Soldiers in the American Civil War [1861 CE – 1865 CE] had many ways to die, including combat, disease, abuse as prisoners of war, and lethal medical practices.
Some 625,000 to 850,000 did so. Both Union and Confederate regiments suffered crippling losses that are almost inconceivable by modern standards. The Federal Army of the Potomac is rightfully notorious for the number of deaths in its ranks.
The Iron Brigade, made up of troops from Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota is usually cited as suffering the highest casualty rate of any brigade during the war.
The 1st Minnesota’s loss of some 200 out of 262 men on July 2 1863 at Gettysburg is often mentioned. Their heroism in a knowingly suicidal attack against a Confederate charge outnumbering them by more than 5 to 1 is remarkable by any standard. Through its sacrifice the 1st Minnesota saved the Union position on Cemetery Ridge.
Similarly heavy losses were suffered for no discernible gain by the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment which was ordered against all reason to charge across an open field towards well defended Confederate lines during the siege of Petersburg on June 18, 1864. The unit lost more men in a single day than any other regiment in the Union army, by some counts 632 of its 900 men.
Counts differ. Warren Wilkinson set a new standard for comprehensiveness and accuracy in his regimental history of the 57th Massachusetts Veteran Volunteers, entitled Mother May You Never See the Sights I Have Seen . The 57th Massachusetts lost more men faster over the course of its service, which was limited to the last year of the war [1864 – 1865], than any other regiment in the Federal army.
Wilkinson’s careful analysis of the descriptive lists, morning reports, company order books, and other primary sources indicated the 57th Massachusetts had lost a larger number of men than had been previously established. As a result of his close scrutiny of original documents, the 57th Massachusetts appeared to have a higher percentage of killed and wounded than had been reported for any other Union regiment. Wilkinson hastened to add “If the 57th’s [previous] figures are wrong, then there is a reasonable chance that the tallies of other regiments could be so as well, and, so, until all the original regimental records are analyzed again and numbers counted, no resolution of which regiment exceeded all others in the percentage of killed and wounded can be reached accurately.”
The 57th was recruited in Central Massachusetts, with many coming from areas around Worcester and Fitchburg. They quickly went through hell in the Wilderness campaign [May 5 – 7 1864], Spotsylvania [May 8 – 21 1864], Cold Harbor campaign [May 31 – June 12], and the siege of Petersburg [June 9 1864 – March 25 1865].
The Battle of the Crater [July 30 1864] epitomizes their experiences. Lt. Colonel Henry Pleasants, a mining engineer from Pennsylvania, proposed digging a tunnel underneath a Confederate fort so that the Union forces could blow up the fort and punch through the Southern defensive lines. Shafts were dug and 8,000 pounds [3,630 kg] of gunpowder placed below the Confederate stronghold called Elliott’s Salient.
The explosion created a crater 170 feet (52 m) long, 60 to 80 feet (18 m – 24 m) wide, and 30 feet (9.1 m) deep, killing between 250 and 350 Confederate soldiers in the blast.
The Union plan had called for a division of well-trained African American troops to lead the attack, pushing quickly beyond the crater to break the Confederate lines. White soldiers including the 57th Massachusetts would follow to support the African American troops as they spread out from the ridges bordering the crater and attacked towards Petersburg.
But Major General Meade, Commander of the Army of the Potomac, opposed this use of black troops, ordering Major General Burnside the day before the battle not to use them to lead the assault. There were fears of political repercussions if the black troops failed in their mission or suffered heavy casualties. Burnside appealed.
Grant supported Meade’s decision. White troops of Brigadier General James Ledlie’s 1st Division, including the 57th Massachusetts, were chosen by lot to lead the attack, as no white Federal unit volunteered for the honor.
Ledlie failed to communicate the battle plans to his officers. The day of the attack, Ledlie got seriously drunk. He stayed safely in the rear for the duration of the action.
The white units leading the attack did not fan out from the ridges bordering the crater as the black troops had been instructed to do. At least ten minutes after the explosion, the white soldiers left their trenches and wandered to the bottom of the crater. They could not climb its sides. The Confederates took positions around the crater’s rim and fired their rifles and hastily redeployed artillery into the mass of Union infantry milling about on the crater floor. Federal casualties were heavy.
The black troops, avoiding the depths of the crater as they advanced, attacked the Confederate lines as they had been trained to do. Despite some local successes, they were pushed back with heavy losses, being unsupported by the white Union soldiers who were being slaughtered on the floor of the crater.
Burnside reinforced failure, increasing the Union casualties to no purpose.
Burnside was relieved of command. Ledlie was dismissed for his actions.
And the 57th Massachusetts earned the dubious distinction of being the Union regiment that suffered more casualties faster in the course of the war than any other Federal regiment, at least until other regimental histories’ casualty counts are updated from primary sources.
• Wilkinson’s Mother May You Never See the Sights I Have Seen chronicles the experiences of the 57th Massachusetts regiment in sobering detail. It set new standards for regimental Civil War histories.
• James McPherson’s The Battle Cry of Freedom is the best single volume history of the Civil War.