How to Use the Context
More than 200,000 men were killed or mortally wounded in combat during the four years of the Civil War; thousands more were wounded and survived.¹ At many Civil War battles huge armies clashed, leaving large numbers of dead and wounded afterward. With such battles it is all too easy to think of the casualties as mere statistics and not as real men who were forever lost to their families or who suffered for years from the lingering effects of horrible wounds.
Not all casualties occurred in large, dramatic battles. In the small battles and skirmishes, where relatively few men fell, it is possible to identify most of the individuals who were killed or wounded and thus see the casualty rate of the Civil War in human terms. One of those small battles took place in a cold, rainy swamp in South Carolina. In early 1865, during the war's final year, an army of 60,000 veteran Union troops led by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman began a destructive through South Carolina. On February 2 and 3 a portion of Sherman's army attacked an outnumbered Confederate force guarding a crossing of the Salkehatchie River called Rivers Bridge. After one frontal assault failed, the Union commanders decided to go around the Confederate line. Their troops crossed the river and its thick swamp at both flanks of the Confederate position, forcing the Southerners to withdraw.
In two days of fighting at Rivers Bridge, some forty Union and Confederate soldiers were killed or mortally wounded. Another hundred or more suffered wounds ranging from slight to severe. And more than thirty Confederate soldiers were taken prisoner; some would never live to see their homes again.
¹ Patricia L. Faust, ed., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper Perennial Library, 1991), 448.