New Study Raises Estimate Of Civil War Death Toll 20 Percent
According to a new study, America’s bloodiest war was even bloodier than we’ve been taught:
For 110 years, the numbers stood as gospel: 618,222 men died in the Civil War, 360,222 from the North and 258,000 from the South — by far the greatest toll of any war in American history.
But new research shows that the numbers were far too low.
By combing through newly digitized census data from the 19th century, J. David Hacker, a demographic historian from Binghamton University in New York, has recalculated the death toll and increased it by more than 20 percent — to 750,000.
The new figure is already winning acceptance from scholars. Civil War History, the journal that published Dr. Hacker’s paper, called it “among the most consequential pieces ever to appear” in its pages. And a pre-eminent authority on the era, Eric Foner, a historian at Columbia University, said:
“It even further elevates the significance of the Civil War and makes a dramatic statement about how the war is a central moment in American history. It helps you understand, particularly in the South with a much smaller population, what a devastating experience this was.”
The old figure dates back well over a century, the work of two Union Army veterans who were passionate amateur historians: William F. Fox and Thomas Leonard Livermore.
Fox, who had fought at Antietam, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, knew well the horrors of the Civil War. He did his research the hard way, reading every muster list, battlefield report and pension record he could find.
In his 1889 treatise “Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, 1861-1865,” Fox presented an immense mass of information. Besides the aggregate death count, researchers could learn that the Fifth New Hampshire lost more soldiers (295 killed) than any other Union regiment; that Gettysburg and Waterloo were almost equivalent battles, with each of the four combatant armies suffering about 23,000 casualties; that the Union Army had 166 regiments of black troops; and that the average Union soldier was 5 feet 8 1/4 inches tall and weighed 143 1/2 pounds.
Fox’s estimate of Confederate battlefield deaths was much rougher, however: a “round number” of 94,000, a figure compiled from after-action reports. In 1900, Livermore set out to make a more complete count. In his book, “Numbers and Losses in the Civil War in America, 1861-65,” he reasoned that if the Confederates had lost proportionally the same number of soldiers to disease as the Union had, the actual number of Confederate dead should rise to 258,000.
Those numbers stood for more than 100 years, they’re part of every school book and history book about the Civil War, and they were mentioned more than once during Ken Burns’ epic miniseries. Now, though, there seems to be good reason to think that the were lower than the actual death toll:
Enter Dr. Hacker, a specialist in 19th-century demographics, who was accustomed to using a system called the two-census method to calculate mortality. That method compares the number of 20-to-30-year-olds in one census with the number of 30-to-40-year-olds in the next census, 10 years later. The difference in the two figures is the number of people who died in that age group.
Pretty simple — but, Dr. Hacker soon realized, too simple for counting Civil War dead. Published census data from the era did not differentiate between native-born Americans and immigrants; about 500,000 foreign-born soldiers served in the Union Army alone.
“If you have a lot of immigrants age 20 moving in during one decade, it looks like negative mortality 10 years later,” Dr. Hacker said. While the Census Bureau in 1860 asked people their birthplace, the information never made it into the printed report.
As for Livermore’s assumption that deaths from disease could be correlated with battlefield deaths, Dr. Hacker found that wanting too. The Union had better medical care, food and shelter, especially in the war’s final years, suggesting that Southern losses to disease were probably much higher. Also, research has shown that soldiers from rural areas were more susceptible to disease and died at a higher rate than city dwellers. The Confederate Army had a higher percentage of farm boys.
Dr. Hacker said he realized in 2010 that a rigorous recalculation could finally be made if he used newly available detailed census data presented on the Internet by the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota.
The center’s Integrated Public Use Microdata Series had put representative samples of in-depth, sortable information for individuals counted in 19th-century censuses. This meant that by sorting by place of birth, Dr. Hacker could count only the native-born.
With all the uncertainties, Dr. Hacker said, the data suggested that 650,000 to 850,000 men died as a result of the war; he chose the midpoint as his estimate.
He emphasized that his methodology was far from perfect. “Part of me thinks it is just a curiosity,” he said of the new estimate.
“But wars have profound economic, demographic and social costs,” he went on. “We’re seeing at least 37,000 more widows here, and 90,000 more orphans. That’s a profound social impact, and it’s our duty to get it right.”
Indeed. Because of the state of record keeping during this era, we’ll never know exactly how many men died but Dr Hacker is right that we owe to it history to get as close as possible if we’re going to have a full understanding of the impact the war had on America.
Another reason we’ll never know the actual number of casualties or even an approximate number in which we can have confidence is that not all of those who fought were ever properly mustered in. Consequently, they wouldn’t appear in muster lists or, if they died, in official records of casualties.
That was the case for one of my great-grandfathers. He served for three years in a Union Army unit without ever receiving pay because he was never properly mustered in. He finally got fed up and left. I’ve got the letter from the War Department forty years later in which they reported their finding that he couldn’t have been a deserter because he had never been mustered in.
The population of the U.S. in 1860 was just over 31 million, free men and slaves.
In modern terms, 750,000 civil war casualties would be the equivalent of 7.43 million American lives.
Can you imagine the impact on a country of that scale of death?
It is my opinion after much research that the War of Secession’s effects are further reaching and more devastating than we have realized. Effects that still reach our economy, psyche, social environments, education, and defense. Much of our up and down economic trends are the result of the war’s damage and faulty aftermath, sometimes mistakenly titled “Reconstruction”.
Many of our leaders’ actions are actually reactions to events that began in 1861. Even the trial of the Booth “conspirators” has left a bad mark on our courts. The fact that Booth actually was in the news just a couple of years ago concerning more dna tests proves my point. Scarcely two days go by without hearing or reading something about the war. People spend years trying to trace and document their families’ involvement in this war. There is still a huge fascination with the battles, battlegrounds, and the generals. Bookstores have whole sections of books devoted to this. Relics and objects from the war are in high demand. Several antique and relic shows are held around the country every year and are packed. The two comments above are prime examples of how this war still affects our actions and attitudes.
750,000 killed to suppress a rebellion and preserve the union. I can quite believe the new numbers. The number of WW 2 deaths has also recently been revised upwards.
Indeed, particularly to those people who can’t get over the fact that the South lost…
One more reason I think Lincoln was wrong. He should have let the South secede.
In addition to saving hundredes of thousands of lives:
1. The North could freely accept escaped slaves from the South. (I assume Dredd Scott would no longer be in effect).
2. Eventually the South, like all other countries, would have ended slavery, but on its own terms. I don’t know if that would have prevented Jim Crow but it might have.
3. Race relations in the North would have been different (and possibly better) without the influence of Southerners in Congress.
4. The North probably would not/could not have engaged in all the foreign colonizing adventures of the Unioin, thus again saving lives.
5. Texas might have seceded from the New South and either have become its own country or joined with Mexico – with enormous beneficial effects for the North (our school books would not be subject to a Texas mindset) and, possibly, to Mexico. Besides, it would have pretty much solved the North’s immigration problem.
If he had allowed that, what would have stopped other parts of the country from eventually seceding? No responsible president could ever allow this country to be dismembered…we live in a federal republic, not a confederation where people can allow their states to come and go as they please…
@LC: how would the native American problem been settled?
You raise some interesting points, but the “what if’s” are ultimately too subjective in this debate about secession:
“The North could freely accept escaped slaves from the South. (I assume Dredd Scott would no longer be in effect).”
This is an assumption; with the South seceding and no longer subject to laws (Dred Scott and the Fugitive Slave Act), the assumption is the South would strongly incorporate methods to prevent slaves from escaping its borders. Since slaves were valuable property, the South would simply not allow any hemorrhaging of slaves across its borders.
“Eventually the South, like all other countries, would have ended slavery, but on its own terms. I don’t know if that would have prevented Jim Crow but it might have.”
This is a big assumption frequently brought up in circles. The South had a roving eye to Cuba and South America as options for colonization with slavery. Would slavery have eventually died out? Yes, but likely not for a generation or more. The South’s agrarian economy was not conducive to an immediate termination. It would have taken quite a long time to change attitudes.
“Race relations in the North would have been different (and possibly better) without the influence of Southerners in Congress.”
This is an interesting idea and is likely true. But, the North was quite racist in its own right. The North was not so much interested in the freedom of slaves; while acknowledging human bondage was increasingly against the principles of the founding of the country, northerners were none too pleased to have to vie for limited jobs with a competing free black population. I wonder if the stark differences between a northern “free” country and a southern “slave” country would have created constant political bickering and moral grandstanding between the two nations on “human rights” and who was better than the other.
“The North probably would not/could not have engaged in all the foreign colonizing adventures of the Unioin, thus again saving lives.”
Possibly. Another interesting comment, though. America’s increasing industrialization seemed to continue to point to the innate and incessant need to expand its influence. I’m not sure further colonization could have been prevented. We know the South was already commenting on other territories. The North would likely have, too. Seems to be a common problem with countries that grow too fast.
“Texas might have seceded from the New South and either have become its own country or joined with Mexico – with enormous beneficial effects for the North (our school books would not be subject to a Texas mindset) and, possibly, to Mexico. Besides, it would have pretty much solved the North’s immigration problem”
Hmmm…herein lies one of the interesting discussion points often brought up. If the South was allowed to secede, what would prevent further secession by other northern or southern states when they didn’t get their way? With the precedent set, further balkanization was a possibility (Georgia occasionally lashed out about leaving the Confederacy). If America became increasingly fractured into multiple mini countries, would the land be sufficiently weak enough to interest certain world nations into sailing over and extending their own empire?