The Civil War Connections Blog

Protecting History

As I approach graduation, I seem to be continuously fielding questions about my major in undergrad, and my career goals. Usually when I say that I’ve studied history and wish to work in museums, I get the glazed eyes and the confused, “why?” which usually sounds more like “why on Earth would you want to do that?” So today I have a little story about what makes me want to work in museums with dusty books and artifacts. Earlier today a coworker and I were talking about how it’s hard for us to watch historical movies sometimes because we are so familiar with the material history that goes along with it. For example, we were discussing the movie “Titanic.” Both of us said that we had seen it once and would never see it again, because here at The Mariners’ Museum there is a life jacket that is thought to have been from the Titanic. It was found by a mortician, who supposedly took it off of the body of a passenger who had perished in the wreck. Somehow after knowing this, and seeing this life jacket in person, it’s not as easy to watch Rose let Jack freeze to death in the water (because lets be real, he totally could have fit on that door too). I think it’s easy for many people to skim over history and the sorrow in it, because many people don’t connect with something that is written in a history book. Specifically, when discussing the Civil War, I think it’s easy for people to forget that it was the bloodiest war on American soil.

About 620,000 people died (from both disease and injuries sustained in battle), making up 2% of the population in 1860. If 2% of our population today died, it would be equivalent to about 6.14 million people. To add a mental visual for you, this would be about the same as destroy Chicago twice, and then some. For just a little bit more perspective, about 3 million people total died during the Vietnam War about a hundred years later, and about 58,000 Americans were killed in Vietnam. Similarly, about 6 million Jews were killed in the concentration camps during World War II. During the Civil War, about one in four soldiers died, and almost two thirds of those were due to disease and not necessarily injury.

 

Antietam, Maryland. A lone grave. Photo by Alexander Gardnery, courtesy of the Library of Congress online.

Antietam, Maryland. A lone grave. Photo by Alexander Gardnery, courtesy of the Library of Congress online.

 

The five bloodiest battles (listed here in order of deadliest), were Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Court House and The Wilderness. At Gettysburg, from July 1st through the 3rd, of 1863 about 51,000 men in total were killed, wounded or went missing. About 28,000 of those men were Confederate soldiers, while the other 23,000 were Union soldiers. Confederate General Robert E. Lee lost about one third of his total army at Gettysburg. Chickamauga was the bloodiest battle of the Western Theater, claiming about 34,600 men from September 18, 1863 to September 20th. Interestingly enough, the name Chickamauga is a Native American word for the “river of death,” which is an appropriate name for the location of such a bloody battle. Both Chancellorsville and the battle of Spotsylvania Court House claimed about 30,000 casualties both, with Chancellorsville going from April 30th to May 6th, 1863, and the Spotsylvania stretching from May 8th through the 21st of 1864. The Battle of the Wilderness claimed about 29,800 casualties, and took place right before Spotsylvania, from May 5th through the 7th. The Wilderness was part of Grant’s Overland Campaign, which was the bloodiest campaign in American history, claiming about 60,000 lives – which again is more than the total number of Americans killed in Vietnam. Between these five battles, there were about 176,400 casualties. And not just any casualties – but Americans killing Americans.

 

Gettysburg, Pa. Dead Confederate soldiers in "the devil's den." Photo by Alexander Gardner, courtesy of the Library of Congress online.

Gettysburg, Pa. Dead Confederate soldiers in “the devil’s den.” Photo by Alexander Gardner, courtesy of the Library of Congress online.

 

Now, I know it’s not fair of me to talk about disconnecting from history and then throw a lot of statistics at you. But as a history major who visits battlefields, these numbers are what I think about when I’m at one of those battlefields. I don’t know how many people visit museums to see the actual artifacts, but I think it’s fascinating to look at things that were actually there when these events occurred. Whether it was a canteen from Gettysburg or a radio from Vietnam, these things are important because they are physical witnesses to some of the greatest conflicts in history. I think it’s easy to disconnect from our history, and that history is so important to our nation and our national identity. After all, who are we without the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence? I think it’s important to protect the material history of our past, because without it, it’s so hard to define America and define our future.

 

For the website where I found all of the statistics in this blog post, click HERE.