Neither the soldiers nor their officers were prepared for the way technology had transformed warfare. The Civil War was the first major conflict in which the railroad transported troops and supplies and the first to see railroad junctions such as Atlanta and Petersburg become major military objectives. The famous sea battle between the Union vessel Monitor and the Confederate Merrimac in 1862 was the first demonstration of the superiority of ironclads over wooden ships, revolutionizing naval warfare. The war saw the use of the telegraph for military communication, the introduction of observation balloons to view enemy lines, and even primitive hand grenades and submarines.
Perhaps most important, a revolution in arms manufacturing had replaced the traditional musket, accurate at only a short range, with the more modern rifle, deadly at 600 yards or more because of its grooved (or “rifled”) barrel. This development changed the nature of combat, emphasizing the importance of heavy fortifications and elaborate trenches and giving those on the defensive—usually southern armies—a significant advantage over attacking forces. “My men,” said Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, “sometimes fail to drive the enemy from his position, but to hold one, never.” The war of rifle and trench produced the appalling casualty statistics of Civil War battles. The 620,000 who perished in the war represent the equivalent, in terms of today’s population, of more than 6 million men. These figures do not include the thousands of civilians who became victims of battles or who perished in disease-ridden camps for runaway slaves or in conflicts between Unionist and Confederate families that raged in parts of the South. The death toll in the Civil War nearly equals the total number of Americans who died in all the nation’s other wars, from the Revolution to the war in Iraq.
A surgeon’s kit used in the Civil War, containing amputation instruments, knives, and tourniquets. With medical knowledge and practices primitive at best, far more men died from wounds, infections, and disease than in battle.
Nor was either side ready for other aspects of modern warfare. Medical care remained primitive. “I believe the doctors kill more than they cure,” wrote an Alabama private in 1862. Diseases like measles, dysentery, malaria, and typhus swept through army camps, killing more men than did combat. The Civil War was the first war in which large numbers of Americans were captured by the enemy and held in dire conditions in military prisons. Some 50,000 men died in these prisons, victims of starvation and disease, including 13,000 Union soldiers at Andersonville, Georgia.
Everywhere in the world, war was becoming more destructive. The scale of Civil War bloodshed was unique in American history, but not in the nineteenth-century world. The Taiping Rebellion in China (1850-1864) resulted in 23 million deaths. The War of the Triple Alliance in South America (1864-1870), which pitted Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay against Paraguay, caused the death of half of Paraguay’s prewar population of around 525,000. Napoleon Ill’s military destruction of the Paris Commune in 1871 resulted in the death of more than 20,000 of his fellow countrymen in a single city.