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  • The Civil War:Post-9/11
  • Cynthia Wachtell (bio)
Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War. Megan Kate Nelson. University of Georgia Press, 2012.
War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North. Frances M. Clarke. University of Chicago Press, 2011.

America is now commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Not surprisingly, a number of literary and cultural studies of the war have been published to coincide with this four-years-long anniversary. But as we mark the Civil War’s sesquicentennial, America is still engaged in its longest war ever in Afghanistan and only recently exited the long Iraq War. When the time comes to observe the 150th anniversaries of these wars, the commemoration will last at least thirteen years.

One way to read recent works of scholarships about the Civil War is to consider them in the context of America’s modern wars. We know that the past shapes our understanding of the present, but how does the present influence our understanding of the past? Put simply, what does Civil War scholarship look like post-9/11?

In certain fundamental ways, our understanding of the Civil War remains unchanged. The chronology of the war follows the same calendar as of old, stretching across five fateful Aprils, from the first shots at Fort Sumter on 12 April 1861 to General Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to the Union’s General Ulysses S. Grant on 9 April 1865 at Appomattox Court House. The timeline of history is fixed. Five days after Lee’s surrender, John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre. The president died the following morning on a small bed in a small, rear bedroom of the Petersen Boarding House in Washington. On the day after that, General Lee posed for a photographic portrait on his back porch in Richmond, Virginia, his doffed hat in his hand and a thousand-yard stare in his eyes.

Certain things about the Civil War are unalterable. The Confederacy cannot triumph at Gettysburg, except in the type of fantasy fiction concocted by Newt Gingrich and others. The trajectory of Booth’s bullet cannot be changed. In other ways, though, the field of [End Page 627] Civil War scholarship is remarkably susceptible to change. Consider the recently revised death count. For generations, Civil War scholars believed that approximately 620,000 Confederate and Union fighters died in the war. In so doing, the scholars harkened back to calculations made long ago, in part by two veterans of the conflict, that there were 618,222 Civil War deaths. Somehow, that number of 618,222 came to be rounded up to 620,000, and the estimate of 620,000 deaths stuck.

On the first page of her prizewinning study, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008), Harvard University’s president and acclaimed Civil War historian Drew Gilpin Faust, writes that between 1861 and 1865 “an estimated 620,000” soldiers died (xi). For decades upon decades, legions of Civil War scholars made similar assertions. And the 620,000 count served as the basis for all types of statistical calculations. Readers of historical studies were variously informed that the death toll equaled “roughly 9 percent of the total white male population aged eighteen to forty-five” (Newman 27), that “2 percent of the population . . . lost their lives during the Civil War” (Civil War 39), and that, calculated for the expanded US population, the number of deaths would be “the equivalent of about six million Americans today” (Finseth 12).

Then, in 2011, J. David Hacker, a demographic historian, presented a revised estimate in an article titled “A Census-Based Count of the Civil War Dead” that appeared in Civil War History. His findings pointed to a far deadlier Civil War. Based upon careful analysis of microdata samples from nineteenth-century censuses, Hacker concluded that the most probable number of Civil War deaths was roughly 752,000, although he noted that the actual number might be as high as 851,000 (307). Despite Hacker’s cautionary note, his estimate of 752,000 was promptly embraced by Civil War scholars and rounded down to 750...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-4365
Print ISSN
0896-7148
Pages
pp. 627-638
Launched on MUSE
2014-08-27
Open Access
No
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