This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
America’s old garrets and gables are haunted by 130,000 more ghosts than we thought, it appears.
That’s roughly how many soldiers have been recently added to the rolls of Civil War dead through one historian’s painstaking analysis of old census records.
Union and Confederate combat deaths have long been calculated as 618,222, a figure derived from battle reports and regimental records. J. David Hacker of Binghamton University in New York, whose specialty is demographics, got suspicious about that number and starting poring over differences between the 1860 and 1870 censuses.
His conclusion: The total was at least 750,000 and may have run as high as 850,000. The difference exceeds the total number of U.S. deaths in World War I. Other historians have been impressed by Hacker’s work, which involved some shrewd assumptions about population growth and deaths from war wounds among discharged soldiers
The equivalent of 750,000 deaths in today’s U.S. population – now 10 times larger than in 1860 – would be 7.5 million. That’s roughly how many troops Germany and Japan, combined, lost during World War II, a conflict that left those two countries as ruined as much of the South was by 1865.
The war’s carnage is old news, obviously. But as America marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Hacker’s new numbers are a timely reminder of how cataclysmic and revolutionary that struggle was.
It was the price paid for the United States as we know it today – unified, indivisible, by many measures the greatest nation in history.
The blood shed by Union troops – 166 black regiments among them – bought freedom for millions of slaves. It helped secure freedom for other Americans as well. The 14th Amendment, enacted shortly after the war to protect freed slaves, wound up as a mandate that state and local governments abide by the Bill of Rights. Such protection for all citizens didn’t exist before the Civil War.
Many of the political arguments we have today – over Obamacare, for example – are echoes of the old conflict between states’ rights and federal powers. Since 1865, though, we’ve settled those arguments in elections, legislatures and courtrooms, not on battlefields.
Sesquicentennials of the Civil War’s watershed events are happening every few months, sometimes more often. One, the anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh, is today.
Shiloh was one of the strategic Union victories that preserved the nation, but it came at a shocking cost. The bloodletting – long pegged at more than 23,000 dead, wounded and missing – was more horror than this country had ever seen packed into two days.
And in light of Hacker’s conclusions, that terrible number may be too low, a sobering thought even 150 years later.