The Personal Costs of Destructive War

This entry is part 18 of 21 in the series A Soldier's Life

NY State monument at AntietamWe all know the costs of destructive war in the abstract: up to 750,000 dead, millions wounded, homes and farms destroyed, a way of life forever changed. But what about the personal costs of destructive war?

During the course of the American Civil War the nation as a whole lost tens of thousands of potential leaders on the battlefield or in military hospitals. From general officers down to privates their loss would be felt throughout the growing nation for decades to come.

Leaders tend to lead from the front and the front is the most dangerous place on the battlefield. It stands to reason, therefore, that leaders suffered the most casualties and the facts bear this out.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was wounded six times in the service to the Union. On June 18, at Rives’ Salient, Chamberlain was shot through the right hip and groin, the bullet exiting his left hip. Despite the injury, Chamberlain withdrew his sword and stuck it into the ground in order to keep himself upright to dissuade the growing resolve for retreat.

He told his aide that he did not want his men to see him fall. He stood upright for several minutes until he collapsed and lay unconscious from loss of blood. The wound was considered mortal by the division’s surgeon, who predicted he would perish. Fortunately for Maine and the nation he survived and was elected to the governorship of Maine four times.

John Brown Gordon was wounded eight times in the service of the Confederacy. Yet, he survived to lead troops until the surrender at Appomattox Court House where he surrendered the Confederate infantry to Chamberlain who ordered his troops to salute their defeated foe. He returned to Georgia where he was elected to both the U.S. Senate and the governorship of Georgia.

But how many potential leaders did not come home? Isaac E. Avery was mortally wounded leading his brigade at Culp’s Hill during the Battle of Gettysburg. Unable to speak from his mortal wound and with his right hand useless from the paralysis, Avery with his left hand scribbled a simple note and gave it to Tate. It said: “Major, tell my father I died with my face to the enemy. I. E. Avery.” Colonel Avery was 34 at the time of his death.

Or Stephen Dodson Ramseur who was mortally wounded at Cedar Creek on October 20, 1864. The 27-year old Confederate major general died the next morning at Belle Grove, the Union headquarters, surrounded by his West Point classmates who all wore blue.

Then we have the classmates who manned artillery on either side: Maj. John Pelham and Capt. Alonzo Cushing. Pelham, the 24-year old Alabaman, was killed on March 17, 1863 near Culpeper, Virginia. His classmate died commanding his battery at the stone wall at Gettysburg while firing on George Pickett’s advancing waves. He was 22 at the time of his death.

We have the great cavalier, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart who was Lee’s ‘eyes and ears’ until his mortal wounding at the Battle of Yellow Tavern on May 11, 1864. Stuart died in Richmond the next day. He was 31 years of age.

Union Maj. Gen John Sedgwick was killed by a sharpshooter at Spotsylvania Court House after opining: They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance. The corps commander was killed instantly.

Union General John Buford who selected the ground on which the Battle of Gettysburg was fought died prematurely on December 16, 1863 possibly from typhoid. After his death at 37, this poem was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

No more to follow his daring form
Or see him dash through the battle’s storm
No more with him to ride down the foe
And behold his falchion’s crushing blow
Nor hear his voice, like a rushing blast
As rider and steed went charging past … Buford is dead!

For every Isaac Avery, J.E.B. Stuart or John Buford, there were thousands who’s lives were snuffed out in the holocaust of war. Every life is important. But lives must be weighed in the balance. Were they thrown away or did these men die for a reason? Each of us must make that decision on their own.
I remember seeing a monument at Antietam that had inscribed on it: To our brave sons who died here. It still gets an emotional response from me.
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