ALBANY, N.Y. – Nearly 150 years after the last fusillade of the Civil War, historians, authors and museum curators are still finding new topics to explore as the nation commemorates the sesquicentennial of America’s bloodiest conflict.
Even the long-accepted death toll of 620,000, cited by historians since 1900, is being reconsidered. In a study published late last year in Civil War History, Binghamton University history demographics professor J. David Hacker said the toll is actually closer to 750,000.
“That number just sat there – 620,000 – for a century,” said Lesley Gordon, a professor at the University of Akron and editor of the journal, a 57-year-old publication considered the pre-eminent publication in its field.
Now, that figure “doesn’t feel right anymore,” Gordon said.
The buzz Hacker’s new estimate has created among academic circles comes in the second year of the nation’s Civil War sesquicentennial, a five-year period during which new ways to educate and inform America about its most devastating war are being presented in various forms, including fresh exhibits and living history events that highlight the role Hispanics, blacks and American Indians played in the war.
Among the published material are articles and books that look at guerrilla warfare in the border states, an overlooked battleground where civilian populations often fell victim to the fighting. Such work represents “the new direction” some are taking in an effort to offer new Civil War topics for Americans to examine, Gordon said.
“They think about Lincoln, they think about Gettysburg, they think about Robert E. Lee,” Gordon said. “They don’t think about this often brutal warfare going on in people’s backyards.”
The National Parks Service is featuring some of the lesser-known stories of the Civil War in its commemoration plans. The parks agency has published a 41-page booklet on the role of the nation’s Latino communities in the war, with another planned from the Native American perspective.
These stories, and those of escaped slaves and free-born blacks who fought for the Union, are an important part of the nation’s history, according to Bob Sutton, chief historian for the National Parks Service.
He pointed to the recent 150th commemoration of the heroics of Robert Smalls, who commandeered a Confederate ammunition steamboat along with several other fellow slaves, picked up their families, sailed out of Charleston’s harbor and surrendered the ship to the Union fleet blockading the South Carolina coast.
“The impact of this one incident went well beyond the incident itself,” Sutton said. “It was a major catalyst for the Union to recognize the value to starting to raise black troops. Even that story was downplayed until relatively recently. The impact of 200,000 black soldiers and sailors in the Union war effort was a critical boost.”
As for the death toll, many historians have fully embraced Hacker’s higher number, among them James McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Battle Cry of Freedom.”
“It drives home even more forcefully the human cost of the Civil War, which was enormous,” said McPherson, professor emeritus in Princeton University’s history department. “And it makes it more understandable why it took the South so long to recover.”
Hacker’s new estimate has its share of critics who question some of his methodology, but there’s been no groundswell of opposition from fellow historians, Gordon said.
“I haven’t heard anybody say we want that (620,000) number back,” she said.