The Cost of War

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Jun 30, 2012

“We’ll fight them, sir, ‘till hell freezes over, and then, sir, we will fight them on the ice.”
A Confederate Soldier at Gettysburg

No one can place an accurate price on the cost of war.  But lately I have been pondering the cost of the Civil War.  Did you know that there were approximately 10,455 military engagements, some devastating to human life and some nearly bloodless, plus naval clashes, accidents, suicides, sicknesses, murders, and executions?  This resulted in total casualties of 1,004,453 during the Civil War. 

In dollars and cents, the U.S. Government estimated the Civil War cost $6,190,000; the amount spent on benefits eventually well exceeded the war’s original cost.  Almost all of the physical devastation took place in the South:  burned or plundered homes, pillaged countryside, untold losses in crops and farm animals, ruined buildings and bridges, devastated college campuses, and neglected roads all left the South in ruins.

Just one battle will illustrate the personal cost of war.  The date was May 15, 1864.  The place was New Market, Virginia.  There cadets from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) fought alongside the Confederate Army and forced Union General Franz Sigel and his army out of the Shenandoah Valley. 

During the spring of 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant set in motion a grand strategy designed to press the Confederacy into submission.  Control of the strategically important and agriculturally rich Shenandoah Valley was a key element to General Grant’s plans.  While he confronted General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the eastern part of the state, Grant ordered Major General Franz Siegel’s army of 10,000 to secure the Valley and threated Lee’s flank, starting the Valley Campaigns of 1864.

Receiving word that the Union Army had entered the Valley, Confederate General John C. Breckinridge pulled together all available forces to repulse the latest threat.  The VMI Cadet Corps, including freshman or “Rats”, were called to join Breckenridge and his army of 4,500 veterans.  The cadets marched 81 miles in four days to join Breckinridge where they were intended to be reserves and employed in battle under the direst circumstances. 

The two armies met at New Market on May 15, 1864.  “I shall advance on him,” the aggressive Breckinridge declared.  “We can attack and whip them here and we will do it.”  As the general rode by the cadets, he shouted, “Gentlemen, I trust I will not need your services today; but if I do, I know you will do your duty.”

The battle began in drenching rain.  As it unfolded the Confederate line began to melt away.  One of Breckenridge’s staff suggested sending in the untried cadets.  “I will not do it,” Breckinridge replied.  “General, you have no choice,” responded the desperate officer. “Put the boys in,” Breckinridge ordered, “and may God forgive me for the order…” 

The Cadets met the Union Charge and turned it back in the field, later dubbed by the Cadets as the “Field of Lost Shoes” because many of them had their shoes pulled off in the mud of the rain-soaked and recently plowed wheat field.  General Sigel and his Northern Army staged a rapid retreat from the Valley leaving the field and the Valley to General Breckinridge’s Army and the exuberant VMI cadets.

The battle was not without cost to the VMI Cadet Corps.  Forty-eight cadets were wounded and 10 cadets died; six on the day of battle and four some days later…seven freshman, two sophomores, and one junior. The six who died during the battle are buried there.

Since 1887 a special ceremony is held at the battle field.  The name of each cadet who died is called and a representative from the same company in today’s Corps answers, “Died on the Field of Honor, sir.”  A three-volley salute is carried out by a cadet honor guard followed by a solemn version of “Taps” played over the parade ground.

The cost of was… immeasurable. 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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