Monday, July 1, 2013

Why Don't We Take the South's Devastation More Seriously?

I'm not sure how I missed this, but apparently for several years now the classic Civil War death toll of around 620,000 has been the subject of significant revision. The actual number of dead looks to have been something like 750,000. I have little to say about this beyond putting these numbers in some comparative context.

If we had an equally deadly war today, over 7 million Americans would die. As popular as the Civil War is compared to other events in American history, on the whole we still don't grasp how petty and insignificant most of the events, even the wars, of our lifetimes are compared to the Civil War. If you wanted to live during the most dramatic and horrific period of American history you missed it by 150 years.

Another interesting way to put the numbers in context is to compare them to World War 1 deaths. France had a famously rough go of it in that war, so much so that pretty much anything that has gone wrong since then has been at one time or another blamed on it. Did French culture succumb to an amorphous demoralization? Well, they were bled white by the Great War, you know. Was the French effort in World War 2 disastrous and embarrassing? Well, they had already lost a generation of young men just two decades before.

But here's the thing: if the new estimates are correct, the South lost a higher percentage of its fighting men in the Civil War than France did in the Great War. Yet there is no comparable discourse around the southern war dead. This seems all the more remarkable when you consider the vast literature on southern distinctiveness, southern exceptionalism, southern identity. Sure, the war experience in general is treated as formative, but a reference to the sheer scale of death as the cause of subsequent maladies or cultural traits is rarely found.

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