April 6, 2014

Death and the Civil War

"The Soldier's grave" (HW, 11/5/1861)
Over at Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin comments on a recent article, "The Great Exaggeration: Death and the Civil War," by Nicholas Marshall in the Journal of Civil War History.  Marshall reappraises the significance of the Civil War death toll, arguing that it wasn't all that different from death before and after the war.  After reading the article, I have major issues with the statistical framework used in his analysis and found the assertion that one single statistic (i.e., number of deaths) does not give a full picture of societal ramifications to be somewhat obvious.  Furthermore, it was jarring to see assertions like "dying of disease in a camp must have seemed distressingly normal" [p. 16] appearing in an academic publications without any evidence or exploration.  I was going to comment on Kevin's blog, but instead will use this post to give some thoughts on the topic and connect them to Lancaster and the 79th Pennsylvania.

The article's main argument is that the variability of the death rate was not all that different from pre-war levels.  Unfortunately, the author has no sense of the very important relationship between population size and the variability of the death rate.  Of course the variability of the death rate will be higher for smaller cities and very low nationally -- the variability of the death rate should decrease with population size.  Raw annual changes in the percentage of people who die mean nothing if you're not comparing populations of similar size, and Marshall is comparing that of single cities or states with changes in the national rate.  He should have known that something funny was going on when the death rate in Chicago jumped by 300% one year.

He also claims that drops in the male survival rate for the 1860s decade was not significant because, well, it's still within the range of 1/4 and 1/5 -- whatever that means [p. 12].  [Interesting side note: did the female death rate during childbirth increase during the 1860s due to war's claim on medical resources?]  We have measures of statistical significance for a reason -- just because you're writing history doesn't mean that you shouldn't use them!  

Even within this "change in death rate" framework, there are two other problems: (1) the high casualty rate lasted for three or four consecutive years and was not just a one-year fluke; and (2) although the war spanned four years, combat casualties were concentrated over three years.  For Lancaster, it was really 2 years and 9 months (Seven Days Battles in June 1862 though Battle of Bentonville in March 1865).  This would make the spike in the death rate look more dramatic, and possibly better point out the scope and scale of the war's trauma.

By the way, I never placed too much stock in the whole "if the death rate was extrapolated to today's population..." meme as a teaching tool; I think the stats speak for themselves.  For example, Lancaster County had a population of 116,000 according to the 1860 census.  From my knowledge of Pennsylvania volunteer companies recruited in Lancaster, I'd guess around 10,000 men served as soldiers and approximately 1,500 died.  The 79th Pennsylvania (9 out of 10 companies from Lancaster) accounts for 268 of those deaths -- which I believe to be reasonably accurate based on reviewing rosters -- according to Dyer (1908).  Having these numbers on a county level seems to give better intuition about how death affected a community than national statistics.  

Regardless of this considerably flawed statistical analysis, the article does touch on an interesting issue -- the response to death fit into prewar and postwar traditions and did not reflect a fundamental shift.  This is an interesting hypothesis to investigate.  In my research, I was struck by one particular example that demonstrates how Civil War death fits into an existing framework.  When Emanuel Rudy of Company A, 79th Pennsylvania, died a couple days after the Battle of Perryville of a wounded from that battle, hospital steward and newspaper correspondent John B. Chamberlain wrote a letter that appeared in the October 24, 1862, Daily Inquirer:
Poor Emanuel Rudy, whom I reported as wounded in the groin, in the list of Company A, has since died.  Poor fellow, I was with him to the last moment.  His death strangly reminded me of the last verse in Mr. Norton's "Bingen on the Rhine" that I loved to declaim semi-monthly in my school boy days at the Lancaster High school:  
His trembling voice grew feint and hoarse...[continues to quote the poem's last verse]
The point is that Chamberlain relied on an English poet's words about the death of a soldier with the French Foreign Legion in Algiers to make some sense of Rudy's death.  A comprehensive look at how the literary and artistic tools for confronting death before the war transferred to the war could be very interesting, if not already done.  In particular, I always pay special attention to wartime tombstones in cemeteries as they often offer an artistic richness that shows how people dealt with death during the war, and am curious to know more about that subject.  A comparison of different religious newspapers and the ideas (or lack thereof) from religious thought leaders could be particularly illuminating.

Gravestone of Capt. John H. Dysart, Co. C, 79th PA
Woodward Hill Cemetery, Lancaster, PA
However, the poem and the topic of cemeteries point to a way in which death was experienced very differently during the Civil War.  Namely, there was no body to bring home to bury.  Considering Company E, 79th Pennsylvania, how many bodies of the 26 soldiers who died during the war were brought back to Lancaster?  As far as I know, zero.  Almost all are in military cemeteries from Louisville to Nashville to Chattanooga to Atlanta to Andersonville to Bentonville, and some even suffered unknown fates on the battlefield and presumed dead.  As evidenced by its prominence as a topic in almost every letter after the Battle of Perryville, the inability to bring bodies home for burial significantly frustrated pre-war death rituals.  In response, more public forms of commemoration in Lancaster (e.g., Soldiers and Sailors Memorial in Lancaster, erected 1874) and more national ideas about death and sacrifice took hold.  This is basically the premise of the PBS documentary from last year, I believe.

So, with some knowledge of statistics and the social mechanics of death in one particular Northern community, I find Marshall's characterization of recent scholarship on death and the Civil War as built on a "great exaggeration" to be unconvincing.  Although there are many interesting questions on this subject left to explore regarding the broader context of death in that era, I estimate current scholarship to be more or less on the right track.


  1. I will be writing the text for Savas/Beatie's The Aftermath of Battle this summer. I read your article with interest, and would like to speak with you further about this subject. Is this possible?
    Meg Thompson

  2. Sure. I'd be happy to talk more about it. Look for an email momentarily.