Reconsidering the Reconsideration of Civil War Death

Professor Nicholas Marshall (Marist College) recently wrote a thought-provoking essay on the New York Times Disunion” blog, a favorite website of mine for reading some of the newest scholarship in the field of American Civil War studies. Marshall comes out swinging in his essay “The Civil War Death Toll, Reconsidered,” which aims to offer a revisionist corrective to our understanding of American society’s collective mindset towards death during the Civil War.

Marshall criticizes Civil War scholars such as James McPherson, Eric Foner, and Drew Gilpin Faust for using the Civil War death toll-which is now estimated to be around 750,000-“to drive home a characterization of the war based on the scale of death.” These historians often convert this Civil War death statistic to present-day numbers (which would equate to seven million deaths today) in order to convey the influence of wartime death on the lives of Americans at the time. Marshall laments the use of the Civil War death toll in this manner, arguing that “while factually correct, the statistics work to exaggerate the impact of the war. At its essence, the use of these statistics is designed to provide perspective, a laudatory goal. It is supposed to allow those of us looking back on the war to get a clear sense of the emotional texture of the time. The problem is that doing so violates one of the central codes of historical analysis: avoid presentism.”

I agree with Marshall in this regard. By translating Civil War death totals to present-day equivalents, we impose our own perspective of death into our interpretations of the past rather than considering the perspectives of those who lived through the conflict. Indeed, the thought of such a destructive contemporary war provokes more thoughts about who within our circle of friends and loved ones today would be a part of the seven million hypothetical deaths in this hypothetical war rather than thoughts about the 750,000 soldiers who actually died in combat 150 years ago. Marshall correctly reminds us that numbers and statistics are meaningless until we construct meanings for them. To truly understand the culture of Civil War death, we must go beyond the numbers themselves or statistical conversions that translate the past on our terms without understanding historical context.

Marshall continues by suggesting that prewar, wartime, and postwar conceptions of sickness and life expectancy actually accounted for the “everyday existence” of disease and the possibility of unexpected death within society. When looking at antebellum disease:

It is important to keep in mind that death rates were tremendously variable in the period, even within relatively stable locales, because of the unpredictable nature of contagious disease. Some areas reported rates that varied from below 2 percent up to 6 percent. A conservative estimate of a 2 percent death rate for 1860 would have meant about 629,000 deaths that year for the nation as a whole, while a 3 percent rate would have resulted in 943,000 deaths (today’s rate is consistently below 0.8 percent). The additional battlefield deaths in the war would thus represent an increase of between 7 and 10 percent over the normal rates. Significant, but hardly catastrophic.

The threat of disease continued into the early twentieth century, according to Marshall:

During the global flu epidemic at the end of the World War I as many as 100 million worldwide, including 600,000 in the United States (roughly five times the number of American casualties in World War I and approaching the total number of deaths in the Civil War), perished over the course of just a few months. In addition, this was an unusual strain of influenza that killed mainly the healthiest cohort of the population (those in their 20s and 30s) through a violent immune response. If any event should have triggered re-evaluation of the nation’s approach to death (based solely on changes in incidence and scale, as Civil War historians often calculate), this would be it. Yet one historian’s book on the subject is titled “America’s Forgotten Pandemic,” and he spends a significant portion of the book trying to explain why the epidemic seemed to disappear from public consciousness so soon after it waned. The answer, in part, is that well into the 20th century Americans viewed disease — and the death that came with it — as a constant, as something that had to be dealt with as part of everyday existence.

In sum, Marshall asserts that the since two-thirds of Civil War deaths were due to sickness and not battlefield combat, death during the war was not as influential on the mindset of Americans during the war as historians traditionally suggest. “The war added to an existing demographic and cultural problem rather than creating an entirely new one,” according to Marshall, and for this reason historians should re-evaluate the relationship between disease, death, and culture during the Civil War.

Marshall had me largely convinced with his arguments at first, and there is certainly much to agree with here. But after reading this essay a second and third time, a fatally flawed statement (pun intended) exposed itself to me, weakening the structural foundation of this entire essay. To wit:

If we work from an assumption that deaths from disease were not viewed at the time as war casualties, but rather as a continuation of prewar circumstances, instead of 750,000 casualties faced by Civil War-era Americans, we are left with 250,000.

The problem with this statement is that people at the time did view the loss of loved ones as war casualties, regardless of whether they died by disease or by gunfire. Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War–which Marshall is quick to criticize in the beginning of his essay–shows us in precise terms how Civil War fatalities transformed the culture of death in the United States. True, the war itself did not necessarily present an unprecedented amount of death from contagious disease in American society. What was shocking to many people at the time was where these people died and what happened to their bodies after battle. Faust argues that prewar loss of life revolved around the notion of the “Good Death.” According to Faust, “dying was an art” in antebellum American, and the Good Death revolved around the idea that people died on their deathbed with friends and loved ones by their side. “Family was central to the [Good Death], for kin performed its essential rituals. Victorian ideals of domesticity further reinforced these assumptions about death’s appropriate familial setting . . family members needed to witness a death in order to assess the state of the dying person’s soul, for these critical last moments of life would epitomize his or her spiritual condition” (6-10).

Civil War death shocked Americans because of its disregard for the Good Death. Soldiers died on battlefields, far away from home and family. They were sometimes buried in unmarked and/or mass graves, provoking complaints from loved ones at home that their remains were being treated no better than the remains of dead animals. If possible, parents, wives, and children sometimes traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to exhume the bodies of dead soldiers and take them home for a “proper” burial. Others paid thousands of dollars for professionals experienced in the new fields of embalming and refrigeration to find and preserve the bodies of loved ones to be sent home. Still others lacked any financial means to bring their dead soldiers home.

These facts represent the culture of shock and death that contemporaries understood to be unprecedented in American history. They did not view these deaths as a continuation of prewar circumstances, which partly explains why they did not forget about these deaths like Americans forgot about the flu epidemic in the wake of World War I. Indeed, those who lived through the war grappled with the memories of their dead through the creation of veterans’ fraternal organizations, monuments, memorials, Memorial Day commemorations, and the everyday experience of life after war. To suggest that contemporaries did not view these death as war casualties simply misses the mark, in my opinion.