Color blindness in the demographic death toll of the Civil War
By James Downs
An 2 April 2012 New York Times article, “New Estimate Raises Civil War Death Toll,” reports that a new study ratchets up the death toll from an estimated 650,000 to a staggering 850,000 people. As horrific as this new number is, it fails to reflect the mortality of former slaves during the war. If former slaves were included in this figure, the Civil War death toll would likely be over a million casualties.
Dr. J. David Hacker, the demographer who tabulated these numbers, relies on new microdata samples of the 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880 censuses to estimate white deaths that occurred during the war. His findings challenge “the gospel” of statistics that two amateur 19th century historians used to count the Civil War dead. But in framing his analysis in response to 19th century historians, Hacker reproduces a 19th century problem. He does not consider the black population as part of his overall calculation.
In Hacker’s 37-page study, there is a passing reference to former slaves’ mortality. It is quickly pushed aside in favor of a more intensive analysis of the experience of white soldiers. According to both the 19th century counters and Hacker, former slaves were “civilians” and thus were not considered part of the larger military death toll.
Yet tens of thousands of slaves died during the Civil War. They were shot by Confederate soldiers, and according to new research conducted by Duke historian Thavolia Glymph, Union soldiers shot at former slaves. But many, many more died from the same illnesses that claimed the lives of white soldiers.
As many Civil War historians have documented, more soldiers died from the outbreaks of pneumonia, yellow fever, and smallpox that plagued Union and Confederate camps than died in combat. As ex-slaves liberated themselves from Southern plantations and took refuge in Union camps during the war, they came into direct contact with these illnesses, became infected, and died in staggering numbers. These former slaves and soldiers died in the same camps from the same diseases and therefore should considered be the same in terms of the war’s death toll.
Just like white soldiers, emancipated slaves died from an explosive smallpox epidemic that began in Washington in 1862 and spread across the South from the Carolinas to the Mississippi Valley in 1863 and 1864. By the war’s end in 1865, the epidemic had moved westward, where it claimed the lives of countless Native Americans. The rough 19th century estimate was that 60,000 former slaves died from the epidemic, but doctors treating black patients often claimed that they were unable to keep accurate records due to demands on their time and the lack of manpower and resources. The surviving records only include the number of black patients whom doctors encountered; tens of thousands of other slaves had no contact with army doctors, leaving no records of their deaths. This is to say nothing of the thousands of Native Americans who died during the war — and who are not referenced in Hacker’s study. By relying purely on the census as the primary document, Hacker follows in the 19th century illogic of seeing black people and Native Americans as outside of the purview of those who died during the Civil War.
Not counting the deaths of former slaves ignores the fact that the Civil War, which was intended to liberate bondspeople from chattel slavery, led to widespread sickness, suffering, and death. It also implies that former slaves’ experience is not part of the nation’s history.
James Downs is an associate professor of history at Connecticut College and author of Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and editor of Taking Back the Academy: History of Activism, History as Activism and Why We Write: The Politics and Practice of Writing for Social Change.