I’ll tell you what I heard that day:
I heard the great guns far away,
Boom after boom. Their sullen sound
Shook all the shuddering air around,
And shook, ah me! my shrinking ear,
And downward shook the hanging tear
That, in despite of manhood’s pride,
Rolled o’er my face a scalding tide.
--George Henry Boker, “Upon the Hill Before Centreville, July 21, 1861”
At the outset of the Civil War, the Union seemed to have great advantages over the Confederacy. Generally, the Union possessed more troops, was better equipped, and had more modern weapons. Its economy boasted many more factories and produced more guns and supplies than the Confederacy's did. But Southern soldiers fought very hard and very well. Talented officers like Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson were forced to be more strategic to compensate for having fewer men and supplies, and for the first two years of the war, the Confederate armies in the East were very successful. In addition, Southern civilians cooperated with Confederate soldiers and cavalry to fight a guerrilla war against the invading Union armies. Union forces, in turn, began using “hard war” tactics in which they attacked farms, crops, and entire towns in an effort to undermine Southern resistance.
The American Civil War was by far the largest, bloodiest war ever in North America. Altogether, about three million soldiers fought in the war—some two million for the Union, and nearly a million for the Confederacy. Of these, approximately 752,000 died. Of the approximately 176,000 African Americans who served in the Union military, one in five died.
The loss of life was depicted in prints like Felix Octavius Carr Darley and John J. Cade’s The Dying Soldier—The Last Letter from Home. It may be surprising to learn that until the last year of the war more soldiers died of diseases (especially measles, smallpox, dysentery, and typhoid) than died on the battlefield. Many soldiers succumbed to germs and illnesses in camp and on the march that they had never been exposed to in their communities. The total of all military deaths was a staggering two percent of the country’s overall population; proportionately, such a toll in a modern American war would represent 7.5 million deaths.
The artworks in this section document and confront the scale of death, the nature of battle, camp life, and experiences of soldiers and others enlisted to help on the front lines. The essay also explores the role of artists and photographers in documenting the war, the impact of their images, and the ways in which they were disseminated to the larger public.