By Lee Bowman
Among its many legacies, the Civil War is cited as America's deadliest conflict, with an estimated 620,000 men who died from wounds and disease over four years.
Still, there's long been doubt, particularly in the South, that this estimate really reflected the complete toll.
Now, a new analysis of 1870 census data by a New Yorker, Binghamton University professor David Hacker, has come up with a grim new estimate for the conflict that is 20 percent higher: 750,000.
The numbers from that census ― which counted slightly over 38 million Americans, just 7 million more than in 1860 and at least 3.5 million fewer than anticipated ― have always been controversial.
Officials argued that disruptions of the war had reduced both birth rates and immigration, and that so many people in the South, particularly recently freed slaves, were uprooted in the years after the war that a flawed enumeration was inevitable. Census Superintendent Francis Walker also claimed the war had cut short the lives of 850,000 men in military service on both sides, including many who died months and years after Appomattox in April 1865.
Hacker says that the number is more than his estimate, but that the death toll was surely much higher than the commonly cited 620,000. He compared male and female survival rates for various age groups based on detailed information recently compiled from the 1860 and 1880 censuses and compared them with rates from 1870. In each decade on either side of the 1860s, about 30,000 men of military age died. In that one war decade, an additional 720,000 perished.
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson said that even if Hacker's new number is a bit high, "I have always been convinced that the consensus figure of 620,000 is too low and especially that the figure of 260,000 Confederates dead is definitely too low.'' McPherson said he supposes most of the difference in Hacker's higher toll comes from filling in underreported Confederate deaths.
Why should anyone but historians and Civil War buffs care about the magnitude of the casualties in a war fought 150 years ago?
Perhaps to greater appreciate the cost of that war and any war ― and the lost opportunities those men who would never join the ranks of veterans represented.
Roughly 1 in 10 white men who were "military age (18 to 45)" in 1860 were gone by 1870; perhaps 2 in 10 in the South. Of 200,000 black men who served the Union, some 30,000 died, or about 1.5 of every 10 in uniform.
The loss of so many men changed the nature of society for generations as women married or remarried older and younger men, took over farms and shops from lost husbands and more orphaned children were forced to work away from home.
Lee Bowman is a reporter for Scripps Howard News Service (www.scrippsnews.com) and a longtime student of the Civil War. Email the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.