New study increases tally of Civil War dead

04/17/2012

To understand the impact of a recent study that suggests some 750,000 Americans perished during the War Between the States, rather than the 620,000 figure that’s been accepted for more than a century, consider this:

Given the current US population, the new figure would be the equivalent of 7.5 million dead today.

“The Civil War left a culture of death, a culture of mourning, beyond anything Americans had ever experienced or imagined,” David Blight, a Civil War historian at Yale University, told the BBC. “It left a degree of family and social devastation unprecedented for any Western society.”

Historian J. David Hacker of Binghamton University SUNY published a paper late last year in Civil War History revealing the new figure, based on demographic methods and sophisticated statistical software he used to study newly digitized US census records from 1850 to 1880.

Hacker began by taking digitized samples from the decennial census counts taken 1850-1880.

Using statistics software SPSS, he counted the number of native-born white men of military age in 1860 and determined how many of that group were still alive in 1870, according to the BBC.

He compared that survival rate with the survival rates of the men of the same ages from 1850-1860, and from 1870-1880 – the census periods before and after the 1861-65 conflict.

Hacker controlled for other demographic assumptions, including mortality rates of foreign-born soldiers, added the relatively small number of black soldiers killed, and compared the numbers with the rates of female survival over the same periods, the BBC reported.

The calculations yielded the number of “excess” deaths of military-age men between 1860-1870 – the number who died in the war or in the five subsequent years from causes related to the war.

Hacker acknowledges his method leaves room for a large margin of error. Also, he cannot distinguish between Union and Confederate dead, battlefield deaths and deaths from illness, nor tally postwar deaths from wounds incurred in battle.

Given the margin of error, deaths from the Civil War could therefore range from 617,877 to 851,066. Hacker split the difference and settled on an estimate of 750,000 dead.

The new figure is 21 percent higher than the number which had been accepted since the late 19th century, a figure reached through the combined efforts of two former Union army officers.

“William Fox and Thomas Livermore based their estimates on battlefield reports, pension filings of Civil War widows and orphans, and other sources that, historians have acknowledged, significantly undercounted the war dead,” according to the BBC.

Most of the uncounted war dead were probably Southerners due poor record keeping and destruction of archives during the war, according to the Connecticut History Connection.

“The ‘ghosts of the Confederacy’ now seem more numerous and persistent than ever,” Civil War History states.

Hacker’s conclusion means that one in 10 white men of military age in 1860 died as a result of the war and 200,000 white women were widowed.

The undercount is not surprising to anyone who has tried to record the graves of Confederate soldiers.

On more than one occasion I have come across graves of soldiers which detail how and when they died while in Confederate service, only to find no record exists in state archives of their service.

A recent example is that of Albert Ker Boyce, who served in the 14th South Carolina Infantry and was killed on July 10, 1862, at the age of 19.

The obelisk on his grave in the Johnstone Family Cemetery in Newberry, S.C., reads that Boyce was mortally wounded at Gaines’s Mill on June 27, 1862, and died 13 days later in the Banner Hospital in Richmond, Va., yet there appears to be no record of his having served.

Hacker’s conclusion “seems soundly based,” said James M. McPherson, author of “Battle Cry of Freedom.” He long ago realized the standard estimate of 258,000 Confederate war dead was a significant underestimate.

(Above: Grave of Albert Ker Boyce, 14th South Carolina Infantry, who died on July 10, 1862, after being wounded at the Battle of Gaines’s Mill. There appears to be no record of Boyce’s service or death in South Carolina state archives.)

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One Response to “New study increases tally of Civil War dead”


  1. [...] week, this blog wrote about a recent study that estimates some 750,000 Americans died during the War Between the States, rather than the [...]

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