STUMP » Articles » Mortality Monday: Memorial Day and the U.S. Civil War » 29 May 2017, 08:18

Where Stu & MP spout off about everything.

Mortality Monday: Memorial Day and the U.S. Civil War   


29 May 2017, 08:18

Memorial Day started out as Decoration Day after the Civil War:

May 1868

By proclamation of General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, the first major Memorial Day observance is held to honor those who died “in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” Known to some as “Decoration Day,” mourners honored the Civil War dead by decorating their graves with flowers. On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, after which 5,000 participants helped to decorate the graves of the more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried in the cemetery.
By the late 19th century, many communities across the country had begun to celebrate Memorial Day, and after World War I, observers began to honor the dead of all of America’s wars. In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday to be celebrated the last Monday in May.

Similar to the effect World War I had on the European nations, which had hideous casualty numbers, the U.S. Civil War had hideous casualty numbers as well. If you weren’t killed in battle, you could be killed by gangrene from your wounds (or the shock of amputation to prevent gangrene), and then the ubiquitous infectious disease that often plagued troops in pre-antibiotic times.


I don’t want to belabor the numbers, and I’m not going to compare this to other wars (in this post, at least).

First off, the numbers are not quite exact. Part of the problem, of course, is it’s not like the military record-keeping, especially on the losing side, was up to modern standards. Dog tags weren’t government issue… later in the war, people were selling metal tags as the paper notes they were pinning to themselves were too easily destroyed.

But the number generally given, on both Union and Confederate sides in total, is 620,000 military dead from the Civil War.


That number was developed in 1889 – Union officer William F. Fox came up with an estimate for the Union side (that’s the scanned version, here’s a text version). Let’s see how his book begins:

Chapter 1: the casualties of war — maximum of killed in Union regiments — maximum of percentages.

Wars and battles are considered great in proportion to the loss of life resulting from them. Bloodless battles excite no interest. A campaign of mancoeuvres is accorded but a small place in history. There have been battles as decisive as Waterloo and Gettysburg; but they cost few lives and never became historic. Great as were the results, Waterloo and Gettysburg would receive but little mention were it not for the terrible cost at which the results were obtained.

Still, it is difficult to comprehend fully what is implied by the figures which represent the loss of life in a great battle or a war. As the numbers become great, they convey no different idea, whether they be doubled or trebled. It is only when the losses are considered in detail — by regiments, for instance — that they can be definitely understood. The regiment is the unit of organization. It is to the army what a family is to the city. It has a well known limit of size, and its losses are intelligible; just as a loss in a family can be understood, while the greater figures of the city’s mortuary statistics leave no impression on the mind.

The history of a battle or a war should always be studied in connection with the figures which show the losses. By overlooking them an indefinite, and often erroneous, idea is obtained. By neglecting them, many historians fail to develop the important points of the contest. They use the same rhetorical description for different attacks, whether the pressure was strong or weak; the loss, great or small; the fight, bloody or harmless.

There were over two thousand regiments in the Union Armies. On some of these the brunt of battle fell much heavier than on others. While some were exempted from the [2] dangers of active service, others were continually at the front. While some were seldom called upon to face the enemy’s fire, others were repeatedly ordered into the thickest of the fight. While in some regiments the number of killed was small, in others the Roll of Honor was unequaled in the records of modern wars. Who were these men who fought so well in defense of their flag? What were the names and numbers of their regiments? What were the losses in these regiments? What limit is there to the toll of blood exacted from a regimental thousand during a long and bloody war?

The one regiment, in all the Union Armies, which sustained the greatest loss in battle, during the American Civil War, was the Fifth New Hampshire Infantry.1 It lost 295 men, killed or mortally wounded in action, during its four years of service, from 1861 to 1865. It served in the First Division, Second Corps. This division was commanded, successively, by Generals Richardson, Hancock, Caldwell, Barlow, and Miles; and any regiment that followed the fortunes of these men was sure to find plenty of bloody work cut out for it. The losses of the Fifth New Hampshire occurred entirely in aggressive, hard, stand — up fighting; none of it happened in routs or through blunders. Its loss includes eighteen officers killed, a number far in excess of the usual proportion, and indicates that the men were bravely led. Its percentage of killed is also very large, especially as based on the original enrollment. The exact percentage of the total enrollment cannot be definitely ascertained, as the rolls were loaded down in 1864 with the names of a large number of conscripts and bounty men who never joined the regiment.

I am not copying this over, but he has several tables of different groupings from the Union regiments, ranked for highest mortality. The worst mortality rate was almost 20%, Wisconsin’s 2nd. That is huge.

Lt. Col. Fox was very careful in his research – tried to not count those who never actually showed as part of the denominator, tried to not double count people. The work as a whole is very detailed, and I plan on looking at it at another time. I love a well-organized analysis.


Before I get to a comparison to other wars of the time, here was Lt. Col. Fox’s final total number:

It was the greatest war of the century. On the Union side alone, 110,070 men were killed in battle, while 249,458 more died from disease, accidents, in military prisons, or from other causes. Including both sides, over half a million lives were lost. There have been wars which have lasted longer — wars with intermittent and desultory campaigns; but, in this struggle the two armies for four years never let go their clutch upon each other’s throat. For four years the echo of the picket’s rifle never ceased.

I’m going to round his total (because of uncertainties) to 360,000 men killed, of which 31% were killed in battle directly.


Lt. Col. Fox was concentrating on the Union side – after all, he had been in the Union army, and the records on the winning side were, unsurprisingly, better. Fox’s estimate for Confederate deaths:

The total loss of the Confederate Armies in killed and mortally wounded will never be definitely known, and can be stated only in round numbers. A summing up of the casualties at each battle and minor engagement — using official reports only, and in their absence accepting Confederate estimates — indicates that 94,000 men were killed or mortally wounded on the Confederate side during the war.

In the report for 1865-6, made by General James B. Fry, United States Provost Marshal-General, there is a tabulation of Confederate losses as compiled from the muster-rolls on file in the Bureau of Confederate Archives. The returns are incomplete, and nearly all the Alabama rolls are missing. Still the figures are worth noting, as they show that at least 74,524 were killed or died of wounds; and, that 59,297 died of disease.

This doesn’t get us up to the 620,000 total dead, as you can see. Lt. Col. Fox didn’t try all that hard to figure out Confederate numbers. It wasn’t really his problem, as it were.

In 1900, Leonard Livermore tried to improve the estimate of Confederate deaths. Livermore himself remarked on how poor the numbers were, and used multiple methods for estimating troop strength and deaths from what records he had.

Just like Fox, his book does a detailed analysis of various figures, so to get the final estimate… I went to another source.

CSA battle deaths: 94,000
CSA deaths by disease: 164,000
CSA total deaths: 258,000

Though Confederate deaths were lower in absolute amount, this actually represents a higher percentage of deaths than the Union side — the Confederate forces were never as large as the Union side, specifically at the end. The Confederacy had a smaller base population to pull from to begin with.

In any case, Grant would never have been able to have an attrition strategy if he didn’t have a bigger pool to pull from.


Here are some comparisons, from Lt. Col. Fox’s book

The Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 was one of the greatest of European wars. Larger armies were never assembled. The Germans took 797, 950 men into France. Of this number, 28,277 were killed, or died of wounds — a loss of 3.1 per cent. In the Crimean war, the allied armies lost 3.2 per cent. in killed, or deaths from wounds. In the war of 1866, the Austrian army lost 2.6 per cent. from the same cause. But, in the American Civil War the Union Armies lost 4.7 per cent., and the Confederates over 9 per cent.; and this despite the greater area of country, which required a large share of the troops to protect the lines of communication. There are no figures on record to show that, even in the Napoleonic wars, there was ever a greater percentage of loss in killed. In fact, all the statistics pertaining to the earlier wars of the century are loosely stated, and bear on their face a lack of accuracy.

Nine percent of total forces is horrific.

Compared to the total population, it was about 2% of total population for both Union and Confederates combined.

To give you an idea of what an “extra” 2 percentage points of mortality is like: our current mortality rate for the United States is about 0.8% (and of course, that’s mostly old folks.) Now, the 2 percentage points was over a 4-ish-year period. So think of 0.5 percentage points added each year — imagine a 60% higher number of deaths per year for 4 years.

That’s current mortality — what about back in the 1860s? Unfortunately, we don’t have good U.S. numbers from then, but the numbers from England were pretty good.

I’m going to do something fairly rough — it looks like the average age at death is about 60 if you made it to age 20. So, let’s think of the effect of 2 percentage points of extra mortality (assuming you’d make it only 2 years if you died from the war).

0.98*40 years + 0.02*2 years = 39 years — the excess mortality was about equivalent to losing one year in life expectancy.

Thing is, I’m ignoring that basically all these deaths are of men.


The population of the United States has exploded since the Civil War, and many of us do not know anybody with coherent memories that precede World War II.

World War II had a comparable number of war dead, in order of magnitude, but the population was so much larger then. Besides, there have been so many people who immigrated to the U.S. after the Civil War – it’s difficult to “remember” those you never had a connection to, in the first place.

But take a moment to remember those who have been dead for over 150 years on this Memorial Day. Without them, not only would there have been no Memorial Day, but there would have been no Union.

Whatever the numbers were, that’s a sacrifice to remember.

Poem on a Civil War death: “Only a Private Killed,” 1861

Lines on the death of my friend Louis Mitchell of Co. I 1st Regt Minnesota Vols: who was killed in a skirmish on the Virginia side of the Potomac Oct: 21st 1861. The events and circumstances are literally true.

We’ve had a fight a Captain said
Much rebel blood we’ve spilled
We’ve put the saucy foe to flight
Our loss – but a private killed!
“Ah, yes!” said a sergeant on the spot
As he drew a long deep breath
Poor fellow, he was badly shot
Then bayoneted to death!”
I knew him well, he was my friend
He loved our Land and Laws
And he fell a blessed martyr
To the country’s holy cause.
Soldiers our time will come most like
When our blood will thus be spilled
And then of us our Chief shall say
“Only a private killed.”

But we fight our country’s battles
And our hopes are not forlorn
Our death shall be a blessing
To “Millions yet unborn.”
To our children and their children
And as each grave is filled
We will but ask our Chief to say
“Only a private killed.”

God Bless Private Louis Mitchell, and God Bless the fallen soldiers.

Related Posts
Was COVID a top cause of death for children?
Mortality Monday: How Young is "So Young to Die"?
Mortality Monday: How Many People Will Die in the U.S. in 2017?