9 Bloodiest Battles of the Civil War by The Numbers

9 Bloodiest Battles of the Civil War by The Numbers

Matthew Weber - April 29, 2017

The American Civil War was and remains the bloodiest war in American history. With over 600,000 casualties, none of the other wars that the US has participated in abroad even come close. World War I comes in at just under 54,000, World War II at a little under 300,000, and Vietnam at around 50,000. Those numbers are only combat deaths.

No matter what way you look at it, the Civil War was a terrible war for the American populace that despite other gigantic wars abroad has yet to be matched in terms of tragedy for the American people.

This article examines the 9 bloodiest battles of the bloodiest war in American history. The numbers we’ve included are the total casualties, including wounded, missing and killed. You also have to remember that the North had a lot more manpower to throw at the battles than the South did, so they usually ended up losing more in a lot of these battles.

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (July 1-3 1863)

Perhaps the most famous battle of the Civil War is the Battle at Gettysburg. It also happens to be the bloodiest in terms of total casualties. It tops number two on this list by more than 10,000 casualties.

9 Bloodiest Battles of the Civil War by The Numbers

Gettysburg Statistics

Total Troops North – 93,921 South – 71,699

Casualties: North – 23,055 South – 23,231 Total – 46,286

General Robert E. Lee had high hopes for the Gettysburg campaign. His Army of Norther Virginia was riding high after success at Chancellorsville in May, and he hoped to push the main theater of fighting north into Pennsylvania. His hopes were that if more fighting was done in the North, Union supporters would start to lose faith in the fight.

That isn’t what happened. Instead, the battle at Gettysburg raged for three days, and was a slaughter on both sides. From a casualty perspective, as you cans see from the numbers, both sides came out about equal.

From a perspective of momentum, however, it was a flat loss for Lee and his army. The largest failure came on the third day of fighting when Lee led his cavalry, some 12,000 strong, into a straight on attack of the Union line. It was repulsed and led directly to the retreat of Lee’s army.

Historians differ on the impact that Gettysburg had on the Civil War’s ultimate ending. Some argue that it is the turning point of the war, as it repelled Lee from the North and allowed a more structured Union advance into the Deep South. However, others argue that there is no single turning point, and that Gettysburg is just one battle that played a role in the ultimate downfall of the South.

The numbers for this battle alone come close to some of the totals for entire wars the US has fought in throughout its history. Gettysburg was so influential in the war, that President Abraham Lincoln used the site of the battle as the location for an address in November of 1863, one of the most famous speeches ever given by a sitting US president.

9 Bloodiest Battles of the Civil War by The Numbers
Battle of Chickamauga 1863. Wikipedia

Chickamauga, Georgia (September 19-20 1863)

While not the most famous of campaigns, the Chickamauga campaign is the second bloodiest battle on our list. General Braxton Bragg, a very famous Confederate general led the Confederate Army of Tennessee against Maj. General William Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland.

Chickamauga Statistics

Total Troops: North – 60,000 South – 65,000

Casualties: North – 16,170 South – 18,454 Total – 34,624

Despite the numbers above, the victory was given to the Confederacy. This is an interesting battle if you study military history, as the reason for the retreat of the Northern Army was a mistake made because of misinformation given to Rosecrans on the second day of battle.

During the morning on the second day of battle, the fighting was fairly even for both sides. The Confederates had attacked the advancing Union line, but had been rebuffed on the first day. Sometime during the early part of the second day, Rosecrans was informed that he had a gap along his lines, but he actually didn’t. However, by moving his troops to cover up this invisible gap, he created an actual gap for the South to use, which cut off almost a third of his forces from his main army, including himself.

So despite the casualty numbers, which fell in the North’s favor, the South retained position by the end of the second day of fighting, so the victory goes to them according to historians.

From a perspective of “what did you learn,” it is important to note that communication is very hard when you’re leading 60,000 men into battle, especially when you don’t have the electronic communication that we use today. Mistakes and miscommunication like what happened to General Rosecrans were fairly common.

This particular miscommunication proved costly for the North, as the battle of Chickamauga is considered the North’s worst defeat in the Western Theater during the entire conflict.

9 Bloodiest Battles of the Civil War by The Numbers
Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Thulstrup

Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia (May 8-21 1864)

This particular battle happened during a period in early 1964 where there were several battles between Robert E Lee and Ulysses S Grant. Many of these battles were very bloody, and a lot of them were inconclusive to say the least. In terms of casualties at Spotsylvania Court House, the South took on less of the burden than the North. However they failed to drive the Union offensive back, which has caused historians to mark this one as inconclusive.

Spotsylvania Court House Statistics

Total Troops: North – 100,000 South – 52,000

Casualties: North – 18,399 South – 13,421 Total – 31,820

The armies led by the two most famous generals of the Civil War, had been clashing for quite some time during this portion of the war, moving from battle to battle, ravaging the Virginia countryside. Prior to the Spotsylvania Court House offensive, Lee and Grant had led their armies in the Battle of the Wilderness, which also proved inconclusive.

Grant wanted to lure Lee into a different location in order to gain higher ground and more favorable conditions for battle. However Lee’s army beat him there by several days, which allowed him to entrench many of his soldiers in favorable positions.

Fighting would carry on at Spotsylvania for most of the month of May 1864. Grant used several military tactics to try to dislodge Lee’s position, but most failed, and his offensive was forced to continue on.

It wasn’t until May 21 that Grant finally moved his forces southward. Grant continued to try to turn Lee’s right flank. As part of the Overland Campaign, Grant used the battles during this time to box Lee into a siege at Richmond and Petersburg Virginia in June of 1864.

The Overland Campaign is considered a strategic Union victory, due to that end siege and the fact that overall, the South too many more casualties during the campaign. However there were several battles, like that at Spotsylvania Court House, where the casualty count went against Grant and his army.

9 Bloodiest Battles of the Civil War by The Numbers
Battle of Chancellorsville. Kurz and Allison 1889

Chancellorsville, Virginia (May 1-4 1863)

If you study military history and tactics, the Chancellorsville Campaign is one of those battles that will go down as history as a text-book examples of how a very small force can beat a larger opponent.

On the outset, it is important to look at overall numbers here. The Union had during this battle 133,868 fighting men, while Lee and his Confederate army only numbered 60,298.

Chancellorsville Statistics

Total Troops: North – 133,868 South – 60,832

Casualties: North – 17,197 South – 13,303 Total – 30,500

The outcome in normal circumstances, with everything else equal would be a convincing win for the Union, however that isn’t what happened. Instead by the end fo the fighting on May 5 and May 6, the Union was in full retreat after suffering several convincing losses.

This is considered Robert E. Lee’s perfect battle, as he pulled off what would seemingly be impossible due to his risky tactics. He split his fighting force, leaving a small number (about a fifth of his force) in Fredericksburg to stop the Union force there, the rest he used to confront the Union army led by Joseph Hooker.

While Lee’s tactics are something that are still studied to this day, his opponent’s are also highly criticized. Hooker, instead of keeping the offensive, which he started out with, retreated into a defensive stance, allowing Lee to set the tone and tactics of the fight. Lee then divided his troops once more, sending Stonewall Jackson’s corps in a flanking position, that ended up routing part of Hooker’s army.

Jackson was killed by friendly fire during that battle. It was his loss that caused Lee to look at Chancellorsville in an unfavorable way. He wrote that it was like “losing his right arm.”

In the end, though, the timid response of the Union along with brilliant maneuvers by Robert E. Lee, led to a convincing Confederate victory.

9 Bloodiest Battles of the Civil War by The Numbers
The Battle of the Wilderness. Kurz and Allison

The Wilderness, Virginia ( May 5-7 1864)

Part of the Overland Campaign, The Wilderness Battles were just part of a group of battles between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in the spring of 1864. Grant used this campaign to shepherd Lee’s forces into a tight spot in Richmond and Petersburg Virginia, where he would eventually cause Lee to surrender his army in April of 1865.

The Overland Campaign was a major offensive for the North, one filled with wins and losses for both great generals.

The Wilderness Statistics

Total Troops: North – 101,895 South – 61,025

Casualties: North – 17,666 South – 11,125 Total – 28,791

What needs to be understood about the Overland campaign is that it wasn’t about one battle for Grant. In the grand scheme of things, the campaign was about moving Lee into a position where Grant could eventually beat him, which is what he did. But if you look at the campaign from a casualty perspective, the North lost many more than the South did. What was important for Grant, however, was the eventual outcome.

The Battle of the Wilderness took place in the countryside outskirts of Spotsylvania. The battle itself was inconclusive, as Grant moved on his forces on without being able to move past Lee’s army.

This particular battle took place in a dense woods, and each of the two armies carried out maneuvers to flank, however neither of them gained any ground.

By May 7, after two days off getting nowhere, Grant disengaged and moved south-east towards the Spotsylvania Court House, where he hoped to keep moving Lee into the position he needed him to be in.

9 Bloodiest Battles of the Civil War by The Numbers
Battle of Stones River. History

Stones River, Tennessee (December 31 1862 – Jan 2 1863)

By late 1862, the war was in full swing. As you’ve no doubt seen in the battles that have preceded this one on this list, the number of casualties was only one thing that determined the winner of each particular battle. For example, morale plays a big role in what side is determined as the winner.

The Battle of Stones River, or the Second Battle of Murfreesboro as it is sometimes known, is one battle where the casualty numbers don’t tell the whole story. This was a series of battles at the end of 1862 and the beginning of 1863 that determined the winners of Middle Tennessee. The battle itself was determined as inconclusive, but the North was able to successfully repel the southern attack twice, and forced the Army of Braxton Bragg to retreat and move on.

Stones River Statistics

Total Troops: North – 41,400 South – 35,000

Casualties – North – 12,906 South – 11,739 Total – 24,645

This came after a huge defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg. The morale boost that the North received after the Battle of Stones River was something that was very important. By forcing the Confederate withdrawal from Middle Tennessee, the Union was able to establish a major supply base in Nashville, which opened up their ability to support battles further into the South.

For the Confederacy, the ‘loss’ at Stones River was more in terms of confidence. Braxton Bragg is a name you’ll hear almost as often as Robert E Lee when it comes to Southern generals. With his forced withdrawal at Stones River, Bragg lost confidence in the Army of Tennessee, and many in the Confederacy lost confidence in Bragg.

The reason for this was that Bragg retreated based on false information. He received information that the Union army had reinforcements on the way, and chose to retreat instead of continue his attacks, that had been rebuffed at least three times during the three day battle. This is another example of when correct information and communication play a large role in determining the outcome of the battle.

9 Bloodiest Battles of the Civil War by The Numbers
Battle of Shiloh. History

Shiloh, Tennessee (April 6-7 1862)

In April of 1862, the Army of the Tennessee, under Union General Ulysses S Grant, had moved deep into Tennessee. And While the fight for Middle Tennessee (the strategic goal for the state) wouldn’t be decided until the end of 1862, the Union had made inroads towards that goal.

The Army of the Tennessee, as it should be noted, is completely different from the Army of Tennessee. The latter fought for the Confederacy, while the former was named after the river. The reason for this is simple, the army made it so deep into Tennessee after traveling on the Tennessee River.

Battle of Shiloh Statistics

Total Troops: North – 66,812 South – 44,699

Casualties: North – 13,047 South – 10,699 Total – 23,746

Grant’s army had encamped at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee on April 5 1862. The Confederate Army, led by General Albert Sidney Johnston, launched a sneak attack on April 6, but was rebuffed, but was able to cause Grant’s army to take a lot of casualties. Their hope was to move Grant’s army away from the Tennessee River and into the more swampy land of Owl Creek. Because the Confederate lines got confused, the Union army was instead able to reform its defensive lines to the northeast along the river. This allowed them to overcome the surprise attack and strengthen their lines to drive the Confederates back.

Johnston was mortally wounded in the battle. The death of their commander and their break for the night due to exhaustion, allowed the Union time to bolster its numbers with the Army of Ohio, which arrived on April 7.

Up until that point in the war, The Battle of Shiloh was the bloodiest in American History. And while the war would have many battles that were bloodier, Shiloh remains an important battle as it allowed the Union to create inroads into Northern Mississippi.

9 Bloodiest Battles of the Civil War by The Numbers
Battle of Antietam. HistoryNet

Antietam, Maryland (September 17 1862)

Antietam, or the Battle of Sharpsburg, is the bloodiest battle of the Civil War that happened on a single day. And while the numbers of killed and wounded is impressive and tragic, as are all battles, what is important at Antietam is the outcome strategically. As can be seen throughout most of this article, if one were to go only on total numbers of casualties, the South would have won the war.

What isn’t shown is that the North had a lot more men in almost all of these battles. For example, at Antietam, the Union had 75,000 men and the Confederacy had only 38,000.

While Antietam has been labelled by historians as tactically inconclusive, strategically it was a Union victory.

Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) Statistics

Total Troops: North – 75,500 South – 38,000

Casualties: North – 12,401 South – 10,316 Total – 22,717

From a military history, Antietam is very complex. Over the course of several hours, the two armies, led by Major General George B McClellan for the Union and General Robert E. Lee for the Confederacy, battled back and forth, using many different military tactics.

What makes Antietam a strategic victory for the North was that it enabled President Abraham Lincoln to announce the Emancipation Proclamation. This is simply because the North was able to repel Lee’s attack into Maryland (one of his attempted invasions of the North). It is also said that this particular ‘victory’ by the North, and the subsequent announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation prevented Britain and France from considering any help for the Confederate States of America.

Whether this is true or not, is debatable. Many historians think that Britain would have stayed out of the American Civil War no matter the particular outcome of any battle or political maneuver. Either way, Antietam was a major battle that had grand implications on the ultimate end of the Civil War.

9 Bloodiest Battles of the Civil War by The Numbers
Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas). Emaze

2nd Bull Run (Manassas), Virginia (August 29-30 1862)

While the first Battle of Bull Run will go down in history as one of the Civil War’s most famous battles, the 2nd Battle of Bull Run was much larger, and in the end much more important. It was also a massive Confederate Victory.

Many historians posit that if the South was ever going to win the Civil War, the beginning of that victory might have happened at the 2nd Battle of Manassas as it is called. The fight from the Union in this battle was very poor.

2nd Battle of Bull Run Statistics

Total Troops: North – 62,000 South – 50,000

Casualties: North – 10,000 South – 8,300 Total – 18,300

The Union, led by Major General John Pope, consistently attacked a better fortified Confederate force led by Robert E Lee and Thomas J ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. They were repeated rebuffed and outflanked, causing them to retreat to Centreville, Virginia

The fall out was that Pope was relieved of command, which led to the promotion of George McClellan. This battle was the precursor the Antietam, which is another reason why Antietam was so important in terms of the Union Victory. If the South had managed to pull out another tactical victory at Antietam, the momentum may have become much harder to overcome for the North.

Instead, the 2nd Battle of Bull Run is a high point for Lee and his army, and because of the loss at Antietam and Lee’s retreat, the Maryland Campaign and Lee’s invasion of the North was a failure.

While this wouldn’t be Lee’s last attempt to invade the North, the set back would demoralize Lee’s army for a time, and would refocus his efforts further South. It wouldn’t be until 1863 and 1864 that he would try again.