Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Civil War Numbers Game: Counting the Dead

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I recently read an article in the New York Times Disunion series entitled "Recounting the Dead" by J. David Hacker. Hacker concludes that although Civil War history has gone through any number of revisions, the generally agreed upon number of deaths resulting from that war amount to around 650,000.

Until recently.

Hacker illustrates how the death toll has risen to upwards of 750,000...perhaps as high as 850,000. Read the article yourself to find out how all of this came about. I want to talk about what these numbers mean.

It seems strangely perverse that we can throw numbers around like this...without a little explanation. Of course, Civil War literature is full of statements (somewhat cliche these days) such as "more died in the Civil War than all other wars combined" or the ever popular "at [insert battle here] thousands fell in a matter of minutes." Then you have the "bloodiest" scenarios. Bloodiest battle, bloodiest single day, bloodiest three days, bloodiest assault, bloodiest general, bloodiest regiment, etc., etc.

But apart from making modern observers shake their heads in disbelief, what do these numbers and observations tell us? Were nineteenth-century citizens extraordinary  marksmen? Did they care little for human life?  Did they flippantly cast soldiers pell-mell to their inexorable deaths? Not likely.

The staggering loss of life suggests something that so many journalists, historians, buffs, armchair generals, and narrators for the History Channel seem to miss: the citizens of the Union and the Confederacy were deeply and profoundly committed to their respective causes. Citizen soldiers were not fooled, tricked, duped, or hoodwinked. What's more...they knew what they were fighting for. For the most part, they willingly (often enthusiastically) participated in a fight to the finish, despite the mounting casualty figures.

To put things in perspective - let's do a little population comparison to see just how willing nineteenth-century Americans were to put up with such grim and devastating numbers. for the sake of argument, let's also stick with the lower estimation of 650,000 deaths.

The population of the United States in 1860 (that is the whole enchilada...before secession) was roughly 31,500,000 people - and around 4,000,000 of these folks were held in bondage. Based on the laws of higher mathematics, that means that somewhere around 2% of the total 1860 population lost their lives as a result of this war.

Fast forward to 2011. The current population of the United States is roughly 311,000,000...a shade less than ten times the 1860 population. Now...let's just say (again for the sake of argument) that United States forces in Iraq and Afghanistan sustained  losses comparable to the combined Union and Confederate armies and navies. That would mean that 6,220,000 United States soldiers, sailors, and Marines would have been killed over the course of the last several years.

I find these statistics sobering to say the least...and doubt quite adamantly that Americans would tolerate such dismal numbers today. The total death toll in Vietnam eventually numbered close to 58,000, and Americans of the 1960s did not stand for it. Today, the media report military deaths on an individual level - and Americans are intensely divided over what such sacrifice means.  I cannot know for certain what would transpire if news of deaths by the thousands appeared nightly on CNN - but I can only imagine Americans taking to the streets in revolutionary fury.

A century and a half span the distance between our current wars, our wars in recent history, and the Civil War era - and I believe many have lost sight of exactly what Americans from both sides of the Potomac were willing to endure between 1861 and 1865. It seems clear that they were far more intensely committed to their respective nations and causes than what is often assumed. And because of this we lose sight of what nation meant to nineteenth-century Americans. The idea that southern soldiers favored regional (state rights, remember?) over national allegiance or that northern soldiers thought little of the concept of Union still holds a pretty tight grasp on both popular and scholarly takes on the war.

One side sought to preserve a nation, one side sought to establish an entirely new one. Of course there were some on both sides who opposed these efforts - opposed the war entirely. But overall, numbers do not lie...especially in a war between two democratic republics. The People of the 1860s supported their causes to the bitter end - enough so that they sustained unparallelled losses.

So next time someone quotes you numbers, whether they be 650,000, 750,000 or 850,000 - you might want to remind them what that actually means.




  1. The more I learn about the Civil War, the more impressed I am with the generation that fought for the Union.

  2. I don't know who "Keith" is but, Sir, I commend you. You have put into words what EVERY American should think about from time to time. When people discuss slavery and how the "white man" enslaved blacks, we have to remember that there were still a lot of good men who knew slavery was wrong and those men were willing to die for their beliefs......those men were also white. When people discuss war and a 'cause' and whether or not they believe in the 'cause' we have to think about what a true cause is. What is right and what is wrong. Life is precious but life without freedom is cheap. This is just my opinion but then I also believe in dying for your beliefs. I fought in Iraq during the first Gulf War. That was the fastest and most decisive military victory in history. That being said, no, we didn't lost many UN troops but we left the Iraq littered with Iraqi soldiers like trash. It was unlike anything I could have EVER imagined. They hated me and wanted to kill me but now, seeing them laying dead, I didn't hate them. I just saw a human being who was laying there dead. I don't know what others take from you words but I know what I take from them. I won't put that here because it's up to each individual to decide for themselves what they think about what you've said. I just want to say "thank you" for putting into words what I've thought many times but just not related to the Civil War. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for the comment TommyKnockerz - and you're welcome :)
    Keith, by the way, is me - you can find out what I've been up to for the past several years here -

    stop by Cosmic America any time!

  4. I so agree we can easily shield ourselves from the fully reality behind the numbers. I've looked at it from the angle as one working in current civil war contexts as a humanitarian knowing the # of displaced, # of children separated from their parents, # of single female headed households, # of child soldiers etc. These #s can be overwhelming and numbing. These numbers also don't tell the individual stories behind and it takes your imagination to conjure the reality of the numbers - the pain of the relatives left behind, the trauma and the suffering.

    I was actually reflecting on this point quite recently when I visited the Chickamuga and Chattanooga national military parks. I was very impressed by how Civil War Veterans themselves choose gravestones to commemorate the battles fought on those fields. Some of the worst causalities happened on these battlegrounds and the gravestones for me really brought that point home. These gravestones were found throughout the park. I don't know the numbers and outside of a few exceptions the majority of the gravestones honored a specific military division and not an individual. They seemed infinite. Not sure if my impression was correct but I sensed that the veterans wanted to impart on visitors the human consequences of the battle. I found it quite powerful.