Book Review: Count the Dead: Coroners, Quants, and the Birth of Death as We Know It


by Stephen Berry

Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2022. Pp. viii, 140. Illus., graphic, notes, biblio., index. $17.95 paper. ISBN: 1469667525

Documentating Death

Aldous Huxley wrote, “The only completely consistent people are the dead”. In Count the Dead, Prof. Stephen Berry (Georgia) writes about death and data, or the dead as data. While not primarily of interest to military history, it offers some useful information for the military historian. Berry deals with a group that for much of history no one totaled, and seeks to find how the patterns of "impermanence" changed community health, documentation of peoples' passing, human rights, and more. He begins by noting that worldwide human life expectancy more than doubled between 1850 and 1950, from about 30 to over 60. In his introduction, he shows how economic growth and increased standards of living and social enhancements contributed to people living longer, but also medical advancements, from Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccine in 1796 through Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin in 1928. There follow three chapters.

In Count the Dead, the reader learns that the U.S. Census of 1850 was the first to attempt to gather information on deaths, sparking government interest in the matter. Berry argues that one factor in the population explosion was the involvement of government bureaucracy, on the local, state, and national levels, as officialdom, seeing the date, tried to figure out what people died from, and why, and what could be done about it, not only to help people, but also in part as a way of strengthening the nation.

“The Math of After”, considers the evolution of documentation of death, the collection, organization, and processing of information about the dead to see what can be learned about society. This had important results for the American way of war. Not until after the Civil War did the government systematically notify people of the deaths of their loved ones, nor was it not committed the returning the of their remains, a matter quite different today.

“The Power of a Name”, deals with patterns of death. That is, the ways in which people died and why. Berry argues that that throughout American history, people have not died equally, citing, for example, the many deadly injustices such as slavery or lynchings.

Berry concludes that throughout the nineteenth century, census marshals, casualty processors, statisticians, actuaries, registrars, social justice activists, and historians became better at providing a more accurate accounting of who was dying, where they were dying, when they died, and why. These bureaucrats connected these accounts to turn the collective dead into informants and in so doing permitted the dead to outline life and death as people identify in the present day.

This short but fascinating and often thought provoking work deals with a subject not normally written about, but will prove a book which, once read, some readers will want to linger over.


Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His previous reviews here include Stephen A. Swails, The Great ‘What Ifs’ of the American Civil War Chained to History, Grant vs. Lee: Favorite Stories and Fresh Perspectives from the Historians at Emerging Civil War, Spectacle of Grief, Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy, First Fallen: The Life of Colonel Ellsworth, Their Maryland, The Lion of Round Top, Rites of Retaliation, Animal Histories of the Civil War Era, Benjamin Franklin Butler, Dreams of Victory: General P. G. T. Beauregard, Bonds of War, Early Struggles for Vicksburg, True Blue, Civil War Witnesses and Their Books, Love and Duty, When Hell Came To Sharpsburg, Lost Causes, Six Miles From Charleston, Five Minutes to Hell, "If We Are Striking for Pennsylvania", James Montgomery: Abolitionist Warrior, Cedar Mountain to Antietam, and Lieutenant General James Longstreet




Note: Count the Dead, a volume in the UNC series "Steven and Janice Brose Lectures in the Civil War Era" is also available in hard cover and e-editions.

                                     StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs                          

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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