A study raises the death toll during the Civil War by 21%

A study raises the death toll during the Civil War by 21%

One study suggests that the death toll during the American Civil War, also known as Civil War, may be far below reality.

The Civil War It has been the bloodiest and most devastating war in American history and the death toll during the conflict remains unknown. It began in 1861 when the southern states, which were in favor of slavery, left the Union. The reason was that, with the recent election of President Abraham Lincoln, they feared that slavery would be abolished. The secessionists formed the so-called Confederacy. The war ended in 1865 with the surrender of southern forces, and slavery was abolished by a constitutional amendment later that year. The conflict devastated the economy and society in the southern agricultural states, where most of the fighting took place.

The historian of the American Civil War from Yale University, David Blight, states that “The Civil War left a culture of death and mourning, beyond anything Americans could have ever imagined or experienced”. Furthermore, he adds that the war “left levels of devastation among families and within society, unprecedented in any Western society”.

Now, it seems that the most accepted death toll during the war could have been wrong by 130,000 deaths. This represents 21% of the previous estimate and more than double the deaths in the US during the Vietnam War.

At that time, there was no comprehensive birth and death registration system. Military counts were designed to code the size of armies, not to count the number of deaths. As in all wars, many men deserted and the dead disappeared or were misidentified.

The 620,000 figure was established by the joint efforts of two former Union army officers in the late 19th century. They relied on reports of the battles, the pensions of war widows and orphans, and other sources that historians say did not represent the number of casualties under pressure. Much of the Confederate records were destroyed in the final phase of the war, when the Union army captured Richmond (Virginia), the capital of the secessionists.

This figure was the only reliable one until December 2011, when professor and historian J. David Hacker published a study that used demographic methods and sophisticated state programs to study the census between 1850 and 1880, which had recently been digitized.

We already knew that the war was devastating”, Maintains the historian. He adds that, “actually, increasing the total of victims by 20% does not alter the story. But I am a demographic historian, so more precise work has to be done to determine the impact of the war.”.

Professor Hacker began by taking digitized census samples between 1850 and 1880. Using statistics from SPSS software, he counted the number of white men of military age in 1860 and found out how many of those were still alive in 1870. He compared this survival rate with the rest of men of that age, in censuses of each decade, during periods before and after the Civil War. He also investigated other demographic variables such as the mortality of foreign soldiers or women in the same period.

The calculations provided the number of deaths of men of military age between 1860-1870, that is, the number of people who died in war or in the following five years from war-related causes.

Hacker explains that the method must take into account a wide margin of error and he discards making evaluations of his precision, since he is aware that he cannot distinguish between deaths of one side or the other, as well as deaths on the battlefield or due to natural disease. Thus, deaths can vary between 617,877 and 851,066, for which an estimate of 750,000 deaths.

In any case, historian Eric Foner of Columbia University questions the values ​​of focusing on the death toll from such a horrible period in American history. It asserts that “a numbers game takes us only so far in understanding the war's impact on American life”. As an example, he cites the problem of slavery: «There is an ongoing debate about the number of slaves brought from Africa to the New World during the time of the slave trade. There is talk of nine million, 12 million, 14 million. Does it really matter when we are evaluating the morality of the slave trade?”.

Image: Library of Congress

Passionate about History, he has a degree in Journalism and Audiovisual Communication. Since he was little he loved history and ended up exploring the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries above all.


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