American Civil War: questions from a Canadian

Recently enjoyed the Ken Burns series on the Civil War. I’d read some histories many years ago, but learned a lot from this documentary. Not being that smart, however, I had some questions at the end of it.

  1. In an early episode, it is claimed no one really knows the “Rebel Yell” used to intimidate the Union. But they show old men “yelling” in old anniversary reenactments. So how can it be unknown? Where did this come from?

  2. The series emphasizes miles of trenches defending Atlanta. The War might be the first time they were extensively used for more than attacking fortresses? How did this come about?

  3. The series says millions of pictures were made of the war, but many were destroyed when the glass was used to make greenhouses, etc. Isn’t it odd no pictures seemed to show active battles? Wasn’t it odd the wealthy made sandwiches and drove carriages to watch the first battles?

  4. Is it true only 4% of slaves lived to be 60 years old? How did this compare to general life expectancies? Did this and other conditions improve much when slavery was replaced by sharecroppers and hired hands?

  5. The series involves several interviews with the late historian Shelby Foote. He thought Lincoln and Nathan Bedford Forrest were brilliant. I can see why Lincoln was?

  6. Is the series widely seen as pretty impartial and accurate? They seemed to canvass a wide variety of opinions.

  7. Why were casualty rates so high? Was it normal for prisoners of war to be treated so badly?

The series was much enjoyed, and I learned a lot. But any help in filling in some more details would be appreciated by this Canadian.

Apologize if many of these things have been covered before, but I did search.

If the mods deem this more of a Cafe subject, I understand.

And lastly, apart from Springfield and Reverend Lovejoy, are there other historical Simpsons references?

That one’s easy. The photography of the time required long exposures, so anything moving would be blurred. There’s lots of photos of dead bodies and people posing, but photographers would try to photograph a scene with much action.

AFAIK that anecdote was mostly about the First Battle of Bull Run, the first major battle of the war, when it was expected that the Union Army would put the rebels to flight immediately. They were expecting a show, not a battle.

They’re mostly factual questions about the war, with only a few about the documentary itself. I would say it’s fine here.

I don’t think prisoners were treated so inhumanely at the beginning of the war. Later the North, realizing it was involved in a war of attrition, decided to halt prisoner exchanges since they could replace captured soldiers and the South couldn’t. This resulted in severely overcrowded prison camps. Also, as the situation of the South became more dire, they had less food and other resources to spare to care for prisoners. And as the war became more bitter, the North also might have become less concerned with the welfare of prisoners.

I had three ancestors in the Union armies in the Civil War. One, a German immigrant, was captured in 1862, and spent 6 months in a prison camp. He was released in a prisoner exchange, but had contracted tuberculosis in prison and was discharged as an invalid. He never recovered his health. The other, an Irish immigrant, was captured in 1864 as Grant attacked Petersburg. He was sent to the worst of all prison camps, Andersonville. He only lasted a few months before dying of scurvy.

I thought springfield and lovejoy were references to Oregon.

Springfield is a city in oregon, and lovejoy is a street in portland.

According to this, of people in england born in 1851, only about 40% would live to age 60. However this was too late for slavery, I’m wondering if the people born in the late 18th century had closer to a 20-30% survival rate to age 60. So that would be a lot better than slaves.

IIRC, disease and infection killed more soldiers than actual combat did. This was a time before antibiotics or modern sanitation, and gunshot victims were having limbs sawed off by people who didn’t wash their hands.

It’s known that some rebels did something called a “rebel yell” - but there may have been various different yells from soldiers in different units or different theaters of war. In a reenactment decades later, veterans will yell (everyone knows that they are supposed to), but who knows if those yells were anything like the yells that occurred during the war?

Your question #5- Forrest was a brilliant General. Worked up from enlisting as a private. Unheard of. He was a wealthy cotton grower with vast wealth. He could’ve bought a commission and higher rank. He was also evil. Joining the KuKluxKlan after surviving the war. He was a Grand Wizard. Brilliant men often are evil. I think, like a bunch of southerners, Foote was enamoured of the General and looked over his obvious racism. IMO.

In part it was because tactics had not yet caught up with technology. Cone shaped bullets instead of musket balls, rifles instead of smoothbores, breechloaders instead of muzzle loaders, and repeating rifles made weapons much more rapid, accurate at a greater distance, and lethal than before. Shrapnel and land mines were also introduced. It took a while before commanders realized that they had to change tactics. Charges into entrenched positions caused immense carnage.

The American Civil War came at a really bad time in terms of the industrialization. You essentially had 20th century military technology and 18th century medical technology.

Ehhh, reading over his wiki page, it seems like he took the standard trajectory for a wealthy but inexperienced wannabe soldier. Yes, he enlisted as a private, but then swiftly offered to buy and equip a regiment. His offer was promptly accepted, and he was made a Lieutenant Colonel.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure it was no coincidence he was both wealthy and swiftly promoted to higher rank. I doubt it because he overawed them with his brilliance in training as a private.

Missed the edit window, adding reply to:

To be fair to commanders of the time, it wasn’t just that killing technology became more efficient at longer ranges and they were just too dumb to notice, it was that the ability to move troops across a vast battlefields while still maintaining some level of control and cohesion needed a level of synchronization and communication/signaling technology that just didn’t exist yet. I’m sure they would have loved to have the ability to, say, conduct aerial surveillance and night time patrols to pick out weak spots, then exploit those weak spots with shock troops armed with man-portable machine guns and explosives under cover of smoke and a well-coordinated, rolling artillery barrage as the Germans did during their spring 1918 offensive in WWI, but those things just weren’t within the capability of mid-19th century technology.

Some of it was. Balloons were used for aerial surveillance.

In the same sense that they already had artillery and gattling guns during the Civil War, yes. But nothing like what they would have fifty years later.

The original reason that the North halted prisoner exchanges was that the South refused to exchange black soldiers (which were 10% of Union armies). They stated that these blacks were ‘slaves in insurrection’ and must be tried in court (which had a mandatory death penalty for this), but often they were not tried at all but simply massacred after surrender by Confederate soldiers. Later, General Grant noted the Southern shortage of soldiers and continued to disallow prisoner exchanges until the last year of the war.

The treatment of prisoners was much worse for Union prisoners held by the South-- about 25% more deaths – but both were pretty high (12% mortality for Confederates held prisoner, 15-16% for Union soldiers held prisoner). This was partly due to poor conditions (food shortages, etc.) in general in the South as the war went on. Also, there were claims that the South was purposefully ensuring that Union soldiers would be undernourished & sick when exchanged, leading to public demands that Northern prisoner-of-war camps limit rations & medicines to the same amounts given in the Confederate camps (even though there were no serious shortages in the North). This led to poorer conditions for Confederate prisoners later in the war.

Andersonville was indeed the worst, seemingly deliberately so.
Captain Henry Wirz, the commandant, was tried & executed afterwards for this. (Other prison camp commandants weren’t.) He limited the space used for the camp to only about 1/4th of the available space, causing severe overcrowding. He didn’t allow sufficient wood for prisoners to cook their food properly (though the camp was in the middle of a wooded area), so dysentery became deadly in the camp. IMO, his execution was well deserved.

But there were things they should have figured out. The diminished role of artillery for example. In Napoleon’s time, you could set up a cannon and fire away at a group of infantrymen with relative impunity; the range and accuracy of muskets was low enough to make it relatively safe. So cannons were a decisive factor in the outcome of battles.

By the Civil War era, a lot of infantrymen were equipped with rifles. If a group of artillerymen tried to set up a cannon for shooting at the infantry, the infantrymen would start shooting at them with effective fire. So cannons became less effective on the battlefield. (Until longer range and indirect fire techniques restored their importance a generation later.)

But long into the war, a lot of officers were still thinking of artillery as vital. Because that’s what it said in the old manuals they had learned their craft from. They just couldn’t shake loose from what they had been taught and begin applying what they were experiencing.

I don’t think the wealthy coming out to observe a battle was unique to the US Civil War. I seem to remember reading about such happening in various European wars previously. Just needs to be close enough to a major city for people to get there easily, in time for the battle.

1. In an early episode, it is claimed no one really knows the “Rebel Yell” used to intimidate the Union. But they show old men “yelling” in old anniversary reenactments. So how can it be unknown? Where did this come from?

I haven’t seen the show, but this youtube clip is from Smithsonian Magazine and shows Civil War veterans doing the rebel yell. Since the ones doing the yell are actual Civil War veterans, I think it’s fair to assume that this is what the rebel yell really sounded like.

If this is the clip that they used in the show, it comes from the Library of Congress. The collection in the Library of Congress has pictures and film dating from the 1900s to 1940s or so, taken of surviving Civil War veterans. There is more information in the Smithsonian Magazine article linked to in the video description.

I’m not sure how well known this collection is. I only stumbled across it a few years ago through the youtube video. Those who say the actual rebel yell is unknown may not have been aware of these attempts to document Civil War survivors in the early 1900s.