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Untold Casualties: The Unsung Civil War Victims

Updated: Oct 31, 2022


Casualty: a person who is injured, lost, or destroyed (1). A synonym for casualty is victim (1). Too often, historians (myself included) are guilty of viewing the Civil War's casualties as the dead of the conflict only, instead of including the soldiers who survived the war or the women and children who weren't bearing arms. Frequently, historians study the reconstruction of our country after the conflict, neglecting a comprehensive view of the reconstruction and reshaping of soldiers' lives when the conflict closed, as their worlds had been shattered due to dismemberment or mental disorders. Viewing primary documentation, there is ample evidence to illustrate the effects of the Civil War were far-reaching and had repercussions that well surpassed the conflict's close. So join me as we examine the untold casualties of the Civil War.

 

Prior to the Civil War, many soldiers had not ventured far from home. This indicates that they were rarely away from their families, except perhaps when they were working in their occupations. The Civil War, of course, changed that. Now with men miles away in camp or combat, women—particularly females in the "West," where areas were rural—faced the daily toils of life alone. Certainly, this was an added hardship, as women were not only tasked with planting enough food to sustain their families, but they also had to keep up with the rigors of housework and tending to children. Besides their regular concerns of having enough food on the table and rearing offspring, women had the added stress of worrying for their husband.


Mildred Fox, whose husband Joseph was a captain in the 11th Kentucky Infantry, illustrates the turmoil these ladies faced. In a November 1861 letter, she addressed her missive from her "Home of Sadness" (2). In another letter, Fox wrote to her husband, "I will close for fear of wearying you. Come home soon as you can, I am so anxious to see you" (2). From the large archive of Fox correspondences, it is apparent that Mildred Fox was often anxious and depressed because of her husband's departure. Repeatedly, she implores her husband to "please come home" (2). While Fox's husband survived the Civil War—even after facing dangerous combat—the emotional toll of the war on those left behind on the homefront is apparent.


Not all women were as lucky as Mildred Fox. For many females who worried for their husband's safety, their worst fears were realized—their husband was killed, either by the enemy's shot and shell or rampant disease. Of course, these ladies were melancholic because of their husband's death. However, from a financial standpoint, they lost more than their husband; many women lost their main source of income.


When viewing Civil War widows' pensions, it's clear that most women began filing for these monetary allowances almost immediately after their husband's death. In fact, many women began the application process while the Civil War was in full swing, drawing on active duty soldiers to attest to their husband's service. While these widows were often able to secure some income from a pension, in most cases it was barely enough to keep their families afloat. My grandmother, Nancy Jane Meeks Skipworth, was allotted $8 per month after my grandfather died in the war. This sum equates to about $150 by today's standards, and she had to care for a large family on that pension amount.


Many women who became widows during the Civil War married shortly after the conflict ended, frequently to other veterans. My grandmother, Sarah Farris Harris, widowed because of the war, married just after the war's close to a Civil War veteran of the 17th Kentucky Cavalry, likely because she was unable to support her young family alone. Because widows of the Civil War were often desperate and in need of the means to rear their families, it is not unlikely that they married for money, if not for love.


All the way up to 2017, widows of the conflict still felt the war's effect. In 1936, Helen Viola Jackson, a teenager, married James Bolin, an aged Civil War veteran in his 90s. The union was unconventional and in name only, a way for Jackson to earn some money from Bolin's pension after his death. However, the marriage was kept secret, and after Bolin's passing his daughter threatened to tell all should Jackson receive the pension. Her entire life, Jackson kept her brief union a secret for fear of what others would think of her. It wasn't until 2017 that she opened up to her pastor. While the town embraced and celebrated Jackson, the long-held secret—a by-product of the Civil War—impacted her entire life up to that point. In fact, she refused to date or marry for fear that someone would discover her secret marriage. (Learn more about Jackson here.)


As such, strong evidence shows that Victorian Era females were victims of the Civil War as well, just for different reasons than many of their male counterparts. They still struggled to feed their families, secure affordable housing, and find jobs in a male-dominated society, but were often forced to marry due to a lack of other options.

 

Thousands of children were affected by the Civil War, as they lost their fathers in the conflict. Watching their mother struggle, both emotionally and financially, would have been an added burden on the hearts of children who were old enough to recognize the loss, but not quite of age to secure a steady income via a job. However, while many children were left reeling from the passing of their father, some children of the Civil War faced additional burdens. Children who lost both their father (in the war) and their mother (of some other cause) were often left with no one to turn to.


While family members—perhaps aunts, uncles, grandparents—were frequently able to help, the large number of orphanages, designed just for young victims of the Civil War, attests that this wasn't always the case. Children in these orphanages were often cared for on the physical level (and I'm not diminishing the fact that many staff members invested years of their life into caring for these young people), but no matter how loving a staff these orphanages frequently had stricter regimes than a family's house. Thus, these children were growing up in an environment that was likely more callous.


In fact, the Ohio Soldiers' and Sailors' Orphans' Home had large "cottages," buildings that could house up to thirty-four youths (3). The boys were expected to tend to the farm, while girls often did the housework of caring for the buildings, laundering, or cooking (3). By 1874, however, the orphanage had become almost like a post-secondary education institution. Children were taught the arts of tinning, blacksmithing, dressmaking, knitting, and more (3). While these instructions could be useful, and likely helped young people attain employment after leaving the orphanage, it nevertheless diminished the more carefree childhood that these young children might have experienced without the Civil War's toll on their family situation. Further, communicable diseases were common and could spread rapidly, all because of close living quarters and cleanliness habits that were subpar (3).


William "Billy" Sunday, one of the greatest evangelists of the late 19th and early 20th century, was certainly not immune to the effects of the Civil War. His story, though sad, is one that would be echoed throughout the annals of America's heritage following the conflict. Born in 1862, Sunday did not recall his father who died early in the war. His mother remarried not long after, but the marriage ended in a divorce (4). Sunday's mother remarried for a third time, but her new husband did not have the means to support the family. Therefore, Sunday's mother sent him and his older brother away to an Iowa orphanage. Sunday's time in the orphanage was far from a positive experience. The young boy often slept late, but while small infractions might be overlooked or lovingly corrected at home, such behaviors at the orphanage were not tolerated. Unsurprisingly, while it was at the orphanage that Sunday discovered his knack for running—a skill that put him on track to become a famed baseball star—he left the organization at his first feasible opportunity.


No matter how one views these Civil War-era orphanages, evidence shows that not all youth's experiences at these homes were positive ones. It is also worth noting that even for children who did not abhor their time in the orphanages, the effects of the Civil War were strong. Because of the conflict's high casualty rate, children all across America would grow up without the instruction of a father, a loss that likely resulted in emotional and mental anguish. Looking ahead into the future, countless other children would never know their grandfather, a cycle of sadness that reverberated across the nation.

 

Besides producing thousands of casualties, the Civil War created numerous veterans. Though they survived the war, veterans of the conflict suffered immensely, whether they were amputees, combating chronic illnesses from their time in service, or struggling with post traumatic stress disorder. Veterans were quick to create veteran societies, like the Grand Army of the Republic, which helps attest that these veterans craved interactions with their old comrades, likely so they could join with people who shared some of their same experiences. Understandably, arriving back home with friends and family after so many years apart would have been difficult, as they probably spared their family orations on the gory nature of battle, or at least did not feel open to sharing every detail about their time in service.


Life's difficulties for veterans was furthered for combatants who had lost their limbs. During the Civil War, rudimentary medicine often meant the only option for severe wounds was an amputation, even though such operations were often risky and could result in death. Civil War amputees included those who lost their arms, legs, and even fingers. For those who lost their legs, a viable option was a prosthetic. While prosthetics did allow veterans with leg amputations to walk again—with practice—combatants who lost their arms had no such solution (4). The only option was to use a metal hook in place of the arm, but understandably most veterans opted to have an empty shirt sleeve instead (4).


Amputees certainly had to undergo physical challenges, as their occupations following the war could be more limited. However, the mental difficulties that amputees had to undergo might have outweighed the physical ones. In the Victorian Era, women were not as likely to marry someone who they deemed as "crippled" or "damaged" due to loss of a limb. Besides women, society as a whole was not as likely to embrace amputees, as they might have "moral degeneration," with their loss of limb essentially being their "comeuppance" (4). Therefore, amputees had to overcome preconceived notions about them simply because they were absent a limb. Of course, once again leg amputees fared better because their amputation was more conspicuous, while arm amputees had no viable solution to hide their wounds (4). Amputee Napoleon Perkins, probably speaking for thousands of veterans, wrote in his memoir, "My crippled condition I felt very keenly, and as for that matter, I never entirely got past that feeling" (4).


Besides amputees, those suffering from illnesses were also victims of the war. Historians often mention that disease killed more than combat, and the effects of chronic diseases can be viewed years after the conflict ended. I analyzed three 1890 Veterans' Schedules, with one from Tennessee (Confederate state), one from Kentucky (border state), and one from Ohio (Union state). While around 15 veterans were enumerated for each particular document I viewed, many of the veterans had disabilities they incurred in the war. The Tennessee veterans suffered from Rheumatism, "Measles and its sequence," a gunshot wound, chronic diarrhea, and a hernia. For one veteran, the disability simply noted, "In Belle Isle and Andersonville 13 months." The fact that no disability is mentioned other than the name of these prisons is quite telling as to the conditions prisoners faced. For Tennessee veterans on this particular document, it's plain that diseases and other physical debilitations were more numerous than combat-related injuries.


For Kentucky veterans, some of the diseases they incurred while in service were "Disease of Eyes," "Lung disease and Throat," "Nervous Palsy," and a gunshot wound to left leg. Once again, diseases were more likely to affect the "average" veteran than battle-incurred wounds. The Ohioans listed in one document of the 1890 Veterans' Schedule suffered from Rheumatism, disease of the liver, heart and kidney disease, and deafness. One veteran lost his right leg, but also suffered from chronic diarrhea. While some veterans listed in the schedule might have developed these diseases naturally, for most individuals the diseases they contracted in service had either lasting health effects or were so negative that their overall health was still impacted years later.


While amputees and those suffering from chronic diseases were certainly victims of the war, so too were those who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety as a result of the conflict. Certainly, the majority of Civil War soldiers went on to have productive post-war lives and careers after the Civil War ended, with many becoming civic leaders on the local or national level. However, sufferers of PTSD—a disease that would not be recognized until the late 20th century—were essentially stuck in the war or a prison camp, at least in the confines of their minds. Admitted to insane asylums, these Civil War soldiers might fear their long-healed wounds were bleeding, hear Rebel bombardments, or believe they were again foraging for food in prison camps like Andersonville (5). For those who have no records in insane asylums, they might have been sufferers of PTSD at their own homes. Some symptoms for Civil War veterans included "flashbacks, panic attacks, insomnia and suicidal thoughts," with several veterans acting on those ideas and taking their own lives (5).


Unfortunately, because men of the 19th century were expected to have a high level of courage, veterans who displayed PTSD symptoms were misunderstood. Even today, historians often have difficulty grasping the breadth of mental illnesses caused by the war. When viewing primary sources that describe the pure carnage of battle, it should be unsurprising that some soldiers suffered from adverse reactions. Combatants marched in long columns as shot and shell whizzed by, and it wasn't unlikely to watch their friends or family members get mowed down. Mutilated bodies scattered the battlefields, some crying for help and receiving relief only through death. Zadock Duncan, member of the 34th Tennessee Infantry, was injured at the Battle of Stones River while helping a comrade. He was holding the head of his friend who'd been struck in his head by a shell. While Duncan does not give graphic detail about holding his dying friend, blood would have been streaming from the wound, and the screams of others who were injured would have melded with the general roar of battle. While crouching down to comfort his friend, Duncan was struck on the coat collar by a cannon ball, which broke his skin slightly. Through primary accounts like Duncan's, it is no surprise that PTSD was present, as soldiers realized that safety was elusive while danger and death lurked in every corner (6).


Depression was also prominent during the Civil War and after. During the 19th century, words like "blue," "melancholic," or "sad" might be used in lieu of "depressed," however. Writing from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Union soldier John McCabe told his wife he had experienced the "blues" for several days (6). While McCabe was finally able to regain "better spirits," not all soldiers were capable of doing so. Likewise, anxiety could affect veterans, even years after the conflict ended. A letter from my cousin Samuel Skipworth (48th KY Infantry) to my grandfather Ross Skipworth details that Samuel had been suffering from anxiety as late as 1923. He wrote he had "...a Nervous Breakdown. I had to have the Dr. every day for 3 weeks. It is 9 weeks today since I have been so confined to my bed" (7). These breakdowns were so bad that Samuel wasn't able to sit up for longer than 1 1/2 hours, and it would be months until he was able to move about his yard. (7).


Through these examples, it is apparent that Civil War combatants were victims of the war, much like those who perished in the conflict. While these veterans survived, the physical and mental repercussions were far-reaching. Many Civil War soldiers were haunted by their wartime experiences well past 1865, with thousands being affected by the war well into their old age.

 

It is impossible to understand military history without first understanding the social aspects of the Civil War—the untold "casualties" who felt the war's effect long after the final roll call. While it can be difficult to view the negative aspects of the war, it also connects the past to the present by showing that bravery has many forms. In the end, courageous 19th century people were still human, just like us. Although women, children, and veterans were all sufferers of the conflict, they were often so silent in their miseries that they have faded into history's annals. It is our calling to remember their stories so we may reflect on all components of Civil War history.

 

Bibliography

(1). "Casualty." Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/casualty

(2). Mildred Fox Letters, Barry Duvall Collection.

(3). "Ohio Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphans’ Home (1870 - 1997)." Ohio Civil War Central, https://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1054#:~:text=In%201869%2C%20the%20Grand%20Army%20of%20the%20Republic,their%20father%20died%20during%20the%20American%20Civil%20War.

(4). "After the Amputation." National Museum of Civil War Medicine, https://www.civilwarmed.org/prosthetics/

(5). "Did Civil War Soldiers Have PTSD?" Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/ptsd-civil-wars-hidden-legacy-180953652/

(6). Zadock Duncan Document, National Park Service.

(7). Letter from Samuel W. Skipworth to Ross Skipworth, Denison, Texas, April 21, 1923. Kassidy Cobb's Personal Collection.

 

About the Author: Kassidy Cobb graduated with her Associate in Arts degree in December 2021 and is a college junior currently pursuing a Bachelors of Science in History from Liberty University. She's also minoring in creative writing. Her efforts to preserve the past have been recognized by Congress, DAR, SAR, SUVCW, DUVCW, and more. Kassidy first became obsessed with history in eighth grade through a unit on the American Civil War. She began researching her family's heritage and discovered that she is a direct descendant of eleven Civil War veterans, ranging from an "excellent soldier" and Andersonville Prisoner of War to a "patriotic Kentuckian" and United States Colored Troops soldier. Kassidy is passionate about sharing the stories of United States veterans, specifically those who fought in the Civil War. One of the ways she does this is by obtaining grave markers for veterans. When Kassidy isn't busy giving historical presentations, placing signs at cemeteries, volunteer transcribing for NPS, or researching her family's past, you'll find her antique collecting, studying her Bible, reading, exercising, and enjoying nature on her family's farm where pets outnumber people.

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