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Historian Revises US Civil War Casualty Statistics

The Civil War was even bloodier than we thought.

For over a century historians assumed 618,222 was a reasonably accurate estimate of the Civil War dead.

Binghamton University Professor David Hacker’s new study challenges those numbers. Instead of relying upon scattered military records that could be incomplete or difficult to track down like the 1890s count (compiled by William Fox and Thomas Livermore), Hacker used census data before and after the war, taking into account immigration, natural decay, to come up with the new number: 750,000, a full 20% more than the previous estimate.

Hacker, though, admits his numbers are prone to inaccuracies as well—mostly because his sources (poorly administered censuses) are not ideal sources. But overall historians seem open to his approach; the methods used for the conventional estimates are even shakier, and a higher casualty estimate fits with what is known about the difficulties of the postwar period, especially in the South.

Hacker didn’t discover new information; he used new thinking to make more sense out of information that we already had. This is the kind of insight we could all use more of. Watch Professor Hacker discuss his findings here.

The Civil War is one of history’s most intensively studied conflicts. It was fought in modern times, both sides kept good records (the North more so than the South), and there is no shortage of eyewitness accounts, contemporary documents and other pieces of evidence for historians to use. That with all this information we accepted a serious undercount of the death toll for more than 100 years speaks volumes about the limits of our historical knowledge and understanding.

The future is unpredictable — but to some degree, so also is the past.

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  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    I watched the video, and I didn’t hear the answers I was curious about. In massive bloody wars like the civil war, there is always a refugee problem as civilians leave the areas of combat. At the Time of the civil war there were only 34 states, and the census only measures the people living in the US. So my question is did many of the people missing in the 1870 census just move west to territories and areas which were not states yet? Prof. Hacker shows a graph of Death Rates of men by age, but doesn’t explain if any of those he is counting as dead didn’t run away to avoid the war. How many young men went to Canada, Mexico, Points west, etc… to escape the war? Surely this is the biggest question about using the census to measure war deaths, and he never answered it in the video.

  • Luke Lea

    I read recently that something like half the able bodied adult males in the South were killed. That sound like an exaggeration to me but still the genetic impact of the war is not to be dismissed: a lot of the most hot-headed, aggressive types were simply wiped away.

  • Government Drone

    I’d heard (probably from Ken Burns’ documentary) that in 1866, postwar Alabama devoted 25% of its state budget for artificial limbs for its injured veterans; even with a small state budget, this suggests quite a lot of bloodshed.

  • Matt

    Hacker, though, admits his numbers are prone to inaccuracies as well—mostly because his sources (poorly administered censuses) are not ideal sources.

    I suppose that this is accurate, but it stands to reason that censuses in the post-war era would have been more exhaustive than antebellum ones, so I doubt that his number will be erroneously low.

  • Zack B

    I can see it now. ‘Hacker raises War Death Toll to 750,000’

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