2011 September 21 Wednesday
New Higher US Civil War Death Toll Estimate

A historian estimates that the United States suffered 650,000 to 850,000 deaths as a result of the US Civil War.

BINGHAMTON, NY The Civil War already considered the deadliest conflict in American history in fact took a toll far more severe than previously estimated. That's what a new analysis of census data by Binghamton University historian J. David Hacker reveals.

Hacker says the war's dead numbered about 750,000, an estimate that's 20 percent higher than the commonly cited figure of 620,000. His findings will be published in December in the journal Civil War History.

"The traditional estimate has become iconic," Hacker says. "It's been quoted for the last hundred years or more. If you go with that total for a minute 620,000 the number of men dying in the Civil War is more than in all other American wars from the American Revolution through the Korean War combined. And consider that the American population in 1860 was about 31 million people, about one-tenth the size it is today. If the war were fought today, the number of deaths would total 6.2 million."

Even the older lower estimate is a stunning number given the population of the US at the time. Though it is a much lower percentage loss than the Soviet Union suffered in World War II and is a lower percentage than the Serbs suffered in WWI.

Hacker used census numbers for males and females to come up with the much higher range of deaths.

Hacker looked at the ratio of male survival relative to female survival for each age group. He established a "normal" pattern in survival rates for men and women by looking at the numbers for 1850-1860 and 1870-1880. Then he compared the war decade, 1860-1870, relative to the pattern.

His new estimate of Civil War deaths contains a wide margin: 650,000 to 850,000, with 750,000 as the central figure.

Will any industrialized countries engage in wars with such high casualties in the future? Will China and the United States ever duke it out? Or will China and India ever fight a major war?

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2011 September 21 11:06 PM  Military War Costs

Black Death said at September 22, 2011 8:06 AM:

There's an old saying that civil wars never really end. The American Civil War (or War Between the States, probably a more appropriate name) was no exception. It was a ghastly tragedy that a majority of Americans never expected or wanted. Hotheads on both sides manipulated public opinion to the point that war became inevitable. History has been rewritten to turn it into some sort of holy crusade to end slavery, which may have been the way it ended, but it certainly did not start out that way. Slavery ended peacefully almost everywhere else in the world, and the same thing would have happened in the US, minus the 850,000 or so deaths, of course. The effects of the war poisoned political discourse in the country for over a century and still can be felt today. I've never had any use for the architects of this debacle - Abe Lincoln, Jeff Davis, the whole bunch. Their hands are forever soaked in blood. Lincoln won the presidency in 1860 with a majority of the electoral college but less than 40% of the popular vote, because of an opposition divided along regional lines. This created an instant legitimacy crisis. The US constitution neither allowed nor prohibited secession, so each side interpreted it as they saw fit. Peaceful secession by democratic means should have been allowed in 1860 and should be allowed now. Why would anyone want to risk getting his head blown off to force a state or region to remain in a country or political system that they have come to despise? What sort of democracy wants to maintain conquered provinces?

WJ said at September 22, 2011 10:04 AM:

The war was probably the beginning of the end for the United States as we knew it. Entirely ironic, since it was fought "to preserve the Union" that it accomlished the opposite.

The national government became infinitely more powerful - because of the war. The purpose of government became forever distorted towards a naive and idealistic interpretation - because of the war. Millions of children were never born - because of the war. 750,000 dead men to free perhaps 4 million slaves. Perhaps worst of all, our immigration laws became forever perverted. Because of the 14th Amendment passed in its aftermath we now (supposedly) cannot bar children born to people living here illegally. The amendments passed in the aftermath of the Civil War have been the basis for the worst abuses of government power in the last century.

My mother is from the South and my father is from the North, so I have no ancestral reasons to favor one side over the other. When I look at the war all I see is sadness and death. The South should have never embraced slavery. They should never have seceeded. Having seceeded, however, the North should have let them go or, more appropriately, sought a peaceful reconciliation.

JS said at October 11, 2011 6:46 PM:

I have been compiling a family history based upon nine letters of my great grandfather's younger brother who was in the Union Army and was killed at Chickamauga at the age of 19. I tend to agree with nearly all of Black Death's comments.

Re-reading Lincoln's 1st Inaugural Address, and particularly the 1860 Corwin Amendment which was passed by 2/3 majorities in both the House and the Senate and endorsed by both Buchanan and Lincoln, I had to ask myself why we got ourselves into this war? Lincoln and the most Northerners were willing to let slavery persist in the South. Lincoln fixation on the "perpetual Union" and his unwillingness to negotiate with Confederates hardly seems worth all those deaths.

I don't know if slavery would have died out peacefully. The recent economic studies show that the Southerners' investment in their slaves was worth $4 billion, an amount equivalent to their land and buildings, and was growing rapidly in value. But who would have bet that apartheid in South Africa could be eliminated without a general civil war.

I think it is right to keep the focus on all those lives lost and people wounded, and not get caught up in the romanticizing of this war.

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