Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Inglorious Passages

I was thinking during Memorial Day that the crafting of Civil War history doesn't attract nearly the indefatigable numbers nerds that it should. Most historians are more than content to simply pass along the round numbers of their scholarly forebears. More surprising than the very high probability that Civil War related mortality has been grossly underestimated for a century and a half is the fact that it took so very long for someone like J. David Hacker (according to the NYT "a specialist in 19th-century demographics") to come along and use his professional expertise to question one of the biggest round numbers in the business.

That around two-thirds of Civil War deaths were non-combat related and that an estimated 50,000 civilians died during that war are other frequently cited statistics. The 50,000 figure for civilian deaths is little more than a number drawn out of a hat. Similarly, Michael Fellman's conjecture that perhaps 10,000 civilians were killed in the Missouri home front violence alone is little more than that, an educated guess with no systematic investigative analysis to back it up. Given the scale of human deprivation and migration (forced and unforced) that occurred during the war, and the appalling conditions that existed in so many refugee camps, you would have to think that the 50,000 mortality figure is a lower bound for the war's direct and indirect violence against civilians.

These kinds of questions are what intrigue me most about an upcoming book, Brian Steel Wills's Inglorious Passages: Noncombat Deaths in the American Civil War (Kansas, Nov 2017). From the description: "Of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died in the Civil War, two-thirds, by some estimates, were felled by disease; untold others were lost to accidents, murder, suicide, sunstroke, and drowning. Meanwhile thousands of civilians in both the north and south perished—in factories, while caught up in battles near their homes, and in other circumstances associated with wartime production and supply. These “inglorious passages,” no less than the deaths of soldiers in combat, devastated the armies in the field and families and communities at home. Inglorious Passages for the first time gives these noncombat deaths due consideration."

Official descriptions sometimes don't represent well a book's true content and range, but the word "stories" is used twice in second paragraph, with that point of emphasis set against the "the cold calculations of statistics," so my hopes for a more quantitative focus are a bit muted at this point. Regardless, I look forward to reading it.

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