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.
Ancestors 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."
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.
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