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Student Historians' Research Adds New
Understanding to Civil War History

RELEASED: Jan. 24, 2007

UW-Eau Claire student historians with Professor Robert Fogel
UW-Eau Claire student historians had the opportunity to meet with University of Chicago Professor Robert W. Fogel, the 1993 Nobel Prize winner in economics, during a trip to Chicago to present the results of their Civil War research. The research used data compiled by Fogel. Pictured from left to right with Fogel (far right) are students Jack Brooks, Nicholas Halter, Paul Huset, Joseph Carlson, Allen Ramsey and Adam Otto. (Contributed photo)

EAU CLAIRE — Student historians at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire have come up with some new theories why Confederate General Robert E. Lee was wrong when he advised against sending reinforcements to the Confederate garrison at Vicksburg in May 1863 in the American Civil War.

The students began the work in History 436, "Sectionalism, Civil War and Reconstruction," but did much of the work outside of the semester, said Dr. James Oberly, professor of history, who worked with them on the faculty-student collaborative research project using data compiled by University of Chicago Professor Robert W. Fogel, the 1993 Nobel Prize winner in Economics.

Oberly said Lee believed the Confederates would prevail at Vicksburg because he thought General U.S. Grant's Army of the Tennessee would succumb to disease and death in the Mississippi swamps. In fact, it was the Confederates who broke, which helped hasten subsequent Union victories and played a role in the outcome of the Civil War.

Oberly's students examined medical histories of Wisconsin Civil War soldiers as well as military records and books to form their hypotheses regarding illness rates and the effects of good (and bad) nutritional intake.

They met with Fogel and presented their findings to his colleagues at the Center for Population Economics at the University of Chicago on Jan. 19.

"They very much liked our work with their data," Oberly said. "They had valuable suggestions about some of our hypotheses and urged us to conduct more research to answer even more questions."

Senior history and English major Sarah Nienow of Hartland said the group used primary and secondary sources to create their presentation. They discussed in great detail the cause of malaria and why Lee believed that Union troops would not be able to withstand the great influx of the warm-weather disease. The conventional medical wisdom suggested that Southern soldiers were acclimated and would not suffer from typhoid fever, dysentery, yellow fever, scurvy, diarrhea, pneumonia and "inflammation of the liver."

"We then pulled together some information and data on the survival techniques of the Union troops," Nienow said. "We found that their food supply was greater than that of their enemies, and quinine was made part of their rations to help combat malaria."

The students looked closely at the diet of the Union soldiers obtained by what General Grant called "foraging" or what the Confederate plantation owners called plundering — confiscating food from local farms and plantations — which could have given the Union troops better nutrition.

"A large portion of our presentation covers statistics of the death and illness rates among the troops as well as food rations," Nienow said. "By using cross tabulations from Dr. Fogel's data, we were able to make accurate hypotheses regarding illness rates and the effects of good and poor nutritional intake."

Their project suggests that Gen. Lee was wrong because of four factors:

  • Grant's decision to split his army into two parts: the sick, left behind in Louisiana, and the healthy, who went to Vicksburg.
  • Grant's decision to feed his Army of the Tennessee from plantation stocks.
  • The seasonal fluctuations of malaria.
  • The recruiting class into the Union Army of 1862.

Nienow, who wants to go to graduate school to earn a doctorate in art history, said she was surprised to find differing statistics between their primary sources and one of their secondary sources, "Battle Cry of Freedom" by James McPherson. McPherson's numbers showed a deficit of about 8 percent of men in the tabulation as opposed to the concrete numbers the students pulled from primary documentation of Civil War men (the number of men was closer to one-third as opposed to McPherson's suggested one-quarter).

The students worked in pairs. Some researched statistics, others ran the cross tabulations and still others worked on the background information. As a class they worked on perfecting their skills using a program called SPSS, which allowed them to look at Fogel's data and calculate frequency tabulations, cross-tabulations, non-parametric statistical tests and categorical analysis of data.

"I think our team as a whole benefited immensely by working on our group skills, like communication and teamwork," Nienow said. "I think we got a taste of the real academic world and how much effort it takes to put together a large presentation."

The fact that a Nobel Prize winner was pleased to share his data with students and is open to learning new ideas from outsiders taught the students that research is collaborative, Oberly said.

"The students learned that they are capable of asking important questions and finding ways to come up with answers," Oberly said. "They also learned that research is ongoing and one proposed answer leads to more questions and more work."

The project will be submitted to the 2007 ICPSR Undergraduate Research Prize and to the UW System annual Undergraduate Research Day. Research support was provided by the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at UW-Eau Claire.

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JW/JB

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