CIVIL WAR AUTHORS BLOG publishes a new post on the fourth Friday of each month. These posts reflect questions and challenges from Civil War books-in-progress, and are intended to create conversation among H-CivWar subscribers. In addition to our regular contributors, we welcome posts from guest bloggers. If you would like to contribute a guest post, please contact David Prior at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The subject of this post occurred to me as I wrote my department’s annual report for the dean’s office. Among other things, that office wanted to know how many majors my department had at the end of the academic year. It turned out that the dean’s office’s numbers were different from the figures generated by my department’s records which were different from what the college’s student information system (SIS) indicated. Part of the problem was that the dean’s office used a different standard for counting majors than the department did. Another issue is that the SIS is clunky, unintuitive, and user unfriendly. After spending far more time on this task than I should have, I established what appeared to the true number: 63.
The difficulty in figuring out the answer to this simple question in our “data-driven” era reminded me of the problems with numbers that I frequently encounter in my own research on the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry. The Union army was one of the most numerate and literate forces that had ever taken the field, and as such it was a fair reflection of the society that produced it. At the same time, state and federal bureaucracies generated voluminous records. And, yet, so frequently, the numbers generated by this society and state don’t add up. The two most obvious examples I can think of are a) the ages of the soldiers in the regiment and b) the losses the 5th New Hampshire suffered at any given battle as well as over the course of its service. What I deduce from wrestling with these topics is that messy people leading messy lives produced messy numbers that messily captured the messiness of life.
Determining the ages of the men who fought in the 5th New Hampshire is really a matter of informed speculation. Census-takers in 1850 and 1860 did not ask for people’s birthdays. Rather, they asked respondents how old they were on the day of the census (which, in both years, took place in June). A man, then, who was 25 in June 1860 could have been born in either 1834 or 1835. To this problem, we must add the fact that ages in the census were self-reported—just as they were on almost all other records. Men lied or mistook their age when the census was taken. They did the same when they were married by a minister (especially if their wives were much younger than they were). And many certainly prevaricated when they signed an enlistment form. In fact, I estimate that at least 20% of the 5th New Hampshire’s original volunteers in 1861 lied about their age—often with the connivance of recruiting officers.
Establishing the casualties the 5th New Hampshire suffered is just as difficult if not more so. Take Fredericksburg, for example. In his official report, Colonel Edward Cross, who commanded the regiment, claimed 247 men and 19 officers were present at the battle. Of these, he presented the following accounting: 15 killed, 142 wounded, and 12 missing, for a total of 169 casualties. William F. Fox’s Regimental Losses in the American Civil War 1861-1865 (1889) has the 5th New Hampshire suffering 20 killed, 154 wounded, and 19 missing (193 casualties) out of 303 effectives. The Revised Register of the Soldiers and Sailors of New Hampshire in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1865 (1895) (produced by Augustus D. Ayling, the state adjutant general), which was the Granite State’s official reckoning, claims 57 members of the 5th New Hampshire were killed in action or suffered mortal wounds at Fredericksburg. Surely, we should not be too hard on Cross, Fox, or Ayling for producing wildly different figures—a number of factors produced these discrepancies. Counting the dead, wounded, and missing after a traumatic battle would tax even the steadiest mind, and as time passed, men who were badly hurt would succumb to their injuries and pass from “wounded” to “killed.” And yet, the disparities are substantial.
If we cannot establish with certainty the number of soldiers killed in any particular battle, what are we to make of the 5th New Hampshire’s proud boast that it suffered more combat fatalities than any other regiment in the Union army? Fox’s Regimental Losses supports this claim by calculating that the regiment lost 295 men killed or mortally wounded (although it also admits that for bureaucratic reasons, the War Department could not recognize New Hampshire’s determination that a number of the men in the regiment listed as missing in action were actually killed). In any event, I have not been able to find all 295 men in Ayling’s Revised Register—I always come up five or six short. But then again, I suppose it depends on when and how you count. Several men in The Revised Register are listed as having died very shortly after receiving disabled discharges for wounds suffered in action. Do these men count toward the 295? And what of Noah Shaw of the 5th New Hampshire, who was shot in the neck at the Battle of Fair Oaks in June 1862 and apparently died from “inflammation” of the wound in 1896?
For the sake of avoiding madness, I had long reconciled myself to these discrepancies. I consoled myself that at the very least I could establish good estimates based on approximations. But then I recalled J. David Hacker’s work which appeared to demonstrate that the Civil War’s death toll was around 20% higher than the traditional figure of 620,000 (which was produced, coincidentally, by Thomas Livermore, a veteran of the 5th New Hampshire, and William Fox). This substantial revision inspired a number of historians to reassess the destructiveness of the Civil War. And now I wonder: is there something big hiding in those 5th New Hampshire numbers? Can I blithely ignore these inconsistencies? Is there a way to harmonize them?