Sunday, January 20, 2013

Notes From The Classroom, pt. II--Civil War Casualties

As I mentioned in my last post, I spend a lot of time teaching my high school students about the American Civil War.  Or, to be more accurate, I should say "the Civil War era".  As I tell them on the first day of the school year, I'm a pacifist, and I don't like war.  As a result, I spend a lot of time talking about life during wartime, and the effects of wars on American society, but not a lot of time on the "bang bang, shoot shoot" part.  This usually disappoints a few students (mostly boys) but of course I still make time to cover certain major battles as well as key military leaders and their tactics, so even the more "bloodthirsty" kids have something to look forward to.

This past week I taught the kids about the scale of Civil War casualties, as well as the terrible conditions faced by soldiers of that era, especially those who were wounded in battle. When I teach this class, I have several goals in mind; first, to put the event into a global perspective, and second, to try to relate the information to the wars the United States have been fighting for most of their lives.

I find it helpful to put the Civil War into a global perspective for a couple of reasons.  Primarily, since I teach students from all over the world (my school draws from over 20 nations) I don't want to seem chauvinistic.  And secondly, if I am successful in driving home the point that the Civil War was the most significant event in our nation's history, it stands to reason that civil wars in other countries are equally important.  I start the class by sharing the following facts with the class:

  • 3,000,000 soldiers (USA and CSA) fought in the Civil War, which was about 10% of the total population. 
  • Approximately 620,000 soldiers died in the war (about 2% of the total population). An equivalent today would be  six million deaths.

I then share the casualty totals of some significant 20th Century civil wars for comparison:

These numbers typically elicit a strong response, but someone usually raises the significant differences between 19th and 20th century technology.  So I mention that contemporary with the US Civil War was the Taiping Rebellion in China. This civil conflict lasted from 1850-1864 and claimed at least 20 million lives

After this perspective, I try to make a comparison to something with which they should be familiar, the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.  At this point I am teaching students who were only four or five years old in 2001, so their recollections are naturally hazy.  But they are quite aware that 9/11 changed their world. Nearly 3,000 people died that day (with many more dying since then, especially rescue workers at Ground Zero).   Our country was horrified by the carnage in 2001, but (thank God) nothing similar has happened to America since then.  But imagine living here 150 years ago.  In the space of four and a half months in 1863, the following battles took place (among others): 

Chancellorsville, Virginia: May 1-4 1863: 30,099 casualties (17,278 USA / 12,821 CSA)

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: July 1-3 1863: 51,112 casualties (23,049 USA / 28.063 CSA)

Chickamauga, Georgia:Sept. 19-20 1863: 32,624 casualties (16,170 USA / 18,464 CSA)

and that was after two hard years of war, with another year and a half to go.  I ask the students to consider what it must have been like to live in the country back then.  I imagine that people must have been almost in a state of shock.  Everyone must have known someone connected to the war and the tension of never knowing when a loved one's name would show up in the newspaper's death rolls must have been terrible. 

And that is a useful point of contrast to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have gone on for most of  my students' lives. According to The New York Times, during the last decade, less than 1% of the total population has been on active military duty, compared to 9% during WWII and 10% in the Civil War. This makes it easier for people to have an "out of sight, out of mind" approach to war.  

I also spend time discussing medical science and technological advances in the last 150 years.  We talk about how wounds to the extremities were the most common injury in the Civil War, and that most resulted in amputation.  After grossing the students out with discussions of the highly septic conditions of operating rooms 150 years ago, I ask if they know what the most common injuries are for American soldiers today. According to Catherine Lutz of Brown University, [.pdf] they fall into four categories:

  • Traumatic Brain Injury:  A Rand report in 2008 found 19 percent of returning service members reported having experienced a possible traumatic brain injury...Whatever the true number, TBI cases range from severe, penetrating TBI to the more common mild TBI which can display itself in psychosocial dysfunction, seizures, irritability and aggression, depression, confusion and memory loss.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Mental injuries, including PTSD, have also been common.  The Veterans  Administration reported 192,114 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had been diagnosed with PTSD through the end of 2010, with these numbers, however, excluding anyone diagnosed and treated outside the VA system...Several features of these two wars have made emotional and cognitive impairment more common, including multiple and extended deployments with less rest between deployments (39 percent of all soldiers who have been to Iraq and Afghanistan have had two or more deployments, even after wounding, and more exposure to handling body parts and seeing friends killed, surviving with more grievous wounds, and higher rates of  TBI.  Other predictors for PTSD include “killing of innocent bystanders, or having to  witness such killings without the ability to intercede, [which] is also associated with more intense psychiatric manifestations. This is of significant concern due to the large numbers  of civilians killed during this current conflict by both coalition forces and the insurgency.”
  • Amputation:  More soldiers survive their wounds now than ever before in human history. The widespread use of body armor protecting the vital organs has also  meant an unusually high number of wounded soldiers with multiple amputations (including limbs and genitals) and complex combinations of injuries, including burns,  blindness and deafness, and massive facial injuries.  According to the Army Office of the Surgeon-General, there were 1,621 amputations among US troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and “unaffiliated conflicts” through September 1, 2010. Half of these were caused by  improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Blast injuries from IEDs often combine penetrating, blunt, and burn injuries. IED shrapnel can include nails, dirt, and clothing and create enough small wounds to exsanguinate the victim. There has also been a high incidence of blinding injuries. 
  • Spinal Cord Injury: US News reports that  "explosions are the main cause of spine injuries among wounded U.S. military personnel...Researchers analyzed more than eight years of data on back, spinal column and spinal cord injuries suffered by American military personnel serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. Of nearly 11,000 evacuated casualties, about 600 (nearly 5.5 percent) had a total of more than 2,100 spinal injuries. Explosions accounted for 56 percent of spine injuries, motor vehicle collisions for 29 percent and gunshots for 15 percent, the study found. In 17 percent of spine injuries, the spinal cord also was injured. Fifty-three percent of gunshot wounds to the spine led to a spinal cord injury. 

One of my students pointed out that it is a shame that since so many injuries are "invisible" it will be hard to recognize and thank these veterans for their service to the country.  I thought that was an excellent example of being able to discuss "current events" in the context of a history class.  Thanks for reading!

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