For most historians the focus of civilian deaths during the American Civil War centers on the border states, mainly Missouri and Kentucky, and the incessant violence and atrocities committed by guerrillas and bushwhackers on the local populations.
This focus on violent death is, of course, tied to emotional responses. My thinking about civilian casualties and the Civil War was recently stimulated by Dr. Michael R. Bradley’s presentations on what he claims was a “deliberate Northern policy of targeting Southern civilians.”
The most deadly results of the war on civilians was not intentional targeting by soldiers, guerrillas or bushwhackers; though I think even in regard to these types of atrocities there might be some underestimation going on based on what I have found in NE Arkansas in 1862 and 63 alone.
Drew Gilpin Faust in a short piece titled, “The Civil War Homefront ” (found on the National Park Sevice web site), I think does a nice job raising the issue about how thus far historians have “seriously underestimated the number of civilian deaths that resulted from the war.” We have the likes of James M. McPherson meekly stating that perhaps “50,000” civilian deaths might have occurred.
Though at first this seems like a reasonable number, after some simple investigation in the Official Records and other resources on Google Books*, I think there are serious questions that can be raised concerning the possibility that civilian deaths – as a direct result of the war – could be much higher than previously thought.
What we need to take into consideration is the outright famine in some regions of the South, as well as the death rate increase from disease. These two alone could significantly raise the death rate for civilians during the war. Example, type in “starvation” in Google Books and over 2 dozen results in the OR alone appear, and in particular this result:
Commanding Military Division of the Missouri:
The commissary at Fort Gibson reports about 20,000 people, mostly refugees and Indians, on the verge of starvation. It cannot be expected that the army will supply these people. Please call the attention of the Department of the Interior to this matter. The case demands immediate attention while the Arkansas is navigable.
J. J. REYNOLDS,
Now how many died, who knows, but that such large numbers are even mentioned directs us to call for a re-evaluation of civilian death rates as a direct result of the war. And that is not all, in several local histories of Southern communities the descriptions of suffering are at times horrifying, for example, one among many:
“It is a common, an e very-day sight in Randolph County, to see women and children, most of whom were formerly in good circumstances, begging for bread from door to door. They must have immediate help, or perish. Fifteen hundred families, embracing five thousand persons, are in need of immediate aid.”
“This was in January, 1866. The destitution here described was not confined to a portion of the country, nor was it a new thing. In 1863, the shortness of the crops, the depreciation of the currency, and the consequent high prices of provisions, produced a famine among the poorer classes. The families of soldiers, fighting the battles of a confederacy which paid them in worthless paper, were left to suffer the extremes of want, while many, who helped to bring on the war, were growing rich by speculating upon the misery it occasioned. In Mobile there were insurrections of women, driven by starvation to acts of public violence.”
When also taken into consideration the amount of reports in letters and diaries by soldiers that I have come across for Arkansas alone, where they have recorded the extreme level of suffering and starvation, it leads me to the conclusion that a study should be done to seriously make an attempt to estimate the total amount of civilian deaths as a direct result of the war.**
The number, in my opinion, could be six-figures.
* Note: I like to use Google Books to search the OR or ORN for specific keywords as I have found the index for both to be seriously lacking.
** I am considering something along these lines as I re-start my master’s degree and look for a possible thesis topic.
(C) Christopher Wehner