North Carolina Civil War Death Study
Assessing Troop Losses, 1861-1865
n June 10, 1861, nineteen-year-old Private Henry Lawson Wyatt of Company A, 1st North Carolina Volunteers, was killed in action at the Battle of Big Bethel, Virginia. He has been widely recognized and honored as the first Confederate killed in combat and the first of over 40,000 North Carolinians to die in the war. Both claims when properly analyzed are unsupported by the historical record, and highlight problems that complicate North Carolina's understanding of its Civil War participation. An ongoing project at the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, supported by the efforts of the Colonel Leonidas L. Polk Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Garner, is attempting to rectify such issues. The North Carolina Civil War Death Study, work intended to supplement the North Carolina Civil War Atlas
currently being prepared by the Office of Archives and History, provides a reanalysis of the available archival evidence, compiling the most definitive, accurate assessment of the number of North Carolina soldiers both Confederate and Union who died during the conflict.
First to Fall
Capt. John Q. Marr, 17th Virginia Infantry, Killed in Action, Fairfax Courthouse, June 1, 1861
Historical records conclusively show that Wyatt was not the first Confederate soldier killed in action against Federal forces. Nine days prior to Wyatt's death, Captain John Q. Marr of the 17th Virginia was killed in a skirmish with Union troops at Fairfax Courthouse, Virginia. Nevertheless, Marr's death was not widely publicized. In contrast to the skirmish at Fairfax Courthouse, the engagement at Big Bethel involved much larger numbers of troops and became an instant news sensation as the first "battle" of the war. As a result, Wyatt became, as one commentator wrote, "the first Confederate martyr." Newspapers across the South carried accounts of the engagement and established his position as the "first to fall at the Altar." The adoration of Wyatt did not end with the war but carried into the decades following the conflict. Portraits were made of him to hang in the State Library and during the 1880s copies of his tintype photograph were made available in baseball-card fashion. The back of the card gave his biography, including the claim, "first man who fell in battle on the Confederate side."
In 1912 the state legislature authorized a monument of Wyatt to be constructed on the Capitol grounds. His burial plot in Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery has been marked with a modern marker stating he was the first Confederate killed in action, and he is still commonly cited as such in prominent academic publications.
Pvt. Henry L. Wyatt, 1st North Carolina Volunteers, Killed in Action, Big Bethel, Virginia, June 10, 1861
Virginians both during and after the war were quick to point out the fact that Marr had died earlier and that Wyatt was a North Carolinian by residence, but not by birth. Born in 1842 in Richmond, Virginia, Wyatt had lived since the age of twelve in Tarboro. The latter fact became widely known during the war, and it was accepted that he was indeed an "adopted" son of North Carolina. During efforts to raise money for his monument, Virginia veterans writing in Confederate Veteran
challenged any claims that Wyatt was "the first to die in battle" or "in combat," pointing to Marr as well as a bevy of other Virginians who they claimed died prior to June 10. North Carolinians responded, explaining that their emphasis should rest on battle, and that Marr and the fellow challengers had died in skirmishes, not a battle. One North Carolina veteran retorted "Wyatt was the first to fall in an open fight, when troops met for the first time in battle array." Death, and who had died first, came down to a battle not of chronology, but of semantics. Recent historians have gone so far as to focus on a Baltimore native named William P. Clark, who apparently had enlisted in the Confederate army and was awaiting transport south when he was killed in the Baltimore riots on April 19, 1861. Wyatt remains the first North Carolina soldier, if not the first Confederate, to die in combat, and deserves all of the credit and dignity due him for that claim. He was not, however, the first North Carolina soldier to lose his life in the war. That tragic distinction went to Private James Hudson of Company B, 1st North Carolina Volunteers, who died of pneumonia in Raleigh on May 11, 1861.
Total Number of Dead
The figure of 40,000 dead Confederates from North Carolina has been one of the traditional "boasts" of Tar Heel Civil War heritage that the state contributed more men and lost more men in Confederate service than any other Southern state. The claim is perhaps the most commonly known and repeated "boast" related to North Carolina in the conflict, even repeated in Ken Burns' The Civil War
documentary series. Recent preliminary research within the state's muster rolls and service records, however, has determined that it is much more likely that 33-35,000 North Carolinians died wearing Confederate gray. Furthermore, the traditional assertions completely neglect the approximately 2,000 African-American and white North Carolinians who died serving in the Union army.
With problems such as these, a reanalysis of the state's Civil War dead is needed. Of course, this is not just a North Carolina centered issue, but one faced by every state that sent men to the conflict. North Carolina likely did lose the most men. However, if the numbers attributed to the state are wrong, then they are very well just as wrong for other states, as the statistics utilized for most of the other states came from the same traditionally accepted sources. Those sources were most commonly United States government analyses completed in the decades following the war, utilizing muster rolls and captured regimental returns. But, to fully understand how the figures and numbers were developed, one must look at the process of what happened once a soldier died, and how he moved from a living, breathing individual to simply a statistic.
Documenting the Dead in the Field
Captain Houston B. Lowrie, 6th North Carolina State Troops, Killed in Action, Sharpsburg, Maryland (Battle of Antietam), September 17, 1862
Civil War armies left paper trails. When a soldier died, his death typically was recorded by his company commander in a muster roll, a register compiled monthly documenting who was present for duty, who was absent and why, and who had died recently. Armies also required officers to compile casualty lists after each engagement. Hospital records document those who either died of disease or succumbed to their wounds, while those who died as prisoners typically appear in the records of their place of incarceration. Courts-martial records provide evidence of a soldier's death for desertion or other crimes. Union regiments were required to provide "muster out" rolls before their disbandment at war's end, taking stock of every man who was wounded or died during the unit's service.
Nevertheless, military records were notoriously inaccurate and incomplete. Men went missing in combat, and often were presumed captured when they had been killed. Some who were captured died shortly thereafter from wounds, but remained listed as prisoners-of-war in their own army's records. Errors were rampant when the individuals involved had names that were difficult to spell or pronounce, or perhaps shared similar names with other soldiers in their respective commands. Not infrequently, a soldier's service record simply ends on a muster roll, and neither he nor the reason for his absence appears on the next roll. Soldiers often took assumed names upon entering prison camps, providing even further confusion and consternation. Prison records are notoriously bad as well, in that clerks at the end of the war, overworked and ready to return home themselves, often listed men that had died the month previous as having taken the Oath of Allegiance.
For the family members of these men, word of their deaths either came in lists published by the local newspaper or through correspondence from fellow soldiers. Neither Confederate nor Federal military forces provided any official means to notify family members of the loss of a loved one. For many families, word of their son or brother's demise was confirmed only after the war, if at all. Decades after the conflict, the Federal government continued to receive letters from Southern families seeking answers about the final disposition of men who never returned home from Union prisoner-of-war camps. Obituaries published in periodicals often provide evidence of a soldier's death that escaped military recordkeeping. Private Hudson, North Carolina's first military death, appears nowhere in the military archival sources of his unit. The only evidence of his enlistment, service, and ultimate death derive from his obituary published in the Charlotte Western Democrat
on June 21, 1861. Similarly, civilian cemetery records often record the death and burial of a soldier whose passing does not appear in his service record.
Numbering the dead was important to the armies in that they needed to know their force strength. Therefore casualty lists and hospital returns were not concerned with individual lives, but instead assessments of military resources. In turn, however, army commanders also hoped to hide accurate data from their enemies, leading to misinterpretations that distorted the historical record. Union Gen. George McClellan was fascinated with numbers, and consistently overestimated not only his enemy's losses, but also their strengths. His obsessions led to a failure to act when needed, and eventually led to his sacking. In May 1863, General Robert E. Lee issued an order that critiqued the standard custom of reporting losses, suggesting that inflated estimates were being made by officers who viewed their unit losses as a direct affirmation of their own performance and courage on the battlefield. Large losses in an officer's unit theoretically showed that he and his men had been in the thick of the fight, and therefore that they had fought ferociously and honorably. Thus, inflated numbers led to inflated egos. Conversely, in the latter years of the war, Lee appears to have consistently underestimated his losses in an effort to hide the war's impact on his army from the enemy, and to a certain extent from civilian authorities.
"Women in Mourning, Cemetery in New Orleans," Frank Leslies Illustrated Newspaper, April 25, 1863
The clamor for an accurate assessment of the number of dead began almost as soon as the conflict ended. At war's end, thousands of families were left mourning the loss of a loved one. Few people could fathom the enormity of the death and destruction that had surrounded them, particularly Southerners who not only lost loved ones but also witnessed the war in their backyards. Numbering the dead offered an escape from the reality of the event in some ways, as the loss of so many individual lives became translated into emotionless, hard statistics. The collection of such data, however, sparked an emotional response in quite a different way, transforming the honored dead into a source of dignity, something akin to what Lee had first noticed in 1863. No longer simply associated with the ego of one regimental or brigade commander, the compilation and subsequent inflation of death statistics fueled state pride, particularly in the postwar South. Sacrifice equated honor. As Confederate veterans attempted to vie for who had given the most to the Lost Cause, and in a period dominated by infighting amongst Southern states over whose troops advanced further in Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, or who fired the last shot at Appomattox, big casualty figures equaled big bragging rights.
Efforts to count the dead took place at both the Federal and state levels. Between 1865 and 1870 the War Department issued three reports concerning the war dead. Government clerks under the leadership of General James B. Fry, United States Provost Marshal General, pored over Union and captured Confederate muster rolls and regimental returns to establish figures including the number of killed in action, as well as those who died of disease, accident, and in prison. Fry's men worked with what was available to them from the Confederate Archives, the collection of muster rolls and regimental returns accumulated by Confederate officials, captured at war's close in Charlotte. The records had accompanied the Confederate government's flight during the evacuation of Richmond until their capture, and then remained in the property of Union army commanders and provost officials until officially transferred to the War Department. Not surprisingly, a number of records were lost in the process. Hardly any muster rolls remain for Alabama troops, and there is a dearth of records for Confederate naval personnel as well. In 1866, the Final Report of the Provost Marshal General to the Secretary of War
counted 279,689 dead Union soldiers and 133,821 dead Confederates. North Carolina was credited with having lost 40,275 men, 19,637 of whom were listed as having died due to combat, while 20,602 died of disease.
Soldiers Graves Near General Hospital, City Point, Virginia Library of Congress
Revisions, with ever-increasing numbers, were made up through 1870 to the Union totals but not to the Confederate totals. In 1885 Joseph Kirkley, the chief statistician for the War Department, further revised the Union dead to 359,528, followed by a small adjustment shortly thereafter that raised the number to 360,222. Private citizens also provided death counts in addition to official government efforts. In 1883 Frederick Phisterer, a Union army veteran and Medal of Honor recipient, published A Statistical Record of the Armies of the United States
. William F. Fox, another Union veteran, followed six years later with Regimental Losses in the American Civil War
, a book claiming to have exhaustive numbers from both Union and Confederate records. Fox corrected a number of errors in the Fry study concerning Union soldiers, but simply republished the original 1866 Confederate figures with no analysis. He offered no commentary pointing out that Union numbers had changed, and that Confederate figures likely needed revision. Importantly, his was the first publication of such data in a widely available form, and thus became the source for many later claims. In 1900, Thomas Livermore's Numbers and Losses in the Civil War in America
was published, stating the most commonly accepted figure for Confederate deaths 258,000 a figure established more on guesswork and estimation than actual archival evidence. Eight years later Frederick Dyer published his monumental Compendium of the War of the Rebellion
as a companion and correction to much of what he claimed was deficient in the 128- volume Official Records of the War of the Rebellion
published in 1874 by the Federal government. Nevertheless, Dyer made numerous statistical mistakes that had already been corrected by Fox nearly twenty years previous.
In 1875, Our Living and Our Dead
, a partisan magazine published in New Bern by former Confederate officer Stephen D. Pool, printed an editorial written by Baptist minister turned journalist Theodore Bryant Kingsbury, titled "The Number of Troops Furnished by North Carolina." Kingsbury, without citing sources, claimed that North Carolina "must have lost by the casualties of war largely over 30,000 men," and "gave to the Lost Cause more troops than any other state." Kingsbury's claim to the "most lost" was likely the first such version of the boast to be published. Editorials such as Kingsbury's were the norm in the late 1870s and early 1880s, as Democrats regained political and social power within the Southern states and debates as to who gave the Confederacy the most became all the rage.
Major John W. Moore, compiler of Moores Roster
In 1881, the North Carolina legislature authorized John W. Moore, formerly the commanding officer of the 3rd N.C. Light Artillery, to compile a roster of every North Carolinian who served from the state. Over the following year Moore was forced to supplement horribly inaccurate information within the state adjutant general's records by both corresponding with former officers for data as well as analyzing North Carolina muster rolls in the hands of the U.S. War Department. Moore admitted in the introduction to his 1882 work that interviewing former officers was an utter failure. "In very rare instances can men be found who, after a lapse of twenty years, can recall, without the aid of contemporaneous notes, the minutiae of names and dates, so largely constituting the substance of this work." As for the muster rolls, Moore was much more positive, but admitted that "alas, army reports are like everything else that is human." "They vary from full statements to a mere pretence at telling who constituted a company and what became of the men." Most importantly, Moore made no claims as to the number of dead that he had identified, and only offered suggestions as to the number of men enlisted.
The 1866 Fry Report and Its Legacy
Major Gen. (Brevet) James B. Fry, Provost Marshal General, U.S. Army
North Carolinians' claims to over 40,000 dead and the distinction of having lost the most men in the Confederacy derive directly from the Fry report of 1866. Evidence has yet to be found of an "over 40,000" claim prior to the publication of William F. Fox's Regimental Losses
, which provided the first widely disseminated source of Fry's Confederate data from the War Department. None of the Confederate Memorial Day speeches in the 1870s or 1880s at Raleigh or Wilmington made the boast. Governor Vance did not claim it in his 1875 "North Carolina's Record" speech given at a meeting of the Southern Historical Society in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. The first known reference claiming more than 40,000 dates from an 1892 article concerning Henry Lawson Wyatt by Professor Stephen B. Weeks of Trinity College, titled "First Confederate Martyr" (Southern Historical Society Papers). Citing "the figures of Lieutenant-Colonel William F. Fox in his Regimental Losses in the American Civil War
," Weeks stated of North Carolina: "forty thousand of her sons, more than twice as many as to come from any state, were to fall on the field of battle or die in prison." In the same piece, Weeks admitted that Wyatt was "not the first Confederate soldier killed. Captain John Q. Marr of the Warrenton (Virginia) Volunteers had been shot by pickets on June 1." Weeks made the distinction between Marr's death in a skirmish and Wyatt's within a battle. On May 22, 1894, Captain Thomas W. Mason, a former Confederate officer, gave the Confederate Memorial Day speech in Raleigh stating that "forty thousand two hundred and seventy five sons of North Carolina gave their lives to the Confederacy." He went on to give the figures for killed, died of wounds, and died of disease first put forward by Provost Marshall James B. Fry.
What this suggests is that by the early 1890s, Fox's Regimental Losses
and through it Fry's incorrect and misguided figures had been disseminated and accepted as gospel among North Carolinians. The state legislature in 1894 authorized North Carolina veteran and historian Walter Clark to compile regimental histories written by those who had served in the various units. He did so, although it took until 1901 to complete due to budgetary constraints and other delays, and the first volume proudly proclaimed that "more than 40,000 of her [North Carolina's] bravest, best, and brightest young men fill soldiers' graves." As with Weeks and Mason, Clark obviously was citing from Fry's figures that had been reported in Fox. Three years later, as part of a pamphlet that finalized the tenets of North Carolina's "Rebel Boast" "First at Bethel, Furthest to the front at Gettysburg and Chickamauga, Last at Appomattox" Samuel A. Ashe reported 40,275 dead North Carolinians and directly cited Fox's Regimental Losses
as his source. Consequently, the Fry report, republished in Fox's Regimental Losses
, became the source of the "40,000" or "over 40,000" mantra that became a central boast of North Carolina's Civil War heritage.
North Carolina Troops Roster Project
North Carolina Troop Roster Cover Art
The Civil War Death Study is providing evidence that clearly challenges the claim of "40,000," not out of any malignant effort to dishonor the North Carolinians who lost their lives in the war, but rather to more accurately and correctly interpret their deaths. The main catalyst for reinterpretation has been the publication of the North Carolina Troops
roster series by the North Carolina Office of Archives and History. This still unfinished project began in the 1960s as an effort of the North Carolina Confederate Centennial Commission. Upon the termination of that commission in 1965, the work came under the purview of Archives and History. To date, seventeen volumes have been published. The entries are organized by company and regiment, and attempt to identify all North Carolinians who served in both Confederate and Federal forces during the war.
The principal source of information for the individual service record entries is the Compiled Military Service Records on file in Record Group 109 of the National Archives. The collection consists of individual envelopes on each man, in which are filed cards containing information extracted from original records. Organized in 1903, the Compiled Military Service Records are in essence a compilation of the information extracted from the original records first analyzed by Fry's clerks in 1865-1866. In addition to the compiled records, the Roster
series has utilized state adjutant general's reports that were filed at the National Archives as well as the Papers of and Relating to Military and Civilian Personnel, 1861-1865. The collection consists of all materials collected for the Compiled Military Service Records but not filed in regular envelopes for whatever reason. Further analysis of original muster rolls was also undertaken to double check information within both collections.
Compiled Service Record Card for Wilkes County native Private Rufus Laws of the 3rd North Carolina Mounted Infantry (U.S.), who died in 1864 in Union service.
In addition to the National Archives sources, the project was supplemented by materials available at the State Archives in Raleigh. These include records of the Adjutant General's Office, Register of Commissions, muster rolls that had not been captured or otherwise obtained by the War Department, numerous private collections, and pension applications filed by Confederate veterans and their widows. Also utilized were the collections of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, as well as published registers for both Southern and Northern cemeteries. Published rosters were utilized, with the notable exception of Moore's 1882 work. Initial comparisons between Moore's and the work that the editors did within the National Archives revealed that in some instances Moore's Roster
was upwards of 55 percent incomplete, and in one case an entire regiment of artillery was absent. Other material was found in manuscript repositories within North Carolina as well as neighboring states. Correspondence with interested individuals, mostly descendants, supplied information on Confederate soldiers and their final disposition that could not be found in official records. Finally, the editors have made good use of contemporary newspapers published within the state.
The North Carolina Troops
series is arguably the finest of its kind. While other states have undertaken similar projects none so far can compare in the completeness and the accuracy of that completed by North Carolina. This is due in no small part to the care exercised by the editors and their staffs who have worked the project since the first volume was completed in 1966: Louis H. Manarin, Weymouth T. Jordan, Jr., Matthew M. Brown, and Michael W. Coffey. That having been said, these gentlemen would probably be the first to admit that the rosters will never be fully complete or accurate, and that constant revision is simply inevitable with a project so all encompassing. The project provides a wonderful opportunity to "double-check" traditionally accepted figures and statistics.
The Death Study: New Analysis and New Interpretations
The Civil War Death Study's mechanics are fairly straightforward. The analysis is three phase: (1) a study of what is within the published rosters as well as the actual compiled service records; (2) a study of contemporary North Carolina newspapers; and (3) a cemetery and gravestone survey. Analysis began with going line by line, soldier by soldier, within each regiment in the published seventeen Roster
volumes, documenting deaths. Each individual's name and unit is recorded, as well as the year of his death and cause be it a battle wound, disease, accident, execution, unknown or other. For many individuals, particularly those at the beginning of the war, their death was recorded but not the cause. Most often their death was due to disease, though overworked hospital stewards did not waste time recording what type. Examples in the "other" category include those who were murdered, committed suicide, or suffered calamities such as being bitten by a spider or poisoned by eating a terrapin.
For those units which have not yet been covered in the Roster
series, namely the Senior Reserves, Home Guard, militia units, white and black Union units from North Carolina, as well as those companies that consisted of North Carolinians but which served in other Confederate states' regiments, analysis consists of going through their Compiled Service Records in the same fashion. Records of North Carolinians serving in the Confederate naval, engineering, and signal personnel, as well as general and staff officers, also will be analyzed along with records of Union volunteer regiments raised from Confederate prisoners-of-war.
Caution must be taken in several areas. For numerous North Carolina regiments and companies, muster rolls end in December 1864. Whether from a lack of paper or intentional destruction, the records simply no longer exist. Therefore, if an individual was present for duty in December 1864 but does not appear on any hospital documentation, casualty list, or is documented with a parole at Appomattox or Greensboro, his service record simply ends. In these instances name searches in the 1870 census or research in family histories can provide final disposition. Numerous men were captured at the end of the war, wounded and in Confederate hospitals, for whom no final disposition data is available in Union provost marshal records. For others, that information does exist, so on a case-by-case basis decisions can be made as to whether that individual likely died or not. In other instances errors of spelling and pronunciation have complicated the service record. Prisoners often took assumed names, as did those enlisting for bounties, making the researcher's job that much more difficult.
"A Burial Party on the Battlefield of Cold Harbor, Virginia, April 1865" Library of Congress
At times the archival evidence is even contradictory. Men oftentimes were recorded as killed or missing when in reality they were sitting in a Union prison camp. Widow's pension records remain for men who, it was claimed, were killed in the war, when all available evidence suggests the man at the very least survived the conflict. These may be individuals who simply never returned home and were thought of as dead. In addition, just as we are identifying and crediting those North Carolinians who served in fully organized companies within other states' regiments, we are cautiously addressing those Georgians, South Carolinians, Tennesseans, and Virginians who served in organized companies within North Carolina battalions. While their information is recorded, the project must take into account their loss in a separate fashion than totaling them with our North Carolinians.
The North Carolina Civil War Death Study will never be fully perfect or complete. Record loss has ensured that. Nevertheless, the project attempts to provide the most accurate assessment of North Carolina's loss in the war to date. Not only can this study more accurately determine the number of young men from North Carolina who gave their lives for the Confederate cause, but we can for the first time give credit to those white and black Tar Heels who died wearing Union blue. Furthermore, the information gathered can then be used to produce graphical representations demonstrating how many men from each county or each region died in the war. For once, accurate assessments of how many men fell to disease versus combat and how many were lost by various means during each year of the war can be demonstrated, as can the number of North Carolinians who died in prisoner-of-war camps. Such information is essential to furthering our understanding of the war within the state. Similar endeavors currently are being undertaken to compile a more accurate accounting of the number of North Carolinians who participated in the war, and to study the socioeconomic backgrounds of those soldiers. The findings will be published during the Sesquicentennial as supporting material for a larger map-driven project known as the North Carolina Civil War Atlas
. As North Carolinians begin our Sesquicentennial Commemoration of the conflict, it is only right and honorable that we more accurately identify those who lost their lives. The time has come to get it right.
Civil War Compiled Service Records, Records Groups 94 and 109, National Archives, Washington, DC
Charlotte Western Democrat, June 21, 1861
"Confederate Losses During the War Correspondence Between Dr. Joseph Jones and General Samuel Cooper," Southern Historical Society Papers, 7 (1879), 289.
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Johnson, Robert Underwood and Clarence Cough Buel, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, 4 vols. (New York, 1889)
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Raleigh News and Observer, May 23, 1894
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