I know that to some people, the idea that there is anything left to study about the Civil War is doubtful. Estimates are that some 50,000 books have been written about the Civil War. And yet, much to my own frustration, many topics remain unstudied. The one that has frustrated me more than any other in recent years is civilian casualties of the war.
I was absolutely delighted to hear a story on NPR a few months ago about how a professor in New York was undertaking a long-term academic analysis of the total deaths in the Civil War using census records. He estimates that the number of deaths in the war is closer to 750,000. For years I have complained whenever someone said “620,000 deaths in the Civil War”. We know that estimate was low because Confederate records are so incomplete. I have read numerous studies of individual engagements in which estimates of Confederate casualties seem pretty low, such as Perryville. I mean, when regimental histories say so-and-so died in this battle, and the official report of the battle says nothing about casualties in that unit, something is wrong. Anyway, my point is that records are definitely incomplete. And that number of 620,000 definitely did not include civilians. In his fantastic book Battle Cry of Freedom, historian James McPherson estimates that some 50,000 civilians died in the Civil War.
Personally, I think that estimate is low.
Now, there weren’t a lot of civilians killed in battles, although that did happen. But the numbers were not that high. And of course there were draft riots, accidents at various arsenals, fires started by one side or the other, and other things like that that killed civilians as well. There were a number of civilians executed by one side or the other during the war, especially in the South when local or Confederate authorities went after Unionists and bands of deserters. Early in the war Southern vigilantes went after a lot of people. And there were a lot of civilians killed in guerrilla warfare all over the South. From my own studying of the war in Kentucky and Tennessee, a lot of civilians died in that sort of fighting, including veterans who had left the army only to return home and be killed by guerrillas. I know that in their attempts to keep their slaves from running away or being taken by the Federals, slaveowners in Arkansas and Louisiana marched thousands of slaves to Texas. It is highly likely that a great many of them died along the way. But the thing that really got me thinking about civilian casualties was the situation with the “contrabands”, the escaped slaves. After reading John Cimprich’s book Slavery’s End in Tennessee, 1861-1865 some fifteen plus years ago I started thinking about how many thousands of those people, having escaped from slavery, died in contraband camps of exposure, starvation, disease, and God knows what. And those camps were all over the South. Apparently the new documentary by Ric Burns talks about these. Good. I have not yet acquired Drew Gilpin Faust’s book on the subject, which is apparently what the Burns film is based on, but believe me, it is on my list. It’s just that it’s a big list, and lately stuff for my walking tour project has taken priority. Anyway, it seems I need to try to do some more reading on how the war affected civilians in order to be a little more knowledgeable in that area.
So yeah, to me 50,000 is a good guess on the low side. But I am willing to bet it is higher. I just don’t know how much higher.