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“Reading the List”: Casualty Lists and Civil War Poetry
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Figure 1. 

The Casualties. The New York Times. 12 May 1864.

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Figure 2. 

The Siege of Fort Donelson, Killed and Wounded. The New York Times. 3 March 1862.

On August 29, 1862, as the Second Battle of Bull Run raged in Virginia, an unassuming article titled “Unrecorded Heroes” appeared in the New Orleans Daily Delta, a Confederate newspaper published in New Orleans during the Union Army’s occupation under General Benjamin Butler. The article described the daily acts of courage and strength that went unnoticed by most historians of the war, giving examples of the “unrecorded heroes,” such as the starving population of the South or the nameless soldiers whose dead bodies would never be found or returned. It claimed that “[a]ll these are the true heroes of this war; not alone they who have memorials presented, and if they die, pompous monuments erected, but the thousands of brave fellows who know, if they fall, they will have mention only among the ‘list of killed and wounded.’” Referring to the lists of wounded, missing, or fallen soldiers that appeared in large daily or weekly newspapers such as the Delta or the New York Times (see Figures 1 and 2) throughout the war, the anonymous author’s words suggest the inadequacy of the casualty list as a memorial to the dead due to the erasure of individuality through mere quantification of the dead, wounded, and missing. Given the casualty list’s failure to provide any satisfactory account of the lives or deaths of soldiers, the author concludes the article by asking: “Who, untrammeled by precedents, shall write us such a history?”1

As careful study of a large archive of periodicals, poetry collections, and other print sources from the Civil War has revealed, this very question was one that animated a significant number of other wartime writers from both the North and South as well. In fact, as I argue in this essay, the author of “Unrecorded Heroes” addresses concerns that were at the heart of a remarkable number of poems written and published during or shortly after the war. A wide variety of poets including Herman Melville but also lesser known popular poets used the topic of the casualty list to reflect on the perceived contrast between war as represented textually and war as experienced emotionally by individuals. As a growing preoccupation with the quantitative assessment of the war’s human cost drove Americans to count the dead and missing, the casualty list came to assume a central importance in their lives, but also, as the texts discussed here illustrate, in the literary representation of the civilian experience of the war.

In the course of the Civil War, the unexpectedly high—and ever rising—number of casualties increasingly made government and military leaders turn to statistics and other means of quantifying their losses as well as those troops that remained. Commanders in both the Union and Confederate armies were required to keep and submit lists of the wounded, killed, captured, and missing to military leaders. In addition, many officers and enlisted men on either side of the conflict created similar lists for their regiments or companies and sent them to their families and local newspaper at home, which might then be circulated and reprinted in other newspapers or on bulletin boards as official casualty lists. Often compiled hastily and based on partial or faulty information, many of these lists were unreliable, and yet, as Drew Gilpin Faust explains, the “specificity, rather than the accuracy, of these totals attracted Americans seeking consolation in the seemingly comprehensive and comprehensible character of numbers.” Counting the dead and missing at least meant keeping some form of record.2 However, as many Americans keenly felt during and after the war, it was an imperfect record that threatened to substitute numbers for human faces and lives. Impressed by the incongruity between human lives and numbers, and feeling a need for alternatives to the history of the war presented by these lists, the poets discussed in this essay used the theme of reading the casualty list to raise concerns about what was lost when the fate of individuals...

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