The Butcher’s Bill: Casualty Creation in the American Civil War

By the 1860’s the mass armies of the industrial age had devised new ways to destroy human beings in large numbers and with alarming speed, but the most common casualties came from causes other than combat.  This article will address primarily the Union figures for the simple reason that they were better documented, even if the figures given here are still in dispute.  Numbers for the “housewives” attached to the regiments (three for every hundred privates) and the numerous camp followers uncertain at the best of times, are to this day unknown.  Since these essentially undocumented people (which included not only the expected ladies of negotiable virtue but also soldier’s wives and other family members and the numerous vendors from unlicensed sutlers to cutlers to embalmers, scriveners and laundresses) were uncounted at the time and the armies never seemed to care about them enough to document them, their casualties shall be forever unknown. However, it could be assumed that they were killed at similar rates and by similar causes, albeit with somewhat smaller numbers for combat.

The biggest single killer of soldiers on both sides by far was disease, killing over 149,000 (of 294,000 total fatalities) in the Union army alone.[1]  Throughout the conflict, the primary killer on both sides was diarrhea, which could dehydrate a victim to death in a day and a half.  Disease struck the armies in two separate waves, each with its distinct causality.  The first wave was primarily the diseases of exposure, which included modern childhood maladies such as measles, mumps, chicken pox, and whooping cough, mostly accompanied by pneumonia.[2]  These diseases started to appear at the initial camps of instruction as early as April 1861, where large populations of unrelated men first gathered together.  Those who were immune to these diseases, or had already been exposed, were sometimes carriers. This wave lasted until late in 1862.[3]

The second wave was more insidious, and actually caused more casualties over a longer period.  Beginning in the winter of 1862-63, most of maladies in this wave were known as “camp” or “prison” diseases, so called because they were common in dense populations with poor sanitation and food.  They included typhus, typhoid, yellow fever, tuberculosis and malaria.  The second wave also included nutritional deficiencies (which took some time to show up) including scurvy, which weakened the immune system, making the victims more susceptible to whatever opportunistic affliction came by.  Since the cause of most disease was still a mystery to medical science of the time, treatments (other than anti-ascorbics for scurvy and rickets, and the palliative care provided by various opiates) ranged in efficacy from harmless to deadly.  This second wave lasted until the end of the war.[4]

The second biggest casualty creator in the Civil War was desertion, which claimed over 190,000 in the Union.[5]  The Confederate figures for desertion are almost certainly higher, especially in the winter of 1864-65.  Men deserted for a number of reasons, and some even had to do with combat.  Simple fear was one reason, but privation, hunger, loneliness or needing to take care of loved ones at home were the most common.  There was also a large number (probably some 15% of the totals) of men who accepted a bounty in one unit, deserted, and joined another for another bounty.  These “bounty jumpers” were almost unique to the North, though they existed in small numbers in the South where substitutes could be purchased.[6]  In the winter of 1864-65, all of these and a certain sense of inevitable defeat drove many Confederates to just give up and go home.[7]

The third highest killer, combat, claimed just over 61,000 men in the Union army killed outright.[8]  Most combat casualties (about 51%) came from small-arms fire, and 40% from artillery (primary and secondary projectiles).[9]  Bayonets accounted for less than 100 casualties treated in the Army of the Potomac,[10] and cooking implements (a fry pan) for one known.[11]  Numbers for swords and other edged weapons are unknown.

As the war progressed the location of the wounds on the body moved upwards.  In 1861-2, most wounds from small arms and artillery were in the abdomen and chest.  By 1865, the predominance of wounds were in the head and shoulders.  This phenomenon is probably attributable to the development of entrenchments as the war went on.[12]

The fourth largest category of casualties was died of wounds, or sometimes of treatment.  Civil War medicine knew little of antiseptics, nothing of antibiotics, and practically nothing of sanitation. Though anesthesia was known not all practitioners were trained in its use, and supplies frequently ran out, especially on the Confederate side. A soldier brought to the surgeons for treatment was often better off (and usually survived longer) waiting for the surgeons to get to him.  Amputation was a common treatment for wounds in the extremities (infection and shattered bones being just two reasons why).  Severe wounds in the chest and abdomen were usually not treated at all.  The best that could be said about Civil War medicine was that they kept fairly good records, and were able to provide their successors with valuable insights into the development of medicine after the war.[13] “Died of wounds” is also one of the most aggravating cause of death in Civil War studies because there is and was no agreed-upon time limit for it.  Since it sometimes took decades for some wounds to finally be fatal, and some (not all) chroniclers faithfully adjusted numbers when it suited them, the casualty figures for some battles can vary widely from source to source, or from decade to decade.

Suicide accounted for just over three hundred Union soldiers, the most common being hanging.  There were just over a hundred homicides, often by gunshot or knife, but beatings were not unusual.  One hundred and twenty one Union soldiers were executed for crimes committed (rape and looting being the most common offenses); most of these were shot, a few were hanged.  The totals on the missing are elusive, as most of those “missing” may have been maimed beyond recognition in battle, or changed names and left the field (or not) or some other cause or another that could confound researchers for centuries.[14]

The remaining casualties fall under the heading of mysteries, though some are probably part of the other totals.  About 800 were killed by accident, but that number is almost certainly low (in July 1945, accidental casualties in the US services were about 1,400 a week), and some must have been homicides or suicides.  There are about 3,200 “unknown” causes, though many may have been natural causes of which Civil War doctors knew nothing.  But the usual ways for people to die—heart attacks, heat exhaustion—account for some 4,100 deaths, which also seems low.[15]

Making casualties in war is always a primary tool behind victory, but in the 19th Century just the threat of war forced mobilization and that was all that was needed to create a bulk of the casualties of the age.  Combat just added to the butcher’s bill.





[1]. Frederick. Phisterer, Statistical Record of the Armies of the United States (Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2002), 67.

[2]. Russell Frank. Weigley, A Great Civil War a Military and Political History, 1861–1865 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 135.

[3]. Ibid., 140.

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. Phisterer, op. cit., 69.

[6]. James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom : The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 210.

[7]. Ibid., 412; Weigley, A Great Civil War a Military and Political History, 1861–1865, 311.

[8]. Phisterer, op. cit., 67, 68.

[9]. Paddy. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War (Mansfield, England: Fieldbooks, 1986), 39.

[10]. Francis Alfred Lord, They Fought for the Union (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1960), 108.

[11]. Gordon C. Rhea, The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5–6, 1864 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994), 310.

[12]. Russell Frank. Weigley, History of the United States Army, Wars of the United States. (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 312.

[13]. Patricia L. (Editor) Faust, “Medicine,” in Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), 484.

[14]. Phisterer, op. cit., 68–70.

[15]. Phisterer, op. cit., 68–72.


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