It’s rare that we can say directly and unequivocally that the nation rejected a particular philosophy. But those eight years of fighting in two wars — one the bloodiest in America’s existence and the other the bloodiest in the history of the world — were definitive. The Confederacy’s secession and embrace of slavery was unacceptable to the states that remained in the United States (even if racism against blacks wasn’t), as was the Nazis’ slaughter of millions of innocent people and desire for global conquest. America’s opposition to the Confederacy and Nazism didn’t simply take the form of a proclamation passed by Congress as a show of condemnation. Hundreds of thousands of Americans expressed that opposition in the most significant way possible: with their lives.
A sacrifice of that scale should not only not be forgotten but should be the context in which the flags and armbands of protests like Saturday’s are remembered.
Deaths in the Civil War
The Civil War was the deadliest conflict in American history, thanks to it pitting two halves of the country against each other. Nineteenth-century estimates of the total number who were killed in action during the war or who died as a result of the conflict thanks to disease or other injuries were at 618,000 people. Recent statistical analysis based on national census figures, though, puts the number higher, near 750,000.
Of course, not all of those dead were killed in opposition to the Confederacy. It includes numbers for those who fought on behalf of the Southern states that seceded (in darker gray on the maps below). An 1889 estimate of losses just among Union soldiers by William Fox and a 1908 analysis by Frederick Dyer puts the number killed in action at somewhere around 110,000. No state saw more Union losses than New York, followed by Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Note that these estimates include figures for soldiers who fought for the Union but who originated from Confederate states. Tennessee was the Southern state that gave the most lives on behalf of the union that its residents had rejected. (The figures for Washington are credited in the documentation to the Washington territory.)
Those figures are only for soldiers killed in action. The brutality of the Civil War was more encompassing than what occurred during combat, however. Disease was rampant, and prisons were often little more than death camps. Including all causes of death from the war, the total number of Union soldiers who died nears 360,000, with about 1 in 7 of those deaths being a soldier from New York.
The only state that existed in 1865 that didn’t contribute any lives to the Union cause was the state of South Carolina, according to Fox and Dyer’s estimates — the state in which the Confederacy originated.
Deaths in World War II
By 1941, when the United States entered the Second World War, there were 48 states in the Union, with Alaska and Hawaii soon to be added. But all 50 current states contributed to the fight, as did Puerto Rico. In total, over 405,000 Americans gave their lives in the conflict.
The military breaks out figures by state for the Army, which was the branch that contributed the most lives to the effort, by far. Nearly 235,000 soldiers were killed in battle during the war, with over 300,000 dying in total.
Again the states from which the greatest number of lives were lost were New York and Pennsylvania, with Ohio joined by Illinois and California among the states that saw the most casualties.
As we noted on Memorial Day, there are still 80,000 Americans who are considered to be missing in action from military conflicts, more than 70,000 of whom are missing from World War II. Those numbers aren’t included above; when we loop them in, the number of lives sacrificed in each state grows.
In total, then, the tally is as follows. Some 360,000 Union soldiers died in the Civil War. Another 407,000 Americans were killed in World War II. Many of those deaths were in the Pacific theater, battling the forces of imperial Japan, but, broadly, that’s the number that gave their lives fighting the forces of the Axis powers.
It likely goes without saying that, among the things that those dead fought to preserve were fundamental American values like freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. They fought, in other words, to protect a nation that would allow young men to parade around Charlottesville dressed up like the enemies we once fought to destroy. As long as America remains a place where those rights are preserved, those 767,000 deaths in eight years of war were not in vain.