In 1861, the United States entered into a Civil War that would prove to be bloodier than any other conflict in American History — a war that would foreshadow the slaughter of the Western Front in World War and the global carnage of the 20th century. The number of soldiers who died between 1861 and 1865, generally estimated at 620,000, is approximately equal to the total of American fatalities in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, combined. The Civil War’srate of death, its incidence in comparison with the size of the American population, was six times that of World War II. A similar rate, about 2%, in the United States today, would mean six million fatalities.
The Confederate States of America struggled for survival against a wealthier and more populous enemy, its death toll reflected the disproportionate strains on its human capital. Confederate men died at a rate three times that of their Yankee counterparts; one in five white southern men of military age did not survive the Civil War. Twice as many Civil War soldiers died from disease than they did from battle wounds, which resulted due to poor sanitation in an era that did not yet understand the transmission of infectious diseases like typhoid, typhus, and dysentery.
These military statistics, however, tell only a part of the story. The war also killed a significant number of civilians; battles raged across farm and field, encampments of troops spread epidemic disease, guerrillas ensnared women and children in violence and reprisals, draft rioters targeted innocent citizens, and shortages of food in parts of the South brought starvation. No one sought to document these deaths, and no one has devised a method of undertaking a retrospective count. Historians have estimated that there were 50,000 civilian deaths during the Civil War and have concluded that the overall mortality rate for the South exceeded that of any country in World War I, as well as most of the regions in World War II.
The scale and duration of the war, the size of its battles and the number of casualties were also unanticipated and unprecedented. In the South, nearly every household mourned some loved one who was lost, becoming almost commonplace. Both the Union and the Confederacy were unprepared for the sheer number of deaths — what to do with the bodies that covered the battlefields, how to mourn so many lost, how to remember, and how to understand.
The most immediate of death’s challenges was a logistical one, the burial of soldiers in the aftermath of battle. Armies were not ready for the enormity of the task that confronted them, particularly in the aftermath of engagements that left thousands of bodies carpeting battlegrounds like Antietam or Gettysburg. After a single day of fighting at Antietam, for example, 23,000 men and untold numbers of horses and mules lay killed or wounded. Neither side’s army had grave registration units; soldiers were not issued official badges of identification, there was no formal policy of notification for the families of those who had died, and neither side had an ambulance service.
Makeshift crews of soldiers who were detailed to dispose of the dead, often found themselves lacking basic necessities such as carts or shovels. These failures were also made evident in the length of time it took to attend to casualties. A week after Antietam, a Union surgeon reported that, “the dead were almost wholly unburied, and the stench arising from it was such as to breed a pestilence.” As a result, bodies were often thrown into unidentified mass trench graves.
In such circumstances, tens of thousands of soldiers died unknown, and tens of thousands of families were left without any consoling knowledge of their loved ones’ fates, circumstances of death, or place of burial. At least half of the Civil War dead were never identified. As the war continued, these realities became increasingly intolerable, and Americans worked in both official and informal ways to combat such dehumanization and loss. Soldiers endeavored to locate, inter, and honor slain comrades; merchants created and marketed identity disks for soldiers; the men themselves pinned their scribbled names to their uniforms before especially dangerous encounters.
Voluntary organizations like the U.S. Sanitary Commission emerged and devoted their energies to compiling lists of killed and wounded from hundreds of Union hospitals, creating records of battlefield burials, and offering aid to families in locating the lost and, for those with means, shipping embalmed bodies home. Families swarmed to battle sites in the aftermath of engagements to search for dead or wounded relatives, actively seeking information otherwise unavailable to them, hoping to fill, what one northern observer called, the “dread void of uncertainty.” Civilian mourning was difficult as well when the fate of missing soldiers remained uncertain, when bodies were not available for ritual burial, and when funerals occurred so frequently as to become commonplace.
As the bereaved found ways to mourn, the nation worked to give loss meaning. North and South governments recognized the necessity of assuming previously unacknowledged responsibility for the care of the dead. In 1862, the U.S. Congress passed a measure allocating to the President power to purchase grounds and “cause them to be securely enclosed, to be used as a National Cemetery for the soldiers who shall die in the service of the country.” Without any appropriation or formal policy with which to implement this legislative action, the War Department established cemeteries as emergency circumstance demanded, primarily near concentrations of military hospitals where many dead required burial.
But, under the terms of this law, five cemeteries of a rather different character were created in the course of the war. These were burial grounds for the dead of a particular battle, usually established when a lull in active operations made such an effort possible. Three of these cemeteries, Chattanooga, Stones River, and Knoxville, in Tennessee were created by Union Generals, and two, Antietam, Maryland and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, by joint actions of northern states whose citizens had participated in the battles.
The end of combat in the spring of 1865 offered an opportunity to attend to the dead in ways that the war had made impossible. Moved by the same humanitarian purposes that had drawn her to nursing during the conflict, Clara Barton was among the first to take advantage of the cessation of battle, establishing an office of Missing Men of the United States Army in Washington, D.C. to serve as an information clearing house. By the time she closed its doors in 1868, she had received more than 68,000 letters and secured information about 22,000 soldiers.
Many of the missing soldiers of the Union Army lay in graves scattered across the South, often unmarked and unrecorded. In the fall of 1865, U.S. Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs ordered an assessment of the condition and location of graves to ensure their protection, an increasingly urgent issue in face of growing bitterness and defiance in the defeated South. Units of northern soldiers searched across the battle fronts of the war, searching for their slain comrades, inaugurating what became, over the next six years, a massive federally supported reburial program.