alumni about James McPherson and the Civil War. The following readers
reported a mathematical error that appeared in the print version of the
story, but, which has been corrected in the online version. It was an
editing error on PAW's part, and not Professor McPherson's.
the letter from Jamie Spencer 66 addresses
something else in the article.
March 28, 2003
I just finished yet another great issue of PAW. However,
there is an error in The Crossroads of History article re Prof. McPherson.
On page 14, it says that the 6,000 man death toll at
Antienam "amounted to 2 percent of the population." That is
incorrect, by several orders of magnitude. It may be true that it was
2 percent of those in uniform at the time, but the combined population
of the North and the Confederacy was over 20 million (I'm sure that Prof.
McPherson could give you the right figure!).
Caroline Moseley's February 12 article on Professor James
McPherson contains a glaring error on the first page. In calling Antietam
"the bloodiest single day in American history" because 6,000
men perished, Professor McPherson "notes that the death toll amounted
to 2 percent of the population."
In fact, the 1860 census puts the U.S. population at
31,000,000 not 310,000. Somebody divided by 10 instead of multiplying
(or verse visa) when coming up with the wild figure of 2 percent. The
equivalent death toll today would be something like 55,000 not 5.5 million.
A little care about arithmetic would enhance Prof. McPherson's otherwise
scrupulous research by removing the blot of exaggeration from this sobering
Do any math majors take history courses these days?
I trust James McPherson is a better historian than mathematician, since
in the report entitled "The
Crossroads of History," the claim is made that "more
than 6,000 men were killed or mortally wounded [at Antietam]...the death
toll amounted to 2 percent of the population." Surely the two halves
of the U.S. in 1862 had a population of more than 300,000 people (of
which 2 percent is the specified 6,000).
History Professor James McPhersons remarkable accomplishments
and fame are sources of pride for all Tigers. But I do have a bone to
pick about the adulation he is accorded for his extensive research
in primary documents [which] allows participants to tell their own
My whine may seem odd coming from a member of the Princetoniana
Committee, whose central goal is the acquisition and publicizing of just
such minutiae, though merely on a collegiate level. Like McPherson, we
find it fascinating fun to find out what the little folks students,
professors, staff were thinking, even during unremarkable junctures
of College (later University) history.
But McPhersons focus is quite different; he is dealing with not-so-little
folks at indisputably crucial moments in national history, a far vaster
canvas. Look at the quotes Caroline Moseley cites, quotations which we
assume are employed to support reflect McPhersons argument that
the 1862 Battle of Antietam was a decisive Civil War turning point. These
civilian nuggets actually serve, it seems to me, one of two
negligible purposes. They either add a modicum of further illumination
to the characters of the chief dramatis personae (Oh, mother, Uncle
Jeff. is miserable a niece of the Confederate President sighs to
her mom) or they simply show that famous folks relatives indulge,
just like the rest of us little folks, in irresponsible and gullible gossip.
(Mrs. McClellan tells the wife of a northern judge that the war
may well be over by July 4 of that year.) These human touches contribute
mightily to our entertainment, sure, and that may make for superior social
studies. But to my mind they add little or nothing to our understanding
Referring to the article in the February 12 issue "The
Crossroads of History," James M. McPherson is certainly to be
honored as an outstanding Civil War author and authority. However, the
reference to the 6,000 deaths at Antietam indicates his talents are not
in the mathematical area. 6,000 deaths related to the United States population
in 1860 (31 million) and the present population as of 2000 (281 million)
converts to an equivalent of 57,000 people not 5.5 million. The 6,000
deaths is still an impressive figure in that it almost equals the total
battle deaths in al three prior wars; the Revolutionary War, War of 1812,
and the Mexican War. Please call this error to Mr. McPherson's attention.
The article on
The Crossroads of History explains the important contributions Professor
McPherson has made explaining the Civil War. However, you may have
done him an injustice in the placement of a decimal point. You reported
that the death toll at Antietam was 2 per cent of the population. The
number of casualties at Antietam was about 22,700. The 1860 census recorded
a total population in the US of 31,183,582. Thus, the casualty percent
was approximately 0.07 percent of the population and the death toll using
6,000 killed would be 0.02 per cent of the population. Antietam was the
bloodiest day in American history but fortunately not on the scale that
I enjoyed the article
"The Crossroads of History" by Caroline Moseley about Professor
of History James M. McPherson. However, in stating that the death toll
at the Battle of Antietam (6000 men killed) amounted to 2 percent of the
population, the article is off by a factor of a hundred. The population
of the United States (north and south together) at the time was actually
more than 30 million, so the correct figure would be about 0.02% of the
population. So the equivalent in today's population would be about 55,000,
not 5.5 million. Still, it shows what an extraordinarily bloody battle
In Caroline Moseley's piece on Professor James
M. McPherson in the February 12 issue, she notes that 6,000 men were
killed or mortally wounded at Sharpsburg. She the attributes to Professor
McPherson the factoid that "the death toll amounted to two percent
of the population, which would be equivalent to about 5.5 million people
today." I doubt Professor McPherson would have made any such a statement.
The U.S. census of 1860 enumerated a population in excess of 30 million,
making the death toll more like two hundredths of one percent of the population,
a somewhat less startling statistic.
Caroline Mosely, in her article
"The Crossroads of History," writes that according to Prof.
McPherson 2 percent of the US population died in the Battle of Antietam,
and states that this loss would be the equivalent of 5.5 million people
today. If this were true, then the entire population of the US in 1862
would be only 300,000, and the current population would be nearly a thousand
It doesn't take much knowledge of American history to recognize the absurdity
of this statement. In fact, the state of Maryland alone had over twice
that number of people in 1862.
The article on the
Battle of Antietam in the PAW of Feb. 12 contains a statistical blooper.
The article states the the 6,000 battle deaths equalled 2 percent of the
U.S. population, the equivalent losing 5.5 million people out of today's
population. By that math, the country's entire population at that time
would only be 300,000. Clearly, somebody has slipped a couple of decimal
points! The census of 1860 indicated a total U.S. population of about
31,000,000, so the toll at Antietam, although appalling, was only 0.02
percent of the population, the statistical equivalent of about 55,000
I presume it was the PAW, and not Prof. McPherson, who made the faulty
In Caroline Mosely's essay,
"The Crossroads of History," (PAW, February 12, 2003) James
McPherson is quoted on p. 14 as saying that "more than 6,000 men
were killed or mortally wounded" at Antietam. He is then quoted parenthetically
as saying that this number "amounted to 2 percent of the population,
which would be equivalent to about 5.5 million people today."
I don't think that's true. The U.S. population in 1862 was a little over
30 million, of which six thousand is two-tenths of 1 percent, not
2 percent. The modern equivalent would be not five million but half a
million, still an overwhelming number.
In an article on historian James McPherson, Caroline Moseley writes (PAW
Feb 12, p. 14) that in the Battle of Antietam in 1862, more than 6,000
men were killed or mortally wounded, and "that the death toll amounted
to 2 percent of the population." In the 1860 census, the US population
was 31,443,321. So the number killed as a result of Antietam amounted
to more like .02% of the US population far less than 2%, though
still a shocking figure.
There is a serious mathematical error in this article
in the Feb. 12 issue of PAW. The author cites 6,000 men killed or
mortally wounded in the battle of Antietam as being 2 percent of the population
and then relates this to an equivalent loss of 5.5 million today. Since
the population was something over 30 million in the 1860s, the loss of
6,000 men was about 0.02 percent of the population, corresponding to about
55,000 for today's population--a large loss indeed, but not nearly so
shocking as the article implied.
I have been a James McPherson fan for many years. My wife, Connie, and
I had the pleasure of attending the Alumni College on Grant's western
campaign described in the article on McPherson in the Feb. 12 PAW.
"Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam" is both thorough and thought
provoking a typical McPherson book. In your article I think Ms.
Moseley may have misunderstood McPherson. While the death of 6,000+ men
at Antietam was tragic, it represented only 0.2 percent (not 2 percent)
of the population of some 31 million. Thus today's equivalent would be
550,000, not 5.5 million.
I am a fan of James M. McPherson and his writings and would like to point
out an error that slipped into his
article in the February 12, 2003, issue of PAW. It states that 6,000
were killed or were mortally wounded at the Battle of Antietam. During
the course of the Civil War approximately 600,000 Americans died as a
result of battle wounds and disease. This is 2% of the total of 30 million
population of our country at that time. This does not minimize the horror
or waste of that day.
I suspect that Professor James M. McPherson was ill-served
by an editor when the following sentence appeared in the print version
of the story (The
Crossroads of History, February 12) right after a reference to the
casualties at the Battle of Antietam:
"(He notes that the death toll amounted to 2 percent of the population,
which would be equivalent to about 5.5 million people today.)"
There were 6,000 deaths in the battle, which would put the population
of the U.S. at 300,000, when it was actually about 30,000,000 at the time.
What the professor presumably meant was that the deaths (in battle and
from disease) on both sides during the entire Civil War came to about
.02 percent of the population. That concept would be about right, and
it illuminates the tragedy of that conflict.
David S. North 51
Mr. North is correct. McPherson was referring to the death toll of the
Civil War. We apologize for the error. We fixed the error in the online