Arlington National Cemetery (Robert E. Lee’s antebellum home)
Royalty-free photo courtesy of Corbis
I noted in the York Daily Record recently that the death toll in Iraq has reached 4,000 U.S. soldiers. I am not here to make any political comments on the current situation, but, as an amateur historian, I want to point out some sobering statistics from the Civil War, which some called “the late unpleasantness,” perhaps the biggest understatement in history.
Nearly 3 million Americans took up arms during the Civil War, and some 620,000 of them died (with disease killing twice as many as bullets). Considering how small the population of the country was between 1861-1865, that tragic number grows in magnitude when you consider that 620,000 is equivalent to more than 6 million men lost today. SIX MILLION in roughly five years!
In the South, one in every five soldiers did not return home — a staggering 20% of the national army was counted as fatalities, not including those men wounded, captured, or missing. In some counties in Dixie, more than 50% of the male population under the age of 30 were casualties.
Multiple losses were common in tens of thousands of families that had to bury more than one member as a result of the war.
I grew up in Ohio, a state like Pennsylvania that suffered some staggering losses in the war. Two Carrollton brothers named McCook went off to fight the Rebels, and took between them 13 sons into combat in various forms. Almost half of the clan became generals, and several family members were killed in action (a full third of the 15 men). Never in American history has one family produced so many generals in one generation. Known as the “Fighting McCooks,” the family has now long since been forgotten by the modern public, but in their time, they were national celebrities.
The Civil War certainly changed the face of America forever, and its impact personally touched nearly every American. Few people did not personally know someone who died as a result of the war, and some communities never recovered from the loss of young men.
Truly, as one historian has deemed it, the Civil War was the “ultimate American tragedy.”