Historians seek accurate count of NC Civil War dead

Historians seek accurate count of NC Civil War dead

New Bern, NC – INTRO - As North Carolina commemorates the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, historians are reviewing records to determine the actual number of North Carolina men who died during the war. George Olsen has more.

North Carolina has long been recognized as having had the most casualties in the Civil War with a figure of 40,275, far outdistancing the second highest total of 17,682 in South Carolina. Those numbers came from an 1866 study by Gen. James B. Fry, the U-S provost marshal general. One problem with those figures however they're almost certainly wrong.

"They were looking at reports done after engagements and those almost exclusively are wrong. Men who are listed as killed were wounded and those listed as killed were in fact captured, so we basically started a renewal of getting a new count, or getting as accurate a count as we could."

Josh Howard, a research historian with the research branch of the Office of Archives and History, part of the Department of Cultural Resources. Howard notes a number of discrepancies soldiers who saw comrades fall and were reported dead when in fact they were captured by Union forces and hospitalized, after action reports that exaggerated the number of dead and wounded perhaps to make the regiment or unit appear to be in the thick of the battle, or just a desire after the war to wrap things up and go home.

"We know from the records of the individuals who were doing the report in 1866, half of the clerks doing it were Union army soldiers who were not going to be allowed to be discharged until they completed the report so these guys rushed through as fast as they could."

Today's historians aren't under the same crunch so they're reviewing plenty of records confederate military records both published and unpublished, union military records also published and unpublished as well as accounts from newspapers. The latter resource points out the problem with relying solely on military records of the time and came early in the process with the first North Carolina casualty of the Civil War.

"Private James M. Hudson of Charlotte, the first N-C Volunteers, if you relied solely on the military record you would never find him because he died several days prior to his company having its first muster roll. He died on May 11, 1861 of pneumonia in Raleigh and if you rely purely on the military record you'd never locate him. The only record of his death is actually an obituary in the Charlotte and Raleigh newspaper."

North Carolina isn't the only Southern state working to update its Civil War records. Two other states have completed or are nearing completion on a new count of Civil War dead with those reports indicating that South Carolina did not endure the second-most number of casualties

"South Carolina has completed one. They completed one a few years ago. Virginia, there's a project working on Virginia's war dead at the Library of Virginia and they are doing the same thing with their civil war studies, and their death total is currently around 27,500 and South Carolina's was about 18,000."

Howard says the 1866 report had Virginia with about half the total historians are now reporting and said part of the problem then was clerks who reported Virginia casualties as North Carolina casualties. Is that fact going to cause a swing downward in North Carolina casualties? Almost certainly yes, but not a precipitous decline.

"The figure I have right now is 31,076 who I can confirm died in the conflict from North Carolina. But I still have a little bit of work to do and the estimate I've been giving out which I feel safe in and it includes the 3000 men buffer is somewhere around 35,000 dead confederates. When it comes to the federals we simply don't know yet based off the number of regiments and the actions those individual units were involved in. My guess is that it could be between 1000-2000 Union dead, but it could be higher, it could be lower. It's possible all total the state may have lost 37,000 to 38,000 men which isn't that far off the original 40,000 figure but that figure didn't include federal deaths from N-C."

Josh Howard says historians have completed about 95% of the job and estimates it will be complete within the next 2-to-3 months. Josh Howard is a research historian with the research branch of the Office of Archives and History. I'm George Olsen.