(note: this post originally appeared at Civil Warriors on October 13, 2006)
Dimitri Rotov has been blogging recently about how military historians use/misuse/abuse estimates of military strength and losses. Rather than summarize his position, I point you here for a summary of the discussion:
Once you are there, you can make your way back to his previous commentary on the subject.
I think Dimitri has a point. Over the last sixty or so years, American historians have been engaged in producing massive documentary editions of the writings of various people, movements, and events. And we are talking large-scale enterprises: The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, which published volume one in 1967, is still going strong twenty-seven volumes later. See
Such enterprises suggest the importance of the documentary record, and yet we have no modern version of such an enterprise to update, even replace, books such as Thomas Livermore’s Numbers and Losses in the Civil War or William Fox’s Regimental Losses in the American Civil War. By the way, Livermore is now online:
as is Fox:
Recent research has called into question traditional estimates of strengths and losses in several battles and campaigns where traditional estimates have become entrenched in the literature. There’s new information that calls into question strength estimates during the Seven Days (good news for McClellan fans) and numbers and losses during the Overland Campaign of 1864, especially the June 3 assault at Cold Harbor. The last finding is key to Gordon Rhea’s recent account of the battle, and no one who studies Rhea’s account will ever again recite the “7,000 down in 30 minutes” (or variations of time thereof) line of Civil War lore.
It would be a useful endeavor to ascertain estimates that are as accurate as possible, as such estimates are at the core of many assessments of combat performance and leadership. But I want to go beyond this to offer a more intriguing observation, and that is that there is often something misleading about assessing the outcome of a battle or campaign or determining good generals and bad generals based primarily on some sort of numbers game. One could half the losses on the June 3 assaults at Cold Harbor, for example, without having to reassess the poor performance of the Union high command that day (a close examination of Meade and his corps commanders shows that they have to share more than some of the blame usually unloaded primarily on Grant).
In some cases, of course, adjusting estimates in light of new information changes the story. If Grant inflicted more losses on Lee during the spring of 1864, and if some of Grant’s losses (I speak here of the “lightly wounded”) can be attributed to the impact of impending expiring enlistments (short-timer’s syndrome), then reassessments are in order, since the original assessments hinged so much on comparing numbers and losses. That said, however, would that really cause us to see the campaign as more successful for Grant, or would it cause us to reassess what constitutes victory and defeat and how we as scholars make such judgments? Let’s say that Lee’s strength was at least equal to or perhaps exceeded McClellan’s strength on June 25, 1862. How would that change an account of the ensuing campaign? Oh, sure, we’d have to toss out notions that McClellan was inept because he “lost” despite outnumbering Lee, but, once we set that aside, how much else would change? How much would it change? Or would it force us to look at assessing outcomes in some way that placed force strengths and body counts in appropriate context (the definition of which would depend upon the context)?
Just some food for thought and discussion on how we do what we do, why we do it, and whether that’s how and why we ought to do it.
Rhea did an excellent job of undermining those Cold Harbor numbers. They were bad enough, as was the Army of the Potomac’s “execution” (to borrow a term from sports). But the urban legend of 7,000/30 was thoroughly debunked. As a confirmed McClellan hater, no reformation of numbers will get the ANV remotely close to 200,000. And the notion that Little Mac would have taken the initiative with McDowell’s additional 30,000 is IMHO fantasy. That would have reduced his “disadvantage” from 1:2 to 1:1.67. He’d still have retre…oops – I mean, “chasnged his base”. As for whether the revised estimates of Lee’s strength would change modern evaluation of what took place starting June 25, who knows. I think not, because whether Lee had the Lost Cause-fabricated 80,000 or so or, instead, 90-95,000, the point is that McClellan apparently was still relying on his hallucinations regarding what Lee had. In either intance, the result is the same. Lee took a radical risk by taking a substantial portion of his force and sending it north of the river to attack Porter. McClellan had an overwhelming superiority in front of Richmond, regardless of which strength estimate we use. In the end, getting a more accurate number in this instance serves the purpose of being historical, but almost certainly doesn’t alter our view of what took place.