Antietam death toll remains a mystery

December 27, 2001

Antietam death toll remains a mystery


As difficult as it's been to determine how many people died in the World Trade Center collapse, a lack of accurate records created a similar dilemma for historians of the Battle of Antietam.


Almost 140 years later, no one knows for sure exactly how many soldiers died in the bloody Civil War battle.

Officially, the National Park Service says there were 23,110 casualties on Sept. 17, 1862.

Of those, 3,650 were killed, 181 were missing in action and the rest were wounded, Antietam National Battlefield Superintendent John Howard said.

While the numbers are reasonably accurate, they represent an educated guess gleaned from decades of studying incomplete military records.

"We're still working on it to this day," Howard said.

The ambiguity of the numbers resonates today, as New York City officials try to pin down the number of dead or missing in the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center.


Shortly after the Twin Towers fell, New York City officials were estimating that as many as 10,000 people died.

Since then, the number of dead has steadily declined. In September it was 6,700. As of last week, the official tally was 2,992.

New York City officials have said there are several reasons for the drop, including: names listed more than once on missing-person reports, overestimates from some foreign consulates and families that filed early missing reports but neglected to notify police when loved ones were found alive.

At Antietam, the number of deaths was revised as recently as 1989, after a farmer plowing a field unearthed the remains of four soldiers on the battlefield, Howard said.

Although historians believe they know who they are, only one could be conclusively identified.

The body was that of a former stone mason, whose bones showed signs of expected arthritis and who wore a Celtic cross that bore the name of his hometown. His name was moved from the list of the missing to the list of the dead.

Total casualty numbers were derived through hospital and military records from both sides, Howard said.

Both Confederate and Union generals kept records of those soldiers who didn't muster the next day.

Names of Union soldiers who died were reported to the War Department, which investigated the claims to make sure the survivors were entitled to a pension, Howard said.

Names of the wounded were put on medical lists.

But the records aren't entirely reliable, said George Wunderlich, director of education for the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md.

"Unfortunately, there are a million reasons why records do not exist. It's not really as precise a science as most historians would like," Wunderlich said.

Many of the Confederate Army's war records, in particular, were burned, moved or lost in the shuffle.

Makeshift hospitals in homes and churches did not keep standardized records of their patients, he said.

"They were made up as they went," he said.

In some cases, patients came to the hospital unconscious and died before a doctor could confirm their names.

Records also are flawed because soldiers enlisted using fake names. Some were women disguising themselves as men. Others were trying to avoid bounty hunters.

The first casualty numbers from the war were reported in 1879, fourteen years after the war ended, Wunderlich said.

Around the turn of the century, researchers published an 18-volume set on Union casualties alone that reported different numbers from every federal government agency. Some were off by hundreds of thousands, he said.

Historians still are uncovering new records. Ninety boxes of never-before-reviewed information about the battle recently were found in a New York City library, Howard said.

"After 140 years, you'd think we'd know everything there is to know about it," he said.

Despite the uncertainty about the numbers - and the enormity of this year's Sept. 11 attacks - Antietam remains the single bloodiest day in American history.

As much as Wunderlich likes history, he says it's not important to determine the exact number of casualties at Antietam.

For historical purposes, one only needs a number accurate enough to compare with casualties of other conflicts, he said.

The World Trade Center is different because there are survivors who desperately need to find out what happened to their loved ones.

"Now, all of a sudden, it's not a historical event anymore. Your friend is in that rubble somewhere and you want to know beyond a shadow of a doubt. We have a much more important stake," he said.

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