More Than a Question of Counting?

The news is that in North Carolina and Virginia researchers are recounting the number of Civil War soldiers from each state who died in the Civil War.  These reports suggest that while fewer Tar Heels may have given their lives for the cause of southern independence, more citizens of the Old Dominion sacrificed all in the line of duty in the Confederate military services, enough so that the one-accepted claim that North Carolina suffered the highest number of military war dead might be set aside in favor of Virginia.

Now, I’m all in favor of making sure that historical records are accurate.  Sometimes that accuracy can recast our understanding of what happened.  Take the 1864 Overland Campaign  We now know that the Army of Northern Virginia suffered more heavily than had been previously believed, and that at Cold Harbor on June 3 the main Union assault cost far fewer casualties in a longer period of time that the tradition claim that some 7,000 men fell inside of an hour, sometimes thirty minutes.  Given that so much of the traditional narrative of that campaign rests upon body counts and strength/loss assessments, those changes challenge accounts of that campaign that rest much of their argument on the statistical record.

North Carolina’s traditional claim to having the highest number of military war dead has been something of a source of pride for some North Carolinians, and it can be understood in part as an aspect of a seriously rivalry with their neighbors to the north, one often exposed in debates about the Confederate assault against the Union center on July 3 at Gettysburg.  Sometimes known as Longstreet’s assault but usually remembered by its more familiar name of “Pickett’s Charge,” that assault featured unites from several states, including North Carolina, but one might mistakenly conclude that a single division composed solely of Virginians made the assault.  In this household we know it as the Pettigrew-Pickett-Trimble assault, because I’m married to someone whose ancestor was wounded in the attack (a member of the 28th North Carolina).  I can testify that the Virginia/North Carolina rivalry is a big one, given my own four years at UVa.  So I understand something of the intramural dynamics involved.

That said, the framework of the inquiry is an interesting one.  After all, deaths due to war were not limited to those in military service, nor were they limited to Confederate supporters.  If we are most interested in the total sacrifice made by each state, then why simply concentrate on Confederates?  This, in fact, is one aspect of the recounting in Virginia:

[Edwin Ray’s] database lists 27,520 Civil War military deaths from Virginia. But he has yet to check all of his records against National Archives data and census records. He has found roughly another 4,000 Union deaths from West Virginia, which was part of Virginia until 1863, and expects to find more war dead from cemetery records and county histories.

The West Virginia/Virginia issue will prove interesting, since Confederate soldiers would not have recognized the legitimacy of West Virginia in any case.  So, if a Confederate soldier hailing from western Virginia was killed in the Wilderness, does he die as a Virginian or a West Virginian?  I say the former.  And, of course, I’m waiting to see whether the issue of enslaved/free blacks in Confederate service appears in these reassessments.

I suspect that in the end we may find that while North Carolina’s numbers of Confederate dead are inflated, they still had a higher number of Confederate war dead than did Virginia (the figure of 31,000 for Virginia, as we see, includes 4,000 Union war dead).  Virginia’s claim to greater sacrifice will have to rest upon Union as well as Confederate losses.  It should be interesting to see how that fact plays out in the ensuing public discussion.

What do you make of this story and its implications?

6 thoughts on “More Than a Question of Counting?

  1. Steve Witmer March 27, 2011 / 5:40 pm

    One question, though – if Union casualties are counted toward Virginia’s casualties, does that hold to USCT casualties from the various southern states? Just curious if past accounting has focused on Confederate casualties or included those from southern states that fought for the Union as well.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 27, 2011 / 6:32 pm

      Well, I would count USCT dead as part of Union dead, and you can see that the fellow from South Carolina (source of many USCT soldiers) didn’t mention that in his calculations. Past counting has been about Confederate losses.

  2. Ray O'Hara March 27, 2011 / 6:28 pm

    NC had it’s share of Union troops but I always assumed that the NC numbers were a result of sending more men to fight.
    But numbers do matter in a way because casualty counting has always been a backdoor way for Southern proponents to claim “victory”

  3. Steve Jacobs March 28, 2011 / 1:12 pm

    Actually, as far as counting the Union dead, including the USCT, North Carolina is doing that as well. If I understood they are planning on doing a count for Union, and a count for Confederate. The researcher for them posted such over at Dead Confederates. Apparently the reporter disregarded that. Its also on their website devoted to the study.

  4. Bob A. June 15, 2011 / 4:20 pm

    Further complicating the issue for Virginia is the large number of Union recruits from Ohio and Penn. who were not residents of Virginia but were accepted by the Wheeling government, the 2nd WV Cavalry and 4th WV Infantry were mostly organized in Ohio. 6 companies of the 2nd WV Infantry were organized in OH/PA.There are approximately 7 regiments of out-of-state Union soldiers credited to WV. Should these count as VA/WV?

    As far as counting WV Confederates as VA, I am totally against that. We are not fighting the war here, and WV has been a state for almost 150 years. If there is to be a separate counting for WV it should include both sides.

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