From 750,000 to 7.2 Million Dead

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.

15 thoughts on “From 750,000 to 7.2 Million Dead

  1. John Tucker

    Heard that on Seinfeld the other night.

    From: “The Stranded”
    Scene: Jerry and Elaine are waiting for Kramer to pick them up from a couple (Jenny and Steve) who hosted a party out on Long Island. Elaine tries to make small talk to kill time as it is very late in the evening.

    Jerry: I’m sure he’ll be here any minute. Jenny (To Steve): I want them out of here.
    Elaine: Call him again.
    Jerry: I called, what should I do? (To Jenny) We really appreciate this.
    Jenny (To Steve): It’s two o’clock in the morning.
    Jerry (noticing a coffee table book): Oh, you got the Civil War book. I saw some of that show, it was wonderful.
    Elaine: Six hundred and twenty million people died.
    Jerry: Thousand.
    Elaine: Thousand. Six hundred and twenty thousand. The horror, the horror. (To Jerry) The wife keeps giving us dirty looks. Are you sure you gave him the right directions?

    Reply
  2. Rob Baker

    Does it really obfuscate our historical understanding that much? The 700,000 or so deaths from the Civil War are causalities from war. These are in addition to the death toll on society already prevalent. The statistics that he argues with really only better our understanding of the differences in death on a daily basis. I just don’t think the argument is that important.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      He then makes a few adjustments to deal with the number of deaths related to disease. He discounts them given the commonplace nature of deaths resulting from various epidemics. Once adjusted we are left with roughly 51,000 to 62,500 deaths per year during the war. Marshall prefers this approach because Americans today do not equate military deaths with disease. Such deaths were much more common in mid-nineteenth century America. Adjusted to our current population we would see an uptick from 2.4 million deaths per year to 2.6 million.

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  3. Rob Baker

    He discounts them given the commonplace nature of deaths resulting from various epidemics.

    He discounts societal deaths or military deaths? To discount military deaths simply because they are a result of disease and epidemic is a pretty thin argument. He can never estimate what amount of soldiers would have died from the same diseases had they been at home rather than at war. Not to mention the number of casualties sustained due to diseases because of their environment and not epidemic, i.e. POW camps, food contractors selling rotten food to the army, etc.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Marshall discounts military deaths due to disease because as I understand it he is trying to show that Americans in the nineteenth century vs. today experienced the impact of certain kinds of death differently.

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      1. Rob Baker

        I think I would agree that 19th century and 21st century Americans handle death differently.

        But how does one handle a letter, or a newspaper account, depicting the death of a loved one, disease or no? Does disease take away from that?

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          He is not arguing that Americans didn’t mourn those who died of disease. Marshall is more interested in the broader picture of how communities from the local to the national understood the loss of life.

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          1. Rob Baker

            I didn’t say that he was, but yes he is when he discounts certain causes of death for the sake of a neater argument. In compliance with his logic, Jackson died from pneumonia and shouldn’t be counted as a casualty of war. I mean, how does discounting an aspect of death teach us anything about “the broader picture of how communities from the local to the national understood the loss of life.”?

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            1. Kevin Levin Post author

              My suggestion is to read the article for yourself.

              Again, what the author is attempting to point out is that our tendency to equate the percentage of Americans who died during the Civil War with a percentage equivalent to today’s population is flawed when we look to see how the 1860s numbers hold up alongside those during the antebellum years and based on when and how Americans died. Perhaps I am just not doing a good job of explaining some of the author’s points. I plucked out one paragraph from an entire essay. Again, go ahead and read the essay. It’s well worth your time.

              Reply
  4. Ben Allen

    This is a pretty good passage. Indeed, the concepts it conveys should be applied to all wars insufficiently close to our time (take note of that statement, those you making preparations for the Great War centennial). Perhaps such statistics should be based on a war’s death rates and the modern male population of the country involved or the present size of its military, with conscripts, volunteers, those of military age not in uniform, and those troops who didn’t participate in any combat as well as the various kinds of military actions taken into account.

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  5. John Tucker

    Collateral damage. Those who did not fight but…….I must assume that thru the years many who were not directly effected by wounds either physical or mentally were other wise effected and in some part their deaths were related to the war.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Vince,

      Thanks for posting this. Your point about looking at the numbers on a local level is a good one. I haven’t finished the article yet, but it sounds like Marshall doesn’t consider this.

      Reply
  6. Vince (Lancaster at War)

    Thank you for bringing the article to my attention with your post. I would not have seen it otherwise.

    My point is not as much about looking at local, state, or national death rates — any level should do — but that you can’t compare the variability of state and national rates from year to year without adjusting for the population size. Smaller populations will inherently have more variability. I’d say it’s like comparing apples and oranges, but it’s more like comparing a peck of apples with a bushel of apples.

    Reply

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