A recent New York Times article by J. David Hacker contradicted a previously-held certainty of the Civil War: the death toll. It is almost mantra to say that just fewer than 620,000 Americans, 618,222 to be exact, died in our country’s most destructive conflict. We all know the possibilities for inaccuracy; record keeping was not first priority on the battlefields and many men went un- or misreported during the war. Early historians offered widely varied numbers, some reaching all the way up to 850,000 dead, but after 1900 the number settled at 618,222 and has remained undisputed for more than a century.
New analysis of census reports from 1850 to the turn of the century place the death toll at 750,000 Americans, including the casualties from both Union and Confederate armies and taking into account those men who were “discharged to die” and thus did not die in active service.
What does this increase mean for our understandings of the Civil War? The war is already the deadliest and most destructive conflict in our national history, does an additional 130,000 deaths change that? Of course, for historians an increased death toll will raise new questions and change statistical calculations in future research. Having a more accurate idea of the devastation of the Civil War on the country’s population is important; only time will tell what new meanings and understandings we will gain from it.
[Editors: For more thoughts about the revised casualty figures, see Matt Stanley's related post from January.]