• Weird History

The 14 Darkest Moments In The American Civil War

From 1861 to 1865, the Civil War battered American life and became one of the country's deadliest conflicts. Due to some of the country's bloodiest battles, civilian unrest, and fatal outbreaks, the Civil War was a theater for some of the darkest moments in American history.

The Civil War took the lives of more than 620,000 Union and Confederate soldiers. Some of them didn't survive high-stakes battles like Gettysburg or Antietam, while others perished from disease.

Not all of the Civil War's darkest moments happened on battlefields. The war came into everyday people's lives in unexpected and unwelcome ways, too, such as violent raids against civilians.

Though the Civil War was undeniably about slavery, African American soldiers and civilians alike suffered disproportionately during the conflict. Confederates targeted Black troops and freedpeople, and formerly enslaved refugees were often subject to the whims of a government that still didn't see them as free and equal human beings.

As a reckoning of America's soul, the Civil War was a violent crucible in which suffering happened on an epic scale.

  • Photo: Kurz & Allison / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Confederates Massacred African American Soldiers After The Union Army Surrendered At Fort Pillow

    In April 1864, Nathan Bedford Forrest - whose unabashed racism inspired him to become "the first grand wizard of the original Ku Klux Klan" after the war - wrested Tennessee's Fort Pillow from Union hands. It was the site of one of the darkest massacres of the war.

    Fort Pillow was manned by 500-some Black and white Union troops. The diversity of the guard in part may have made it an attractive target for Forrest.

    Forrest's troops took the fort with relative ease. But instead of accepting Union troops as prisoners, Confederate troops furiously slaughtered them, since they wanted to demonstrate how Black "soldiers cannot cope with Southerners."

    As one Confederate soldier recalled, Black soldiers:

    would run up to our men, fall upon their knees and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down.

    Of the Union casualties, 30% more Black soldiers were attacked than their white counterparts.

  • While On The Gettysburg Campaign, General Lee's Army Kidnapped African Americans To Sell Them Into Slavery In The South

    As General Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia pushed into Union-held Pennsylvania, his troops brought their pro-slavery beliefs with them. 

    Many enslaved African Americans - including some enslaved laborers who accompanied Lee's Army - had escaped to freedom in Pennsylvania. Consequently, the vast majority of Lee's troops, with their superiors' knowledge, abducted freedpeople and escaped slaves. The Confederates aimed to sell the kidnapped people in the South.

  • Many Union And Confederate Soldiers Burned Alive In Flaming Brush During The Battle Of The Wilderness

    Fought in a forest, the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864 descended into a horrific inferno. The shots and sparks of battle ignited small brush fires. As one Union soldier recounted:

    Suddenly, to the horror of the living, fire was seen creeping over the ground, fed by dead leaves which were thick. All who could move tried to get beyond the Pike, which the fire could not cross. Some were overtaken by the flames when they had crawled but a few feet, and some when they had almost reached the road. The ground, which had been strewn with dead and wounded, was in a few hours blackened, with no distinguishable figure upon it.

    Soldiers who had been wounded could not flee the all-consuming flames.

  • Photo: Unknown Author / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Officials Quickly Tried To Mitigate A Smallpox Outbreak Among Union Troops - But Initially Let The Disease Burn Through Formerly Enslaved People

    Illness posed a bigger threat to Civil War troops than enemy fire. Diseases accounted for an estimated two-thirds of all military deaths during the war.

    But diseases didn't only target soldiers and military personnel. They could spiral into outbreaks that impacted prisoners, camp followers, and even local communities.

    In 1862, a smallpox outbreak began in Washington, DC. As historian Jim Downs recounts, it disproportionately hit formerly enslaved people who lived in military-style camps, which didn't always provide them with ample food, shelter, or medical care:

    When smallpox first broke out in 1862, military and federal officials in the North followed health protocols to stop the spread of the virus among soldiers, but justified the outbreak among freedpeople as a 'natural outcome' of emancipation. The outbreak reinforced theories that newly freed Black people were on the verge of extinction, which provided little incentive for federal agents to try to stop its spread.

    More than 60,000 freedpeople across the country lost their lives in the smallpox epidemic.