RALEIGH — For more than a century, North Carolina clung to a pair of Civil War distinctions thought sacred: It sent the first Confederate killed in battle, and it sacrificed 40,275 men - the most in the South.
Only part of that may still be true.
On the 150th anniversary of the war's first shots, a new state study pulls together the scattered, error-riddled records of North Carolina's Civil War dead and shows the following:
A Virginia captain beat Pvt. Henry Lawson Wyatt, a 19-year-old from Tarboro, to the grave by nine days;
North Carolina's casualty list is actually closer to 32,000, possibly 35,000 if you count those still missing from the records and lumped into the "probable" category. Whether that's the highest is unclear;
The war killed about a quarter of the state's men of military age. More died of typhoid fever and chronic diarrhea than bullets. Some even died of spider bites and lightning strikes.
The point of the study isn't to debunk any points of pride, said Josh Howard, the study's author and a historian with the state Office of Archives and History. He started the study six years ago assuming the 40,275 figure was accurate.
"It's not that we're trying to destroy them," he said. "Every household in North Carolina lost somebody in the war, or at least knew somebody. We as North Carolinians owe it to them to get it right, to demonstrate the huge loss the state took."
In all likelihood, North Carolina still ranks first in fallen Confederates. If records in Raleigh are wrong, it's a good bet the rest of the Southern states have inaccurate counts, too. Second-place Virginia, also reviewing its count, is moving much closer to North Carolina in the number of dead.
Descendants and admirers of the dead aren't upset about the findings.
"It's always good to get it right," said John Huss of Raleigh, a local camp officer with the Sons of Confederate Veterans. "But we still might be first."
Praising the dead
Turning casualties into bragging rights may sound macabre by modern standards, but Howard's study illustrates how Southern states used the measurement of their dead as a yardstick showing who gave the most to the cause. At the end of the war, with so many dead, North Carolina needed a symbol.
Wyatt became a powerful one. Howard's study documents the portraits hung in the state library during the 1880s, and the collectible baseball-style cards that circulated with his likeness. Even today, his bronze statue appears on the Capitol lawn,rifle at the ready.
When Virginia protested that Capt. John Q. Marr had preceded Wyatt in death, North Carolinians disputed the claim by concluding that Marr had perished in a mere skirmish while Wyatt fell at the Battle of Big Bethel.
Similarly, the Capitol grounds monument to the Confederate dead facing Hillsborough Street boasts that North Carolinians were last to leave Appomattox.
"North Carolina has always been looking for ways to claim that it is unique and it is better," said Larry Tise, history professor at East Carolina University, "that it is first in so many things."
Howard's study takes it further: High fatalities didn't inflate the egos of Southern generals after the war; they boosted state pride.
"Sacrifice equated honor," he wrote.
But in the days after the war, as the federal government tried to tally the dead, they worked with Confederate records captured from fleeing officials, many of which were lost. Few of those counting had much enthusiasm for the job at the war's end, and the 40,000 became accepted truth .
Aided by Charles Purser of the Garner Sons of Confederate Veterans camp, who has long sought to publish the records for every North Carolina soldier online, Howard checked muster rolls, prison records and hospital records against census reports and land records. He checked after the war to see if those reported as casualties were truly dead.
For the first time, he gave credit to roughly 15,000 white and black soldiers from North Carolina who served on the Union side.
"We couldn't have done this 20 years ago," Purser said. "We put ours on the Microsoft Excel and we can sort it, look at it from different angles. If you look at it from an alphabetical listing, it's hard to see things. When you sort it by death date or capture date or counties, sometimes something will hit you in the eyes."
But both Howard and Purser admit the numbers will never be 100 percent accurate. Some men appear on prisoner of war rolls but show no signs of dying there or getting released. In the 1860s, it was easier to simply vanish from official record and stay invisible to the researcher's eye.
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