Rethinking the Civil War Dead

It seems particularly topical as the United States commemorates the Civil War sesquicentennial that one of the most steady and recognizably tragic numbers in American history – 620,000 – has been called into question, and perhaps invalidated.  Although historians have long called for a rethinking of the war’s casualties, with James M. McPherson and others speculating that under-reported Confederate deaths resulted in the current low estimate, for over a century the figure 620,000 seemed immune to the historical revision.  J. David Hacker’s new research, presented in the December volume of Civil War History, presents just such a recalculation.  Drawing on new data and methods, especially new Census data, Hacker, professor of history at SUNY Binghamton, projects that war’s human toll was closer to 750,000, and perhaps as high as 850,000.

Responding to the recent spate of Civil War scholarship concerning death and dying from historians Drew Gilpin Faust, Mark Schantz, Mark Neely and others, Hacker reminds us that the war’s death toll was originally thought to be closer to 850,000 and it was only after incomplete estimates of Confederate dead and several studies that were hampered by data quality that the agreed upon number of 618,222 emerged.   By using new data sets produced in the last 10 years for the 1850-1880 Censuses and estimating Census undercounts, Hacker has changed the way we think about one of the most grim and iconic numbers in American history.

For those who might wonder about the broader historical significance of this new casualty estimate, the statistical enlargement speaks for itself.  At 20% higher than 620,000, 750,000 entirely reconfigures how historians think about postwar society: the numbers of orphans, widows, veterans, the relationship between the state and the individual, and, of course, the overall human cost of the Civil War relative to other U.S. wars.  The new number estimates that the Civil War death rate – roughly 1 in 10 men of military age – was nearly twice as great as the American death rate of the American Revolution and seven times greater than that of World War Two.  As Hacker explains in a recent New York Times piece on his research:

The difference between the two estimates [620,000 and 750,000] 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. In other words, the war touched more lives and communities more deeply than we thought, and thus shaped the course of the ensuing decades of American history in ways we have not yet fully grasped. True, the war was terrible in either case. But just how terrible, and just how extensive its consequences, can only be known when we have a better count of the Civil War dead.

Overall, Hacker’s work represents one of the most long-awaited and fundamental revisions of Civil War history in some time.  I suspect it is only a matter of time before the new estimate gains general acceptance among historians of the Civil War era.

Sources: J. David Hacker, “A Census-Based Count of the Civil War Dead,” Civil War History Volume 57, No. 4 (December 2011): 307-348; J. David Hacker, “Recounting the Dead,” New York Times, September 20, 2011.

7 Responses to Rethinking the Civil War Dead

  1. I have read both sources cited, with the idea that I would write a similar article (strike that off the list!) and was very impressed by the revisions. You have done a wonderful job addressing the changes in post-war scholarship that will be affected.
    As to acceptance of these new figures, I have already included them in the manuscript of my book, First Fallen. It is so sad to think that 750,000 (or more) deaths separate the deaths of Colonel Ellsworth and President Lincoln.
    I really appreciate your efforts here.

  2. Thanks, Meg. Not to mention the inestimable number of deaths due to sectional related violence prior to 1861 and the estimated 15-25,000 deaths as a result of political violence in the former Confederacy between 1865 and 1877 (which doesn’t include Kentucky, Missouri, or the racially hostile Lower North). This is just speculation, but one might be looking at a number approaching 900,000 or perhaps higher if you account for the entire CW era as a continuum of violence centered on slavery, secession, and race.

    And of course Hacker’s 130,000 increase would be well over a million men today in terms of relative population.

  3. Thanks for drawing our attention to some important research, Matt. Those numbers are staggering.

    I’ll have to see if I can track down Hacker when I’m in Binghamton this semester.

  4. Very interesting estimate. However, it does not include civilians. No one talks of the loss of non-combatants. I am sure that will raise the number significantly. I would love to see some writings of civilian deaths.

  5. Ummm–since this post got printed before my own on the same topic got written, I didn’t know exactly what to do with my notes. Finally, I decided to put them into my own blog, First Fallen. There will be 4 in all, as my posts are shorter, and they end tomorrow–1/26. There are some interesting points, good pix, and if I have messed up another blogger’s name, I apologize. I seem to do that. I don’t mean to.

    So check out some of the other sources listed, and my efforts. We should never forget the people who died for OUR country, at any time.

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