The Civil War was the bloodiest in US history: more Americans perished in five years than in all other conflicts combined. What was it like to fight? Soldiers faced new technology on the field, like rifle-muskets that could cut down dozens of men in a single volley. Military tactics didn't catch up with technology, men were ordered to line up and march toward gunfire, and even those who survived the field often succumbed to infected amputations or diseases.
New technology didn't simply shape life on the field; it affected how we understand the conflict. Rare photos that captured the horrors of clashes remind us that the battle between the Union and Confederacy was the first major US conflict fought after the invention of photography. Images spread across the country, capturing the devastating losses. Soldiers struggled to survive on meager rations, writing home about the terrible conditions they faced.
On July 1, 1863, the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate soldiers marched into the field "on a line as straight as a dress parade," according to General Alfred Iverson. "They nobly fought and [perished] without a man running to the rear. No greater gallantry and heroism has been displayed..."
But soldiers described the struggle in drastically different terms. They huddled in the mud as bullets flew, were "sprayed by the brains" of comrades shot around them, and perished in incredible numbers. One of Iverson's men described the moment when 79 of his fellow soldiers were slain in one volley: "Great God! When will this... stop?"
Both sides of the conflict struggled to supply soldiers with basic necessities. Union soldiers received rations of a pound of hardtack, or bread, plus either salted pork or fresh meat. The Confederacy started the clash with the same ration, but they had to reduce the amount of food in 1862.
General Robert E. Lee blamed the reduction on scarcity, saying, "Desertions to the enemy are becoming more frequent, and the men cannot continue healthy and vigorous if confined to this spare diet for any length of time."
By the end of the overall conflict, conditions had grown even worse for the Confederacy. Sergeant John Worsham said, "Nearly all equipment in the Army of Northern Virginia were articles captured from the Yankees... The very clothing that the men wore was mostly captured, for we were allowed to wear their pants, underclothing, and overcoats.”
In the first major skirmish, wounded soldiers waited days on the field for help. At the First Battle of Bull Run, fought on July 21, 1861, the Union did not yet have a military ambulance corps. Instead, civilians drove ambulances to the field and fled during active conflict. The civilian drivers sometimes abandoned their vehicles, but even those were taken by healthy soldiers to escape the skirmish.
After Bull Run, over 2,500 soldiers were wounded. Severely affected Union soldiers were lying on the field waiting for help. Many remained trapped for days, in part because the US Surgeon General waited until after the clash to order medical supplies.
The conflict was the bloodiest in American history, but soldiers were twice as likely to pass from disease than active duty. The Union suffered the loss of 44,000 lives from dysentery and diarrhea, the equivalent of 10 Gettysburg battles.
Union Private Theodore Gerrish wrote, “One of the most disastrous features of the gloomy situation was the terrible sickness of the soldiers... men were unused to the climate, the exposure, and the food, so that the whole experience was in direct contrast to their life at home.”
Infection was a major problem because doctors didn’t sterilize equipment. During the course of the conflict in its entirety, hospital workers performed amputations on 60,000 men; at least one in four perished from infection.