Sunday, August 22, 2010

North Carolina to Review Soldier Death Toll

Historian reviews NC's Civil War death countArticle
The Associated Press
NC Confederate Count

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- North Carolina's claim that it lost the most men during the Civil War is getting a recount from a state historian who doubts the accuracy of the accepted, 144-year-old estimate.

"The time has come to get it right," said Josh Howard, a research historian with the Office of Archives and History in Raleigh. "Nobody has gone through man by man looking for the deaths."

Howard is reviewing the military records of every Tar Heel who served in the 1861-65 conflict, as the state prepares to mark its sesquicentennial, The News & Record of Greensboro reported Monday.

Since shortly after the war ended, North Carolina has boasted that it sacrificed more men to the Confederate cause than any other state, at 40,275. That's more than twice the death toll of South Carolina, where the war's first shots were fired. It suffered the second-highest toll at 17,682.

"This has sort of been the North Carolina badge of honor," says Keith Hardison, director of the Division of State Historic Sites and Properties. It was "held out as gospel, and it may be gospel. If it is, we need to have the figures to back it up. If it is not, we need to correct it."

Since 1866, the number of Civil War deaths has been attributed to a federal study by Gen. James B. Fry, the U.S. provost marshal general. Fry and his clerks examined Union and captured Confederate muster rolls and regimental reports to determine the toll from fighting, disease, accidents and those who died in prison.

But Fry's figures were "incorrect and misguided," Howard said, because clerks relied on incomplete records, sometimes counted the same case twice, and identified units as being from North Carolina when they were from another state. Additionally, some records were lost and some casualty reports may have been exaggerated.

"Officers did that to keep the enemy in the dark," Howard said. "Or it showed you were in the thick of the fight."

If North Carolina's numbers are wrong, then the numbers for other states are wrong as well because they all come from the same faulty sources, he said.

Howard is basing his review on a 17-volume roster of Tar Heels who served on either side of the conflict - a project that was launched in the 1960s to commemorate the war's 100-year anniversary and continues with the state history office. For units not yet collected in the series, Howard will rely on military service records in the National Archives. He expects to examine the records of more than 140,000 men.

By Friday, Howard had confirmed 29,418 North Carolina war dead.

While many died in battle for the Confederacy, most died of disease. Others died from drowning, lightning strikes, suicide, bar fights, train wrecks, riots, execution for desertion, accidental shootings, collapsing buildings, insect and snake bites, falls, or being run over by wagons.

The research also found that about 2,000 North Carolinians, black and white, died during service in the Union army. No cases of blacks who died while serving in North Carolina's Confederate ranks have been found, although some have argued that blacks did fight for the South.

Howard is getting help from members of the Garner chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which had separately started its own study.

"We are going to compare our lists. We are coming at it from two different angles," said Charles Purser, a retired Air Force master sergeant who led the veterans' group's research.

The study is unlikely to change the fact that a third of the state's men of military age died during the Civil War.

"I don't think it matters if it is 30,000 or 40,000," said Tom Belton, curator of military history and the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh. "It's a significant number of North Carolinians who gave their lives for a cause they thought was worth dying for."

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