Greetings Cosmic Americans!
A couple of days ago, the New York Times ran an article on demographic historian J. David Hacker's Civil War dead recount. I talked about this research in a post back in September, 2011. I am not saying that I got the drop on the Times, I did not - the original article ran in the Times Disunion series.
Rather than once again discussing Hacker's original article, I thought it might be useful to think about numbers specifically, the dead, and what that all means to modern observers. If you recall Hacker's estimation - 750,000 deaths - inflated the generally agreed upon number of 600,000 by over 20%. I am perfectly willing to accept that Hacker's research was sound and that his new number is correct. Now what?
What does this mean in terms of remembering the war? Columbia University historian Eric Foner commented, saying what I suppose we all should say: “It even further elevates the significance of the Civil War and makes a dramatic statement about how the war is a central moment in American history. It helps you understand, particularly in the South with a much smaller population, what a devastating experience this was.”
And so with an extra 150,000 or so heaped upon the pile of mouldering Civil War corpses we can all collectively shake our head, understanding that the war was even more horrible than we thought it was before. Admittedly, this was my initial reaction. But after questioning my thoughts (a healthy exercise, by the way) I wondered if more deaths really makes a horrible war more horrible.
Well, it was certainly more horrible for the previously uncounted 150,000 and their families. But I find it difficult to believe that modern observers can qualify these abstractly large numbers - growing greater and greater with each series of revision - in any manner of degree. Indeed - I am not convinced that people are capable of conceptualizing this sort of numerical cost.
What if yet another recount reveals that 1 million died? What if we throw on a few more that died from complications of their wounds in say...1877? Or that later committed suicide as a result of psychological trauma? When will the war become so devastating - as Foner describes - that we stop thinking about it altogether?
I pose new questions to replace the counting, recounting, and counting again. Is it our macabre sensibilities that make us so inclined to seek out greater numbers of Civil War dead? Do we feel a need to make the war more horrible - as a sort of perverse lesson? And finally - how much more devastating can devastating be?