The Civil War was the deadliest of all American wars. Nobody agrees with that. But the death toll has long been a subject of debate.
For more than a century, the most accepted estimate was about 620,000 dead. A specific figure of 618,222 is often cited, with 360,222 Union deaths and 258,000 Confederate deaths.
This estimate was not an unreasonable guess, but a number that was established after years of research at the end of the 19e century by Union veterans William F. Fox, Thomas Leonard Livermore and others. Their work involved a comprehensive review of military documents, rolls of appeal, cemetery registers, census registers, pension registers, and other resources and documents. In 1900 Livermore published a 171 page book of his work, Numbers and losses in the Civil War in America 1861-1865.
2011 analysis increases estimate
But in 2011, the historian of demography, Dr. J. David Hacker, published “A Census-Based Count of Civil War Dead” in the academic quarterly, History of the Civil War, reporting that its extensive study of recently digitized census data concluded that a more accurate estimate of Civil War deaths is around 750,000, with a range of 650,000 to 850,000 deaths.
Hacker, an associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota, believed that a further detailed examination of the U.S. census figures for 1850, 1860, and 1870 might reveal a massive reduction in the population of young men in 1870 that would mirror the toll of the war. And that’s what he found. Hacker’s research concluded that the normal survival pattern of young American men from 1860 to 1870 was much lower – by about 750,000 – than it would have been if there had been no war.
History of the Civil War called Hacker’s findings “among the most important pieces” he has ever published. “It elevates the importance of the Civil War even more and makes a dramatic statement about how the war is a central moment in American history,” said Civil War historian Eric Foner.
“The first thing to stress is that this is an estimate of the number of missing men in 1870. It is adjusted for possible census undercoverage and other things,” Hacker told HISTORY. “This is not an estimate of the number of people who died on the battlefield. And why are these men missing? I think the only reasonable reason they’re missing is because of the civil war.
Lack of written material presents a challenge
Many Civil War historians have considered the estimate of 620,000 to be too low, especially on the Confederate side, given the lack of written records and the questionable assumption of the estimate that the men in the military Confederate people died of disease at the same rate as the men of the Union army. .
“I think historians have long believed that the numbers we’ve been citing for a century or more were not based on solid data but were in fact rough estimates that were likely to be underreported,” Hacker said. . “And for this reason, I think, the results of my study verified in the minds of some people exactly what they had suspected for a long time.”
The American Battlefield Trust, however, says it will continue to cite the estimate of 620,000. It praised Hacker’s initiative, but said its estimated range of 650,000 to 850,000 “is very wide. civilian casualties and is not directly linked to the war years of 1861-1865 “.
“They say, ‘How can you publish a number with such a large error range (650,000 to 850,000)? “? Hacker said. “So they’re going to stick with a number that we all know is much more specific. But for me the number 620,000 has a big error range with it. It’s just not published. We shouldn’t prefer this number just because it doesn’t include the possible error range. “
Deaths traced by region of birth reveal high toll in the south
Hacker’s analysis did not break down the estimate of Union and Confederate deaths because census records did not account for them. However, like details of a story on HISTORY.com in 2011, her method was able to discern patterns for different regions of birth. For example, the analysis concluded that mortality was significantly higher for white males aged 10 to 44 born in the South (13.1%) and in the border slave states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and of Delaware (12.7%) than for people born in free states and territories (6.1 percent). Data further suggests that 22.6% of southerners aged 20 to 24 in 1860 lost their lives in war.
Hacker doubts that further research on national census figures will yield a much closer or more accurate estimate of Civil War deaths. At the same time, he and other quantitative historians are excited about a vast new range of census opportunities that will be possible with the publication in 2022 of a massive and comprehensive digitization of all U.S. census records from 1850 to 1940. .
“We envision a time when there can be real contributions to historical knowledge using this data that is published,” he said. “We not only have complete census data on everyone, we have linked slaves to their owners so you can study slave families. We can relate people from one census to another, so that we can see where people were, where they moved and observe their transition, for example, from marital status from single to married, or from married widower.
“With this new data, we will be able to obtain a much more precise image. There are therefore real opportunities to better understand the Civil War generation than in the past. And it’s a really exciting time to be a quantitative Civil War historian. “