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Following its demoralizing defeat at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30 – May 6, 1863), the Army of the Potomac was left traumatized and undermanned. The number of casualties that it had experienced, including those killed in action, mortally wounded, wounded, missing in action or deserting since the start of the Civil War in 1861 had reached approximately 120,000 men. On May 31st, 1863, Orrin L. Gatchell wrote to his brother Charles C. Getchell, who lived in Anson, Maine, musing about the decimation of his Regiment and Brigade: “...the whole state [of Virginia] is one vast battlefield and burying ground…If there are enough of us left to form a corporals’ guard [a derisively small number of men] when our term of enlistment expires…But I will not look forward so far as that, for when I look back to the time when we [The Excelsior Brigade; see flag below] first set foot on the soil of Virginia [March, 1862, the Peninsula Campaign] and think of the number of men that we had in our brigade then and then look on the little band of us now left, I feel as though the chance of going home is rather small. When we landed on the peninsula a little more than a year ago, we numbered five thousand strong. In August following …at Alexandria [Virginia]…we numbered only fifteen hundred effective men. There we received some three or four hundred recruits. About one hundred and forty were put into our regiment [The 72nd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment], and now we (that is, our regiment) number about two hundred men.”

How do we put these numbers into perspective? During the Civil War, when Union military units were fully manned, each infantry regiment had 1,000 soldiers divided into 10 companies of 100 men each. The Excelsior Brigade consisted of 5 regiments, the 70th, 71st, 72nd, 73rd and the 74th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiments totaling 5,000 men, as Orrin noted above, at the onset of the Peninsula Campaign in March, 1862. Orrin’s 72nd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment as a unit of the Excelsior Brigade in the Army of the Potomac fought in a sequence of major battles including Williamsburg (May, 1862), Seven Days Battles (June, 1862), Malvern Hill (July, 1862), Second Manassas (August, 1862), Fredericksburg (December, 1862), and Chancellorsville (May, 1863). The total number of Union soldiers who fought in these battles was about 508,000 men, among whom there were about 60,000 casualties or a staggering 11.8 %. Assuming that the Excelsior Brigade was fully manned, their numbers, according to Orrin, were reduced from 5,000 to 1,500 soldiers, a 70% reduction, during the six months from March to August, 1862. Again, assuming that the 72nd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment was fully manned, their numbers were reduced from 1,000 soldiers to about 200 men, an 80% reduction, during the 15 months from March, 1862 through May, 1863. It is little wonder that Orrin “feel[s] as though the chance of going home is rather small.” How do Orrin’s numbers for his Regiment in the aftermath of 15 months of battle compare with the record of the 72nd Regiment’s casualties published by the New York State Military Museum based on data from 1912? Ninety-six officers and enlisted men or 9.6% were killed; 37 or 3.7% were mortally wounded, i.e., died from their wounds; 195 or 19.5% were wounded; and 147 or 14.7% were missing for a total of 438 casualties or 44% of the Regiment during 15 months.

Why the discrepancy between Orrin’s estimates and the published record? Compiling the numbers of casualties incurred during the Civil War has been approached in several ways over the years. One major issue was that exactly who was included in the casualty figures was not always precisely specified. Some casualty figures included not only those killed in action, mortally wounded, wounded, and missing in action, but also those taken prisoner or deserting, and some did not. For example, the statistics from 1912 cited above only included those killed, mortally wounded, wounded or missing in action and apparently did not include those who were taken prisoner, deserted, or died from disease. In a project to compile the statistics for a visual display at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, a casualty was defined as…someone killed or wounded in battle, death from disease, wounds, or accidents, and missing. The figures do NOT include prisoners, excluded wherever possible, since prisoners were often paroled or traded and could therefore fight and be counted again.” A more recent estimate of a higher probable number of total casualties for the Civil War that incorporated census data raised further issues that shed light on the difficulty of obtaining precise and accurate numbers. Regardless of the accuracy of the number of casualties or their inclusiveness, the numbers remain staggering, and in themselves provide a reason for why the Army of the Potomac was traumatized and undermanned by the end of May in 1863.

There were at least four additional factors that contributed to the Army’s demoralized spirit. First, neither the Union soldiers nor the Confederates expected the conflict to be prolonged beyond a few months following President Lincoln’s inauguration in March, 1862. Thus the country was ill-prepared to manage 60,000 casualties within 15 months. The trauma caused by so many deaths within a short period of time at the national, military and familial levels is described with heartfelt emotion in a recent book written by Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War , particularly in Chapter 1 entitled simply: DYING “To Lay Down My Life.” One need only read two of our previous blog posts (December 13, 2012, Fredericksburg: A brother's death among so many, and January 13, 2013, Fredericksburg: Two Brothers on the Battlefield, One Survived) and to perceive the trauma that the death of his brother Calvin Getchell in the Battle of Fredericksburg had on Orrin, who also fought at Fredericksburg and on Calvin’s family living in the rural community of Anson, Maine.

Second, large numbers of wounded soldiers and those suffering from diseases such as dysentery, diarrhea, and typhoid fever needed to be cared for in the remote, mostly rural battlefields away from their families and loved ones. Two organizations in the North quickly emerged to meet the pressing needs of these soldiers. The first was the United States Sanitary Commission, which organized thousands of patriotic women volunteers to care for the wounded, sick and traumatized soldiers. The second was the United States Christian Commission, which provided medical services along with social, recreational ,and religious support to soldiers following and between battles.

Third, following the military loss of about 60,000 men, how were regiments like Orrin’s 72nd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment described above, with a 44% casualty rate, to be fully manned? Rather than rely on volunteers from the socially and politically restive Northern states, the Union resorted to a military draft that was signed into law as The Enrollment Act (The Conscription Act) by President Lincoln on March 3, 1863. This was a widely unpopular law that was immediately protested by draft riots in New York City, Albany, Newark and among counties across the rural North. Conscription was circumvented by draft dodgers who hired substitutes, particularly the immigrant poor, and those who paid a commutation fee. In fact, of the approximately 250,000 men whose names were drawn by lottery, only about 15,000 or 6% actually served in the Union Army, with the remaining 235,000 paying the commutation fee of $300 each to provide an exemption from the draft, or hiring a substitute. The commutation fee generated about $75 million for the government and led to the popular rallying cry that the Civil War was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”

A fourth factor contributing to the undermanned state of the Army and reflecting demoralization among its soldiers was desertion from military duty. For example, General Joseph Hooker, the commander of the Army of the Potomac from January 1863 until the end of June 1863, estimated that “in 1863 …85,000 officers and men had deserted from the Army of the Potomac” for reasons that included abuse of sick leave, straggling, and concern for families back home, among many others. The large numbers of desertions compounded by the number of casualties and the inability to draft soldiers left the 72nd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment and the Excelsior Brigade seriously undermanned, traumatized and discouraged after the Battle of Chancellorsville as they approached the upcoming Gettysburg Campaign in June - July 1863.

Related Images

  • Casualties:  The 72nd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment

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