The Civil War was in many respects the first modern war. Its scope was unprecedented. One out of every twelve adult American males served in the war, and few families were unaffected by the event. Over 620,000 Americans died in the conflict, 50 percent more than in World War II. Because battlefield surgeons were constantly overworked and frequently lacked equipment, supplies, and knowledge, almost any stomach or head wound proved fatal, and gangrene was rampant. Fifty thousand of the survivors returned home with one or more limbs amputated. Disease, however ,was the greatest threat to soldiers, killing twice as many as were lost in the battle.

The Civil War was not neatly self-contained it was a total war, fought not solely by professional armies but by and against whole societies. Farms became battlefields, cities were transformed into armed encampments, and homes were commandeered for field hospitals. After one battle, a woman recalled that "wounded men were brought into our house and laid side by side in our halls and first-story rooms... carpets were so saturated with blood as to be unfit for further use."

The Civil War was also modern in that much of the killing was distant, impersonal, and mechanical. The opposing forces used an array of new weapons and instruments of war: artillery with "rifled" or "grooved" barrels for greater accuracy, repeating rifles, ironclad ships, observation balloons, and wire entanglements. Men were killed without even knowing who had fired the shot that felled them.

The debate over why the North won and the South lost the Civil War will probably never end, but as in other modern wars firepower and manpower were essential factors. Lee's own explanation of the Confederate defeat retains an enduring legitimacy: "After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources."