Friday, January 27, 2012

Estimating Civil War Dead? Closer To The Truth?

The new topic of interest across American Civil War blogs is the number of dead which resulted from the American Civil War. The estimated number of 618, 222 has been revised to an estimated 750,000 and may well have been as high as 850,000 dead Union and Confederate soldiers. An article by historian J. David Hacker, an associate professor of history at Binghamton University, SUNY, which appeared in the New York Times “Opinionator” on line column seems to have sparked this renewed interest. I must admit that it is a topic that needs closer scrutiny, but I must disagree with the findings set forth in the article. I must admit also that this is strictly my opinion as I am not familiar with the method of “back projection”, so I can not discount or confirm the veracity of this information. Given this, I will state why I do not agree with the new figure as presented in the article.

I question whether using census data, coupled with (or for that matter, set against) the back projection can lead to a solid, verifiable result. The article shows that census under counts were estimated by using back projection over several different census years. The years 1850 through 1880, and all of these had a shortfall in numbers. They ranged from 6.5 percent in 1870, the year that carries the the most doubt, and 3.6 percent in 1880. The average under count over these 40 years would be 5.4 percent. If we add the shortages back into the total of each census, would that not increase the population figure and thereby decrease the number of estimated civil war deaths? By not counting people that should have been, it seems that would skew the numbers in favor of more deaths. Can we even use these figures as a basis for a more accurate death toll? Can “back projection” be reasonably used when a catastrophic event is involved?

The article goes further in looking at the differences in mortality between the sexes in the 1850's, 1860's and 1870's. The figure presented states that the war was responsible for the deaths of 750,000 men. Based on what? The census, which has already been shown to be flawed. And does the census count the dead? Furthermore, does the census take into account the number of ex-Confederates that fled the country fearing reprisals from the Federal government, who never returned? Does it take account of the former soldiers of both armies that drifted west after the war and may not have been counted due to living in sparsely populated regions of the growing country? The census can give a reasonable figure for the population, but it can't give a figure for the death toll of the Civil War. There are to many variables to contend with and the basis for the new figure is just to weak for me to hang my hat on. What would make me believe the new figure is if the census data used was thoroughly confirmed, not simply speculation. I will concede however that the death toll is probably higher than the accepted 618,222 but until something more definitive and substantial comes along, I will stay with this figure.
The author asks if the difference in figures really matter's and answers yes as it will cause us to look at the war differently. I can't say honestly that it would change the way we look at it. It was a tragic event, yes, and the added 130,000 dead would make it even more tragic, but seeing the war differently I say no. The new figure may influence the way the socio-economic landscape is viewed but I feel that to view it or the war itself differently would lead us into the realm of “what if...”, which will produce nothing but more assumption and bear little in the way of actual fruit that will enhance our understanding of the war or the era. What happened post war occurred in spite of, not because of, the butchers bill.

The true number will never be known. All the documentation available and used in compiling
both estimates is flawed and based on assumption and incomplete information but the fact still remains that the years 1861 to 1865 were the darkest time the United States has ever known.

It has never been my intention to turn this blog into an “Op Ed” column, filled only with my opinions and thoughts about the American Civil War but this article and subsequent posts by other bloggers lent itself well to me for expressing my opinion. This post is in no way meant to disparage their views. I am not refuting the new death toll, nor am I discounting it, yet I am not embracing it either. I merely question it. I never take things at face value and although my thoughts may at times go contrary to the thoughts of others, they do show another viewpoint some may not have considered while searching for a solid answer. That is my hope and intent anyway. If indeed the 750,000 figure holds up, it does need to be recorded. Just give me something a little more substantial than assumptions.

The Picket

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