As I’ve been visiting battlefields and researching the American Civil War in Virginia, and reconciling that information with my own experiences in the military, it hit me what a massive and difficult endeavor fighting the Civil War actually was. At the height of the war in the Gettysburg Campaign, General Robert E. Lee commanded roughly 75,000 men in the Army of Northern Virginia. To put that into perspective, in 1860 Richmond, Virginia had a population of 37,910. How difficult is it to sustain an army the size of a city?
To sustain any army, it needs food, uniforms (shoes especially), guns and ammunition, access to clean water, sanitation, shelter from bad weather, and some kind of medical care. It’s estimated dysentery alone, brought on by poor sanitation, caused over 95,000 deaths in the Union and Confederate armies. 415,000 soldiers died from disease, accidents, drowning, heat stroke, suicide, murder, and execution, far exceeding battlefield deaths. Those are the soldiers that died–far more were simply incapacitated, bedridden, or unable to fight.
It’s incredible how long these large armies continued to fight without just completely deteriorating from attrition alone.
Beyond basics like food, clothing, shelter, and weapons, soldiers need to have a reason to continue fighting–they must believe in a cause, in eventual victory, and be willing to endure hardship and work together, especially in an army where regular pay is virtually nonexistent. This psychological measure of a soldier’s willingness to fight is called morale. Even the best fed and well-equipped army in the world will disintegrate if its morale is low enough.
In the summer of 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia was at the height of its power and prestige. Lee believed his army was invincible. His men loved him. Most were veterans. They had fought throughout 1862 and defeated every army the North sent at them. Even after the Battle of Gettysburg, Lee’s army remained bruised but more or less intact.
Reading about the Overland Campaign (May 4 – June 24, 1864) and subsequent Siege of Petersburg, what stood out to me was the slow attrition and collapse of Lee’s army as a fighting force. After the Battle of Gettysburg, it would never–and arguably could never–again take the strategic offensive. Lee’s hardened veterans slowly ebbed away–killed, wounded, or captured, only to be replaced by conscripts, young boys, and old men.
Compare these two firsthand accounts of soldiers reacting to Lee’s presence on the battlefield, the first from May 1864 and the second almost exactly ten months later, in February 1865.
Private Robert Campbell of the 5th Texas Infantry described this scene at the Battle of the Wilderness, May 6, 1864, when General Lee rallied the men of John Gregg’s 800-man Texas Brigade:
…never before in my lifetime or since, did I ever witness such a scene as was enacted when Lee pronounced these words, with the appealing look that he gave. A yell rent the air that must have been heard for miles around, and but few eyes in that old brigade of veterans and heroes of many a bloody field was undimmed by honest, heart-felt tears. Leonard Gee, a courier to Gen. Gregg, and riding by my side, with tears coursing down his cheeks and yells issuing from his throat exclaimed, “I would charge hell itself for that old man.”
In contrast, a veteran of Cooke’s Brigade, 27th North Carolina, described this scene at the Battle of Hatcher’s Run, February 5, 1865, during the Siege of Petersburg:
…some few of the new recruits who had recently joined our brigade, not exactly fancying the shot and shell which were flying around, thought the rear was a safer place, and suiting the action to the thought, “dusted.” Gen. Lee with several of his staff was seated on horseback in rear of our lines and in proximity to the battle, awaiting the issue, when observing these men crossing the works without their guns, in seeming alarm and haste, he rode toward them, endeavoring to halt and return them to their command, when one of the “dusters,” in grave alarm, raised his hands and voice in terror, exclaiming: “Great God, old man, get out of the way, you don’t know nothing,” continued his rapid flight too terrified to recognize or obey chieftain or orders.
The Overland Campaign inflicted a heavy toll on the Army of Northern Virginia. At the Battle of the Wilderness, Lee had 60–65,000 men at his command. By the time his army slinked into the trenches around Petersburg in mid-June, they could count 52,000, including 10,000 elderly, sick, or infirm men defending Richmond under Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. According to historian Alfred C. Young, the Army of Northern Virginia lost 4,352 killed, 19,130 wounded, and 10,164 captured or missing in the Overland Campaign, for a total of 33,646. Over half Lee’s army were casualties in one month of fighting.
Those casualties don’t even include the thousands who succumbed to disease and injury, or simply couldn’t take it anymore and deserted. Even factoring in wounded and parolees returned to the ranks, the Army of Northern Virginia that settled into the Petersburg trenches was simply not the same army that fought at the Battle of the Wilderness. At the start of the Appomattox Campaign, the final campaign of the war, Lee’s army still technically had 40–45,000 men under arms, just shy of its strength at the Battle of Second Manassas (a complete Southern victory) in August 1862. But by April 9, 1865, the Army of Northern Virginia ceased to be an effective fighting force, with only 28,231 remaining to surrender.