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.


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