Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

North Carolina SCV Has Its Story; Is Sticking to It

Posted in Leadership, Memory, Technology by Andy Hall on March 27, 2011

A couple of folks have pointed me toward a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, about efforts in Virginia and North Carolina, tied to the Civil War Sesquicentennial, to compile a more accurate count of each of those states’ war-related deaths. So far, researchers in North Carolina are estimating that state’s count as being roughly 20% less than the usually-accepted estimate of 40,000, while the total number of deaths now documented for Virginia troops is more than double an early count of around 15,000. (Be sure also to check out the additional features.)

It’s not surprising at all to me that modern researchers are coming up with different numbers than various compilers did 100+ years ago. What does surprise me is the disinterest in, or outright hostility to, the idea of doing such work in the first place:

With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War beginning in mid-April, that small number could spark a big controversy between two states with rivalries that date back to the great conflict. Some Civil War buffs in North Carolina have already accused Mr. Howard of attempting to diminish the state’s heroism and the hardship it suffered. “Records were a whole lot fresher 150 years ago,” says Thomas Smith Jr., commander of the North Carolina Sons of Confederate Veterans, who is suspicious of Mr. Howard’s new count.

“I don’t care if Virginia has two people more who died, or a hundred more,” says Michael Chapman, a 55-year-old videographer from Polkton, N.C., who used to head up the local Sons of Confederate Veterans camp. He calls the recounts “irrelevant.”

I don’t buy the “fresher” argument at all. A written record is a written record, and remains as accurate or reliable (or not) over the passage of time. They don’t go stale; that’s why we archive them.

Certainly it’s possible that some records available a century and more ago have since been lost or destroyed, but against that we now have easy access to electronic records, digital copies, online newspapers, easy cross-referencing, and indexed census rolls, which earlier generations never had access to. In my view, the benefits of the latter far outweigh the limitations of the former. No count will be absolutely accurate, of course, but there’s no question that researchers now have far better capability to do the work than did their predecessors in the 1860s. Unless there’s something very fundamentally flawed with the modern researchers’ methodology — which is not alleged — their work should be able to get us closer to the real answer, to the extent that it’s knowable at all.

Michael Chapman has weighed in on his state’s sesquicentennial program before, and shown himself to be somewhat less than even-tempered on the subject. (You really have to read through the whole comments thread to get the full effect.) But still, progress is progress, and this time he didn’t refer to those who have differing views as Nazis, or compare North Carolina Unionists to al Qaeda sleeper cells. Baby steps, Michael, baby steps.

What I don’t quite get is that these two men, one a current state commander in the SCV, and the other former local camp commander, are both dismissive (if not openly hostile) to this effort to get a more accurate count of their state’s war dead. To me, that’s a no-brainer. And while they may or may not be speaking officially for the North Carolina SCV, they do seem to offer their roles in that group as their authority on the subject. Their objections seem not to be methodological, but to the idea of doing the work at all.

Why would that be, exactly? And would they be opposed to this work if it were showing more North Carolina casualties, rather than fewer?

Update: The lead researcher on the North Carolina project, Josh Howard, notes in the comments below that the Leonidas L. Polk SCV Camp of Garner, North Carolina, and one of its members, Charles Purser, have actually provided substantial assistance in the effort to obtain an accurate count of North Carolina’s war dead. Credit where it’s due.

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Image: Captain Jesse Sharpe Barnes, Co. F, 4th North Carolina Infantry, killed on May 31, 1862, at Seven Pines, Virginia. Library of Congress.

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12 Responses

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  1. Robert Moore said, on March 27, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    First problem is this… “diminish the state’s heroism and the hardship it suffered”.

    Death does not embody heroism, and, as for the hardship part… well, that’s a complicated item to wrap one’s head around, especially when considering the multiple reasons why people were in the ranks, willing and unwilling. Just because they died doesn’t mean they embraced the cause, and good luck trying to figure out if many did, or did not embrace the Confederacy.

    I think it’s great that these numbers are being revisited… and it’s no different than someone trying to take another look at numbers of Unionists. But, really, it’s not a competition… nor is reconsidering the number of deaths a measure of a state being more or less Confederate than previously considered. Those who think it is, are totally outside the ballpark of understanding just how complex the Confederate soldier was.

    Second, while, as you say, nobody brought this up again (thankfully), that al Qaeda sleeper cell remark is a real LOL riot. Of course, consider those who would even make such a claim, totally dismissing the fact that these Unionists embraced something that had been around a whole hell of a lot longer than a “pop-up 4-year Confederacy” that often imposed itself on the common man.

  2. Josh Howard said, on March 27, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    Andy,

    This is Josh Howard, the NC Office of Archives and History research historian examining our death figures. If you’ll allow me, I’ll add a little about our methodology, and about the project that was not handled in the article. First, we have never been trying to compete with Virginia in this recent examination. We are only concerned with being as accurate as possible, and are really, seriously not interested in the most lost argument. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that came through in the piece. Second, it left out that we are also analyzing Union deaths from North Carolina, both the white volunteer regiments from our state, as well as the USCT regiments raised within our borders, and the former CS soldiers who joined US Volunteer regiments in exchange for release from prison. The one major hole that we have is USN volunteers, of which access to the original records is much more difficult for us – atleast for white North Carolinians who served in the Navy – due to the NPS’s efforts, we have pretty good information on African-American North Carolinians in the USN.

    As to our methodology, we analyze each regiment raised by North Carolina going man by man through the compiled service records on file at NARA, as well as the published rosters that our State has produced (which are themselves abstracts of what is in NARA). However, for each individual (so far we’ve analyzed over 100,000 service records) we track them as far as possible through the compiled military service records. If that individuals records end, with no clear indication in either Confederate or Union military records whether they died or survived the war, we then look for them in cemetery records, postwar marriage bonds, and the 1870, 1880, and 1900 census, as well as the 1890 US veterans census. In addition, we search for them within North Carolina’s Confederate pensions, and to the extent possible, within South Carolina, Tennessee and Virgnia’s pension collections. Of course, we will not catch all of them – no one ever would be able to make such a claim. But we can state is that we’re doing a much more thorough analysis that has been completed before.

    We are also analyzing North Carolina companies which served in other State’s units – for example Company B, 10th Virginia Cavalry was from Davie County, NC, and most of Co. K, 26th South Carolina Infantry were residents of Robeson and Columbus County, NC, and also those NC units which served in Confederate regular units – Co. A, 2nd Conf. Engineers and Co. M, 7th Conf. Cavalry for example. In the same token, there were Virginia and Tennessee companies which served in North Carolina units, and we are giving them the reverse treatment. What I’m getting at is we will have two different totals there: One for the dead in North Carolina regiments – one for dead North Carolinians who were residents of the state at the start of the war, and who served in military units. We also have a fairly expansive database on NC men who served in the CSMC and CSN – but again, due to record loss, that is a particularly difficult subject.

    One of the largest complaints we’ve heard is that we aren’t counting the free people of color – African-American and triracial isolate groups (what would today be considered the Lumbee, Coharie, etc.) within North Carolina – and slaves who died while building Fort Fisher and other fortifications, or nurses (and in one case, a laundress) who died. We are keeping a separate count (when we can document them) of these people, as well as body servants and other laborers who died. While these individuals may have picked up a weapon and engaged the enemy in a moment of strife, that also did not make them a soldier, but instead a civilian combatant. Such a distinction still remains. Navigating the nuances of nineteenth-century militaries and understanding their operations is quite complex, but suffice it to say that participation in the war effort did not equate to service within the military and it shouldn’t be misinterpreted as such, especially when people try to compare the modern military to that of the nineteenth-century – which is really comparing apples with oranges.

    However, we are dealing purely with the military war dead – the original figure dealt only with the soldiers, and that is what our study is focused on right now. The folks in question were not at the time considered enlisted military personnel, and therefore are not included in the figure of dead military soldiers from our state. Enlisted cooks, of which there are men of that rank within our Confederate units, who died, are counted. But those cooks who as either free people of color, or whites, were simply paid by a company commander out of their own pocket, are not, as they were not officially soldiers.

    Finally, it should be noted that this project is not intended in any possible way to insult or to challenge our state’s wartime service. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our committee’s choice to do this project (and subsequently handed to me to lead the effort) was based on the opportunity to bring their sacrifice, be they Union or Confederate, back to the forefront of the discussion, and to highlight the great loss our state suffered and show the incredible courage these folks exhibited on the battlefield. We are simply attempting to honor these men, and their sacrifice, through a more modern, accurate historical analysis and in the process that is correcting some things that we simply can’t back up. The final figures will be provided through a book we are currently completing The North Carolina Civil War Atlas, as will other projects we are completing on enlistment and socioeconomic data (age, occupation, slave ownership versus non-slaveownership) amongst our servicemen during the war.

    Thanks for the opportunity to add to the discussion. Love the attention to detail on your site. Proper, accurate analysis of this, and other pertinent subjects, is what is necessary to get to the truth, and to make sure we don’t continue to perpetuate mythology and untruths. Personally I think we owe that to the folks who suffered through this war, especially those who fought in it.

    Best,
    Josh Howard

    • Andy Hall said, on March 27, 2011 at 3:44 pm

      Josh, thanks so much for that explanation. Although I was unaware of the specifics, I didn’t doubt that very serious planning and consideration has gone into the project, in an effort to make it as comprehensive as possible. It sounds like an almost Herculean effort, really, and I only wish my own state were undertaking something similar.

      • Josh Howard said, on March 27, 2011 at 3:55 pm

        Andy, absolutely, and thanks for the opportunity to comment. Sorry for the long-winded post, but its a difficult, complex, and as you suggest, Herculean effort. I should have also noted that we have actually had great help from the Leonidas L. Polk SCV Camp of Garner, North Carolina. A gentleman by the name of Charles Purser, and member of the camp, was already compiling a similar study on his own, and he and his camp have been an immense help with our project. Their camp is committed to getting it right, and our two studies, although being done separately, are clearly showing the exact same findings. I don’t wanna speak for them, but wanted to atleast give their camp their just credit.
        Best,
        Josh

  3. Josh Howard said, on March 27, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    “What I’m getting at is we will have two different totals there: One for the dead in North Carolina regiments – one for dead North Carolinians who were residents of the state at the start of the war, and who served in military units.” – sorry that should have read:

    “One for the dead in North Carolina’s regiments, and one for dead North Carolina 1861 residents who died in military service (i.e. the non-NC regiments which had NC companies).” Sorry, I should have made that more clear. Thanks again.

    Best,
    Josh

  4. stephen matlock said, on March 27, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    I can’t figure out why they would object to getting an accurate count. Surely there’s nothing noble about having an inaccurate count – would they object if 1 *more* soldier was found instead of one *less*?

    I also can’t figure out why a discussion about getting an accurate count of dead soldiers must turn into a discussion about the nastiness of Sherman and Lincoln in a war that has been over for 150 years, as if there is some personal affront.

  5. Scott Manning said, on March 27, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    This is a fascinating topic and demonstrates that there is always work to be done in history. I am just now wrapping my head around the “rivalry” between Virginia and North Carolina. I understand that the North Carolinians have a legitimate beef with the Gettysburg movie, which gave the impression that only Virginians made Pickett’s Charge. That coupled with the few paragraphs in the article concludes my knowledge on the subject. Does anyone have suggestions for learning more about the so-called rivalry? Are there any books or links worth reading?

    • Josh Howard said, on March 28, 2011 at 5:37 am

      Scott,

      We have a little bit of it, as it relates to the number of losses, on our website.

      http://www.nccivilwar150.com/features/nc-civil-war_death-study.htm

      Best,
      Josh

    • pedrog said, on March 28, 2011 at 2:20 pm

      The beef is historic as in it goes back to the war itself and the accusation that the ANV was staffed and generalled by Virginians while a significant amount of the manpower was North Carolinian. This ‘discussion’ continued after the war with the arguments over manpower, casualties, and sacrifice. One specific argument has been about who made it furthest during Pickett’s (note the Virginian) charge, and also which flank collapsed first and thus made the charge a failure.

    • Chris Meekins said, on March 30, 2011 at 4:54 am

      Hey, full disclosure is that I also work for NC DCR and am a colleague of Josh Howard’s. Carol Reardon’s Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory is a very good accounting of the challenge and counter-challenge between VA and NC over the Gettysburg charge (and over most planks of NC’s Rebel Boast). Rummage her footnotes to find period newspapers, etc.
      Annual Reports from the VA Confederate Veterans group are a good source of VA claims – in the end NC responds most fully with the Five Points in the record of NC in the great war of 1861-65 (their title not mine).

      • Andy Hall said, on March 30, 2011 at 7:39 am

        Chris, thanks for commenting. I can see how a contention like that between NC and Va can come about, even without something so traumatic as Gettysburg. What astonished me is that senior leaders in a group that claims historical authority on matters like this is at best ambivalent, or maybe even hostile, to having this subject looked at again with modern tools and capabilities, apparently because it seems likely to challenge traditionally-accepted numbers.

        This case may offer one of the clearest distinctions between the objectives of “history” and “heritage” I’ve seen, and it doesn’t make the “heritage” side look especially rational.

  6. Dennis said, on March 28, 2011 at 7:48 am

    This is a great project that helps understanding of many aspects of the war – using this data, the next logical step would be to try and determine cause of death; illness, as often sited, was the leading cause and this study would aid that aspect of understanding the war deaths.

    Yet, once more, people that have an axe to grind have to get out-of-joint because someone is attempting to “change’ the history they feel is essential to their own personal attachment to the war – weird. Like how they feel matters to facts? Yes, there will be issues but so too did the people who first tried to count the deaths – digging up better and more complete records can do so much to extend and increase the understanding of that war – agenda’s are really pointless.


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