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The Great Exaggeration: Death and the Civil War
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The Great Exaggeration:
Death and the Civil War

What did the Civil War death tolls mean to those who lived through the war? We are now told that wartime deaths were unprecedented, overwhelming, and constituted one of the fundamental experiences for the wartime generation. But is this really true? In recent years, statistical descriptions have been used by historians—including such renowned scholars as James McPherson, Eric Foner, and Drew Gilpin Faust but also celebrated filmmakers Ken and Rik Burns, among many—to drive home a characterization of the war based on the scale of death. They may be found across the range of media regarding the war, in films, museums, popular histories, scholarly treatises, and lectures. One such statistic is that the number of soldiers' deaths in the Civil War was greater than the total number suffered in all other American wars combined. A second point makes use of the first figure: if one calculates the proportion of the total population that died while in military service during the war and applies this percentage to present-day population figures, the equivalent number of deaths for Americans in the twenty-first century would reach above 7 million. This is a staggering figure that suggests that the Civil War generation made almost inconceivable sacrifices.1

We are shocked at these numbers, however, because we interpret them from a modern point of view. The present essay argues that while factually correct, the statistics work to exaggerate the war's impact. 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 great problem in this instance, however, is that it violates one of the central codes of historical analysis—that of avoiding presentism. Instead of putting us in the minds of those who experienced the Civil War, it conjures up significance by facilely equating wildly disparate eras. In addition, implicit in the use of the overall casualty figure is the notion that size matters—that is, that in certain circumstances, the volume of death itself is enough to make an argument for [End Page 3] the significance of an event, or to make a case that a social equilibrium has been disturbed. However, to be convincing, this mode of argument has to establish that the scale has indeed changed dramatically for those experiencing it; historians should not simply extrapolate meaning from the present back into the past. To question the "size matters" argument, one must at least temporarily accept the notion that comparative statistics of death are meaningful, but only in the context of appropriate comparisons. In the bigger picture, however, it is not enough simply to speak about numbers. To understand how deaths affect a culture, it is essential to examine the meaning ascribed to them beyond the statistics. In one way, this is obvious: compared with the tens of thousands of traffic deaths per year in the United States, for example, the relatively small number of people killed on September 11, 2001, had an enormous impact, influencing the nation's psyche, and, ultimately, domestic and international politics and culture. To be convincing when making a point about death, therefore, we must find evidence for the transformative power of the meaning of military mortality, and place any statistics in their contemporary context, before making claims about significance.2

In the case of the Civil War, historians have not adequately taken into account the context of death and dying. Solid scholarly work exists on the central importance of death in antebellum America and the ordinary experience of death during the war, but Civil War historians have tended to sidestep this in order to claim the war years as exceptional. They have also underplayed the significance of the demographic realities Americans faced before, during, and after the war. These reveal a society constantly coping with large-scale mortality.

If we start to take more seriously the antebellum circumstances, we can reexamine the statistical realities of Civil War deaths and put them into a more reasonable perspective. First, what was...