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  • The Early Indicators ProjectUsing Massive Data and Statistical Analysis to Understand the Life Cycle of Civil War Soldiers
  • Earl J. Hess (bio)

In the 1980s, Robert W. Fogel initiated what became the Early Indicators of Later Work Levels, Disease, and Death, a database consisting of information drawn from the military service records, medical records, and pension records of nearly 40,000 Union soldiers. In addition, his collaborators linked these veterans to census data to reveal more information about them. The result was the creation of the largest database on Civil War soldiers we are ever likely to see. It provides unparalleled access to the life cycle of Union veterans well into the twentieth century. At least 158 publications have been produced from this database by scholars working in American economic and social history, by economists, medical professionals, and legal scholars, but most Civil War historians seem unaware of this opportunity. The purpose of this essay is to describe how the Early Indicators project has already rejuvenated the study of Civil War soldiers and to encourage Civil War historians to become part of the process.

In 1989, Civil War historians were impressed with the appearance of an article published in the Journal of American History. In it, social historian Maris [End Page 377] A. Vinovskis argued that his colleagues had lost the Civil War in their view of American society. He knew that Civil War historians had begun to pay attention to the social history of the conflict but they concentrated only on the war years and used qualitative methods to analyze personal accounts and official documents. What Vinovskis wanted to do in his article was to awaken his fellow social historians to the fact that the Civil War produced two huge armies, that the opposing governments compiled a massive base of data about those soldiers, and that this data could be extremely useful in understanding the life stories of 3 million Americans extending decades beyond Appomattox. The key here was that veterans of both armies received pensions. Combining that information with their military service records and census data, scholars could study their life stories well into the twentieth century. By ignoring the Civil War, social historians were missing a marvelous way to get at "the lives of ordinary Americans." "The failure of social historians to study the impact of the Civil War on the lives of those who participated in it is not an isolated phenomenon," Vinovskis concluded. "In general, we have ignored the effect of wars on the life courses of citizens."1

Coming only one year after the appearance of new qualitative studies of the Civil War soldier by Earl J. Hess, Randall C. Jimerson, and Reid Mitchell, Vinovskis's article was timely. At the same time, he tended to exaggerate when arguing that the social history of Civil War soldiers was underappreciated; Civil War historians were already well on the path toward studying that topic before his article appeared.

But the Civil War historians who were inspired by Vinovskis to study the social history of soldiers completely failed to do what he said ought to be done. Vinovskis did not issue a call for Civil War historians to conduct qualitative research into the war experiences of Civil War soldiers; he issued a call to his fellow social historians to use massive data as their source, employing sophisticated computer programs such as LISREL and SPSS to statistically analyze that data. He also issued a call for understanding the entire lives of Civil War soldiers, not just their wartime experiences. While many Civil War historians proclaimed that Vinovskis was right and cited him as a justification for what they did, they conducted their work along paths divergent from what he proposed. This is one of the most interesting cases of cognitive dissonance one can find in the Civil War literature.2 [End Page 378]

Ironically, Civil War historians tend to be resistant to computer-assisted statistical analysis; Joseph T. Glatthaar is one of the few to use it well to examine a sizeable database of information about Civil War soldiers (and his gaze is fixed on the war years rather than the life cycle of the soldiers). Many...


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pp. 377-399
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