Thursday, September 29, 2011

New data on number of Civil War deaths

I'm always yammering at my students that we need to re-examine "received wisdom," the facts that are handed down from generation to generation without critical analysis. Now, a Binghamton University professor is doing just that. Associate Professor J. David Hacker, using demographic research, has significantly revised upward the estimated number of Civil War deaths and by doing so, has also significantly shaken up received wisdom. If Hacker is correct, the traditional number used--618,222--is far too low. I've always used 620,000 to 640,000 when I teach the Civil War in my HIS 100 classes. But Hacker thinks that even that number is too low. His new research shows that the number should be at least 650,000 and may be as high as 850,000. So, he'll average the two and finds 750,000 to be the most accurate number.

Similar to the approach I have always advocated in my HIS 100 classes, Hacker thinks that the Civil War deaths have affected far more people than just the soldier indicate. And he agrees that the new estimate proves that Civil War military deaths are still greater than all the military deaths in all the other American wars combined. "A higher death toll," he says, "implies that more women were widowed and more children were orphaned as a result of the war than has long been suspected. The war touched more lives and communities more deeply than we thought, and thus shaped the course of the ensuing decades of American history in ways which we have not yet fully grasped."

Now, add to the numbers of people affected at the time the numbers of people affected since then. By that, I mean that we should imagine all the generations of people who were never born because their great-great-great-great grandfathers died on a Civil War battlefield, in a prisoner-of-war camp, or in a military hospital. That would be the really meaningful number, but I have no idea how that could be estimated.   

No comments: