Incredible bravery of Civil War soldiers
During the Civil War, 625,000 Americans were killed, more than any other war, and nearly as many as all other wars combined. As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of that bloody conflict, we should remember the terrible price soldiers and families paid when Americans turned on one another.
The weapons of the Civil War were new and improved but the tactics ancient. Infantry commanders lined their men in ranks to concentrate firepower and marched the men in ranks to assault an enemy position. With musketry alone, the old tactics might have been effective, but with rifles and rifled artillery, the outdated tactics caused bloody carnage and the waste of thousands of lives.
Commanders on both sides failed to grasp the importance of improved weaponry.
At Fredericksburg, General Ambrose Burnside, anxious to prove himself an aggressive commander to President Abraham Lincoln, sent wave after wave of blue-clad troops against Confederate positions on Marye's Heights and Prospect Hill. Fourteen times the blue-clad troops charged forward, stepping over bodies of comrades who had gone before. Fourteen times, the rebels slaughtered the Union ranks with small arms and artillery fire. Burnside's ill-conceived attack resulted in more than 12,000 Union casualties.
At Gettysburg, General Robert E. Lee, who had witnessed the awful carnage of Union frontal assaults at Fredericksburg, wrongly thought his army invincible. Despite entreaties by corps commander General James Longstreet, Lee ordered 12,500 infantrymen to cross an open field and assault the Union position on a low ridge. More than half of the infantrymen that Lee sent forward would never fight again. 1,123 were killed outright, 4,019 wounded and 3,750 captured.
Most commanders on both sides did not grasp the futility of frontal assaults until near the end of the war. In 1864, the Confederates established a stronghold in the city of Petersburg, Virginia. Even Union commander General Ulysses S. Grant, who understood the Civil War was a war of attrition, was unwilling to suffer further ghastly losses with frontal assaults. Nine months of trench warfare ensued, during which the front line barely moved. Grant finally maneuvered around Lee's position, threatening rebel supply lines and forcing a Confederate withdrawal.
Despite the bloody carnage that resulted from improved weaponry and outdated tactics, American soldiers on both sides followed orders and marched ahead when ordered to attack. Often, an army would be routed and forced to retreat in disarray, but commanders were always able to reorganize and the vast majority of soldiers returned to the ranks. In 1864, during the darkest days of the Civil War, a remarkably high number of Union soldiers, who had volunteered in 1861, re-enlisted.
American soldiers fought with incredible courage during the Civil War. On Memorial Day, Americans honor all solders and sailors who never returned home from battle. Many will recall the awful price the United States paid when it failed to stay united.