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Harry S. Stout

Baptism in Blood

The Civil War and the creation of an American civil religion

It is a truism of American history that the Civil War stands as the American phenomenon, an event of transcendent significance. If the current list of books, movies, and roundtables is any indication, that won't change anytime soon. At some profound level the Civil War is American history.

Tracking a phenomenon is one thing, explaining it is another. "Phenomenon" by definition also implies a cultural process that goes beyond extraordinary "events" or "facts" (though these are foundational to it) to ongoing and ever-shifting perceptions, apprehensions, and collective memory. In this sense, the phenomenon of the Civil War may or may not correspond to the actual "realities" of the war itself; it is something constructed from events and is selective in its memory. Inevitably, phenomena are presentist and self-nurturing. To capture them, the historian needs to move beyond the facts of the past to the legacies they leave and to the ways they have been remembered in subsequent history.

But first the facts. We begin, as most snapshots of the Civil War do, with the numbers. Phenomena do not come out of nothing; they are not national fantasies with no basis in fact. Numbers count, and the Civil War brings some impressive statistics that were sufficiently horrendous to have involved virtually every living American, North and South.

While Civil War enlistments and casualties cannot be known exactly, there are several reliable approximations. In compiling his indispensable chronology of the Civil War, E. B. Long estimates that total enlistments in the Federal forces numbered 2,778,304, including about 189,000 African Americans, in a population of 18,810,123. Confederate forces numbered 1,400,000 in a white population of 6,500,000. In addition, there were slightly less than 4 million slaves. Of these soldiers, 623,026 died and 471,427 were wounded for a total casualty count of 1,094,453. In breaking the numbers down by each "nation," Federal army deaths totaled 360,222, of which 110,100 ...

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