How was it possible?
Over 600,000 Americans died during the Civil War with the vast majority of deaths on both sides due to disease and sickness, not on the battlefield. The Civil War was the bloodiest war in our nation’s history. What is troubling upon deep reflection is realizing that most of the soldiers that did die on the battlefield were dying the same way in 1864 & 1865 as in 1861. Why would men march off shoulder to shoulder to battle under zero cover in the face of deadly infrantry fire time and time again? It doesn’t make sense. . .and yet, the war dragged on- month after month, year after year. It is true that tactics did not keep up with technology, but that does not explain the mentality of the Civil War soldier.
Perhaps the answer to this question lies in a number of areas. For starters, the Civil War is often presented as a war where brother fought against brother, indeed, tearing families apart and making this particular war that much more tragic, personal, and intimate than most other wars.
Brothers certainly did fight against each other. But what also is important to remember is that military units like companies, regiments, battalions, etc. were made up by men that came from the same town or general area. More often than not it was brothers fighting alongside brothers, fighting alongside fathers, fighting alongside cousins and uncles. And if they were not related they were classmates, friends and/or neighbors. Men that joined up together grew up together; possessing a bond that existed long before the first shots were fired in 1861. Under this context the idea of fleeing the battlefield was not an option- the choice was already made!
A second aspect to the answer to this question lies in understanding the mentality and social mores of the mid-19th century American male. Honor, courage, dignity, reputation and legacy were as important in life as the air they breathed. A coward was the lowest form of humanity and therefore completely ostracized. This mindset was rooted in the individual at home and then sprung out from there- in this case military units. Unit pride was extremely important during the Civil War. Fleeing on the battlefield brought disgrace not only to oneself, but also one’s family name and military unit. Soldiers of course wrote home as much as possible and commented in their letters about camp life and how fellow soldiers that they grew up with in their communities were doing. People at home would find out the good and the bad- cowardice being one of them!
Social mores played a critical role is getting men to walk into the gates of hell time and time again…