Imagining these and other scenarios isn’t simply an exercise in “what if” history, or the fulfillment of Confederate fantasy fiction. It raises the very real possibility that many thousands of Americans might have died only to entrench secession and slavery. Given this risk, and the fact that Americans at the time couldn’t see the future, Andrew Delbanco wonders if we ourselves would have regarded the defeat of the South as worth pursuing at any price. “Vindicated causes are easy to endorse,” he observes in The Abolitionist Imagination.
Recent scholarship has also cast new light on the scale and horror of the nation’s sacrifice. Soldiers in the 1860s didn’t wear dog tags, the burial site of most was unknown, and casualty records were sketchy and often lost. Those tallying the dead in the late 19th century relied on estimates and assumptions to arrive at a figure of 618,000, a toll that seemed etched in stone until just a few years ago.
But J. David Hacker, a demographic historian, has used sophisticated analysis of census records to revise the toll upward by 20%, to an estimated 750,000, a figure that has won wide acceptance from Civil War scholars. If correct, the Civil War claimed more lives than all other American wars combined, and the increase in population since 1860 means that a comparable war today would cost 7.5 million lives