Civil War

How Many Men Died in the Civil War?

For decades, it's been generally accepted that around 620,000 men were killed during the American Civil War. Astonishing -- more men died during that war that all other American wars combined. Old tactics mixed with new ballistics technology made for a disgustingly deadly war -- as Shelby Foote once said, the worst fights he'd ever witnessed were between brothers.

Take the canister shot, for example. It was coffee-can-sized artillery round packed with lead shrapnel. In keeping with old school tactics, opposing forces in formation would often charge right up to a cannon, which was loaded with one or two of these shots -- Napoleonic era military tactics facing off against modern hardware. When the battery fired, there was virtually nothing left of the charging men.

Nevertheless, an historian has determined that the fatality number of 620,000 is inaccurate and has calculated a much higher number.

By combing through newly digitized census data from the 19th century, J. David Hacker, a demographic historian from Binghamton University in New York, has recalculated the death toll and increased it by more than 20 percent — to 750,000.

I'm not so sure about this new number. I'm more comfortable with a head count, but taken at face value, it's catastrophic.

(Via Broadway Carl and Ryan Carson)

  • Nathan Schell

    Hi, Mr. Cesca! Long time reader, first time commenter. :)
    An additional reason American dead was so much higher in the Civil War is that, unlike every other war we’ve participated in, everyone who died was American. Both sides. It’s a well known point, but needs to be said.
    Additionally, is the 620K number including civilians, to the extent we can tell?

    • CarolDuhart

      In a sense, you’re right. The other side in other wars weren’t American, so they did their own count and aren’t counted as casualties.

      But what really upped the death toll: it’s the great misfortune of the Civil War that military technology was more advanced than medical tech. It was a war with no anaethetics, no anti-biotics, modern nursing or even modern methods of sanitation. No blood transfusions, not even a nursing corps until Clara Barton set up one. Many men died who might have lived in later wars when there were better methods to preserve lives and health.

      In World War II, we had already set up a system of hospitals and relatively rapid removal of the wounded from the battlefield. Men mostly didn’t have to wait days for some kind of medical attention with the advent of medics who were traveling with the army. These days we have medivacs and soldiers trained in basic first aid. So many men lived who otherwise would have died on the battlefield or afterwards.

      Also the South, unlike other adversaries, had a vested interest in keeping the fight going longer than other nations would. A defeated Germany or Japan would still exist as a nation, indeed surrender would be beneficial in limiting the damage. The South would have to completely surrender any notion ever of independence, along with the slaves that fueled that economy.

      • Nathan Schell

        Nice analysis.
        I like to note to people that the American Civil War was a unfortunate blending of antiquated tactics and modern weaponry. It was also one of the first, if not the first, instance of true trench warfare. 50 years later the powers of Europe were remembering the quick and decisive actions of the Austro-Prussian and the Franco-Prussian wars, expecting the next war to be nominally as quick. What should have been examined was the Battle of Cold Harbor and the higher-than-usual slaughter, even for the Civil War.
        The additional tragedy of our 600K+ dead was the millions killed in Europe, including more Americans, because our lesson wasn’t learned.

  • CarolDuhart

    I always thought the number was undercounted. There’s the folks who died of their injuries long after the battles, the PTSD (opium and other substances became more popular as a way of dealing with both pain and PTSD). Black soldiers weren’t counted very well, there were immigrants who came over with no family who fought.

    And I’ve never seen a number for civilians at all. While the Civil War battles were one of the last fought on definite battlefields, still there were stray battles, some atrocities and epidemics.