Civil War Death Toll Keeps Rising

It has long been recognised by many historians and scholars alike that the death toll of the American Civil War was in the region of 618,222. These figures were gained through casualty figures and official statistics gleaned at the time. However, brand new research recently compiled following the release into the public domain of Census data material of the time has concluded that these statistics may well be far below the actual casualty rates that occurred during the Civil War. This may reflect opinions of other Civil War historians of both the 19th and 20th century who have long argued that the figures are far too low. Indeed, immediately after the Civil War, Francis Walker, Superintendant of the 1870 Census, estimated that the number of male deaths was "not less than 850,000".

Post war accounts of the Federal Army drawn from regimental musters and battle reports compiled by Provost Marshal General James Fry estimated that 279,689 men died in the War but this was quickly raised to 360,222 as a result of widows and orphans representations of lost ones. The Union Surgeons Office documented 304,000 deaths who died during actual service. However, Francis Walker argued that "Tens of thousands were discharged to die: tens of thousands died within the first few months of discharge and tens of thousands more lingered through the first or second year". He concluded "500,000 will surely be a moderate estimate for the direct losses among the Union Armies". Post war accounts of the Confederate Army proved impossible. The Provost Marshal Fry report indicated only 133,689 from incomplete returns and estimates. Francis Walker roughly estimated that taking into account those who fought, longer service and a relative lack of food, medicine and skilled physicians stated " It is difficult to see how anyone could, upon reflection, place the losses of the Confederate Armies at less than 350,000 men".

Researcher J. David Hacker of the Binghamton University of New York has just produced research that indicates the number of people killed in the War should be nearer 750,000 or even as high as 850,000. In other words, a further 20,000 casualties (over 20% higher than the number frequently quoted). David Hacker based his research on the breakdown of Census material recently released that identifies every individual on his or her age, race and birthplace rather than grouping them as an aggregate number of people in a specific age group. He then established the population trends for deaths in the decades before, during and after the Civil War. He then compared the census data for 1850-1860,1860-1870 and 1870-1880 and discovered that the number of civilian deaths amongst native born men in the 1860-1870 period, encompassing the Civil War years, was far lower than would be expected based on similar trends among native born women. As a result, he reasoned that the difference between the two, 750,000, represented the number of men killed in the War.

Many scholars have long suspected that the original casualty estimates were less than accurate. A major factor being that neither side had standardised personnel records. Both sides lacked systematic recording procedures. Battle, Hospital and Prison records were incomplete and inaccurate. Many soldiers of both sides were buried unidentified. There was no means of officially informing the family of a relatives' death. If a Union or Confederate Soldier did not come home after the War, his family would have presumed him dead but his respective Country may not have counted him at all. In addition, the Confederates had very poor records and without national pensions for widows and orphans, there were few documents for cross checking. James McPherson, the Civil War Historian said of the new figures that "My guess is that most of the difference between the estimate of 620,000 and Hackers higher figure is the result of underreported Confederate deaths".

So what? Well, the new estimate may involve looking at the American Civil War in a very different light. This new figure reveals that 1 in 10 men died and not 1 in 13 as previously thought. The total number of casualties would now exceed all other American Wars combined. Far more women were widowed and far more children orphaned. The American Civil War shaped the whole of American history in the decades to come. Maybe, it affected people and communities far more that we thought.

Submitted by Stewart "Goober" Douglas.

Sources J. David Hacker, Binghamton University of New York.

The above article appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, Spring 2012