Thursday, April 5, 2012

Counting, Recounting, and Counting the Civil War Dead Again

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?




  1. Eleven years ago, after 9-11, the count of the dead kept growing and growing, until it approached that of Antietam. People tuned into the death count almost as though the thought that if it just got a little higher and became the deadliest day in American history then 9-11 would take on a special meaning. The number of dead was already so high, that adding a few more to hit a record had an odd fascination, even though each new name meant another devastated family.

    Then, all at once, the death total dropped. Because of maiden names and variant spelling, hundreds of the dead had been counted twice.

    The sudden change in numbers did not impact on the way 9-11 was interpreted. Bush didn't say, "Whoa, I'm not going to invade Iraq because there are 25% fewer dead than I originally thought." And, I dare say, 9-11 will be a more recognizable name to future generation than Antietam.

    Perhaps, to paraphrase Stalin, one man's death is a tragedy, 750,000 men's deaths is a statistic.

  2. If I remember the the article correctly, one of the main reasons for raising the death toll was the author's determination that the Confederacy had significantly under-counted its casualties, both because of politics and because of bad record keeping, as well as because many of the casualty records of the South were destroyed by the Union army during the war.

    A substantial increase in the actual number of Confederate dead -- and the possible intentional under-counting and under-reporting of deaths by the Confederate government -- seems pretty significant to me.

  3. I think the numbers are significant from a 19th century perspective because it reveals just how determined each side was to pursue their cause to victory. Historians who speak of internal divisions and a lack of cause/nationalism often overlook this fact. I spoke about that the last time I wrote of this article.
    Now I am looking at how modern observers calculate devastation - and what I feel is an inability to comprehend enormous abstractions on a personal level.

  4. Good points about the revised figures and what they might or might not mean to us today, Keith. Of course the new tally is valuable in and of itself because it seems to correct what were clearly false figures. The truth, in and of itself, has a value all its own. That said, I was also put off by Foner's comment. It's like the people who argue over whether 9 or 10 million people were killed in WW1. As Stalin put it in his cynical way, "One death is a tragedy and one million is a statistic."