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Inglorious Passages: Noncombat Deaths in the American Civil War, by Brian Steel Wills

Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2017. Pp. xii, 404. Illus., append., notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 0700625089.

How Most Civil War Soldiers Died

Following recent research finding that Civil War military deaths have been greatly under counted, apparently totaling more than 100,000 over the prior estimate of some 620,000, Prof. Wills (Kennesaw State) takes a critical look at another neglected aspect of mortality during the conflict, death from non-combat causes. Although Confederate records are rather spotty, Willis opens by pointing out that for both sides taken together, combat deaths amounted to perhaps a third of all deaths. He then sets out to explain how the other two-thirds perished.

Naturally disease was by far the biggest killer, causing most of the non-combat deaths, particularly early in the war as volunteers flocked to improvised training camps. Mostly men of rural origins – even most Northerners – the recruits usually lacked immunity to many commonplace diseases, and died in droves. Dysentery was apparently the biggest killer, acquired from bad food or water, but malaria and pneumonia were up there as well.

Wills also looks at other causes, which seem to have accounted for about a tenth of all deaths. Accidents ranged from drowning to weapons malfunction or misuse, lightning strikes, sun stroke, falls, even snake bites. And there were also some murders, suicides, deaths in duels, executions, and others.

Wills frequently uses often grim first-hand accounts to illustrate the ways in which soldiers – and some civilians – died. In this way, he manages to weave a very readable narrative about a topic that might otherwise be clinically bland.

A volume in the Kansas “Modern War Studies” series, Inglorious Passages is a very valuable contribution to the literature of the war, though the number of civilian deaths is still unknown.


Note: Inglorious Passages is also available as an eBook, ISBN 978-0-7006-2509-3, and in several proprietary e-editions


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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