Wednesday, April 4, 2012


It is well known among Civil War buffs and photo historians that Alexander Gardner (1821-1882) and others repositioned some of the bodies of the men killed during the bloody 19th c. American conflict (interesting case study here) before capturing their moving images of the aftermath of battles like Antietam (above) and Gettysburg. What was also thought to be well known was the tally of casualties on both sides: 360,222 Union troops and 258,000 Confederate troops, for a total of 618,222. What we didn't know until now is that this number - the greatest toll of any war in American history - has been underestimated by 20%. As revealed in the journal Civil War History and covered in Monday's New York Times, the new total stands at 750,000. The calculations were performed by demographic historian J. David Hacker* of Binghamton University,and scholars are agreeing with his conclusions. The old count was calculated in 1889 based on muster lists, battlefield reports, and pension records, with a proportional number added to account for death by disease. Hacker recalculated the mortality of 20-to-30-year-olds by comparing by comparing newly digitized and sortable data 10 years apart in the 19th c., but the total was still lacking for several reasons:
  • It undercounted immigrants because the census did not differentiate between them and native-born Americans
  • It assumed that the Confederate death rates from disease were the same as Union rates, but the North had better medical care, food, and shelter
  • The number was based on the notorious 1870 census, which undercounted the population
  • The census indicated state of residence, but that did not verify which side the male citizens fought on.
Hacker adjusted for all of this and extrapolated that 650,000 to 850,000 men died as a result of the Civil War, offering the midpoint of these brackets as his estimate. He emphasized that his methodology was far from perfect, and said of his findings, “Part of me thinks it is just a curiosity. But wars have profound economic, demographic and social costs. We’re seeing at least 37,000 more widows here, and 90,000 more orphans. That’s a profound social impact, and it’s our duty to get it right.”

*Sue brought this story to my attention and mentioned that Dave Hacker is a family friend. Having traced her genealogy centuries into the past, she notes, "Very interesting how he arrived at the new figure."

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