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Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Scholarly Challenge

From: civilwar.org


Compiling casualty figures for Civil War soldiers is a complex process. Indeed, it is so complex that even 150 years later no one has, and perhaps no one will, assemble a specific, accurate set of numbers, especially on the Confederate side.

A true accounting of the number of men in the armies can be approached through a review of three primary documents: enlistment rolls, muster rolls, and casualty lists. Following any of these investigative methods one will encounter countless flaws and inconsistencies--the records in question are little sheets of paper generated and compiled 150 years ago by human beings in one of the most stressful and confusing environments to ever exist. Enlistment stations were set up in towns and cities across the country, but for the most part only those stations in major northern cities can be relied upon to have preserved records. Confederate enlistment rolls are virtually non-existent.

Muster rolls, generated every few months by commanding officers, list soldiers in their respective units as "present" or "absent." This gives a kind of snapshot of the unit's composition in a specific time and place. Overlooking the common misspelling of names and general lack of specificity concerning the condition of a "present" or "absent" soldier, muster rolls provide a valuable look into the past. Unfortunately, these little pieces of paper were usually transported by mule in the rear of a fighting army. Their preservation was adversely affected by rain, river crossings, clerical errors, and cavalry raids.

Casualty lists gives the number of men in a unit who were killed, wounded, or went missing in an engagement. However, combat threw armies into administrative chaos and the accounting done in the hours or days immediately following a battle often raises as many questions as it answers. For example: Who are the missing? Weren't many of these soldiers killed and not found? What, exactly, qualifies a wound and did armies account for this the same way? What became of wounded soldiers? Did they rejoin their unit; did they return home; did they die?

A wholly accurate count will almost certainly never be made.  The effects of this devastating conflict are still felt today.

"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

--Abraham Lincoln, 2nd Inaugural Address

Image: Union Soldier: The average Civil War soldier was 26 years old, weighing 143 pounds and standing 5'8" tall. (Library of Congress)



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