It was so easy to talk war. The most intelligent and feeling people did so blithely. Even the philosopher-poet Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked, “Sometimes gunpowder smells good.”
One of the few people who understood what carnage was being invited was William T. Sherman. “You people of the South don’t know what you are doing,” he wrote to a Louisiana friend. “This country will be drenched in blood and God only knows how it will end. . . . You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The earliest casualties were like faint flashes of lightning on the horizon, as historian Bruce Catton described them. Two of the first Union soldiers to die were volunteers from the textile mill town of Lowell, Mass.: Luther C. Ladd, 17, and Addison O. Whitney, 21. They were slain just five days after the surrender of Fort Sumter, when angry secessionist mobs set upon the 6th Massachusetts Militia with bricks and gunshots as it tried to make its way through Baltimore to Washington in response to President Lincoln’s call for troops.
The town of Lowell was so stricken that its markets and workshops closed, and municipal bells tolled all day. In Boston, Gov. John Andrew paid tribute to their biers, canopied with flags, while a brigade band played a dirge.
These first deaths were labeled “murders” by the national press. So, too, was the death a month later of Elmer Ellsworth, an ambitious young colonel who was a personal friend and former law clerk of the president.
Still, the reality of war hadn’t fully struck the populace. Just three weeks later, the death of Maj. Theodore Winthrop was deemed such a shocking occurrence that hostilities were called to a halt to collect his pocket watch.
Winthrop fell in the first major battle of the war, at Big Bethel on June 10, shot in the chest leading a charge on a Confederate line after leaping on a log and waving his sword. He was an aide to Gen. Benjamin Butler as well as a connected intellectual, a descendent of Gov. John Winthrop and a Yalie making a name for himself as a writer for Harper’s Weekly. The entire Yale student body would attend his service.