[Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn, guest-blogging, January 13, 2009 at 1:10am] Trackbacks
The Nobel Laureate Robert Fogel’s Union Army Sample

In our new Princeton University Press book, Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War, we examine the war experience for Union Army soldiers during the U.S Civil War. The meat of the book is based on a statistical analysis of a unique data base. In this post, we would like to provide some details about this data base.

Our book would not have been possible without a monumental data collection effort that first began in 1981, led by Robert Fogel, the 1993 Nobel Laureate in Economics. How do you construct a longitudinal dataset from disparate sources and from the free-form letters, affidavits, and other documents that constitute a soldier’s record in the National Archives? The data are publicly available here.

Beginning with one list of white volunteer units and one list of U.S. Colored Infantry Units, both sorted in random order, inputters collected basic descriptive information from the “Regimental Books” in the National Archives on all of the enlisted men in a company until the two samples consisted of roughly 1.6 percent of all whites (almost 6,000 men) and 1.6 percent of all blacks (almost 6,000 men) mustered into the Union Army. The men were then linked to their army records, stored in the National Archives. These records consist of compiled military service records and of cards containing medical records and vital statistics.

For example, John Nelson Cumbash of Company F, First Regiment USCI has a compiled military service record that consists of one company descriptive book card, one company muster-in roll card, fifteen company muster roll cards, one detachment muster-out roll card, and one company muster-out roll card. He has eight medical records cards. These record his enlistment, his promotion to sergeant and then his demotion, his absence on recruiting services, his hospitalizations for fever, exposure to cold, and chronic rheumatism, and his final muster-out. Linkage to the pension records (which constitute one of the most significant sources of health information on past populations) allows us to follow men until their deaths. John Nelson Cumbash’s pension file is roughly three-quarters of an inch thick. Beginning in 1887 he filed four unsuccessful pension applications until he received a pension in 1897 which he collected until his death from pneumonia in 1901. His widow Mary filed for a widow’s pension and much of the pension record details the investigation of her claim. Her claim was denied because she had not divorced her first husband before marrying John. Finally, linkage to pre- and post-war censuses provide snapshots of the soldier’s family and occupation at fixed points in time. From John Cumbash’s 1870 census record we learn that he was a waiter in a hotel, that his wife Sarah (his first wife) took in washing, and that he had two boys.

By randomly selecting Union War Companies and then conducting a 100% sample of all 100 men within each War Company, the Fogel data allows us to recreate each soldier’s 24 hour a day live and work community. Back then, there were no televisions or Internet or cars, your fellow soldiers were your world. Some soldiers fought in homogenous companies while others fought in diverse companies.

ChrisIowa (btw, did we mention that Iowa had few deserters?) asked us, “Why was there diversity in companies?” All regiments were formed locally. We examined Civil War diaries and letters to identify six sources of diversity within companies. The volunteer infantry regiments consisted of 10 companies, each containing roughly 100 men, commanded by a captain and two lieutenants, who were often volunteer officers drawn from state militias, men of political significance, or other prominent men in the community. At the beginning of the war, men would enlist with one or several friends but rarely with fifty. Once companies were full, they would take no more men, and friends would need to find another company or regiment. Men's eagerness to get to the front led them to pick regiments thought to be departing soon. And they quickly left regiments that were late in departing, even enlisting in the regiment of another state. Later in the war, when the new recruits were not so eager, men might enlist in a distant town to receive a large bounty, adding to company diversity.

Although a company was generally not replenished with new men when disease, military casualties, and desertions whittled down its numbers, some states added new recruits to existing regiments and regiments whose members' three year terms were up were reconstituted with veterans and new men. Finally, the need to travel to recruiting stations increased company diversity. Farmers and farmers' sons had to travel to town to enlist. Small towns could not raise an entire company, so their men would enlist elsewhere and do so only with a few friends. Commissioned officers were responsible for finding their own men and often had to scour the entire state to fill their regiments.

Statements in soldiers' diaries and letters indicate that they were thrown together with strangers. Amos Stearns, who enlisted with five of his friends, lamented ``Life in the army was very different from life at home. In one place we could choose our companions and those we wished to associate with, but in the army how different'' (Kent 1976: 214-5). One soldier wrote home, ``We have a remarkable civil and Religious company. . . . i think it is a providencial circumstance that I enlisted in this company for I hear that there is desperate wickedness in very regiments i came so near enlisting in'' (letter of David Close, Nov. 4, 1862, 126th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Company D.

From today’s vantage point, the Fogel data set is extraordinary. Concern about identity theft and insurance companies using confidential information to cherry-pick healthy and low-risk patients would make it extremely difficult to build a similar dataset today. A researcher attempting to build an analogous data set for Vietnam veterans would need to obtain the consent of each man. But the types of individuals willing to grant permission would probably not be a random sample of the population. And, despite the well-publicized stories of men buying their way out of the draft, the white sample is representative of the Northern population of military age in terms of wealth and literacy rates. Only in World War II were service rates higher.

In our next two posts, we will discuss the key findings and hypotheses we tested using the military data base. Today a historian has reviewed our book in the Wall Street Journal.