We’ve all done it. At one point or another in driving home the scale of death during the Civil War we’ve taken the number representing the percentage of Americans who died and applied it to our current population. When doing so we arrive at a number somewhere around 7 million. This is suppose to help our students/audience appreciate what Americans experienced in the 1860s.
In the current issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era (March 2014) Nicholas Marshall challenges this popular move. After crunching some numbers that places death rates by year during the Civil War alongside death rates during the antebellum years Marshall offers the following observation:
If the overall death rates did not represent a wholly new experience for Americans of the time, can something similar be said about the analogies historians make to twenty-first century society? Specifically, we should be careful when noting that if we calculate the percentage of Americans that died in the Civil War (above 2 percent), and apply it to our current population, our equivalent experience today would be the loss of from 6 to 7.2 million. While factually correct, this is misleading, because it ignores context. Death rates today are about eight-tenths of a percent (that is, approximately eight of every thousand Americans die each year). For a population of 300 million, this means that about 2.4 million die every twelve months. The 6 to 7.2 million figure, therefore, shocks us in part because of our own very different experience with death. If we divide it into four years as in the Civil War, it becomes 1.5 to 1.8 million per annum. This would represent an increase in the death rate experienced today of about 75 percent, a level far beyond that of the Civil War era and demonstrating clearly that the comparison is flawed. Furthermore, as we know, nearly all who die today are relatively old. These 1.5 to 1.8 million extra deaths, as we envision them when this analogy is used, would occur in fighting-age men and women. Again, the tragic element feels enormous. In a nation that usually sees only about 36,000 deaths in this age group every year, the scope of loss would indeed be monumental: forty-one to fifty times as many young men and women would die in each of four years, a rate several orders of magnitude above what Civil War-era Americans experienced. Thus, the simple statistic, while informative on one level, serves to obfuscate the historical experience. Put another way, the modern analogy does not help us situate us in the minds of those who lived through the Civil War. ["The Great Exaggeration: Death and the Civil War" (p. 13)]
I am going to think twice next time I am tempted to mark this move.