Deaths of blacks during Civil War pondered

Last week, this blog wrote about a recent study that estimates some 750,000 Americans died during the War Between the States, rather than the 620,000 figure that’s generally been accepted as gospel for more than a century. 

However, James Downs of Oxford University Press highlights an important distinction: J. David Hacker, the Binghamton University SUNY historian who compiled the study, included only soldiers in his calculations, failing to reflect the mortality of former slaves during the war. 

“If former slaves were included in this figure, the Civil War death toll would likely be over a million casualties,” he writes at OUPBlog

Hacker published a paper late last year in Civil War History revealing the new 750,000 figure based on demographic methods and sophisticated statistical software he used to study newly digitized US census records from 1850 to 1880. 

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. 

Given the margin of error, deaths from the 1861-65 conflict could have ranged from 617,877 to 851,066. Hacker split the difference and settled on an estimate of 750,000 dead, 21 percent higher than the long-accepted figure. 

In Hacker’s study there is only a passing reference to former slaves’ mortality, Downs writes. 

According to both those in the 19th century who tallied deaths for the war and Hacker, former slaves were “civilians” and were therefore considered part of the larger military death toll. 

“Yet tens of thousands of slaves died during the Civil War,” Downs writes. “They were shot by Confederate soldiers, and according to new research conducted by Duke historian Thavolia Glymph, Union soldiers shot at former slaves. But many, many more died from the same illnesses that claimed the lives of white soldiers.” 

More soldiers died from the outbreaks of pneumonia, yellow fever and smallpox that plagued Union and Confederate camps than died in combat, he states. 

“As ex-slaves liberated themselves from Southern plantations and took refuge in Union camps during the war, they came into direct contact with these illnesses, became infected, and died in staggering numbers,” Downs writes. “These former slaves and soldiers died in the same camps from the same diseases and therefore should considered be the same in terms of the war’s death toll.” 

Emancipated slaves died from an explosive smallpox epidemic that began in Washington, DC, in 1862 and spread across the South, from the Carolinas to the Mississippi Valley in 1863 and 1864. 

“By the war’s end in 1865, the epidemic had moved westward, where it claimed the lives of countless Native Americans,” he writes. “The rough 19th century estimate was that 60,000 former slaves died from the epidemic, but doctors treating black patients often claimed that they were unable to keep accurate records due to demands on their time and the lack of manpower and resources. 

“The surviving records only include the number of black patients whom doctors encountered; tens of thousands of other slaves had no contact with army doctors, leaving no records of their deaths. This is to say nothing of the thousands of Native Americans who died during the war –

 and who are not referenced in Hacker’s study,” Downs adds. 

“By relying purely on the census as the primary document, Hacker follows in the 19th century illogic of seeing black people and Native Americans as outside of the purview of those who died during the Civil War.” 

Downs raises an interesting point. One certainly has to wonder if the deaths of blacks who were dragooned into serving the Confederate Army as teamsters, blacksmiths, or, quite simply, as common laborers, has ever been be considered when calculating casualty figures for the conflict? 

What about slaves who accompanied the owners, or the owners’ sons, into the army as servants?  Undoubtedly, they too fell victim to disease and battle. 

The Union side made heavy use of black teamsters and laborers, as well. 

Given the rapidity with which an epidemic could sweep through a camp, the difficulties in burying large numbers of victims and the poor record-keeping inherent at the time, we’ll never know how many blacks died during the war. 

But given that we’re unsure within 100,000 or more of how many whites died during the Civil War, it’s hardly surprising we have even less information on mortality figures for former slaves. 

But Downs deserves credit for attempting to bring the issue to the forefront. 

(HT: Dead Confederates: A Civil War Era Blog)

6 thoughts on “Deaths of blacks during Civil War pondered

  1. There are so many stories of how slaves and former slaves impacted US history that are just now being told. Reminds me of a lecture I went to a few years back, showing how Underground Railroad routes went right through free black settlements. While few white settlements kept records of sheltering fugitive slaves, even fewer black ones did. Thanks for this post.

  2. Where does the author get the idea that black slaves were “shot by confederates “? While it is possible that this happened once in a great while it would be so rare as to be insignificant in statistical terms. This vague statement shows the author’s cultural bias, but other than that it is a good article.

    • I read of an instance that occurred at the war’s end in South Carolina where freed slaves were rioting near, I believe, Georgetown, SC. Confederate troops, or at least what had been Confederate troops, charged the mob and killed many of those who were looting. This incident was revealed in the 1930s by one of the men who participated, then in his 80s. As you say, it may have been a rare occurrence, but it’s also important to note that the end of the war, as is often the case with most wars, was a chaotic period. And although the men who did the killing were Confederates, it’s not the same as Confederate troops killing blacks at random or for sport, as the article would seem to assert.

  3. Not a problem, and I appreciate you following up. Unfortunately, many media outlets fail to follow up on initial stories, or try to connect the dots, which leave contradictory articles out there. It is a real crapshoot given the paucity of records from that era, particularly for minority groups and among those on the homefront.

    Take care.

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