Fact Check

Only 6,800 American Soldiers Died in Battle in the Revolutionary War?

An estimated 25,324 soldiers died during the eight years of the U.S. war for independence, but many of those deaths were from illness.

Published Feb. 24, 2024

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Claim:
Only 6,800 American soldiers died in battle throughout the eight years of the Revolutionary War.
Context

There isn't enough evidence for historians to say precisely how many Americans died on the battlefield during the Revolutionary War, but 6,800, the number cited in a study published in 1974, is the most carefully calculated and widely used estimate today.

Over the roughly eight years of the American Revolutionary War, during which the colonies broke from Great Britain and formed the United States, many thousands perished on both the British and American sides. However, the actual number of battlefield deaths may come as a shock, given that more than 25,000 American soldiers are estimated to have died in total throughout the war.

On Feb. 1, 2024, a post on Reddit claiming that "only 6,800 Americans were killed in action over the course of the entire 8 years of the Revolutionary War" gained traction, with more than 19,000 upvotes and 1,300 comments.

TIL only 6,800 Americans were killed in action over the course of the entire 8 years of the Revolutionary War
byu/rtkane intodayilearned

This claim, which has circulated for many years, is true, based on the most thorough research available. According to the 1974 book "The Toll of Independence" by historian Howard H. Peckham, approximately 6,824 American battle deaths occurred between 1775 and 1783. These killings took place across 1,331 military engagements and 215 naval engagements.

(Image via "Toll of Independence" by Howard H. Peckham K: Killed, W: Wounded, C: Captured, M: Missing, D: Deserted)

The research for this book — which contains what is widely regarded as the most accurate accounting of the war's death toll, according to the History channel and other sources — spans data from all 13 colonies. An excerpt from the introduction explaining the research process behind the above numbers is as follows:

Each of the original thirteen states has made an effort, with varying success, to collect and preserve its records of the Revolutionary War. Such records may be in the form of archives in public depositories, private manuscripts in historical societies, publications by the state or by a historical society, or carefully researched monographs on battles or regiments, or biographies. With a grant from Lilly Endowment, Inc., we were enabled to orchestrate a vast search of eastern state archives and libraries and the National Archives. To each state we assigned a graduate student in history recommended by a university there, and we asked the student to confine his or her investigation to engagements and attendant casualties in that state.

"The Toll of Independence" estimates that 25,324 "deaths in service" occurred throughout the Revolutionary War, so readers may be wondering: If it wasn't on the battlefield, how did those additional 18,500 deaths occur?

Mary Koik, director of communications at the American Battlefield Trust, wrote via email: "The number of those who succumbed to disease — and especially those who died in horrible conditions aboard prison ships — is also notable."

In an age of relatively primitive scientific and medical knowledge, the highest numbers of those who died fell victim to the rampant diseases and deadly infections that spread through military camps and prisons; approximately 10,000 American service members died "in camp" and an additional 8,500 died while prisoners of the British forces. 

The American Battlefield Trust expands on the deaths of prisoners of war as follows:

More Patriots' lives were lost aboard British prison ships anchored along New York's East River than in battle – between 8,000 - 12,000 died while prisoners of war versus the approximate 6,800 killed in battle. Lost souls included not only American soldiers and sailors, but citizens who opposed the British Crown. Overcrowded in the dark lower decks of the ships, prisoners roasted in sizzling temperatures, drank brackish water supplied through the sides of the ship, starved, and quarreled with vermin, lice, impending madness, dehydration, and contagious disease. It is estimated at that least 6 lives were lost each day on a single prison ship.

Engraving depicting the HMS Jersey, a Royal Navy ship used as a prison vessel during the American Revolutionary War. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

There are also sources that claim only 4,435 American soldiers were killed in battle. Both the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs have long cited this lower number, but it is now generally considered to be inaccurate. We reached out to the Department of Veterans Affairs for information about how it was calculated and have not received a response. This story will be updated as necessary.

Peckham addressed the lower number in his research, saying:

For decades the Department of Defense has given out the figures 4,435 killed and 6,188 wounded in the Revolution, and these have been cited in The World Almanac repeatedly. The source for that total is the records of the Adjutant General's office as prepared at the Armed Forces Information School with the warning that the "total number undoubtedly is much larger." The killed figure was likely made up of 4,044 from the army and 184 from the navy and marines. Our totals … are much higher.

Although even 6,800 may seem to low a number for total combat deaths in the war, it's worth noting that the entire U.S. population was only 2.5 million in 1776, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"The armies were smaller than those of more modern conflicts and the population of the new nation was far smaller, so contemplating the scale/percentages is informative compared to solely the raw number," Koik wrote. 

In addition to the Americans killed during the war, approximately 24,000 British soldiers (according to what the American Battlefield Trust calls "unreliable imperial data") died from all causes. About 1,200 Hessian soldiers — professional German troops hired by the British — were killed in battle, around 6,400 died from disease and another 5,500 deserted and settled in America afterward, according to the Trust.

Sources

'American Revolution Facts'. American Battlefield Trust, 30 Mar. 2017, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/american-revolution-faqs.

America's Wars. The Department of Veterans Affairs, Nov. 2023, https://www.va.gov/opa/publications/factsheets/fs_americas_wars.pdf.

Bureau, US Census. 'Fun Facts: From Counties Named Liberty to $368.6M Worth of Fireworks Sold'. Census.Gov, https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2019/07/july-fourth-celebrating-243-years-of-independence.html. Accessed 20 Feb. 2024.

'Haunting Encounters With Revolutionary Ghouls'. American Battlefield Trust, 20 Oct. 2020, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/head-tilting-history/haunting-encounters-revolutionary-ghouls.

'How Many Died in the Revolutionary War?' HISTORY, 12 Sept. 2023, https://www.history.com/news/revolutionary-war-deaths.

'Patriots Or Terrorists?' AMERICAN HERITAGE, https://www.americanheritage.com/patriots-or-terrorists. Accessed 19 Feb. 2024.

Peckham, Howard Henry. The Toll of Independence : Engagements & Battle Casualties of the American Revolution. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1974. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/tollofindependen0000peck.

'United States: War Fatalities1775-2024'. Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1009819/total-us-military-fatalities-in-american-wars-1775-present/. Accessed 19 Feb. 2024.

Taija PerryCook is a Seattle-based journalist who previously worked for the PNW news site Crosscut and the Jordan Times in Amman.

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