1

In battles such as those of the Napoleonic wars or the American Civil War that involved infantry marching across open ground whilst being pummeled by artillery and facing volleys of musket or rifle fire, it would seem that survival of an individual infantryman was purely a matter of luck rather than training or combat experience, especially if standing in the front rank.

What is the most battles that an infantryman survived unscathed or with only minor injuries in either of these conflicts?

9
  • 4
    Isn't survival on the battlefield always a matter of luck to some extent? What does your initial research tell you?
    – Steve Bird
    Jun 28 at 6:37
  • @SteveBird Sure, there is always a luck factor. But "don't loose a 1-1 sword duel" is probably much more skill-based than "don't get hit by a cannon ball".
    – Arno
    Jun 28 at 9:51
  • 1
    @Arno I think I agree with your basic point, but with pre-gunpowder formation fighting, if you're engaging in a lot of 1-1 sword duels, the fight is probably essentially over. But yeah, it was largely a matter of not being one of they guys who randomly got hit by mostly unaimed enemy fire. Archery duels would have been like that too, but those weren't the primary battleground units on both sides very often.
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 28 at 13:20
  • 3
    I do not think that medieval combat consisted of "1-1 sword duel". There were masses of pikemen, massed cavalry charges, archery, artillery, treacheries and ambushes.... "1-1 sword duel" did make for entailing songs, but people in the field usually prefered to survive to die following the rules.
    – SJuan76
    Jun 28 at 15:09
  • 2
    @T.E.D.: Of even greater import than luck was the quality of medical care provided by your nationality. Only archdukes in the Austrian army got the same care as a fusilier de ligne in the French army - and not even all of those. Of ~1200 Old Guard casualties at Aspern Essling, only 12% died and half were returned to their units, 1/3 returned to France as amputees. That from an hour dueling with Austrian 12 pounders, successfully at 100 yds range. Jun 29 at 23:01
5

Depends My math says 7 battles is a greater than 50% chance of being killed/wounded, and by 13 battles you are "statistically certain" to have been injured on a ACW battlefield.

I'll be using American Civil War stats, because I'm far more well-versed in that then Napoleonic Warfare. The major difference survival-wise is that ACW warfare almost never resulted in the actual destruction of the defeated army. In Napoleonic warfare cavalry riding down routed infantry was a fairly common occurrence, and may swing the casualty numbers. Conversely European advisors were near-universally aghast at the fact that ACW units would volley back and forth for hours rather than one side attempting to close with the bayonet. Since bayonet charges usually end in one side breaking and running before actual stabbing begins, it was widely believed at the time that prolonged firefights meant higher casualties. Ok that's the caveats out of the way. So how long did Johnny Reb/Billy Yank last on average?

The overall fatality rate for Civil War soldiers was 1 in 5. However 2/3 of these are deaths from disease, not strictly battlefield casualties. This site list all Killed in action (KIA) and Wounded in Action (WIA) for the war on both sides at 1.1 million. approximately 3.2 million men served on both sides. But this also isn't incredibly useful, as a man could be wounded multiple times, or wounded and later killed. Plus not all soldiers ended up in a battle.

The average casualties for an army in a battle also varies, from an average of about 6-8% for the winning side and 12-14% for the losing side. Of course this takes into account Prisoners as well, some of whom were presumably captured un-injured. Naturally some battles were also more bloody than others, with the top 10 battles of the war accounting for 17% of the war's TOTAL number of casualties Source. Even worse, some of these battles were horrifically one-sided! A union soldier at Gettysburg had a far higher chance of being killed or wounded than his confederate opposite number. Then there's the fact that some units in the hottest fighting would get massacred (100% dead/wounded in at least one CSA regiment in picket's charge, whereas other CSA regiments at Gettysburg had 1-2% casualties for the whole 3 days of battle!).

So what does all this mean? The best way to calculate the "war-wide average" seems to be taking the average win/loss casualty ratio and averaging them out. Which means 7% and 13% for winners/losers, averaged to 10% of all soldiers become casualties. So 10 guys in a notionally full-strength 100 man company, easy math. Per (Source) 400,000 soldiers became POWs. With 1.1 million casualties total and 400k POWs, we can asy that ROUGHLY 26% of battlefield "casualties" were actually POWs. (please check my math, I'm a history major not a mathematician!) So let's say 25% for sake of maths. So of our 10 battlefield casualties, 25% of them will be prisoners. Some of whom are wounded, but not all. Frankly I could find zero info on "wounded vs unwounded" POWs so I'm going to treat them as mostly unwounded for now. But realize that may make this number low.

So of our 10 guys 2.5 were captured. let's say 2 and call the half guy representative of "wounded POWS." so 8 guys out of 100 in any given battle are killed/wounded. So 8% casualties in every battle means that by battle 9 there is a 53% chance of you being killed/wounded, using "conditional probability. By battle 16 that number is about 74%. Of course this is VERY rough numbers. The Stonewall brigade and other units suffered higher losses than other units that were not continually relied upon to hold in tight places/attack against long odds. The odds also vary greatly between infantry and cavalry/artillery, your rank (any given general being more likely to be killed than any given private), your campaign region (west and east had different intensity of warfare) and the battles themselves. (A large battle has a higher chance your unit gets decimated, but also a higher chance you're only lightly engaged and lose very few men.)

Honestly I think doing the math for this on any group larger than a particular unit gives results too fuzzy for real use, as so much depends on the specific battles, and even parts of battles, a person was in. But this is better than nothing and I hope it helps!

5
  • 2
    The differences between ACW and Napoleonic warfare are too numerous to count. this post deliberately sets out to pretend the question is something other than actually asked - so isn't even an attempt at an answer. Check my commen3t on Old Guard casualties at Aspern Essling, after an hour long duel at about 100 yds with Austrian 12 pounders which forced the Austrian artillery to withdraw. Try that in ACW. Jun 30 at 15:01
  • 1
    The question specifically asks about Napoleonic and ACW battles. Not just Napoleonic. As the question treats them as identical (when as you say they very much aren't) I gave the information I had. Given the mathematical uncertainties surrounding the ACW, with two basically-identical forces fighting in broadly similar terrain for a mere 4 years, I'd be astonished if someone could do the same for the entirety of the Napoleonic Wars across all fronts for all armies, let alone do that AND the ACW. Jun 30 at 16:56
  • 1
    Your comment about Gettysburg is false. Union casualties were under 25% of troops engaged, while Confederate casualties were between 30 and 40 % of those engaged in the battle. That s a far greater chance on the Confederate side of being a casualty than on the Union side. Jun 30 at 17:08
  • 2
    The problem with your math is that it's based on the assumption that the probability of dying is uniform. It's well-known that it isn't: once someone's survived their first battle or two, they've got a vastly improved chance of continuing to survive.
    – Mark
    Jul 1 at 1:43
  • 1
    "So 8% casualties in every battle means that by battle 7 there is a 56% chance of you being killed/wounded. By battle 12 that number is 96%." -> You made a serious mistake in conditionnal probabilities here. I wonder what figure you would reach for 13 or 14 battles... Actually (if we accept your methodology) the results should be 0.92^7=56% chance of getting through 7 battles un-wounded, and 0,92^12 = 37% chance of going through 12 battles un-wounded.
    – Evargalo
    Jul 1 at 8:46

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.