The Civil War

The Civil War is often called the first modern war. For the first time, mass armies confronted each other wielding weapons created by the industrial revolution. The resulting casualties dwarfed anything in the American experience. More than 600,000 men died, the equivalent in today's population of 5 million.

In population and economic resources, the North far exceeded the South. Yet the Union's task also eclipsed that of the Confederacy. To win, the North had to conquer an area as large as Western Europe, subduing armies defending their own soil. Only after a string of defeats did Lincoln find generals able to bring the North's advantages to bear on the battlefield.

Within days of the firing on Fort Sumter, tens of thousands of volunteers heeded the call of the opposing sides. Later, as enthusiasm for enlistment waned, both sides resorted to the draft, with men able to escape military service if they paid a prescribed amount of money or furnished a substitute.

Each army was a cross section of its society. The Northern forces were mostly farm boys, artisans, and urban workers, supplemented after 1862 by 180,000 black soldiers and about 20,000 black sailors; the Southern army was made up of small farmers, with slaveholders dominating the officer corps. Few of these recruits had military experience or were ready for the monotony of life in camp - a constant round of digging ditches and incessant drilling only occasionally interrupted by fierce bursts of battlefield fighting.

Neither side was prepared for modern war. Medical care was primitive; far more men died of disease and inadequate treatment of wounds than in battle. Some 50,000 Americans perished in military prisons, victims of overcrowding and inadequate diet. Whatever later generations came to believe, there was no romance in the Civil War.

The First Modern War

Copyright 2002 The Chicago Historical Society
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