Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bloodiest Wars

(Wherein I put heavyweights into the ring against each other.)

In a recent post by the folks over at "of Battlefields and Bibliophiles," James McPherson is quoted:

At least 620,000 soldiers lost their lives in the war, 2 percent of the American population in 1861. If the same percentage of Americans were to be killed in a war fought today, the number of American war dead would exceed 6 million. The number of casualties suffered in a single day at the battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, was four times the number of Americans killed and wounded at the Normandy beaches on D day, June 6, 1944. More Americans were killed in action that September day near Sharpsburg, Maryland, than died in combat in all the other wars fought by the United States in the 19th century combined.

At H-Net last year, Robert Citino reviewed Mark Neely, The Civil War and The Limits of Destruction, and offered:

Finally,the conclusion to Neely's book sums up his argument nicely by taking on the classic Civil War trope: that it was the "bloodiest war in American history." Maybe it was and maybe it wasn't, but the phrase only makes sense by adding up all the casualties on both sides into one total--a very bizarre way to count casualties, indeed. Taking into account a war fought before there was a germ theory of disease, and therefore subtracting the more than two-thirds who died from disease rather than battle, the previously staggering number of 620,000 dead _in toto_ becomes 135,000 killed in battle for the North, and 66,000 for the South (compared, for example, to 407,000 Americans killed in World War II). None of this is to belittle the sacrifice on both sides, but rather, Neely argues, "to show that the claims of 'bloodiest' conflict can be qualified so as not to make the Civil War exist in some unfathomably violent category all by itself" (p. 213). Indeed, compared to some other countries plunged into civil war, America has been "lucky" in its history (p. 214), and American historians need to come to terms with that fact.

Repeated assertion of the destructive nature of the Civil War may, in fact, serve only to remind readers of the provincial nature of American history-writing, since the world perspective from the Crimea to the end of the twentieth century would call into question the magnitude of the losses. The regular assertion of the death rate in the Civil War serves no end whatever. Rather than a deeper understanding of the conflict, historians are in danger of substituting "an empty cult of violence," perhaps the latest manifestation of Civil War sentimentalism (pp. 215-16).
I'm leaning toward Citino and Neely. What do you think?


dcat said...

By just about any measure the Civil War was the bloodiest war FOR AMERICANS, which I think is McPherson's point. It's not bizarre to count all casualties in a civil war as casualties for the country, it just reminds us of how tragic civil wars are.

That said, I'm happy if we do decide once and for all simply to label the South as enemies, what they did as treason, and to dance on their graves and minimize their deaths.

Either way.


Stephen said...

I guess when I teach it I do usually only include US casualties, not rebel casualties.

dcat said...

Also I note the attempt to exempt those who died from disease during the Civil War from the calculations. But if they died of diseases that they otherwise would not have died of had they not gone to war that seems to be trying to open up a pretty huge loophole, especially when they don't wrestle with similar phenomena from World War II.

Let's just be charitable and say that they unintentionally skew the numbers with faulty methodology rather than say that they intentionally choose a faulty methodology to bolster their argument. Either way: Faulty methodology.