Historians and lay persons alike continue to marvel at the scale of the American Civil War, especially in the number of dead sustained by both sides. The once standard body count of 625,000 fatalities recently has been revised upward to possibly more than 700,000. The numbers have been central to the idea that the war represented a discontinuity from the past: that it signified a new dimension to American warfare and possibly even jolted the culture of death and dying onto new paths. But what did those deaths mean to the people who had to grieve over them at the time? In our lead article "The Great Exaggeration," Nicholas Marshall argues for looking beyond the aggregate number to understand the context of death and dying that antebellum Americans experienced. The average person in the nineteenth century saw two to three times as many people die as we do today—during peacetime. And the chances of dying young were also greater than in our time. Marshall presents an intriguing reassessment of the discussion of numbers as he tries to resurrect what he calls "the emotional texture of the time."
Three articles follow that continue to explore various dimensions of the prewar United States. Ted Maris-Wolf focuses on the suppression of the African Slave Trade during the Buchanan Administration, connecting the dramatic increase in activity by the U.S. Navy to domestic and international concerns. A stronger posture against the illegal trade played to the interests of both abolitionists and proslavery extremists: to end a horrific practice and to provide yet another reason why the U.S. should annex Cuba in order to stop the trade. In a study that perhaps resonates a little of today's lack of partisan collaboration, Sarah Bischoff Paulus demonstrates how politicians on both sides of the aisle in the 1850s claimed to carry on the spirit of Henry Clay as the Great Compromiser after his death. Of course, this contention attempted to mask partisan positions while failing to foster real negotiation. And W. Caleb McDaniel takes us on a tour of the historiography of abolition, organizing the essay around two questions that have featured prominently in scholarly analysis of the movement.
We end this issue with an analysis of three recent movies about Abraham Lincoln, including his assassination and his activity as a vampire slayer. Craig A. Warren does not take the usual approach to consider historical accuracy of the films; instead, he focuses on how the films represent Lincoln's physicality, body language, and attire. He manages to tie [End Page 1] casting, posture, and clothing to how filmmakers wished to portray Union and emancipation. With so many images of Lincoln proliferating in our society—including coins, portraits, photographs, and more—the president continues to cast a large shadow over our contemporary understanding of the past. [End Page 2]