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.