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Civil War's death toll gets revised upward as scholars take fresh look

Nearly 150 years after the last fusillade of the Civil War, historians, authors and museum curators are still finding new topics to explore as the nation commemorates the sesquicentennial of America's bloodiest conflict.

Even the long-accepted death toll of 620,000, cited by historians since 1900, is being reconsidered. In a study published late last year in Civil War History, a Binghamton University history demographics professor, J. David Hacker, said the toll is actually closer to 750,000.

"That number just sat there -- 620,000 -- for a century," said Lesley Gordon, a professor at the University of Akron and editor of the journal, a 57-year-old publication considered the pre-eminent publication in its field.

Now, Gordon said, that figure "doesn't feel right anymore."

Guerrilla warfare in the border states is partially responsible for the higher death toll, Hacker believes, saying that it's an overlooked battleground where civilian populations often fell victim to the fighting.

Such work represents "the new direction" some are taking in an effort to offer fresh Civil War topics for Americans to examine, Gordon said.

"They think about Lincoln, they think about Gettysburg, they think about Robert E. Lee," Gordon said. "They don't think about this often-brutal warfare going on in people's backyards."

Many historians have fully embraced Hacker's higher number, among them James McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Battle Cry of Freedom."

"It drives home even more forcefully the human cost of the Civil War, which was enormous," said McPherson, professor emeritus in Princeton University's history department. "And it makes it more understandable why it took the South so long to recover."

Hacker, an expert in 19th century demographics, said he was studying the steady decline in U.S. birthrates when he kept bumping into the Civil War and its impact on the nation's population growth in the 1800s. He decided to recalculate the war's mortality rate for males, using recently digitized census results from the two national population counts before the war and the two after.

"If there's one figure you could use to measure the war's cost, this is the one statistic," Hacker said. "It's the death toll. Hey, let's get that one right."

Hacker didn't try to differentiate each side's total deaths, and he doesn't know how many of the additional 130,000 fatalities were Union and how many were Confederate. His new estimate includes men who died of disease in the years immediately after the war, and men who died of war wounds before the 1870 census. It also includes thousands of civilian men and irregulars who were casualties of widespread guerrilla warfare in Missouri, Kansas and other border states.

Hacker's work is being hailed both in the North and the South.

"It finally gives substance, with some really fine research, to what some people have been saying for years, that [620,000] was an undercount," John Coski, historian at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va.