Death Tolls for the Man-made Megadeaths of the 20th Century
Worst American This or That
American War Dead:
When American fatalities in Iraq passed a thousand on 7 Sept. 2004, there was the inevitable comparison of this with other wars. The news media generally drew their numbers from the Departments of Defense
and Veterans Affairs, but I have some small disagreements with those. Among them:
- The US government ignores the Philippine War.
- The total given by the VA for the Indian Wars ("1,000") seems to be a wild guess. Just two major defeats -- Custer's and St. Clair's -- add up to about 900 dead all by themselves.
- The official number of Americans killed in the Revolutionary War (4,435) is only about 2/3 the numbers usually given by historians.
- The total of US combat deaths during the Civil War is given as 140,414 -- or some 30,000 higher than most historians would estimate. I suspect (but don't know for sure) that the boost may come from the DoD counting deaths among POWs as combat rather than disease. I can't think of where else they'd get 30,000 more war dead.
- The VA accepts without comment the very incomplete statistics of Confederate War dead -- 74,524.
- The upshot of these unusual Civil War estimates is that it appears that the ratio of Union to Confederate killed was 2:1, rather than the more widely accepted 55:45. This distorts our understanding of the nature of the Civil War, and it perpetuates the idea that the North won through sheer brute numbers -- which may or may not be true, but you should at least use reliable numbers to determine this.
With that in mind, I decided to make my own list (although I doubt that anyone is going to accept my numbers over the VA's)
FN1: American -- "American" is not as clearly definable as you'd think. Obviously, anyone fighting under the authority of the US government counts, but should we include the Confederates? And if the Confederates count, shouldn't the Tories and Texans? Once this happens, we've shifted from a legal definition of American to an ethnic definition, and we have to be fair about including situations where substantial numbers of ethnic Americans fought and died outside the legal structure of the US government. I've italicized those.
FN3: Legal Authority - The main reason I've bothered with this category is that people sometimes try to trim the list of American wars by arbitrarily deciding that some are more "official" than others, and therefore Russia, for example, wouldn't count. My point here is that, yes, there are legal differences between wars, but that you shouldn't include some undeclared wars (e.g. Gulf War) while ignoring others (e.g. Lebanon). Although only a handful of American wars have been launched by a formal diplomatic declaration of war, all have had at least the tacit support of Congress. Some have seen specific resolutions authorizing the Executive Branch to use force as it sees fit. Sometimes Americans have fought under governments established by revolution, which is a legal can of worms.
FN4: Indian Wars - for now, I'm lumping all these together, but ideally, each should be counted separately. For details and sources, see below.
FN5: War Names - I've tried to avoid the cute, designer names that have been attached to some of these wars, like Desert Storm and the Polar Bear Expedition, in favor of more descriptive names.
FN6: War against Terrorism - Deaths in "Operation Enduring Freedom" (Defense Link) outside the Afghanistan, plus the 22 soldiers and 33 sailors killed at the Pentagon, Sept. 11, 2001 (CNN
). It doesn't include the civilians killed on 9/11.
Bloodiest War in American History:
Not the Civil War -- World War Two.
Although more American died in the Civil War, more Americans were killed in WW2. It's a pedantic technicality perhaps, but the Civil War was America's deadliest war, World War II its bloodiest.
US Army deaths in Indian Wars
The official statistics of US deaths from the US Government seem to cover only the later years and are based on these sources:
Sources which I am using for my recalculation:
- US Army CMH: Named Campaigns - Indian Wars
- Encyclopedia of North American Indians
- Chronological List of Actions, &C., with Indians From January 15, 1837 to January, 1891 (as summarized above)
- Clodfelter, Warfare and Armed Conflict
American Civilians Killed by War
Deadliest Wars in the Western Hemisphere:
- Mexican Revolution (1910-20): 1,000,000 dead
- War of the Triple Alliance (Paraguay: 1864-70): 800,000
- American Civil War (USA: 1861-65): 650,000
- Mexican War of Independence (1810-21): 500,000
- Haitian Revolt (1791-1803): 350,000
- Cuban Revolution (1895-98): 300,000
Bloodiest Battle in the Western Hemisphere:
That would probably be the Battle of Celaya, 1915, in the Mexican Revolution, in which some 10,000 died. That beats the 7,000 killed at Gettysburg (see below). On the other hand, the Spanish Conquest of Tenochtitlan in 1520 is said to have killed 100,000-200,000 Aztecs in battle so, if true (big if), that would take the title.
Bloodiest Battle in American History:
That depends. You probably mean the most Americans killed in a single battle, which would be the 26,277 killed in the Battle of Meuse-Argonne. But the "bloodiest battle in US history" could also mean the most people of all nationalities killed in a battle involving a major commitment of American troops, which would be the 150,000 Americans and Japanese killed at Okinawa. Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, is usually claimed to have killed 3,155 Union and 3,903 Confederate troops, for a total of 7,058.
Deadliest Days in American History:
- Sept. 8-9, 1900, Galveston Hurricane [Deadliest 24 hours in US history: 8,000]
- Sept. 17, 1862, Battle of Antietam [Bloodiest calendar day on American soil, probably 4,300 killed that day.]
- Livermore, Numbers and Losses in the Civil War: 2,108 US + 2,700 CS [= 4,808]
- KIA: 2100 USA + 1550 CSA = 3,650 killed in action on both sides.
- Perhaps 4,000 died of wounds later [1,910 USA + 1550 CSA], or were dead but counted as missing [225 USA + 306 CSA], giving perhaps 7,650 who died as a result of the battle, but not necessarily on that single day.
- McClellan's after action report
- USA: 2,010 KIA
- CSA: ca. 3,000 bodies buried by Union after battle + ca. 500 bodies buried by CSA before retreat.
- [TOTAL: 5,510]
- Houston Chronicle, 10 Sept. 2002 review of James McPherson's Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam.
- USA: 2,300
- CSA: 2,000
- Later died of wounds: 2,000
- TOTAL: 6,300-6,500 k. or mort.w.
- September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks: 2,992, incl. foreign nationals and hijackers, at all 3 sites.
Wikipedia: 2738 US citizens + 235 non-Americans + 19 hijackers.
- April 18-21, 1906, San Francisco Earthquake and Fire: 2,500+ on the day of the earthquake.
- USGS: >3,000
- A report of U.S. Army relief operations (Greely, 1906) recorded
- 498 deaths in San Francisco
- 64 deaths in Santa Rosa
- 102 deaths in and near San Jose
- [Total: 664]
- A 1972 NOAA report suggested that 700-800 was a reasonable figure.
- Gladys Hansen and Emmet Condon (1989), estimated that over 3000 deaths were caused directly or indirectly by the catastrophe.
- Berkeley Seismological Lab: >3,000
- [Question: How many of these 3000 died on the first day, in the SF earthquake, rather than the fire? The 1871 Chicago fire killed 250, so even assuming twice that many died in the SF fire, that leaves 2,500 dead in the earthquake.]
- September 16, 1928, Lake Okeechobee Hurricane: 2,500
- Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor: 2,403
- May 3, 1863, Battle of Chancellorsville, busiest day of the battle: 2,358
- Some guy on Internet (Allan Goodall)
- "May 3 had been terribly bloody, second only to Antietam. The two armies combined had taken 21,357 casualties"
- In the whole battle (May 1-3), 17,304 Union casualties and 13,460 Confed casualties, incl. 1,724 CS dead and 1,694 US dead.
- [Total: 30764 casualties, of which 69% on 5/3.]
- [Total: 3418 killed, of which ? 2358 on 5/3]
- Livermore, Numbers and Losses in the Civil War: 1,575 US + 1,665 CS [= 3,240 on May 1-4, which come to an average of 810 per day.]
- July 1- 3, 1863, Battle of Gettysburg, per day 2,353±
- Livermore, Numbers and Losses in the Civil War: 3,155 US + 3,903 CS [= 7,058. Dividing by 3 yields an average of 2,353/day.]
- G'burg Resource Ctr: 1,125 Rebs k. in Pickett's charge, July 3.
- Military history online: for 3-day battle, 3155 US KIA + 2600-4500 CS KIA [=5755-7655 KIA Total; 1/3 of that is an average of 1918-2552 KIA on any given day]
- May 31, 1889, Johnstown Flood: 2,209
- Sept 19-20, 1863, Battle of Chickamauga: per day 1,984±
Livermore, Numbers and Losses in the Civil War: 1,657 US + 2,312 CS [= 3,969 or an average of 1,984 per day.]
- Nov. 30, 1864, Battle of Franklin: 1,939 [2nd bloodiest single-day battle of the Civil War.]
Livermore, Numbers and Losses in the Civil War: 189 US + 1750 CS [= 1,939]
- Dec. 13, 1862, Battle of Fredericksburg: 1,879
Livermore, Numbers and Losses in the Civil War: 1,284 US + 595 CS [= 1,879]
- April 27, 1865, wreck of the Sultana: 1,547
- Aug 27-28, 1893, Sea Islands Hurricane: 1,500±
- Dec. 31, 1862-Jan. 1, 1863, Battle of Murfreesboro: per day 1,485±
Livermore, Numbers and Losses in the Civil War: 1,677 US + 1,294 CS [= 2,971 or an average of 1,485 per day.]
- June 6, 1944, D-Day: 1,465
- D-Day Museum: 1,465 Americans killed (also 3184 wounded, 1928 missing and 26 captured, for a total of 6,603 lost)
- CNN: 6,603 Americans killed. [They've confused "casualties" with "killed."]
- Oct. 8, 1862, Battle of Perryville: 1,355
Livermore, Numbers and Losses in the Civil War: 845 US + 510 CS [= 1,355]
- June 3, 1864, Battle of Cold Harbor: 1,200
- Bonekemper, A Victor, Not a Butcher, estimates that Grant lost a total of 6,000-6,500 men on 3 June. [p.186] Most other sources (Catton, Freeman, et al.) estimate 7,000 US lost that day [p.310-311]. Fuller est. 1,100 US KIA that day. Confed. losses that day are estimated at 1,200-1,500 (Freeman), 1,300 (Fuller), <1,500 (Catton).
- [Calculation: Fox, Regimental Losses, says that 1,844 US troops were killed out of a total of 12,737 lost in the 13-day battle. That's 14.5%. Taking 14.5% of 7,000 + 1,300 gives 1,015 US and 188 CS KIA 6/3.]
- June 15, 1904, wreck of the General Slocum: 1,021
- November 18, 1978, Jonestown, Guyana, mass suicide/murder: 913 [primarily Americans]
- Oct. 1-2, 1893, Cheniere Caminada Hurricane: 900 in the first 24 hours
Worst Disasters in American History:
(See above for sources, unless otherwise noted)
- 1980 Heat Wave (June-Sept. 1980): 10,000-15,000
- August 16, 1988 AP: "later calculated to have led to 15,000 more deaths than would have been expected in a normal summer"
- 16 Oct. 1980 Associated Press & 7 Nov. 1980 Facts on File World News Digest: NOAA reported direct death toll of 1,265 deaths.
- NCDC: 10,000 d.
- Galveston Hurricane (Sept. 8-9, 1900): 8,000-12,000
- 1901 Heat Wave: 9,508
November 7, 1980 Facts on File World News Digest: 9,508
- 1988 Drought/Heat Wave: 5,000-10,000
- 1936 Heat Wave : 4,678
16 Oct. 1980 Associated Press & 7 Nov. 1980 Facts on File World News Digest: 4,678
- Hurricane Katrina (August 29, 2005 and in subsequent flooding): 2,500 to 4,400
- 22 Nov 2005 USA Today: 6,644 people still missing after Katrina. "Those counting the victims are particularly concerned about an estimated 1,300 unaccounted-for people who lived in areas that were heavily damaged by Katrina, or who were disabled at the time the storm hit." Official death toll: 1,306 -- including 301 unidentified.
- January 19, 2006 CNN: More than 3,200 people are officially still unaccounted for.
- Feb 6, 2006 Newsweek: about 2,500 people remain missing and the trail is going cold. About 100 unidentified bodies left.
- Aug. 31, 2010, Houston Chronicle: 1,464 dead and 135 missing (Direct storm casualties reported by Louisiana in 2007)
- [Estimate = 1,300 official + 1,300 to 3,200 missing -100 unidentified probably counted among both the dead and the missing = 2,500 to 4,400 = ca. 3,500 if you split the difference.]
- San Francisco Earthquake (April 18-21, 1906): 3,000
- Lake Okeechobee Hurricane (September 16, 1928): 2,500-3,000
- Johnstown Flood (May 31, 1889): 2,209
- 1975 Heat Wave (July 31-Aug. 3, 1975): 1,500-2,000
July 9, 1986 AP: 1,500-2,000
- Sultana (April 27, 1865): 1,547
- Sea Islands Hurricane (Aug 27-28, 1893): 1,000-2,000
- 1952 Heat Wave: 1,401
16 Oct. 1980 Associated Press & 7 Nov. 1980 Facts on File World News Digest: 1,401
- General Slocum (June 15, 1904): 1,021
Last updated December 2010