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US Civil War Death Toll Much Higher Than Thought

Historian J. David Hacker argues that the death toll from the US Civil War is much higher than we think.

Even as Civil War history has gone through several cycles of revision, one thing has remained fixed: the number of dead. Since about 1900, historians and the general public have assumed that 618,222 men died on both sides. That number is probably a significant undercount, however. New estimates, based on Census data, indicate that the death toll was approximately 750,000, and may have been as high as 850,000.
The notion that we’ve drastically undercounted the Civil War dead is not a new idea: in fact, Francis Amasa Walker, superintendent of the 1870 Census, estimated that the number of male deaths was “not less than 850,000.” So how did the lower number come to be the accepted count — and why does it matter that it was wrong?

Efforts to identify, rebury and count the dead began as soon as the war ended. A precise count proved impossible, however: both armies lacked systematic procedures to identify the dead, wounded and missing in action, as well as an official means to notify relatives of a soldier’s death. Men went missing; battle, hospital and prison reports were incomplete and inaccurate; dead men were buried unidentified; and family members were forced to infer the fate of a loved one from his failure to return home after the war.

Francis Amasa Walker, Superintendent of the 1870 and 1880 Census enumerations, noted the shocking lack of population growth between 1860 and 1870 and blamed the war. He estimated 500,000 Union and 350,000 Confederate deaths, including those who died shortly after the war from maladies caused by their deployment. But his estimates were rejected by those who argued that the low figures were the effect of a systematic undercount.

We now have improved tools for estimation from incomplete data and it appears Walker was on to something.

Using new quantitative sources, we can now make a more comprehensive and accurate estimate of war-related deaths. With one exception, microfilm copies of the original manuscript returns have been preserved for all censuses since 1850 (the 1890 Census manuscripts were lost in a fire). Census microdata samples created from these returns at the Minnesota Population Center make it possible to estimate undercounts by age and sex in censuses back to 1850 and to construct a Census-based estimate of male deaths caused by the war.

[...]

War-related losses are estimated by comparing sex differences in mortality during the 1860s with sex differences in mortality in the 1850s and 1870s. The results indicate that the war was responsible for the deaths of about 750,000 men (using less conservative assumptions, the total may have been as high as 850,000). Although that estimate is 100,000 fewer than the 850,000 deaths suggested by Walker, it is closer to his guess than it is to traditional estimate of 618,222 deaths, which has been cited uncritically for too long. If the Census-based estimate is correct, the traditional estimate is about 20 percent too low.

Although there are limitations to using Census data to estimate of Civil War mortality — civilian deaths are too few to be measured accurately, and deaths cannot be reliably divided into Union or Confederate subtotals — the method provides a more complete assessment of the war’s human cost. In addition to the men who died during their terms of service, the Census-based estimate of male mortality includes men who died between the date of their discharge and the 1870 Census from diseases and wounds contracted during the war, as well as non-enlisted men who died in guerilla warfare and other war-related violence. It excludes, however, men dying from war-related causes who would have died under the normal mortality conditions of the late 19th century. This final group, included in all direct counts of the Civil War dead, represents about 80,000 men.

So what?

The difference between the two estimates is large enough to change the way we look at the war. The new estimate suggests that more men died as a result of the Civil War than from all other American wars combined. Approximately 1 in 10 white men of military age in 1860 died from the conflict, a substantial increase from the 1 in 13 implied by the traditional estimate. The death toll is also one of our most important measures of the war’s social and economic costs. A higher death toll, for example, implies that more women were widowed and more children were orphaned as a result of the war than has long been suspected.

The numbers are even more dramatic when one takes into account that the US population in 1860 was roughly a tenth of what it is today: 31.4 million.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Hubert Wayne Cash says:

    I am a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and I’ve wondered if it is correct to say that the American “Civil” war was not a civil war at all due to the fact that the aim of the Confederate States of America was to withdraw from the Union, not overthrow it. Let me state this, I am not a diehard when it comes to this issue (the war) and try to see things as they were, not as I wish they were.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 9

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Hubert Wayne Cash: The states of the Confederacy were part of the United States, lost in their bid to secede, and have remained part of the United States for the 150-odd years since. So, yeah, it was a civil war.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 10

  3. PD Shaw says:

    @Hubert Wayne Cash: The term “civil war” is used for seperatists wars also. For example, the Sri Lanken Civil War involved an attempt to create an independent Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 4

  4. Brett says:

    @James Joyner

    The numbers are even more dramatic when one takes into account that the US population in 1860 was roughly a tenth of what it is today: 31.4 million.

    850,000 dead out of a 31.4 million population would be the equivalent of losing 8.45 million today. That’s a lot, although the percentage amount is less than what some countries have experienced in civil wars (Mexico lost about 10% of its population in the conflict following the Revolution of 1910).

    @Hubert Wayne Cash

    I am a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and I’ve wondered if it is correct to say that the American “Civil” war was not a civil war at all due to the fact that the aim of the Confederate States of America was to withdraw from the Union, not overthrow it.

    Of course it was a civil war. The rebelling states not only withdrew from the Union, they forcefully seized the property of the government they were rebelling against, and openly initiated conflict in the case of Fort Sumter.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 6

  5. mattt says:

    Interesting, especially the methodology, and respect for those who made the ultimate sacrifice demands that history reflect as accurate a count as we can manage. But 618,222 is already a huge number, especially in context of the population of the time, and the significance of the update on the Civil War’s place in history is overstated.

    I’m curious, what term would Hubert Wayne Cash have preferred we use for the Civil War?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    A couple months ago I was exploring the southern half of Washington Co. and came across a simple grave of piled stones with a new granite marker that said only, “Unknown Civil War Soldier”. No date, no indication of which side he was on or how he died, all lost to the fog of history.

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  7. Jsmith says:

    Cash is right. There was no attempt on the part of the South to take over the US government, merely to leave the United States. Had the South been successful, the US would have continued, albeit in a smaller area. It is better named the War of the Southern Secession.

    That aside, I find the real meat of the article interesting. Having just finished Gilpin’s “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War”, I see now that she didn’t go far enough. Altho’ she did a masterful job of explaining the difficulty — even the inability — of commanders to deal with death on such a massive scale, I recall no portion of the book where she challenged the famous 620k number for deaths in this horrible and unnecessary war.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  8. samwide says:

    @Hubert Wayne Cash and Mr. Smith:

    the aim of the Confederate States of America was to withdraw from the Union, not overthrow it

    Dudes, that ship was sunk in Charleston Harbor.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  9. An Interested Party says:

    I’m curious, what term would Hubert Wayne Cash have preferred we use for the Civil War?

    “The War of Northern Aggression”, perhaps…

    It is better named the War of the Southern Secession.

    Well, if we are going to use that title, let’s put “Miserably Failed” in between “the” and “Southern”…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 5

  10. Racehorse says:

    How about the War For Southern Independence?

    “Old times there are not forgotten”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  11. An Interested Party says:

    “Old times there are not forgotten”

    No, they obviously aren’t…some people just can’t stand the fact that their ancestors and/or people they admire lost that war…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 4

  12. Franklin says:

    Not to belabor the point, but history is written by the victors. It’s called the Civil War and I somehow doubt that will ever change, regardless of whether Axl Rose thinks there’s anything civil about war.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  13. Racehorse says:

    @An Interested Party: @An Interested Party: Yes, but if it wasn’t for that General Sherman guy coming down here and tearing everything up, we would have won that war.

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