How Should We Think about Civil War Numbers That Never Add up?

Hugh Dubrulle's picture

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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?

I have come across the same issue in over thirty years of researching the Seventeenth Michigan Infantry. I have create a day-by-day journal based on letters, diaries, official reports, newspaper accounts, and even post-war reminiscences. The regiment was in mustered into Federal service August 1862 and Mustered out in early June 1865. It was assigned t the Ninth Army Corps. I have created a database for the 1,300 men who enlisted in the regiment based on the Michigan Adjutant General's Report of 1901. I am working my way, company by company, to add details. Eventually I will complete a second database showing the location of each man on a day-by-day basis based on service records when possible. As I go through each day of the regiment's history I am often one to five men short of matching casualty reports. Mr. Dubrulle's comments strike a chord.

My work plans are to include the location of as may burial places as I can find and as many photographs (pre-war, war time, and post-war) of the men. My goal is to find a web-based, free access site for descendants to have access to this information.

Hugh, I think you're addressing a challenge we've all found (indeed, in an earlier contribution to this blog , I wrote about the age/year of birth conundrum in relation to my own project). At the same time, I wonder if you've partially answered your own question, with your reference to "our data-driven era." I often reference Hacker's 're-estimation' of the Civil War dead when talking to public audiences about this era, to emphasize to them just how challenging it is to know things about the past that, in our era, seem like they should be easy to quantify. We have expectations about data and record-keeping that presume knowability (even as your experience with contemporary student data is but one of many examples revealing that even today "knowable data" is more myth than reality). I think it's important for us, and for our audiences (students, readers, public attendees at public talks, etc.) that we don't just presume knowability but examine what it means and what its limitations are in particular historical contexts, and why that's the case.

Maybe the way we should think about Civil War (or other) numbers that never add up is to think about WHY we want them to add up, or really WHY we want them at all. What are we trying to "solve for" in seeking these numbers?

For example, is it important that you either confirm or debunk "the 5th New Hampshire’s proud boast that it suffered more combat fatalities than any other regiment in the Union army"? Or is such a quest a distraction from getting at the more nuanced question, what were the reasons for and the effects of such "proud boasts"?

Sometimes the implied "knowability of numbers" may be a distraction from the messier yet more relevant questions we could be pursuing (I suspect even the Dean's office falls prey to this . . . surely the real question is "how does your department contribute to the education of undergraduates and otherwise ensure the college/university is a thriving institutions, meeting its mission in the twenty-first century?" a question for which "how many majors did you churn out this year?" is a rather poor proxmy!)

Looking forward to what others might think of my intentionally provocative response,

Lois Leveen, PhD
Public historian

I agree broadly with some of the questions raised by Lois – I would be interested to know if there is a larger question you are attempting to address through these discrepancies. To be sure, I can appreciate wanting to know the accurate figures for its own sake, considering your project focuses on a single regiment. Is it your hope to determine the validity of 5th New Hampshire’s “boast” and how that might have affected the regiment's memory, including how the veterans presented themselves after the war?

On a side note, I am interested in why 20% of the 1861 volunteers lied about their age. Are we talking about recruits who were underage or overage or both? In my research, I occasionally come across documents and petitions from older Americans looking for alternative ways to serve the Union cause or trying to find ways to circumvent the age limit on military service. It is an interesting subtly to understanding the culture of pro-war militancy.

Both Lois and Daniel have posed good questions, so I’ll address each one in turn.

Lois, you are correct. To paraphrase Moneyball, “It’s not about the money, it’s about what the money says.” In other words, the numbers in and of themselves are not significant, it’s what they indicate about larger questions.

In the case of the 5th New Hampshire, the casualties the regiment suffered in battle became a crude measure of its will to combat (analogous to the way in which the dean’s office at my colleges asks one question when it wants the answer to a more nuanced one). The ability to take enormous losses and continue fighting was crucial to the soldiers’ self-perception of themselves as members of an elite unit. And Daniel is exactly right, the numbers played an important role in the way surviving members of the regiment constructed the memory of their service after the war.

The brigade to which the 5th New Hampshire belonged was in the same division as the Irish Brigade. For much of the war, officers and men in the Granite State regiment complained that although they fought better and harder than the Irish Brigade, the latter’s achievements were always more widely broadcast because it received lavish attention from the New York newspapers. And so the 5th New Hampshire saw itself as participating in a competition with the Irish (I have no idea if they were even aware of this rivalry). To take one example, various officers and men in the 5th New Hampshire repeatedly made the gruesome claim that the regiment had left its dead closer to the infamous stone wall at Fredericksburg than any other unit had—an assertion that was directed at the Irish Brigade (which had preceded them in the assault). A number of factors accounted for the 5th New Hampshire’s attitude, not least of which was a very large dose of nativist sentiment, but that’s a story for another day

In any event, these types of claims about fighting prowess were very important to the identity of soldiers in the 5th New Hampshire while they served and later in shaping memory of the conflict when they became veterans. I suppose their crowning achievement was that after the war, William Fox’s Regimental Losses in the American Civil War 1861-1865 claimed the unit had suffered more combat dead than any other in the Union army (although this achievement was contested).

As for the ages of the original recruits, I’ve been able to ascertain definitively that 16% of the volunteers in my pool (n=540) were either under the age of 18 or over the age of 44. I’m positive there are more whom I have not been able to detect. Two-thirds of the group was underage and one-third was overage. I was surprised at how many volunteers were not the proper age, because the 5th New Hampshire was recruited in September and October 1861, that is, well before war fatigue set in and enlistments fell off. I find the question of the volunteers’ ages interesting because they indicate something significant about the regiment’s sociological profile (i.e. younger men are unmarried, have less wealth, etc.). But I’m also curious about the dynamics behind underage enlistment. It doesn’t surprise me when I find that a recruiting officer has knowingly enlisted an underage boy. But I am a little surprised when I see that parents are complicit in this enlistment. Volunteers between the ages of 18 and 20 needed written permission from their parents to enlist, and I’ve found numerous instances where parents lied about their sons’ ages (e.g. when a father claimed his son was 18 when he was really 16). Was the motive financial? Patriotic? Something else? I don’t know. I’m still trying to piece together the significance—if there is any at all—of the numbers I’ve collected. Some of those numbers are probably not significant, but I can’t know for sure until I turn them over a bit in my mind.

Dear All, 

Thank you for these interesting exchanges--allow me to add a few thoughts. Lois's question about why we care about some kinds of data, and why people in the past did, is a good one, especially in the context of university administrations. I wholly agree with her emphasis on asking why we trust / care about these numbers, and why people in the past did.

That said (and pardon my digression), I want to suggest that having a sense of the accuracy of the 19th C. numbers is valuable. In particular, I want to make a distinction between the beliefs that our historical agents held that were right and beliefs that they held that were reasonable, and add that sometimes data from the past helps us figure out whether either of these labels applies to something someone said. In doing so, I want to accentuate that the critieria for a belief being correct and for it being reasonable are not necessarily the same. 

I will confess that this distinction--between the reasonableness and correctness of beliefs--is probably out of fashion, but I think it is still helpful. How we evaluate the choices / beliefs of people in the past is integral to the characterological judgments embedded in our narratives. Was Lincoln's belief that there was a critical mass of southern white loyalists both wrong and unreasonable, or wrong but reasonable? How do we class the popular Confederate belief that Britain would intercede on their behalf? We would feel comfortable, I'm willing to wager, saying that the belief of some postbellum white supremacists that enfranchised freedmen would vote for former slave owners was unreasonable. Sometimes data can really help our assessment of these issues, even if on it own it doesn't make for a conclusive answer. 

If that holds up, my question then is whether the claims of sacrifice made by the 5th N.H. were reasonable and whether they were right. If Hugh found that in fact few members of the unit had died in combat, then the popular claim about its losses would likely be subject to a different line of interrogation (were they lying? delusional?). On the other hand, if the 5th was in the top 5% for losses out of the Union Army in all the relevant compendiums, then I think the emphasis would likely fall on why they fixated on their own losses, not why they were so far off the mark. The members of the 5th would have been expressing an idea that likely wasn't correct, or at least that they couldn't have known was correct, but which was not bonkers. 

Best wishes, 

Dave Prior




[Reviewer, I realized that this reply essentially repeats things I'd brought up in an earlier reply to the OP, so please delete it. Thanks]

Hugh, some years ago I started a list of soldiers who enlisted in Jefferson County, New York, who were underage or overage for military service. I wasn't able to complete the database but estimated that roughly 20% of recruits in the county were outside military age, which comes close to your calculation for the 5th New Hampshire. Also, the provost marshal records for upstate New York pointed to the existence of so-called "fictitious mothers," women who, for a fee, posed as the guardians of underage enlistees. Undoubtedly recruiters, bounty and substitute brokers, and provost marshals found other people willing to pose as parents as well.

I found that most of the people in my database came from working-class households, to the best of my ability to determine that. As unethical as it may sound to 21st-century sensibilities, many parents of poor families were probably only too willing to have their boys enlist (though I don't recall any hard evidence of this), as did staffs of boys' reform schools. Fraud was very prevalent in Civil War recruiting.

My research regarding the 1,305 men who enlisted in the Seventeenth Michigan Infantry over three years (1862-1865):

Under eighteen years old = 37 (ages thirteen to seventeen)
Seven were musicians; four of which were sent home during the course of the war due to age.
Fifteen were seventeen years old.

Over forty-five years old = 11 (ages forty-six to fifty-one)
One was a chaplain and one was a surgeon.

The mode was eighteen years old (232)
The average was age twenty-four years old
the midpoint was thirty-one years old

"Age" was age at enlistment.

Interesting topic, Hugh, thanks. Two immediate thoughts:

1. The discussion suggests just how careful we should be with all statistical analyses, of issues both past and present. Unreliable data will often create results that are equally unreliable.

2. My studies of WWI British enlistment is that a large percentage of volunteers in 1914-1916 were underage and that parents and recruitment officers were often complicit in helping the underage men get in. The youngest record I have is a 12 year old who successfully enlisted and fought at the Somme. The parallel to this is many of the volunteers didn't meet the physical requirements and yet managed to get into the army.

Hi all,

Sorry for the delay in responding; I was out of town for almost a week without access to email.

I do find the distinction Dave makes very useful, and that is one of the big reasons the numbers appeal to me. In a number of cases, they help explain the motives and attitudes of the people I write about. In other words, to use his terms, they permit me to make characterological judgments. To use one example, the fact that so many of the 5th New Hampshire’s soldiers were very young helps explain the contretemps involving Colonel Edward Cross, Oratus Verry, and New Hampshire Representative Thomas M. Edwards. Apparently, Verry, who was 19, lied on his enlistment form and claimed he was 20 when he volunteered (20 was the minimum age at which a volunteer could enlist without obtaining parental permission). Verry found he did not like army life, and asked his parents to help him get out of the regiment. They contacted Edwards, their congressman, who arranged to have the young man discharged on the grounds that he was underage. These proceedings infuriated Cross who wrote a blistering letter to Edwards which included the following passage: “Private Orastus [sic] J. Verry, Company F, will be discharged according to orders; but allow me to say that his discharge is an outrage against military custom, against law, and cannot fail to have a bad example. The young man is strong, able-bodied, and if he is discharged, with equal reason might one-half of our army be discharged.” As was his wont, Cross wrote with some hyperbole—half the army was not underage—but just under 30% of his regiment was 19 or younger. One can understand, then, why Cross, who is often depicted as being somewhat intemperate, might have had good reason to believe that Verry’s discharge would set a “bad example” for the other young soldiers in the regiment. In other words, perhaps Cross was not as unreasonable as he might appear at first blush.

While I’m at it, I’d like to make a comment about Bill and Will’s points. I chose to study the original volunteers who were mustered in October 1861 because they were by the far the easiest group to track from birth to death. The vast majority were native-born Americans residing in New Hampshire, and only 6% deserted. I also thought this group was interesting because it was responsible for establishing the reputation of the regiment. My impression is that the men who enlisted between November 1861 and August 1862 very much resembled the original volunteers. Starting in the summer of 1863, though, the regiment relied primarily on substitutes to fill the ranks. The majority were foreign-born and far more people from out of state entered the 5th New Hampshire than ever before. I imagine that the age, the social class, and experiences of these men were far different from those who had joined the regiment in 1861 and 1862. Due to this important change, it makes sense to me to study the different “waves” of recruitment instead of mingling them together in the gross. The problem is that the substitutes are far more difficult to track; they were born overseas, they were more inclined to misrepresent themselves on enlistment forms, and they deserted with alarming frequency.



Thanks, David—I think your response is a salutary reminder that we are not discussing topics that are unique to the American Civil War—they applied to Europe as well throughout the long 19th century and probably even longer.

I’m also interested in your reference to British volunteers who did not meet physical requirements. Although disability is not exactly the same thing as being underage, the two overlap because they express the lack of discrimination that recruiting officers often displayed. I doubt the following was the case in Britain, but in my sample, recruiters did a fair amount of enlisting in their home towns, many of which were fairly small. They found volunteers from among their friends, acquaintances, neighbors, co-workers, and so on—that is, people they knew. Under these circumstances, recruiters had even less of an excuse for accepting underage or unhealthy volunteers.

From what I can see, the recruiting officers themselves conducted a rudimentary physical exam which consisted of merely looking over the volunteer. In the case of only one recruiter do I have any evidence that volunteers were inspected by a doctor. After the various companies that formed the regiment arrived at Camp Jackson outside of Concord, NH, in late September/early October 1861, the regiment’s surgeon and assistant surgeons began recommending the discharge of volunteers for various health reasons. I don’t know if the surgeons examined everybody or singled out the most egregious cases. But various men were let go for various reasons, including old age and “lung difficulties.” One volunteer was found to be blind in one eye. Even then, a number of men made it into the regiment who were not really capable of soldiering. In the memoir of his service, Thomas Livermore, who fought with the 5th New Hampshire, mentioned that every time a soldier in his company did something clumsy, the captain would ask, “Was that Burleigh?” referring to a “lame, deformed man of the company who shuffled along in the most awkward manner.” It is only starting in 1862 that I have found medical exam forms signed by doctors accompanying the usual enlistment documents. I know the field of disability history (especially with regard to veterans) is burgeoning, but not having really surveyed it, the foregoing makes me wonder if this literature has paid attention to men who suffered from various infirmities before they enlisted.



Hello Hugh, 

I'm sure someone here is much more expert on the medical examination topic, but for what it's worth, one person I studied from my previous monograph, William Stillman, returned from Europe at the start of the war to enlist for the Union but was denied because of of the quality of his vision (if I remember correctly). That's likely too far afield for your purposes, but I can always look up the reference and email it to you if that helps. 



Thanks for the reply, Hugh.  What happened with the Civil War in terms of physical disability sounds remarkably similar to what happened in Britain in the First World War.  Men who were essentially blind, had no use of one arm, etc., were routinely let in during the years 1914-1916 (when Britain relied on volunteers rather than conscription), with recruiting sergeants and doctors informally conspiring to pass them.

If you're interested, I put out lots more detail in:

David Silbey, “Bodies and Cultures Collide: Enlistment, the Medical Exam, and the British Working Class, 1914–1916,” Social History of Medicine 17, no. 1 (2004).


Thank you David P., for the offer. If the information comes readily to hand, I would like to hear about Stillman's experience. And David S., thank you for the citation. I'm very interested in reading your article. To be honest, I'm a bit surprised this kind of thing persisted into the 20th century.