12 Stunning Civil War Facts

Family History
21 May 2014
by Ancestry® Team

The Civil War was the bloodiest war in our country’s history. It is often called “the first modern war” because of efficient and deadly weapons that became available for the first time. Just how terrible was this war that pitted brother against brother? Consider these 12 jaw-dropping facts:

1. More soldiers died in the Civil War than any other American conflict — and two-thirds of them were killed by disease.

About 625,000 men died in the Civil War. That’s more Americans than died in both World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam combined. This amounted to 2 percent of the population at the time, which would be the equivalent to about 6 million Americans dying today. Battles weren’t as deadly as disease, however. Diarrhea, typhoid fever, lung inflammation, dysentery, and childhood diseases like chicken pox were the cause of 67 percent of the deaths. And if those numbers aren’t bad enough, new estimates suggest that the death total may be higher.

2. Gettysburg wasn’t the only unusually bloody battle.

More Americans were killed in two days at the Battle of Shiloh than in all previous American wars combined. The Battle of Antietam was only one day long but left 12,401 Union soldiers killed, missing, or wounded — which is higher than typical estimates of Allied casualties on D-Day. With 23,000 casualties overall, it was the bloodiest single day of the Civil War. At Cold Harbor, Virginia, 7,000 men fell in just 20 minutes.

3. Nearly 56,000 soldiers died in prison camps from starvation and disease — a quarter of those deaths happened at one camp.

No American prisoner of war camp had ever held more than 100 men at a time prior to 1861. During the Civil War, each camp held thousands. Although they weren’t intentionally killing prisoners, ignorance of proper sanitation, overcrowding, and a lack of resources led to an outrageous number of soldier deaths. Camp Sumter in Georgia was the largest of the 150 military prisons and also the deadliest. Nearly 40,000 soldiers were imprisoned there, and 13,000, or about one-third, of them died.

4. An estimated 40 percent of Civil War dead were never identified.

With advances in weaponry and the sheer number of men killed, many bodies were damaged beyond recognition or left to rot in piles at the battlefield.

5. Amputation was the treatment of choice for broken or severely wounded limbs.

There were so many wounded men that doctors found it impossible to do time-consuming procedures like removing part of a broken bone or some damaged flesh. More than half of leg amputations at the thigh or knee ended up being fatal. That number shot up to 83 percent if the amputation was done at the hip joint.

6. Surgery wasn’t sterile.

Doctors of the day didn’t understand sterilization and believed infection was caused by contaminated air, so cleaning surgical tools often meant wiping them on a dirty apron. There weren’t any antibiotics either. So if a doctor didn’t cut off a soldier’s limb, there was a good chance he’d lose it to infection or gangrene anyway.

7. There was no anesthesia on the battlefield.

Anesthesia wasn’t available, so patients were given chloroform, ether, or, failing that, a glass of whiskey and a bullet to bite down on.

8. African-Americans made up less than 1 percent of the North’s population but were 10 percent of the Union Army.

Black men weren’t allowed to join the army until 1863. About 180,000 black men, more than 85 percent of eligible African-Americans in the Northern states, fought. While white soldiers earned $13 a month, black soldiers earned only $10 — and then were charged a $3 clothing fee that lowered their monthly pay to $7. The highest paid black soldier made less than the lowest paid white one. After protesting by refusing to accept their wages and gaining support from abolitionist Congressmen, black soldiers finally received equal pay in 1864 — paid retroactively to their enlistment date.

9. About 20 percent of soldiers were under 18.

The Confederacy had no minimum enlistment age. Even though the Union Army technically required soldiers to be 18, many officers looked the other way when it came to underage soldiers. Some younger soldiers signed up as drummers or buglers. Musicians weren’t supposed to fight, but when the battles began, they often dropped their instruments and grabbed a weapon.

10. Women secretly fought in the war.

Both sides prohibited women from enlisting. However, that didn’t stop them from joining in disguise. Since they were incognito, exact numbers aren’t known. But some estimates say 400 women served in the war by pretending to be men. Many certainly did it out of a sense of loyalty to their cause, but historians say some women were just in it to make ends meet during desperate times.

11. The estimated cost of the war was $6.19 billion ($146 billion in today’s dollars).

While the cost in human lives was the most tragic, the Civil War also had a high financial toll. Before the war, the U.S. government spent roughly $1 million a week. By the end of the war, the federal government was spending $3.5 million a day. The South was the primary battlefield of the war and suffered greatly with $10 billion in property damage and two-fifths of its livestock destroyed.

12. As of 2014, the Department of Veterans Affairs is still paying a Civil War pension.

The last surviving child of a Union Veteran still receives a small, monthly pension payment 149 years after the Civil War ended.

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