Civil War Death Toll

“War means fighting. And fighting means killing.”        

Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest

Hattip to my co-blogger Paul Zummo.  One hundred and fifty years later we are still learning about the greatest war in US history, even in regard to such a basic fact of the conflict as the number of men killed in it:

For 110 years, the numbers stood as gospel: 618,222 men died in the Civil War, 360,222 from the North and 258,000 from the South — by far the greatest toll of any war in American history.       

But new research shows that the numbers were far too low.      

By combing through newly digitized census data from the 19th century, J. David Hacker, a demographic historian from Binghamton University in New York, has recalculated the death toll and increased it by more than 20 percent — to 750,000.      

The new figure is already winning acceptance from scholars. Civil War History, the journal that published Dr. Hacker’s paper, called it “among the most consequential pieces ever to appear” in its pages. And a pre-eminent authority on the era, Eric Foner, a historian at Columbia University, said:      

“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.”      

The old figure dates back well over a century, the work of two Union Army veterans who were passionate amateur historians: William F. Fox and Thomas Leonard Livermore.      

Fox, who had fought at Antietam, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, knew well the horrors of the Civil War. He did his research the hard way, reading every muster list, battlefield report and pension record he could find.      

In his 1889 treatise “Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, 1861-1865,” Fox presented an immense mass of information. Besides the aggregate death count, researchers could learn that the Fifth New Hampshire lost more soldiers (295 killed) than any other Union regiment; that Gettysburg and Waterloo were almost equivalent battles, with each of the four combatant armies suffering about 23,000 casualties; that the Union Army had 166 regiments of black troops; and that the average Union soldier was 5 feet 8 1/4 inches tall and weighed 143 1/2 pounds.      

Fox’s estimate of Confederate battlefield deaths was much rougher, however: a “round number” of 94,000, a figure compiled from after-action reports. In 1900, Livermore set out to make a more complete count. In his book, “Numbers and Losses in the Civil War in America, 1861-65,” he reasoned that if the Confederates had lost proportionally the same number of soldiers to disease as the Union had, the actual number of Confederate dead should rise to 258,000.      

And that was that. The Fox-Livermore numbers continued to be cited well into the 21st century, even though few historians were satisfied with them. Among many others, James M. McPherson used them without citing the source in “Battle Cry of Freedom,” his Pulitzer-winning 1988 history of the war.      

Enter Dr. Hacker, a specialist in 19th-century demographics, who was accustomed to using a system called the two-census method to calculate mortality. That method compares the number of 20-to-30-year-olds in one census with the number of 30-to-40-year-olds in the next census, 10 years later. The difference in the two figures is the number of people who died in that age group.  

Go here to the New York Times to read the fascinating rest.  I have long thought that the traditional death toll was too low.  There were simply too many very, very obscure skirmishes, and too many soldiers in hastily raised units, especially late in the War for the South, whose deaths were never properly recorded.  Imagine, 750,000 deaths out of a population of 30,000,000 and an adult male population of around 10,000,000.  No wonder the Civil War has had such a staggering impact on this nation.

5 Responses to Civil War Death Toll

  • Crazy to think how much anger fuled the South to fight so violently to want to keep slavery.

  • And that’s not counting civilian deaths, of which there must have been many, particularly in 1) cities targeted for siege and attack such as Vicksburg, Atlanta and Richmond, and 2) areas plagued by guerilla warfare such as Missouri, Kansas, Kentucky, etc.

    If I’m not mistaken, the staggering number of combat deaths during the war did leave numerous women of that generation (particularly in the South) either widows or “old maids.” Obviously societal expectations of women would have to have shifted in an environment where so many had lost husbands or had no reasonable prospects of marriage. That would make a really interesting academic study, I imagine.

  • Don, a bit off topic perhaps but I’m reading O’Reilly’s “Killing Lincoln” and was wondering if you read it and what you think of its accuracy inasmuch as you are a Civil War expert.

  • I haven’t read it yet Joe and therefore I am unable to comment. Due to Booth being killed rather than captured there is much about the assassination and the conspiracy leading up to it which still remains a mystery.

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