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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Number Crunching: Antietam, the Bloodiest Single Day in U.S. History



As Americans, we are often obsessed with terms like “the most,” “the best,” “the least,” and “the worst” in nearly everything we do. In years books individuals are rated as the “most likely to succeed.” We have BFF – “best friends forever.” We discuss sports teams as the “least likely to win a championship. A lot of this obsession is rooted in our innate competitiveness, despite the Herculean efforts of the politically correct crowd to eliminate it lest we offend someone by labeling them.  
The same applies to military history as well. Trivia like, the “General with the longest beard,” the “tallest man in the Union army,” and “The Bloodiest Day in U.S. History” appeal to many individuals. In this case, I have chosen to discuss the casualties at Antietam. Why? I wanted to explore the veracity of that title. Here are the results:
1.      The editors of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume II examined the reports of Confederate corps and division commanders, which included the losses from September 14, 1862 through September 20, 1862 in their casualty returns.
Those tabulations also excluded the numbers for Jones’ and Rodes’ brigades and A. P. Hill’s entire division.
a.       The officers recorded 1,800 killed, 9,770 wounded, and 2,304 missing in action, which totaled 13,694 casualties.

2.      The editors arbitrarily multiplied those numbers by 80% based upon the assumption that only 20% losses occurred before and after September 18 – 18, 1862.

a.       In turn, they reported 1,512 killed, 7,816 wounded, and 1844 missing which equaled 11,172 casualties.

3.      The Union losses, as tabulated in the Official Records, was 12, 410 which included September 16 – 18, 1862.

4.      When added together, the editors arrived at 23,582, thereby making Antietam the bloodiest single day battle in U.S. history, “fact” which so many historians, myself included, accepted as fact, until now.

a.       We neglected to take into account the editors’ admonition that, at best, the calculations were not necessarily accurate.

5.      The Ezra Carman manuscript, until very recently, hundreds of historians have cited without necessarily using his casualty calculations to check the veracity of the Battle and Leaders estimates. I had consulted his casualty returns when working on Antietam: The Soldiers’ Battle and Before Antietam: The Battle for South Mountain, but never attempted to re-evaluate the returns. Savas Beatie’s release of Thomas G. Clemens’ expertly edited and annotated two-volume edition of the Carman manuscript - The Maryland Campaign of September 1862 – changed everything. With Carman’s charts readily available, I could easily account for the combat losses before and after September 15. Thomas A. McGrath, Shepherdstown: Last Clash of the Antietam Campaign, September 19-20, 1862 contained detailed regimental losses for the Confederates in that action.

a.       Using those two sources, I calculated the following casualties, exclusive of September 17, 1862:

461 killed, 1,838 wounded, 1,523 missing, plus 16 unspecified casualties. Total: 3,838

b.      By deducting those numbers from the original reports in Battles and Leaders, I arrived at the following losses for September 17:

1,339 killed, 7,932 wounded, 781 captured, totaling 10,052 Confederate casualties.

c.       For the Federal losses, I deducted 30 killed and 65 wounded for the skirmishing on September and 4 or 5 miscellaneous casualties in skirmishing on September 18.

This resulted in 2,078 killed, 9,484 wounded, 753 missing, and 5 miscellaneous for a number of 12,310 casualties.

d.       Adding 12,310 to 10,052, the total losses for September 17 are 22,362 casualties in a single day.

6.      Carman concluded that the armies lost 22,726 officers and men.

7.      The National Park Service at Antietam reports approximately 22,720 lost.

Why does this matter?

It clearly illustrates how recent scholarship contributes to a clearer understanding of the past.

It is a reminder not to get overly concerned about whether or not a battle’s fame depends upon its horrible casualty returns, although Antietam still remains the bloodiest single day in U.S. history.

The numbers will always change and authors will continually use them to prove that their calculations are more accurate than someone else’s.

It admonishes me to remember that behind every number is a person with a name, a family, an identity, and a soul. Their humanity takes precedence over statistics.