Teaching with Statistics: A Case Study

Teaching with Statistics: A Case Study

My great friend Kevin Lambert at California State University, Fullerton says, “Nothing is more humanistic than numbers.” They bring order and precision to our lives, offer definitive and powerful evidence for us, and determine outcomes and decisions on the most difficult and emotionally wrenching issues.

Although the work of historians is an evidence-based profession, most historians are reticent to use evidence from social sciences and sciences, especially statistics. In our quest to better understand the human condition, we draw theories from the fields of humanities, social sciences, and sciences, yet most of our evidence comes from the humanities. Too many historians are completely intimidated by numbers and refuse to embrace them, while others understandably find quantitative studies either tedious reading or insensitive to the joys, hardships, and brutality of the past. But the truth is that numbers and statistical evidence help to enrich and accentuate more humanistic evidence. The question is not only how historians can learn to embrace quantitative evidence, but also, how can we teach this to our students?

The goal in my recent article, “A Tale of Two Armies: The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac and Their Cultures,” published in the September 2016 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era, is to expose readers to the value of combining qualitative and quantitative evidence.[1] I have certainly utilized more conventional sources, such as personal letters, diaries, and official correspondence. More importantly, I use statistics based on a kind of random sample (technically, a stratified cluster sample) to explain how the culture of the Army of Northern Virginia played an important role in its defeat and how the culture of the Army of the Potomac lay at the heart of its success. On my university webpage I have placed simple-to-follow charts in a PDF that are based on the statistical studies from the article, and also some statistical charts from my book Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee, so that individuals may use them for instruction purposes.[2] The statistical charts not only provide interesting information about military service, but they also give background information on the soldiers who constituted these armies. Such statistics can be an engaging way to help students understand the experiences of common soldiers whose lives might otherwise remain closed to us, and to help them understand aggregate trends within each army.

There are some key themes uncovered in my research that can be used in the classroom to help students reconsider myths that no longer hold true. For instance, the statistical evidence indicates that nearly half of all soldiers in the two armies (taken from my sample of 1,400 total men) were not heads of households.[3]

Personal and Family Wealth. Available on the author’s website.

Still, soldiers in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia were on the whole wealthier than their peers, which may also challenge students’ previously held assumptions.[4] Although all economic classes were represented in the army, the clear evidence in Lee’s army was that it was not a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. Rather, it was a wealthy and disproportionately slaveholding army. Four of every nine soldiers in Lee’s army lived in a slaveholding household and three of eight owned slaves themselves, or their families (with whom they lived) did.

Slaveholding by Percent. Available on the author’s website.

Discussions of desertion in the classroom can also be augmented with hard data. Statistics suggest that wealthy soldiers were far less likely to desert than poor or middle-class troops. The hardships of war weighed heavier on the poor and middle class. While the poor were least likely to have bonds to the community and therefore were more likely to desert, middle-class soldiers had worked hard to achieve that status and had much to lose. They deserted in slightly greater percentages than the poor, which reveals their concerns over losing all they had earned. The fact that so many from the middle class abandoned the army for home also indicates that it had become socially tolerable for soldiers to desert and return home.

Desertion and Economic Class. Available on the author’s website.

An examination of occupations offers our students some great insights into the development of army culture and its influence in leading to Confederate collapse and Union triumph.[5] A majority of Confederate soldiers were farmers, and nineteen of twenty lived in rural areas. Families became the centerpiece of their lives. By contrast, the Army of the Potomac was heavily working class. Three of every five soldiers was a skilled or an unskilled worker, and another 10 percent were farm hands who owned nothing. Most lived in towns or cities, often worked in groups, and were accustomed to structure, discipline, consistency, and reliability. Three in every ten were immigrants, who had endured great hardship to enjoy the civil liberty and opportunities in the United States. Median wealth for men in Lee’s army was six and a half times greater than in the Army of the Potomac. Even though the men in the Army of the Potomac had suffered defeat after defeat, they had developed an esprit de corps. They blamed their leaders and not one another. Thus, when Ulysses S. Grant took over and they suffered staggering losses in the 1864 campaign, the troops endured it. They had lost huge numbers in defeat; at least with Grant they were winning.

In light of this new information, here are some questions that might encourage classroom discussion, when used in conjunction with either my article or the charts available online:

1. How does our perspective of the Civil War change when we take into consideration new data on the comparative wealth of the two armies?

2. What new questions might we ask about decision-making in Lee’s army with this new data on slaveholding patterns?

3. How might we use qualitative data to test these new findings on middle-class desertion?

4. What other myths about the Civil War might it be worthwhile testing with the quantitative techniques discussed here?

Traditional historical evidence and statistics feed each other. They provide fresh insights, amplify the strength of each other, and help to provide a fuller portrait of the Civil War.


[1] Joseph Glatthaar, “A Tale of Two Armies: The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac and Their Cultures,” Journal of the Civil War Era 6, no. 3 (September 2016): 315-46. An abstract is available at https://muse.jhu.edu/article/628863/summary; the entire article is available through subscription only.

[2] My website is http://history.unc.edu/people/faculty/joseph-t-glatthaar/joseph-glatthaar-resource-webpage/. Click on “A Tale of Two Armies” to access the PDF. See also Joseph Glatthaar, Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

[3] See both the “Personal Wealth” chart in the PDF and the “Personal and Family Wealth” chart that also appears in this blog post.

[4] See the “Economic Class, Southern States and the Army of Northern Virginia” chart on my website.

[5] See the chart titled “Desertion” on my website.

Joseph Glatthaar

Dr. Joseph T. Glatthaar is Stephenson Distinguished Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee (UNC Press, 2011) and General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse (The Free Press, 2008).

One Reply to “Teaching with Statistics: A Case Study”

  1. Many are ready to toss the current educational emphasis on what is called STEM or STEAM in the curriculum from K-12 on some mythical ash heap of school fads. I argue strongly, and this article makes my position much more sustainable. Numbers are humanistic indeed, and the Civil War has been the lucky recipient of their power. That the casualty list has been expanded by over 150,000 is only the title of the story. I am looking forward to reading this article and bringing it to the attention of both my colleagues in the Math department of Brownell Middle School, but to my colleagues in the Civil War community. Thank you for this important work.

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