Historian: Civil War dead vastly understated

A Binghamton University historian believes the number of Americans who died in the War Between the States, long said to have been around 620,000, may undercount by as much as one-third the actual number of deaths during the 1861-65 conflict.

David Hacker has used 19th century census data to calculate a new estimate of the Civil War dead, and he says it is much higher than previously thought.

Hacker said his research suggests 752,000 men died as a result of the war, but the number could be as high as 851,000, according to a report in the Charleston Post and Courier.

Hacker said he originally started out researching 19th century mortality rates.

“The traditional estimate has become iconic,” he said. “I was originally researching census under-counts. If you know mortality rates, it’s possible to get a better estimate. I was going with the 620,000 and what I was coming up with didn’t make much sense.”

Hacker used census microdata that had been compiled by the University of Minnesota to look at the decades before and after the war to establish normal survival rates for men and women. Then he used that pattern on the 1860s, according to the Post and Courier.

Based on that, Hacker said, it appears that 650,000 to 850,000 additional men died in that decade, giving him an average of 750,000.

Because it is math, not actual tracking of individuals, there is no way to put a number on which side these additional dead come from, but it’s clear to some historians that the Confederate estimate is very low. Many of the South’s records were destroyed, and US Army officials claimed Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee often purposely under-counted casualties in battle.

Hacker will publish his findings in the December issue of Civil War History.

Hatcher said tracking people, even soldiers, in the mid-19th century was difficult. “Some men just disappeared. They could have been killed by the enemy and buried anonymously, ending up listed as missing in action as opposed to a casualty,” according to the Post and Courier. “And, he notes, it was easy to get lost in those days.”

It has long been believed that South Carolina, which lost at least 13,000 men, or approximately one-quarter of its white adult male population, during the war, has undercounted the number of individuals its lost as a result of the war, for example.

Of the 620,000 number, less than half – 260,000 – are Confederate casualties. Hacker said because of his methodology and available data there was no way to break down the number of deaths by state or even between Union and Confederate.

James McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian, said that he believes the difference in the accepted number and Hacker’s findings is probably related to the under-reporting of Southern deaths in the conflict, according to the Post and Courier.

“Even if it might not be quite as high as 750,000, I have always been convinced that the consensus figure of 620,000 is too low, and especially that the figure of 260,000 Confederate dead is definitely too low,” McPherson said.

Hacker said the inexact and lost records mean that there will never be a completely accurate picture of just how many lives the war cost.

“There are always soldiers you’re going to miss,” he said. “You’re always going to be low.”

2 thoughts on “Historian: Civil War dead vastly understated

  1. Pingback: Amateur historian uncovers additonal 3,000 Civil War dead | The Cotton Boll Conspiracy

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