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“The Numbers War Between the States: New Research Questions Who in the Confederacy Had the Most War Dead”
By CAMERON McWHIRTER
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, Weekend Edition, 26 -27 March 2011, page 1.
RALEIGH, N.C.—Josh Howard is playing with fire here in the heart of the old Confederacy, with a scholarly finding that could rewrite the history of the Civil War.
For more than a century, North Carolina has proudly claimed that it lost more soldiers than any other Southern state in the nation’s bloodiest conflict. But after meticulously combing through military, hospital and cemetery records, the historian is finding the truth isn’t so clear-cut.
Counting the Dead
A new count has called into question the number of soldiers from North Carolina killed in the Civil War. See how one researcher determined whether some of the state’s soldiers should be counted among the war dead.
Official military records compiled in 1866 counted 40,275 North Carolina soldiers who died in uniform. Though known to be faulty, those records have gone largely unchallenged. With most of his research done, Mr. Howard has confirmed only about 31,000 deaths. “It’s a number we can defend with real documents,” he says. He expects to confirm a few thousand more by the time he finishes this summer, but the final tally will most certainly fall short of the original count, he says.
Across the state border in Virginia, traditionally believed to have the fourth-highest number of war deaths in the Confederacy, librarian Edwin Ray has identified about 31,000 Virginia soldiers who died in the war—more than double the Old Dominion’s once-accepted number of 14,794. And he still has more to add.
“It’s going to be close,” says Mr. Ray, a 55-year-old Air Force veteran who works at the Library of Virginia. “Josh and I are sure of that. It’s going to come down to a very small number.”
With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War beginning in mid-April, that small number could spark a big controversy between two states with rivalries that date back to the great conflict. Some Civil War buffs in North Carolina have already accused Mr. Howard of attempting to diminish the state’s heroism and the hardship it suffered. “Records were a whole lot fresher 150 years ago,” says Thomas Smith Jr., commander of the North Carolina Sons of Confederate Veterans, who is suspicious of Mr. Howard’s new count.
“I don’t care if Virginia has two people more who died, or a hundred more,” says Michael Chapman, a 55-year-old videographer from Polkton, N.C., who used to head up the local Sons of Confederate Veterans camp. He calls the recounts “irrelevant.”
The research by Messrs. Howard and Ray has the potential to rewrite part of the history of the war that redefined America. Edwin Ray has so far identified 31,000 Virginia soldiers who died in the war.
History books maintain that about 620,000 soldiers died in the war, when giant armies clashed in battles on a scale never seen before or since on the North American continent. Yet the 1866 counts, compiled by the federal government, were based on scattered and inconsistent Union and Confederate records.
The war was a chaotic affair, with armies that grew large and quickly, and rudimentary bureaucracies that were incapable of tallying the losses. Neither side had any reliable way to accurately record the overwhelming numbers of war deaths. Soldiers didn’t wear dog tags for identification, as they do today. Record-keeping fell apart as the war progressed, especially in the South, say historians.
The new counts aren’t likely to unseat the Civil War as this nation’s most devastating conflict. The second-highest toll of American military losses came in World War II, with more than 405,000 deaths, according to a congressional research report. Still, historians say, the overall Civil War death toll could change by tens of thousands if every state were to conduct a count. It could also revise historians’ understanding of which states suffered the heaviest losses.
To opponents of recounts, that’s a slippery slope. “Some have had a mindset that you are just trying to downplay all that is Confederate,” says Keith Hardison, co-chair of North Carolina’s Civil War 150th anniversary committee, which ordered Mr. Howard’s study. When the recount was announced, Mr. Howard received angry emails, letters and calls. “One hundred and fifty years later, there are people on both sides of the aisle who have made up their mind and don’t want to be confused by the facts,” Mr. Hardison says. With most of his research done, Josh Howard has confirmed only about 31,000 deaths from North Carolina.
Others say getting an accurate number might be a lost cause. Harvard University president and Civil War scholar Drew Gilpin Faust commends “the impetus to count” as an act of paying homage to the fallen. But records were so poorly kept at the time and afterward that no one will ever really know how many people actually died, she says.
Messrs. Howard, Ray and other supporters of recounting say the digitization of service records, the creation of searchable databases and other technological innovations make it much easier—and enticing—for historians to produce more accurate counts. The two researchers are using electronic records, but also traditional sources like archives, diaries, church records and newspaper accounts, to figure out more precisely who died where, how and on which side.
Neither Mr. Howard nor Mr. Ray wants to start a war between the states. “I’m not interested in fighting it out over who lost the most,” says Mr. Howard, a 31-year-old North Carolinian. “I’m interested in getting it as accurate as possible.”
Still, the two men know they’re stirring up trouble. “When you research the Civil War, you are going to have backlash, no matter what,” Mr. Howard says.
Indeed, the new numbers add fuel to a long-simmering rivalry between Virginia, which was home to the Confederacy’s capital in Richmond, and North Carolina, which claimed more losses for the Southern cause.
The two states often jousted over which units had fought harder, and the arguing continued after the war was over, says John Coski, chief historian for the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. He remembers arguing with boys at camp in the 1970s about which state lost more soldiers.
“It was just like sports teams today,” says Henry Kidd, 60, a re-enactor from Colonial Heights, Va., who has ancestors who fought from both states.
In Virginia, troops often saw themselves as the Confederacy’s crack fighters because they were led by its best strategists, including Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. In numerous publications and speeches during the war and after, North Carolinians prided themselves on fighting the hardest. For generations, North Carolinians claimed their soldiers were among the first to fight, got the farthest on the battlefield at Gettysburg, and were the last to fight near Appomattox Court House, where Gen. Lee’s army surrendered.
John C. Inscoe, a history professor at the University of Georgia and an expert on the Civil War in North Carolina, says Tar Heels may have had a political motive in amplifying their numbers. The state had an inferiority complex after the war, because its units were known for high desertion rates, he says.
Not so, says Greg Mast, a 62-year-old re-enactor and retired postal worker from Timberlake, N.C. Mr. Mast says he has researched desertion among various units to explore that claim, and found Tar Heel rates weren’t any higher than those of other units. “The more you study the war, the less true the received wisdom about the war seems to be,” he says.
Mr. Howard says North Carolina troops did desert in large numbers toward the end of the war, but he says it made sense, since many soldiers wanted to get back to their families when they heard that Union forces under Gen. William T. Sherman had entered their state.
North Carolina and Virginia are the only two Southern states currently conducting official recounts. But a devoted handful of amateurs are doing their own counts. Bing Chambers, a 63-year-old retiree and amateur historian from Columbia, S.C., has spent at least 17 years researching his state’s war dead. He thinks his new research will raise his state’s toll to about 22,000 from an earlier estimate of 17,682. He has long wondered about North Carolina’s claim. “Frankly, 40,000 always seemed like a lot,” he says, adding that his research has proved a longstanding Palmetto State claim that not one white South Carolinian fought for the federal government during the war.
Mr. Howard pointed to the name of soldier Bennett Martin, who he determined died of disease. Civil War death tolls from more populous Northern states still surpass Southern losses, as the North fielded a larger army that suffered staggering casualties in a grueling war of attrition. New York reported the most deaths of any state—46,534, according to the 1866 federal report.
But in the South, the 1866 report established an interstate hierarchy of loss. North Carolina’s death toll overwhelmed all other Confederate states; South Carolina trailed as a distant second. Mississippi was third with 15,265, and Virginia fourth.
The war generally doesn’t evoke the same public interest in the North, Midwest and the West as it does in the defeated South, where most of the battles were fought and the land was devastated. For generations, whites in the region also migrated less frequently than those in the North—where immigrants with no ties to the Civil War flooded industrialized cities—so more people retained a family connection to those who fought.
Mr. Howard, whose expertise is the American Revolution, had no intention of working on the Civil War when he joined the North Carolina Office of Archives & History in 2007. But when his boss went looking for someone to gather data for a book commemorating the 150th anniversary, Mr. Howard’s experience with military records made him an obvious choice.
In an office amid a warren of cubicles, Mr. Howard has spent most days since last June poring over thousands of records. He checks military documents, hospital files, prisoner-of-war camp records, postwar pension applications, court martial proceedings, battle reports and other material to try to determine whether each soldier who served from North Carolina died in combat, or by execution or from disease, which count as a war-related death.
He often starts with a name off a muster roll—a monthly record kept by army clerks to figure out soldiers’ pay—and tries to track what happened to each soldier. If it isn’t immediately clear, he searches further, looking at census data, pension records, diaries, cemetery records, hospital records and other material.
Mr. Howard, his tie loosened, sat slumped at his desk in front of his computer on a recent day. An image of a Confederate hospital record was illuminated on the screen. He looked for a notation clarifying whether the patient was discharged or died. The soldier was discharged, but it wasn’t clear from these records what happened to him, whether he went back into combat or left the army.
The work sometimes leads down fascinating paths that illuminate the war in ways he never expected. He found one man who fought for the Confederacy, was taken prisoner and then joined the Union army and commanded black troops. There were men taken prisoner who never returned to North Carolina. Their wives assumed they were dead, but census records showed they took up new families in other states. He found Confederate prisoners of war who agreed to fight Native Americans out West in exchange for being released.
Many cases are straightforward. If Mr. Howard finds a report that marks an individual “killed in action” at a particular battle, or one that shows a soldier died in a hospital or prison, he adds it to his list of men who died in uniform.
Many died in battle. Others died of illnesses like chronic diarrhea or typhoid. A few died from spider bites. One was shot by a fellow soldier after allegedly being mistaken for a bear. But for thousands of other soldiers, Mr. Howard can find no way to tell when, where or how they died. Many disappear along the paper trail.
Confederate Private Solomon Willis, Company F, 55th, North Carolina Infantry, enlisted at age 32 in 1862, and was captured by federal forces in April 1865, according to records Mr. Howard found. A report shows that Mr. Willis, in good health, was released from prison in June of that year. But Mr. Howard couldn’t find a record showing that the soldier returned to his wife in North Carolina. She filed for a state veteran’s pension in 1901, claiming Mr. Willis was killed in action. Without proof of death, Mr. Howard couldn’t put Mr. Willis on his list.
Mr. Ray, a research librarian at the state Library of Virginia, started looking at Virginia military deaths from colonial times to the present about nine years ago. The result of his effort is an online database. The Civil War remains the largest and most difficult part of his database because of its size and the poor records, he says, and he expects a more complete tally will take several more years.
His database lists 27,520 Civil War military deaths from Virginia. But he has yet to check all of his records against National Archives data and census records. He has found roughly another 4,000 Union deaths from West Virginia, which was part of Virginia until 1863, and expects to find more war dead from cemetery records and county histories.
While Mr. Ray plays down the rivalry with North Carolina, he is confident Virginia eventually will be declared the leader in war deaths within the Confederacy. “The odds are, when we look at it it’s going to make sense that Virginia would have the larger numbers,” he says.
Responds Mr. Howard: “We’ll see when we’re done.”
For a more indepth study of the total number of deaths, during the Civil War, by North Carolina men see:
North Carolina Civil War Death Study
North Carolina Civil War Sesquicentennial
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