinery – not to mention at least one-quarter of the Confederacy’s white men of military age.  While Northern wealth increased by 50 percent from 1860 to 1870, Southern wealth decreased by 60 percent.”  The average free Southerner, blacks included, was twice as wealthy per capita before the War than the average Northerner; ten years later the average Northerner was twice as wealthy as the average Southerner.

Perhaps the most prominent death from starvation was the loss of the Confederacy’s Poet Laureate, the young and gifted Henry Timrod, during the early years of Reconstruction.  If a person of Timrod’s important connections could die of starvation, think of the thousands who must have died of insufficient proper food and nourishment throughout the Southern land both during the War and Reconstruction.  It is estimated that 35,000 white civilians died of all causes during the War and the early years of Political Reconstruction up to 1870.

Even more arresting is the death of so many black people.   Until recent years, the black experience in the War has been told principally as one of a triumph, of emancipation and freedom over slavery, almost as if everything turned up rosy for the black population.  Jim Downs’ relatively new book, Sick from Freedom (2012) proves with abundant contemporary sources the truly heart wrenching experiences of the freedpeople (the former slaves).  Black people found an unknown and in many situations a hostile world with their emancipation.  Many, believing that a great boon of freedom awaited them, rushed to the Northern armies as the invading forces made their way deeper into Southern territory, to find much anti-black feeling, almost universal discrimination, and exceedingly inadequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care.  One of the many distressing stories is that of a freedwoman who walked for 25 miles seeking medicine for her sick child, only to be told by the Freedmen’s Bureau Office of the Federal Government that no medicine was to be had.  So reduced were blacks in material circumstances that many of them earned a little money by scavenging for bones and selling them.  Other black people begged for food, reduced to existing off of berries along the roadside and in the forest in the weeks after they “were freed.”

The Northern Army, and, during the early years of Political Reconstruction, the Freedman’s Bureau, saw the freedpeople more than anything else as potential laborers (the very underlining, basic reason for slavery, in all cultures, world-wide, from ancient to modern times).  Both the Army and the Bureau put many black men to work, during the War on fortifications and the like, during Reconstruction also on public works projects, but, most of all, as common laborers on plantations, the work so many had done as slaves.   In sending the men off to work projects, the women and children were usually left behind, leaving them even more destitute and with greater susceptibility to disease and death.  Concentrating blacks together at “contraband camps” increased the chance of disease, sickness, and mortality.

The single most horrific disease that freed blacks faced was smallpox.  Due to the overcrowded conditions of the black people who congregated in Washington, D. C. early in the War, amidst the general disorder, smallpox made an appearance first there in 1862.  In 1864 it crossed into Virginia, and thence spread during the next several years over the South, reaching Texas in 1868.  Though a few whites contracted the dread disease, the cases of smallpox were overwhelmingly among the freed blacks. One reason for the great prevalence among blacks was discrimination by the Northern Army and the Freedmen’s Bureau, which favored whites over blacks in treating the disease.   Medicines were slower to reach the blacks, and those that did reach them were often inferior.   This was true for sickness in general.  So great was death from smallpox that 800 blacks a week died on the Sea Islands in November and December 1865.   Caskets of the black dead were lined up on the streets of Macon, Georgia during Political Reconstruction.

The Lincoln Administration had no plan for emancipation.     Lincoln actually preferred that as many blacks as possible be deported from the United States to one or more foreign countries.  But with the emancipation agenda that developed in the U. S. in 1863, no administrative structure was created to provide for the black people who had suddenly left their former homes and plantations within conquered regions.

In truth, the sudden emancipation of millions of former slaves, with no experience of freedom or independent living led to widespread dislocation, abject poverty, and widespread sickness and death.  Families were split asunder by the Federal policies favoring the placement of the men in productive work to benefit the Northern war machine and by other Federal policies during both war and Political Reconstruction.

Furthermore, a widespread belief at the time among both Northerners and Southerners was that the blacks would slowly become extinct following emancipation. The Indians, it was believed by many, were going extinct.   The Indian populations had by this time become greatly reduced in size, and most Indians on the reservations assigned to them lived in abject poverty.  It was believed blacks would follow the fate of the Indians.  Even the published U. S. Census of Population of 1860, written and published by the Northern Union, expected  blacks after emancipation to increase less than they had under slavery.  Observing that, in each of the three decades prior to 1860, the free black population of the U. S. had increased less than had the slave population, Census authors concluded that the black population of America “is doomed to comparatively rapid absorption or extinction.”

Because a system of public records of deaths of people, black and white, in this period was almost non-existent, we will never know the actual extent of civilian deaths.  However, the new evidence suggests that the rate of death among the freed blacks was exceptionally high, this ultra-high rate caused by the sudden emancipation imposed by the U. S. government without planning and the major disruptions and diseases and starvation caused by the War and its consequences, both during the War itself and during the early Political Reconstruction years.  It would not be unreasonable to assume that it reached five or six percent of the Confederate black population, which would place deaths of blacks in the Confederate States caused by the War around the remarkable number of 200,000 people.  The mortality rate of contraband camps may have reached 25%.

When we add the total deaths for Confederate soldiers and white civilians and black Southerners in the Confederacy (350,000 + 35,000 + 200,000) we get 585,000 deaths suffered by the Southern side.  When we add to that 400,000 Union soldier deaths we arrive at the figure of 985,000 deaths.

White and black civilians also died in the Union dominated States as a result of the War.  Fierce guerrilla warfare occurred in both Missouri and in the area of Virginia that became West Virginia.  Civilian deaths in these Union dominated areas would almost certainly push the total number of deaths caused by America’s epic war beyond one million.


If a war today should take as many lives in proportion to population as the South sacrificed for its independence in America’s epic War Between the States, 21 million Americans would die.

The old Southern civilization which produced George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John C. Calhoun, and a host of other eminent Americans and a rich, vibrant intellectual culture amidst an organic society rooted in family, the land, religion, tradition, honest agrarian self-sufficiency and a fierce legacy of self-government was swept away.

The South sacrificed far, far more than any other Americans ever have in any war or for any cause whatsoever in its heroic, epic struggle for the sacred virtues of Hearth and Home, Liberty and Independence.  One Confederate lady wrote that everyone knew a friend who had died.  The black population suffered terribly, with a proportionate loss of their population to death that may have been as high as that among Southern whites.

Suggestions for Class Discussion

Why are the horrors of the War Between the States largely hidden from students today?  Chapter 36 will present “What If Bonded African Americans (Slaves) had Benefitted from Gradual Emancipation with Training and Freedom from Political Agendas?  There was an alternative to horrific war.  Talk about that, too.

Recommended Reading

  • This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, by Drew Gilpin Faust, pub. 2008.
  • Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction, by Jim Downs, pub. 2012.
  • When the World Ended, by Emma Leconte (ed. by Earl Schenck Miers), pub. 1957.
  • “A Census-Based Count of the Civil War Dead,” Civil War History, Vol. 57, No. 4 (December 2011), by J. David Hacker.