Professor: Civil War Death Toll May Be Really Off

The accepted number for deaths in the American Civil War for more than a century has been 620,000 from both sides of the conflict. But now a history professor at the State University of New York in Binghamton believes that number is far too low and the real number is closer to 750,000. Robert Siegel talks with J. David Hacker about how he came to his new number.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We read recently of the work of Professor J. David Hacker of Binghamton University in upstate New York. Dr. Hacker is a demographic historian and he's calculated that we have been underestimating the death toll of the Civil War for over a century. The long agreed figure is just under 620,000 war dead, Union and Confederate combined; Union casualties outnumbering Confederate casualties. Professor Hacker says the number was probably closer to 750,000.

And in this season, when we remember those who died in war, we thought we would hear how he arrived at that higher figure. And J. David Hacker joins us from Binghamton. Welcome to the program.

J. DAVID HACKER: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

SIEGEL: First, we should clarify here. You're not saying I found another 130,000 names of people who died in or as a result of the Civil War. What have you found?

HACKER: I've essentially looked at census data as an alternate count of the Civil War, determined how many men are missing from the 1870 Census.

SIEGEL: Missing, you're saying, who would have been 10 years older than they were in the 1860 Census.

HACKER: That's correct. We follow cohorts across time. And by looking at the loss across that decade and comparing it to standards - like what is being lost among women - we can come up with an estimate of how many men are missing.

SIEGEL: And you say the number of missing shows that more people died in the Civil War as a result of it than we've been estimating until today.

HACKER: That's correct. I think historians are not surprised by the answer. I think we've known for some time that the traditional estimate we have has been an undercount, based as it was on partial records - especially on the Confederate side where the record quality just deteriorates rapidly as the war closes. We really have no direct counts of Confederate deaths.

SIEGEL: I looked up online - these are numbers I think you probably know in your sleep - that the 1860 Census showed the population was about 31 and a half million people. And in 1870, was 38 and a half million people. Is the margin of error here small enough so that one can prove an error of just 130,000 out of those big numbers?

HACKER: There is a margin of error. I think it is small enough that we can say convincingly that the estimate has been undercounted. Actually, my research paper, I suggest a range of between 650 and 850,000 deaths. And that's a large margin of error, but I think we can say very convincingly that the traditional estimate is too low. My best guess, about 750,000 deaths.

SIEGEL: Does it change your understanding of the Civil War much, to know that the death toll was more like 750,000 or more than 618,000, say?

HACKER: I think it's important to get the number right. I think it's important in terms of the economic cost of the war, the demographic cost, all the repercussions of the war to get that number right. Now, certainly it doesn't change our understanding of the war as being very deadly.

You mentioned that the population was about 31 million in 1860. Today it's about 310 million. So, if you could imagine a war today that produced 7.5 million deaths, you get some indication of how devastating the war was on the population, on the economy, on the institutions of 19th century America.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Hacker, thank you very much for talking with us today.

HACKER: OK, thank you.

SIEGEL: That's J. David Hacker, demographic historian at Binghamton University, who has raised the estimate of how many deaths there were in the American Civil War from just under 620,000, he says, to around 750,000.

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