Counting the Dead – The Civil War Numbers Game

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 10.40.35 AMThis morning, I reread 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 for what they were fighting. 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 2010ish. The current census reports the population of the United States hovers at 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.

With compliments,


3 thoughts on “Counting the Dead – The Civil War Numbers Game”

  1. Excellent post. Numbers don’t mean anything unless we put the human face to it. The fact that men of both sides at the Wilderness in 1864, three years into the bloody Civil War, were willing and ready to continue to sacrifice in such numbers is a testament to their dedication and resolve to their respective causes, whatever that may be for each soldier. While we do not have to agree with what they fought for, we at least must respect their commitment to such a cause that they were ready to lay down everything for. This is especially pertinent as we look at 1864, the Overland Campaign, Atlanta Campaign, a war weary North and a growing democratic peace platform in the North. 1864 is a great year to study how the numerical losses were beginning to significantly impact politics, nationalism, etc. on both sides. It is a great question to ask, how were Americans in 186-1865 different than us today? Than Vietnam era? Civil War Americans were willing to accept a casualty rate that modern Americans would be appalled by. Why is that? Great questions! When teaching at undergrads during graduate school, I used the modern context of 6 million plus deaths often. That always stunned a few. I also had them all stand and would use, for example, the 26th N.C. or 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg to demonstrate the degree of casualties during some of these battles. Thank you. Numbers are great but need this context to understand its full meaning.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Ian. I have always found it interesting to watch the expressions of amazement when I calculate those numbers for students. They are generally awe struck.

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