Sunday, April 03, 2011

News---Counting The Civil War's Dead

The Numbers War Between the States, Cameron McWhirter, Wall Street Journal, March 26, 2011.

Josh Howard is playing with fire here in the heart of the old Confederacy, with a scholarly finding that could rewrite the history of the Civil War. For more than a century, North Carolina has proudly claimedthat it lost more soldiers than any other Southern state in the nation's bloodiest conflict. But after meticulously combing through military, hospital and cemetery records, the historian is finding the truth isn't so clear-cut.

A new count has called into question the number of soldiers from North Carolina killed in the Civil War. See how one researcher determined whether some of the state's soldiers should be counted among the war dead.

Official military records compiled in 1866 counted 40,275 North Carolina soldiers who died in uniform. Though known to be faulty, those records have gone largely unchallenged. With most of his research done, Mr. Howard has confirmed only about 31,000 deaths. "It's a number we can defend with real documents," he says. He expects to confirm a few thousand more by the time he finishes this summer, but the final tally will most certainly fall short of the original count, he says.

Across the state border in Virginia, traditionally believed to have the fourth-highest number of war deaths in the Confederacy, librarian Edwin Ray has identified about 31,000 Virginia soldiers who died in the war—more than double the Old Dominion's once-accepted number of 14,794. And he still has more to add.

"It's going to be close," says Mr. Ray, a 55-year-old Air Force veteran who works at the Library of Virginia. "Josh and I are sure of that. It's going to come down to a very small number."

With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War beginning in mid-April, that small number could spark a big controversy between two states with rivalries that date back to the great conflict. Some Civil War buffs in North Carolina have already accused Mr. Howard of attempting to diminish the state's heroism and the hardship it suffered. "Records were a whole lot fresher 150 years ago," says Thomas Smith Jr., commander of the North Carolina Sons of Confederate Veterans, who is suspicious of Mr. Howard's new count.

"I don't care if Virginia has two people more who died, or a hundred more," says Michael Chapman, a 55-year-old videographer from Polkton, N.C., who used to head up the local Sons of Confederate Veterans camp. He calls the recounts "irrelevant." Edwin Ray has so far identified 31,000 Virginia soldiers who died in the war.

The entire article with interactive graphics can be found at the Wall Street Journal.

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