For some reason death hardly occurred to the acrid-breathed proponents of war until a bullet actually hit them, or someone they knew. At which point they realized what a crude lead ball, fired at 950 feet per second from the muzzle of a Springfield, could do. Survivors explained the sensation as being hit by a club, followed by scalding water. But of course it was far worse than that. As the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow described the trajectory of a Civil War gunshot, it could soar over the warm fields of the South and icy streams of the North and strike a woman in Boston squarely in the heart.
At first, to so many on both sides in the spring and summer of 1861, the idea of casualties was impersonal and abstract. The South Carolina senator James Chesnut promised to drink all the blood spilled as a result of secession. In Mississippi a young lawyer named William Nugent, a limpid-eyed sort who kept a violin in his saddlebag, wrote to his wife, “I feel that I would like to shoot a Yankee,” as if he were discussing quail.
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.
Winthrop’s family was stupefied by his demise. “So full of vitality that when the telegram came — Missing — it seemed incredible; it seemed impossible in those living, glowing June days,” wrote his sister Laura. His parents pleaded for the return of his body as well as his watch, which had been stripped by a Rebel soldier as a souvenir.
Confederate Gen. D.H. Hill courteously complied, allowing the corpse to be collected under a flag of truce. He mailed the timepiece back to Butler with a note. “I have the honor herewith to send the watch of young Winthrop, who fell while gallantly leading a party in the vain attempt to subjugate a free people.”
The delusion that there could be war without wholesale destruction was finally cured at First Manassas on July 21, 1861, with combined casualties of 900 killed and 2,700 wounded. Chesnut’s wife, Mary, was ill in bed in Richmond and awaiting word of her husband’s fate when Jefferson Davis’s wife stepped into the room to tell her the news.
“Mrs. Davis came in so softly that I did not know she was here until she leaned over me and said: ‘A great battle has been fought. . . . Your husband is all right. Wade Hampton is wounded. Colonel Johnston of the Legion killed; so are Colonel Bee and Colonel Bartow. Kirby Smith is wounded or killed. . . .’
“She went on in that desperate, calm way, to which people betake themselves under the greatest excitement . . . to read from a paper she held in her hand: ‘Dead and dying cover the field.’ ”
Francis Bartow was a favorite son of Savannah, a lawyer who personally led Georgia to secession and helped select the Confederacy’s military uniforms. He died from a bullet in the chest, after supposedly saying, “They have killed me, but, boys, never give up.” The Confederate Congress adjourned its session in “unfettered sorrow” when it heard of his death.
In Richmond, the Chesnuts attended Bartow’s funeral with a terrible sense of foreboding. “As that march came wailing up, they say Mrs. Bartow fainted,” she wrote in her journal. “The empty saddle and the led war-horse — we saw and heard it all, and now it seems we are never out of the sound of the Dead March in Saul. It comes and it comes, until I feel inclined to close my ears and scream.”
At Forts Moultrie and Sumter, 21-gun salutes were fired, hourly, from 6.a.m. to sunset, in honor of Barnard Bee, a distinguished career military officer from Charleston killed by grapeshot in the stomach. City hall was draped with funeral crepe, which made the statue of John C. Calhoun gleam unnaturally white. Dragoons escorted the bodies of Bee and two other Charleston casualties through crowds so immense that the military units could hardly turn the street corners.
Northerner Jacob William Schuckers wrote of the psychological effect of the battle: “Though the fall of Sumter had been followed by a great uprising of the Northern people, and the determination to suppress the rebellion was universal and sincere, yet there was really no serious apprehension of a prolonged and calamitous war. The shooting of Col. Ellsworth at Alexandria curiously illustrated the prevailing general incredulity. The news excited in the North an astonishment and indignation so wide-spread and profound as to indicate clearly enough how remote from the popular mind the tremendous reality of the impending conflict was. The battle of Bull Run put an end to delusion.”
After Bull Run, there was an awful sense of acceleration. Hardly a person would be untouched by the war in some way. Today, our volunteer armed forces come from less than 1 percent of the population. Back then, everyone knew someone who died in battle or succumbed to the other great killer, disease, which felled twice as many men as combat. Connecticut sent more than half its eligible males into the Union Army. An estimated 50,000 to 60,000 South Carolinians fought, and at least 13,000 died of wounds. Nor was it strictly a poor man’s fight. The 2nd Massachusetts comprised mostly college boys. Of its 16 officers lost in battle, 13 were from Harvard.
There would be no more pausing to return a pocket watch. Just flashing scenes of destruction:
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a 19-year-old Harvard dropout, awakening from a wounded stupor after the battle of Ball’s Bluff to hear a doctor murmur, “He was a beautiful boy,” and realize his friend in the next bed was dead.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., the facile essayist transformed into a frantic father as he hunted the gory fields of Antietam by wagon, looking for his son like “a precious pearl.”
Wilky James, younger brother of author Henry James, wailing on a stretcher not just from his wounds but from the loss of friends, after being brought home from Fort Wagner by a stricken Cabot Russell, a neighbor who had failed to find “his own irrecoverable boy” on the field, and so had “merged the parental ache in the next nearest devotion he could find.”
The mounting grief in Charleston, where society was so closely intertwined that a diarist named Emma Holmes wrote in her journal: “Every paper contains the intelligence of the death of someone we know or feel interested in. . . . The roll of death is fearful — the cruel monster is insatiable.”
A similarly agonized minister in Boston, presiding over the coffin of Charles Russell Lowell, husband of Robert Gould Shaw’s sister Josephine, and asking the congregation, “Is it too much?”
Longfellow, hunched by the bed of his son Charley, who had run off to war without permission and been wounded, nursing him at Christmastime, and conceiving a poem:
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South
And with the sound
The carols drowned
The first casualties taught civilians the grievous difference between the idea of war and the actuality of it. But there remained one psychological impasse. Much as people at home felt the war, they couldn’t know the horror of fighting it. Only the participants could know what it was to wield bayonets like pitchforks, to feel a boot slip on a dead man’s body, and to fight so furiously past nightfall that the gun bursts seemed to bleach the dark.
Henry James didn’t serve in the war; he only observed intensely two valiant younger brothers who did and came home shattered veterans. It was James who best expressed the gap that no anniversary or commemorative can bridge. Those who fought the war demanded by others, he wrote, stand, “facing us out, quite blandly ignoring us, looking through us or straight over us at something they partake of together but that we mayn’t pretend to know.”
Sources: “This Republic of Suffering” by Drew Gilpin Faust, “The Metaphysical Club” by Louis Menand, “The Coming Fury” by Bruce Catton, “Battle Cry of Freedom” by James McPherson, “Notes of a Son and Brother” by Henry James, “Touched with Fire: (Civil War Letters and Diary of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.),” “The Diary of Miss Emma Holmes,” “Mary Chesnut’s Civil War” and “The Life and Public Services of Salmon Portland Chase” by Jacob William Schuckers, as well as contemporary articles in Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated.