The Civil War is truly an American Iliad. It was a catastrophe, calamity and cataclysm unlike anything in our history. It began, officially, on April 12, 1865, with the Confederate bombardment of Ft. Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, and ended, officially, on April 9, 1865 – four years later almost to the day – with the surrender, at Appomattox, Virginia, of General Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Army of Northern Virginia, to General Ulysses S. Grant, who commanded the Army of the Potomac.
Consistent with civil wars in general, it was four years of savage, black flag warfare, i.e. warfare without law or convention, in which no quarter is asked for or given, in which no atrocity is unacceptable and in which, therefore, anything goes.
What were its costs? At least 620,000 dead, almost as many as died in all the other wars fought by the United States combined. Most died from their wounds, or from disease, or both, slowly and in agony, not quickly in battle. That figure has been revised upward in recent years, by demographers and historians, to 750,000, which would exceed the number of deaths in all our other wars combined. Neither figure includes tens of thousands who died later, prematurely, from wounds they had sustained during the war, both physical and psychological, because that figure is unknowable. The figures represent seven to eight million in today’s population. Imagine a war in which we had between seven and eight million dead, not 2,400 as in Afghanistan, or 4,550 as in Iraq, grievous though those losses are, but between seven and eight million. It is very difficult to get one’s brain around those figures and all the pain, suffering and heartache contained in them. Additional costs were at least as many wounded as dead and billions of our treasure, trillions in today’s money. And an additional cost, of course, was a regional rupture that has spawned regional biases, prejudices, misconceptions and misunderstandings and that has not, therefore, fully healed to this day.