Yesterday the New York Times’ Science page featured an article about J. David Hacker’s recent study that has revised upward the long-accepted casualty count of 620,000. This is well-deserved publicity for Hacker and for Civil War History, the leading scholarly journal in our field. Hacker’s study reminds us that numbers are politics. The quest to determine precisely the social impact of the Civil War is nothing new, however — something Hacker readily admits. Such estimates consumed blue-coated ex-soldiers in the late nineteenth century, and as such Hacker joins distinguished company, including Union veterans Thomas Leonard Livermore, Thomas Brown, and William Fox.
Ex-prisoners of war were particularly determined to right the record books. Perhaps nobody was more committed to the project than Ohio Union Ex-Prisoner of War Association President Gustavus Gessner, who maintained meticulous records of the dead by corresponding with other rebel prison pen survivors. Gessner became particularly incensed when Frederick Phisterer published his Statistical Record in 1883, a supplement to Scribner’s “Campaigns of the Civil War” series. Phisterer neglected to include death tolls for several rebel prison hells – including Cahaba, Alabama; Florence, South Carolina; and Millen, Georgia. “As I have held before, it should be the chief duty of the Prisoner of War Association to insist that these figures shall be corrected, or that there shall be an official admission at least of their gross inaccuracy,” he wrote to Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln. The National Association of Union Ex-Prisoners of War echoed with a resolution condemning Phisterer the following year.
By disputing mortality rates, survivors responded to those who sought to reconcile Civil War prisons. “The most convincing proof of the truth of the story of . . . sufferings endured by the Union prisoners of war is the appalling death rate which prevailed in the various prisons of the South,” Gessner explained.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that in the wake of a new generation of exciting scholarship that has reached beneath the sanitized narrative of Civil War to reveal new dimensions of human anguish, misery, and torment, we once again turn to numbers. Somewhere, Gustavus Gessner and his comrades are nodding approvingly.