It was exactly 150 years ago today that Rebel batteries in Charleston, South Carolina, under Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard began their 34-hour shelling of Fort Sumter, starting the Civil War. And so today begins the great Civil War sesquicentennial, what promises to be a non-stop multiyear gluttonous cornucopia of nostalgia, merchandizing, and shameless political exploitation of easily the most interesting, dramatic, and genuinely important event in American history.
Here at Viral History, we certainly plan to add voice to the chorus. (How could we not? All three of my Gilded Age books, Boss Tweed, Dark Horse, and The Gold Ring, start with the War.) But before getting carried away in the merchandizing part, it’s worth remembering that the Civil War was also one of the deadliest, costliest, and most painful events in US history — accounting for more American deaths than any other War.
President Lincoln and the Union Army prevailed, ending slavery for four million people, saving the Union, giving the land a “new birth of freedom” as Lincoln called it in his Gettysburg address. Still, General Sherman put it best: “War is hell,” even what we kid ourselves into calling a “good war” like this one.
So I prefer to kick off this anniversary by thinking first of the fallen.
Of the 1,556,000 souls who served in the Union Army from 1861 through 1865-
110,070 died in battle;
250,152 died from disease or other non-combat causes; and
275,175 were wounded.
Of the 1,082,000 souls who served in the Confederate Army from 1861 through 1865–
94,000 died in battle;
164,000 died from disease, etc.; and
100,000 were estimated as wounded.
That made total deaths of 618,222 and total wounded of 375,000, this at a time when the entire US population was barely 31 million.
There is no reliable count of civilians killed in the War, but any attempt to add them up quickly reaches into the tens of thousands.
The financial cost of the War, including both government outlays and property destruction, is estimated at about $7 billion (1860s dollars), or some $200 billion in modern money.
Add to this the hundreds of thousands of women made widows, children made orphans, men made armless or legless, towns laid waste, lives disrupted, families split, and the oceans of pain from wartime surgeries and separations. The generation of Americans who fought the Civil War and then produced the great post-war industrial boom truly paid a heavier price for their patriotism than any other.
Here’s to them all. Now let the re-enactments and the merchandizing begin….