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Interpreting the Evidence

Sunken Road on Day of Battle, Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1863

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Eras:

    Civil War and Reconstruction (1850 - 1877)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:

    Civil War

  • Primary Source Types:


  • Regions:

    United States

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Sunken Road on Day of Battle, Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1863 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
Dead Confederate soldiers in a sunken road behind a stone wall after a battle at Fredricksburg, Virginia, May 3, 1863.
Historical Context
This picture shows dead Confederate soldiers behind a stone wall at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1863. This battle was to be General Burnside’s last battle, and it was completely futile and mismanaged. Fourteen successive Federal brigades charged a wall protecting the Confederate lines. But not one Union soldier reached the lines, and over 13,000 Union soldiers died.        

The Civil War was composed of 10,455 military engagements, including small skirmishes and large sieges. In January of 1863, the federal government estimated that the war was costing $2.5 million a day. In 1879, the final official federal costs were $6,190,000,000; Confederate costs were $2,099,808,707. Inflation also hit hard. During the war, $2.59 of Federal money was equal to $1 in gold. The Confederate rate was harsher, with $60-$70 Confederate dollars equaling $1 in gold. By 1906, the federal government had paid an additional $3.3 billion in pensions and veterans benefits to soldiers of the Union Army. The Confederate soldiers were dependent on private donations.

Soldiers died from a number of causes, besides combat including death in prison, drowning, sunstroke, killed after capture, suicide, sickness, accidents, wounds, and murders. Some were even executed. Combining these deaths plus combat deaths, a total of about 1,094,453 Americans died during the war. Combat deaths were at an estimated 620,000. These numbers do not include civilian deaths.

The highest number of deaths in one battle for one regiment of the Federal Army was at Gettysburg where 82% of the 1st Minnesota died.  The number is equally staggering for the Confederates, where at Antietam the 1st Texas lost 82.3% of their men.  Only 1,000 of the 7,000 soldiers enlisted in the Irish Brigade of New York ever made it home.  Another example of the devastation was at Petersburg, where the 1st Maine lost 635 soldiers out of 900 in only seven minutes.

The costs of the Civil War, and the price of freedom, were ghastly. The monetary investment of both the Confederacy and Union was overwhelming. However, no other course of action seemed possible, to either Jefferson Davis or Abraham Lincoln. The sacrifices of the leaders, soldiers, and supporters were of such magnitude, that they are hard to comprehend now. There are plenty of statistics of death, destruction, and survival, but how often do we stop and examine the legacy of freedom that our ancestor’s sacrifices have given us?

Essential Question
How does war impact a society?
Check for Understanding
Describe the scene in the photograph and explain the impact of this event on the local community and the soldiers involved.
Historical Challenges
What legacy of freedom did the men of the Civil War leave future generations? Do we take some of those freedoms for granted today?
Interdisciplinary Connections
Math: If 1,094,453 soldiers died in total, and 620,000 died in combat, how many soldiers died from other causes?
Science: What kinds of artillery were used in the Civil War?
English Language Arts: Choose either the U.S. or Confederate cause. Write a letter home explaining why you are fighting in the Civil War