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.
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.