Was the American Civil War the First “Total War”?

“War is simply power unrestrained by constitution or compact.” With words like these General William Tecumseh Sherman helped secure himself and the American Civil War a place in the pantheon of modern conflicts. Few have become more closely associated with the notion of “total war,” and thanks to the horrors of twentieth century battle he has become an icon of modernity. Works on the topic are suffused with a sense of regret and dread, often coming on the heels of deadly conflicts. In The Destructive War, Charles Royster touched on the gloomy anticipation that pervades these histories with a 1934 quotation by James Truslow Adams: “What the horrors of the next war are to be, no one dares envisage.” Royster added, “It went without saying that the next war would be more modern than its predecessor.” Indeed, scholarship presumes that what is modern in war consumes ever more of society in the working out of conflict, and many have seen the Civil War as, at least, a prelude to the brutal progress seen in World War II, Vietnam and other struggles. Historians have described the Civil War as both a modern and a total war – modern for its use of technology, administrative efficiency, and public relations as tools of war, and total in its character as an all-consuming ideological crusade. Conflicts of vision may have driven people to bloodlust before, but scholarship suggests that the coincidence of technical capability and doctrinal warfare distinguished the Civil War.

People have turned to these questions of modernity and totality after new wars have further demonstrated the destructive capabilities of humankind. For example, a wave of books on total war rolled out during and after World War II: Fletcher Pratt’s America and Total War (1941), T. Harry Williams’s Lincoln and His Generals (1952), and Raymond Aron’s The Century of Total War (1955). Likewise, a new fascination with the Civil War as an antecedent gripped historians in the early 1970s, when the Vietnam War prompted scholars to trace the trail of napalm backwards through history. These years gave us James M. Merrill’s William Tecumseh Sherman (1971), John Bennett Walters’s anti-Sherman screed Merchant of Terror (1973), and James Reston Jr.’s Sherman’s March and Vietnam, a weepy travelogue that drew a straight line from the burning of Atlanta to Amerian depredations in Southeast Asia. A series of works on total war also appeared in the 1990s as America’s adventure in the Persian Gulf came and went, such as On the Road to Total War: The American Civil War and the German Wars for Unification, 1861-1871. The desire to uncover a root for the latest violent event underlies writing on total war, as if people wish to know why and when absolute annihilation became acceptable.

In the same spirit, one can ask: what gave rise to the profoundly destructive impulse that drove the Civil War to its conclusion? A few historians have confronted this question and suggested that total war was nothing new. Russell F. Weigley’s The American Way of War suggests that such an instinct had marked American military thinking and policy from the nation’s origin. The Civil War was far from the first modern or total conflict; in his view, the war began on more limited premises than most other American wars, which nearly always aimed at the absolute destruction of the enemy. He cited German thinker Carl Von Clausewitz’s distinction between two types of strategy – “those that seek the overthrow of the enemy, and those that seek merely to achieve some conquests on the frontiers of the enemy’s country” – and argued that the Revolution fixed Americans to the greater ambitions of the first. That a ragtag lot like George Washington’s army could remove the world’s biggest empire from the majority of a continent set the tone for things to come, and later conflicts with Native Americans reinforced the policy of total war. Weigley connected Yorktown to the atrocities of the American West, and the Civil War to American involvement in the world wars of the twentieth century: “The Civil War tended to fix the American image of conflict from the 1860s into America’s rise to world power at the turn of the century, and it also suggested that the complete overthrow of the enemy, the destruction of his military power, is the object of war.”

However, his Civil War began differently. Like other historians, Weigley observed that Lincoln changed his policy toward the South after the first two difficult years of war. Initially, the President sought to minimize bitterness by fighting a swift but restrained war, causing the least damage and thus giving Southerners as little cause for grudge and grievance as possible. Lincoln, Weigley emphasized, wished to avoid a “remorseless, revolutionary struggle,” which suggested an all-out attack aimed at the destruction of the enemy and the thorough remaking of his society. In this phase of the war, all of Lincoln’s intentions were limited: slavery would not be abolished, radical reform would not be attempted, and the South would be handled as lightly as possible.

The demands of civil war and invasion, however, turned Americans back toward the tendency of annihilation that The American Way of War discerns throughout the nation’s history. Weigley pointed out the Union’s essential difficulty: fighting an invasive war on somebody else’s turf, whose main hope was to wear the interlopers out. A restrained strategy could not achieve victory in such a circumstance and, given the Union’s superior resources, only a strategy of annihilation could overcome a war of attrition. The invaded country had to be properly invaded, crushed, and conquered, or else the Confederacy’s waiting game would win out in the end. The American Way of War shows Lincoln worrying aloud in 1862, “I never had a wish to touch the foundations of their society or any right of theirs… If they can conceive of anything worse than General Phelps within my power, would they not better be looking out for it?” The Emancipation Proclamation soon followed as a means of crippling the foundations Lincoln mentioned. Weigley described the Proclamation as both national policy and military strategy, “an instrument designed to deprive the South of the black labor supply which enabled the Confederacy to maintain the industry and agriculture of war and to build fortifications while still retaining an extraordinary proportion of its white population in the front lines.” The war took on more the character of a crusade: abolition became a war aim and the material bases of Southern society became legitimate targets for the steamrolling power of Grant and Sherman.

In the search for precedent, Archer Jones has been the most dismissive of the Civil War’s destructive novelty. His Civil War Command and Strategy sets Union and Confederate tactics alongside earlier instances of rampant and thorough destruction, insisting that warmakers targeted civilians and economic infrastructure long before the 1860s. How, he asked, was Sherman’s March more malevolent than Irish tactics of barn burning and stealing livestock, England’s use of starvation against Ireland, or Oliver Cromwell’s murder of the entire town of Drogheda? Nor did Jones accept that the Civil War more fully engaged the people through mass conscription, pitting whole populations against each other. “Some commentators have characterized the Civil War as total and modern because of the use of conscription to sustain the armies,” Jones wrote, “but this did not result in having much more than 3 percent of the population under arms, about the same proportion as in eighteenth-century Europe, which also used various forms of compulsory service.” The destructiveness of the Civil War, then, shared more with conflicts of preceding centuries than with twentieth century wars. “In spite of the malevolence and viciousness of some of its guerilla warfare,” Jones argued, “the Civil War was hardly more total than many others in the past in which invaders encountered or provoked popular resistance.”

For Jones, what does distinguish the Civil War is the application of old tactics to new circumstances. Both Confederate guerilla fighting and Sherman’s scorched earth approach may have their historical antecedents, but an assault on infrastructure took on new meaning when the targets were new. In other words, raids may have been used for ages, but raiding railroads and other networks for communication and transportation represented a striking departure. “Displaying an ability to apply elements of older strategy,” Jones wrote, “they gave an innovative primacy to the logistical raid so as to take advantage of the vulnerability of the new base-dependent, railroad supply system.” The modernity of the war lay in its technological character, which made even the most timeless tactics novel in nature. An attack on a convoy of wagons would qualify as an earlier example of targeting communication lines, Jones suggested, but a novel situation emerged when the railroad – a distinctly inflexible and vulnerable system – became the focus of a raiding strategy.

Many historians have agreed on the role of technology in modernizing war, especially where transportation and communications are concerned. “Undoubtedly, the railroad was the transforming innovation of the two wars,” Carl Degler observed, comparing the American Civil War to the German Wars of Unification. “Railroads made feasible the mobilization of the enormous armies that distinguished the great battles of the Civil War and those of Koniggratz and Sedan.” Elsewhere in On the Road to Total War, Earl J. Hess complicated the picture of a technologically modern fratricide, arguing that participants saw little benefit from the new products of science. Food production and medical capabilities, for example, remained woefully underdeveloped – Hess acknowledged Federal experiments with processed foods like condensed milk but emphasized how little these half-starts improved soldiers’ quality of life. He concurred with Degler, Jones and others on the importance of the railroad, noting that “the United States had more railroad mileage than any other nation in the world, and rapid, cross-country communication via telegraph was a fact of national life.”

However, Hess highlighted the limitations of these new technologies as well. “Railroad tracks often did not extend to areas that armies needed to occupy… Modern transportation facilities offered little help on the battlefield, except in rare cases; soldiers still had to maneuver to the battlefield and move around it by marching,” he wrote. The internal combustion engine was on its way, but did not arrive soon enough to make a difference in life on the ground. In Hess’s view, technology made enough of a difference in the Civil War to distinguish it from earlier conflicts, but not enough to enhance the experience of combatants. He attributed this unevenness to the United States’ partially industrialized character in the 1860s. The fruits of technology were few but significant. Hess’s argument works on the curious premise that progress in the science of war should make life better for those involved. As other histories attest, modernity could mean greater misery for civilian and combatant alike, as suffering sometimes advanced in lockstep with progress.

Such an evolution could involve the administration of war as much as its technological toolkit. For instance, T. Harry Williams also portrayed the Civil War as a clash between tradition and modernity, but turned from the focus from material resources to matters of technique and organization. He argued against the notion that the North won because it had more people and greater industrial assets – the so-called “overwhelming manpower and resources thesis.” Williams’s modernity was not economic development so much as the ability to use it. He showed how Abraham Lincoln struggled with less than competent generals, like George McClellan and John C. Fremont, in the first three years of the war. The opening pages of Lincoln and His Generals detail the pitiful condition of the United States’ military infrastructure at the start of the war – few good leaders with experience, few soldiers, practically no way of collecting and coordinating useful information for strategizing, and little notion of how to organize and administer an efficient military force. “During the first three years of the war, Lincoln performed many of the functions that in a modern command system would be given to the chief of the general staff or to the joint chiefs of staff,” according to Williams. “He formulated policy, drew up strategic plans, and even devised and directed tactical movements.”

Organization, rather than economic development, was the key to military modernity. In Williams’s view, the North could not make much of its advantages of population and industrialization until a “modern command system” came into place in 1863-4. “The arrangement of commander in chief, general in chief, and chief of staff gave the United States a modern system of command for a modern war,” Williams wrote. This was a new, more efficient structure for administration and handling information. The general could focus on military strategy without keeping up with the details himself, as summed up in one of Lincoln’s famous expressions: “Those not skinning can hold a leg.” Grant understood that the objective must be total war – the complete destruction of the enemy army – and thought in grander strategic terms than Lee, although Williams credits Grant’s “global thinking” partly to the greater resources available to the Union Army. “Lee looked to the past as the Confederacy did in spirit,” Williams wrote, casting the Southern power as premodern. “What was realism to Grant was barbarism to Lee.”

An efficient bureaucracy was not the only element of modern warmaking explored in Lincoln and His Generals, for Williams argued that the federal government utilized public relations in the Civil War like never before. “Hardly ever is war purely military, especially in a democracy where it is dependent on the resolution of the people to support and fight it,” Williams wrote. Lincoln recognized that material gains were not enough, and that mass opinion must be carefully tended on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. The federal capture of Atlanta helped revive flagging public support in the North, while Sherman’s general rampage through the South worked parallel damage on the Southern psyche. The move helped cripple Southern society, but it also contributed politically to the war’s completion – aiding Lincoln’s reelection and weakening the Confederates’ resolve even further. Military strategy might take advantage of contemporary conditions by targeting the technological infrastructure of society, but modern war required an analogous assault on the psychological foundation for war.

Williams made an implicit correlation of the Civil War with World War II, and with the New Deal more generally. Historians have noted that during the 1930s and 1940s a new, bureaucratic state with more centralized authority came into being to deal with the vicissitudes of a modern, industrial economy and international politics. World War II was an extension of this same drive on a global scale and a life-and-death plane. The “organization thesis” about the New Deal can be read backwards into Williams’s Civil War. Also, he highlighted the importance of morale politics and public relations in the winning of war, a theme shared with World War II. Words like “perfect,” “prudent,” “proper” and “greatest” often hang around Lincoln’s name. Williams’s Lincoln not only had the political skill to handle people well but could also think in comprehensive, “global” terms that conceived even of a great victory as a piece of a bigger puzzle. The ghost of Franklin Roosevelt, idolized president and successful war leader, moves through the background of the book, written as it was in 1952.

Allusions to World War II may be unnecessary, as American governments have regularly employed propaganda to mobilize support for military action and demonize foreign foes, Spanish, German and Japanese alike. However, treatments of the Civil War indicate a special need not only to use propaganda to support action but also to use action itself to prop up public opinion – unsurprising, perhaps, in a war that was longer, bloodier and far more difficult to manage politically than any other in the experience of nineteenth century Americans. Archer Jones went further than Williams by suggesting that Sherman’s march was as motivated by politics and psychology as by practical utility, if not more so. “The Union raids, particularly Sherman’s, contributed to victory primarily by their political rather than their military impact,” Jones wrote. He also suggested that Ulysses S. Grant’s raids of 1864 succeeded on emotional grounds where they may have failed on military ones: “The intimidation engendered by his raids and their psychological effect as symbols of defeat… made a powerful contribution to inducing the South to give up its quest for independence before Grant’s strategy could have its decisive military effect.” Charles Royster echoed this analysis of the Grant raids, quoting the general’s own explanation for the strategy. “Grant portrayed his 1864 campaign as more than a calculable trading of lives; it was an assault on a state of mind,” Royster wrote, “’a morale’ arising from Confederates’ belief that the Army of Northern Virginia could win independence by a skillful, courageous defense.”

One wonders how a historian can easily sort out “political” and “military” consequences in a war. When is action taken that does not consider morale and opinion? Does the term “military” refer only to material facts and figures? Scholars’ emphasis on aspects of war like administration and public relations suggests that, if such a definition ever applied, it belonged to a different era than the American Civil War. This interpretation goes beyond Carl Von Clausewitz’s dictum, “War is politics by other means,” which is so ubiquitous in military history texts and studies of the Civil War in particular. War may have been just another rendition of politics, but in the time of Clausewitz and Sherman the politics had changed. A common implication about political culture runs through these various accounts: that wars fought by democracies with industrial economies are especially sensitive to the political dynamics of military strategy. Taking a longer look at the history of war, combatants and civilians can help provide context on these broad changes, which Richard Hartigan provided in his study The Forgotten Victim.

Hartigan found plenty of evidence of indiscriminate destruction from ancient Assyria to recent times, but his work traced the idea of “innocents” or “noncombatants” through the development of Western civilization. Special consideration for the “civilian,” he argued, first emerged in the sixteenth and seventeeth century when Hugo Grotius and others laid the foundation for international law. A fortunate interlude followed for most people off the battlefield. “Europe was to enjoy for more than two centuries a period that, if not entirely peaceful, was at least marked by a sophistication of treatment toward the noncombatant that had rarely if ever been evidenced,” Hartigan wrote. “Even the dynastic upheaval of the Napoleonic Era could not disrupt the steady progress made in shielding the civilian from the worst ravages of warfare.” However, whatever progress the innocent bystander had made was soon erased by revolutions that engaged masses of people in political conflicts. Hartigan associated modernity with the democratic transformation of the eighteenth century rather than the industrial revolution of the nineteenth. When this new political culture met industrial technology, truly terrifying and thorough destruction resulted, but the root could be found in transformations that swept whole populations into ideological contests. “The ‘Atlantic Revolution’ not only brought about the more or less successful quest for participation of the citizens in the political process within their state,” Hartigan argued. “It also led to tremendous wars in which those citizens took immediate part in order to defend their political aspirations.”

The Forgotten Victim links the resurgence of all-consuming conflict to the ideologizing of war. Gone were jockeying moments like America’s war with Mexico or the tit-for-tat of European power struggles, and in their place appeared war-with-an-idea, in which one worldview seeks to exterminate and replace another. Hartigan proposed a sequence of totalizing conflicts, stretching from the eighteenth century to the present: France’s democratic revolution pitted against the old order, Northern industrialism attacking Southern slave society, and American capitalism versus world communism. “The self-confidence of ideology has remained constant since man became ideologic,” Hartigan wrote. The French Revolution’s idea of democracy heralded both the absolute destruction of both the ancien regime and the political framework in Europe that had shielded most civilians from harm. “With the French Revolution came conscription, a return to the armed horde, the levee en masse, in the eyes of more than one commentator, a return to the total warfare of primitive times,” he wrote.

Hartigan’s analysis ties together several strands from the works under discussion, situating the Civil War within the larger development of democracy and industrialization. “Conscription, ideology, and technology conjoined to kill more Americans than have died in all of America’s foreign wars combined,” Hartigan argued. That works on the Civil War as a modern, “total,” or “destructive” war should dwell variously on technology, tactics, administration and public relations then comes as little surprise. Phrasing from both historians and their subjects falls into a more sensible pattern, such as Royster’s “assault on a state of mind” or Clausewitz’s “overthrow of the enemy” that stopped at nothing. Actions aimed to “cripple society,” for one civilization had to undermine another completely and systematically in order to prevail.

Historians have found that, following the democratic revolutions, participants in war came to equate civilians and soldiers alike with the totality of their societies. In other words, the entire nation became a combatant, complicit in violence. Weigley’s emphasis on the Lincoln phrase “remorseless revolutionary struggle” fits this framework. The president had hoped not to touch the “foundations” of southern society, but these works suggest that by 1863 the demands of victory – on the homefront and battefield – initiated a ruthless strategy. Both the Emancipation Proclamation and the burning of Atlanta qualify as military maneuvers in such a clash. Edward Hagerman cited an 1862 letter from the general’s brother, Senator John Sherman, to illustrate the change: “It is about time the North understood the truth. That the entire South, man, woman and child are against us, armed and determined.” Hagerman commented, “As he witnessed Southern profits from Union commerce going to support the armies that faced him, Sherman recognized that war against civilians and their resources was necessary to win.” For his part, Royster pointed to Sherman’s expectation that every recalcitrant southerner had to be eliminated, or else the true believers would go on fighting forever. “The South contained a certain number of men – he twice mentioned the figure 300,000 – who would not stop fighting,” Royster wrote. “If the North wanted to reunite the nation under the federal government, these men would have to be killed.”

If the Civil War fits the emerging profile of a modern war, then does it also qualify as a total war? Essential to this understanding is the notion that modern wars engaged all – soldiers, voters, the media, women and other workers on the homefront – in the military project. The portrait of a modern Civil War seen in these works certainly implies a total, all-consuming conflict, with the war machine engineering public opinion, targeting economic and technological infrastructure, and marshalling masses behind an ideological crusade. “Conceptions of what is modern in war thus tend toward the total, the unlimited, the massively destructive,” Royster observed, “because modern warmaking is by definition beyond individuals’ control and sweeps them into a vortex of events allowing no fixed standards of scale and momentum and morality in the actions of masses of people.”

The Civil War’s mobilization of society may have presaged later conflicts, but few historians have suggested that this totality ever meant an outright assault on civilian populations. Most accounts suggest that innocent bystanders were harmed only to the extent that the Union Army sought to debilitate and pillage the economic infrastructure of the South. In his Merchant of Terror, John Bennett Walters delivered a stinging attack on Sherman, arguing that Union marauders flew in the face of convention by attacking noncombatants. “Although effective sanction was not always present,” Jones wrote, “it was generally understood that the noncombatant or civilian population should be free from all violence or constraint other than that required by military necessity.” In his view, the general ignored official policy and public opinion in his cruel predation of Southern civilians. “Even as brutal as the Japanese were to prisoners and to civilians who came under their bayonets,” Walters argued, “there was no demand in United States newspapers for the burning, sacking and pillaging of towns.” Walters misconceived his analogy with World War II, suggesting that uniquely destructive tactics emerged from some special hatred felt by Sherman for men of his own culture. American historians have documented much popular revulsion with the Japanese people during the war, and one wonders if the United States government’s treatment of Hiroshima might qualify as the burning of a town. In either case, wholesale destruction grew out of a cold calculus of time and death at least as much as political or racial hatred.

Charles Royster, however, provided a more perceptive reading of Sherman’s behavior and subsequent significance. “Inhabited houses were rarely destroyed, but they usually were looted and defaced, and the occupants were subjected to taunts, insults, threats, and sometimes violence,” he wrote. Black women were especially vulnerable to rape, as Daniel Sutherland also observed, and the Federal armies may not have worked actively to suppress these abuses, but Royster portrays these incidents as exceptions to the rule. Sherman used a system of foraging to sustain his army, with soldiers taking from the countryside what they needed as they went. The Destructive War credits this approach with inflicting the most harm on civilians, rather than any direct violence against the southern population. One sees the general as indifferent to the privations of local people whose homes became open pantries for the invading army. According to Royster, “The civilians’ most common distresses – fear, humiliation, the shock of losses, the need to beg and scramble for a small supply of coarse food – looked like minor evils when set against the great evil of war, for which he held them responsible.” Otherwise, the author interpreted Sherman’s bleak axioms as merely the words of a harried man on the battlefield, spoken off the cuff. “Sherman’s assertions have seemed so readily applicable to the conduct of war in the twentieth century that his campaigns and writings have struck many people as precedents for ‘modern’ warfare,” he wrote. “The connection has necessarily been more figurative than literal.” War may have been hell, and Sherman may have threatened to wipe southerners “out of national existence,” but Royster insisted that the man’s words simply did not match his deeds.

The Destructive War elegantly examines Sherman as a cultural symbol and rhetorical font, but the author still defines his real significance as his attack on infrastructure. “If Sherman had a direct influence on military men’s thinking about war in the nineteenth century,” Royster wrote, “it consisted not in his attack on civilian society but in his innovations in the use of railroads – both his system for supplying his own army and his exploitation of his enemy’s vulnerability to the breaking of lines of communication.” Here Royster coincided with many other historians, arguing that military modernity meant destroying the structure of a newly industrializing society, hoping to cripple the enemy through attacks on transportation, communication and production systems as much as on the battlefield. Archer Jones made a similar interpretation, writing that “Grant used armies to execute a military raiding strategy when the industrial revolution had given it immense new effect.” The Civil War involved direct assaults on the economic basis of local areas as much as on other military forces, but it was not total because civilians were usually not targeted by occupying forces.

Curiously, this analysis dodges the fact that, although civilians rarely faced rape and execution, an assault on their way of life was only a half-step away from a direct attack on their persons. A choice between carpetbombing and starvation leads to death in either case. One senses from the historiography that, if aerial bombing had been available, the Union or the Confederacy would have used it on men, women and children. If anything, ideology made wholesale destruction acceptable, dehumanizing the enemy in the way that racism later eclipsed the humanity of Native Americans or the Japanese. Industrialization provided the opportunity for greater destructiveness, but ideology afforded the will to use it, without pause of compunction. Consider Earl Hess’s assessment of the Civil War as an awkward step on the way to fully industrialized warfare. The conflict may not have been truly total, but nor was it fully modern. Technology would improve and humanitarian concerns would fall farther from view in due time. As Weigley observed, “When a new technology of war, offered by the internal combustion engine in the airplane and the tank, seemed to promise new ways of invoking Sherman’s strategy, then its appeal rose especially high.”

What this view of the Civil War means for subsequent American history remains unclear. As with so many questions of modernity, an interpretation runs into trouble when things called “modern” stop being contemporary and join the premodern in the past. Judging from the definition of modern war offered above, we might expect that the ruthless and encompassing characteristics of conflict would intensify as technology and democracy advance. In the introduction to On the Road to Total War, Stig Forster and Jorg Nagler observed that Mark Neely published his article “Was the Civil War a Total War?” in 1991, just as they were putting together a conference on the topic. “Evidently, something in the zeitgeist was ripe for the question we asked – and obviously for some other colleagues,” they wrote. Perhaps the Gulf War created the atmosphere of interest and inquiry. Perhaps it was the disappearance of the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, which many had feared would break out into a total war of the starkest kind – a death-struggle between ideologically polarized enemies using the utmost in destructive technology to wipe each other out. Once the prospect for such a war seemed to diminish, people may have paused to take account and reassess what a total war is, was or could be.

The ensuing period offers few answers. Following the Cold War the United States became involved primarily in so-called “police actions,” small-scale conflicts in which the government used its vastly superior force to settle areas of unrest or eliminate rogue leaders. Cases such as the 1999 NATO operation in Kosovo share characteristics with other modern wars, such as a reliance on advanced technology. However, the brief war against Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic was not an openly ideological struggle like the Vietnam War or World War II, and the use of targeted aerial bombing focused destruction on military and communication sites rather than the living areas of most civilians. The terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 may have initiated a new period of American warmaking, as the United States soon undertook major military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some neoconservatives voiced  their dissatisfaction with the military strategy of President George W. Bush, insisting that his administration clung to the “limited war” paradigm of 1990s campaigns. Writing in the National Review, Adam Mersereau argued that America must not hesitate to overwhelm its enemies and destroy their culture without restraint:

The purpose of ‘total’ war is to permanently force your will onto another people group, while the purpose of ‘limited’ war is to temporarily deter or discourage an enemy, or to impede the policy of another country long enough to accomplish particular goals. Limited war pits combatants against combatants, while total war pits nation against nation, even culture against culture.

We might make useful distinctions among premodern, modern, and postmodern wars, with the American Civil War straddling the line between the first two and recent conflicts using technology to minimize casualties. If anything, our understanding of the Civil War suggests that the totalizing furies unleashed in a “modern” war are still alive and well. Seeing modernity in war as an ideological crusade, expressed by technology, hints that the United States’ war on terror could become a contest of visions marked by extensive and indiscriminate destruction.

Historians have found the soundest agreement in the notion that the Civil War was technically a modern war, with the Union Army in particular embracing new forms of administration and military technology that heralded wars to come. Beyond this, most have noted a greater ideological character to the Civil War than earlier conflicts. The war fits into a larger pattern of struggles that pitted different visions of society against each other, ranging from the French Revolution to the Vietnam War. As nations, especially democracies, have sought to impose their own visions on other societies, a far vaster portion of the population has become susceptible to extermination, as the legimitate scope of battle expanded dramatically. That being said, nearly all scholars refuse to call the Civil War an all-out assault on civilians, of the sort seen in twentieth century conflicts that supposedly had their roots in Sherman’s march. They view the United States as a society on the cusp of the industrial and political changes that would create a modern state, its struggle for existence representing a prelude to the technical, ideological contests of the next century. “They already carried some of the seeds of total war in them,” Forster and Nagler concluded, “but, in spite of all their horrors, they never reached that terrible point of utter destruction that future generations were to suffer.”

Comments

  1. Does total war always mean total destruction? Is the term “total destruction” itself a loaded phrase that has no real barometer of measurement? As Dr. Cummings points out in his article, the historiography concerning the American Civil War is definitely moving toward the position of defining the war as a “total war.” Yet, does placing the Civil War in this new context demand a reassessment of how we approach it in other ways as well?

    Americans, academics and not, in the twenty-first century certainly commemorate the Civil War in ways starkly different from the wars of the last century. The herofication which came in the 1980s and 90s of “The Greatest Generation” aside, Judt bluntly states in his appraisal of war memorials of the last hundred years in his essay “What We Have Lost,” “The twentieth century is on the path to becoming a moral memory palace: a pedagogically serviceable chamber of historical horrors.” The argument can certainly be made that every monument or museum is a symbolic billboard screaming “Never Again!” to the throngs of field trippers, genealogists, and tour groups which visit them by the millions each year. Is one of the side-effects of a total war the subsequent ambiguous boundaries of a battle site? Besides Grant’s Tomb and various preservation sites, the major landscapes for Civil War memory are battlefields. Except for the beaches stormed during D-Day, the typical sites of cultural memory are in the form of concentration camps and other memorials to human suffering. Why aren’t there major museums, statues, tours devoted to the suffering of slaves or the wives of soldiers left at home, starving and cold? Of course, the most apt location for said tours would be southern plantations, which usually, due to the desires of family members who own them, tend to white wash (no pun intended) the massive suffering which occurred there, opting Instead to engage in a whole-sale fantasy of an antebellum past that never existed.

    Yet, for those who opt out of the plantation tours, why do we choose to remember the Civil War differently then our other “modern” wars? Scholarship and movies certainly suggest we are aware of the wide-scale suffering felt by all segments of society. As stated above, “when this new political culture met industrial technology, truly terrifying and thorough destruction resulted.” Is it the lack of visual imagery of the Civil War which makes the atrocities of World War II and The Vietnam War so much more terrifying? Is it a subconscious desire to enjoy the historic tourism associated with battle sites that are ACTUALLY on American soil? Is it too cynical to think money and funding is a factor? Either way, if we are to truly push the Civil War up into the ranks of the modern “horror shows” of the twentieth century, perhaps its time to stop approaching it from a place of nostalgia and fantasy.

    • Ryan Reft says:

      Some great points there Ryan. To your point about how we remember wars, did you ever see the short lived show TV Nation by Michael Moore? He did this great bit about how weird Civil War reenactments are. He tried to stage a reenactment of the Fall of Saigon from the Vietnam War and people got upset, called it inappropriate yet we have these massive Civil War reenactments which essentially do the same thing. So yeah it’s a very interesting dynamic.

      • I completely forgot about Civil War reenactments, which is the ultimate fetishizing of war. Somehow, I don’t see my uncles getting as excited about reenacting the Siege of Stalingrad or the Battle of Fallujah. Yet, it still begs the question why? Certainly, many would answer there’s a tradition of reenacting “heritage” involved. Of course, the word heritage is so loaded and ambiguous that it really clarifies nothing and only serves to obscure the origins of such practices. That said, I do remember TV Nation and wish Michael Moore still had a vehicle to express himself without having to release a full-length documentary to do so..

  2. Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    Sunday “Blog” From The Past: Was the Civil War the First “Total War”?
    President Obama recently announced that the United States would draw down US troops in Afghanistan to approximately 10,000 by the start of 2015 and to a 1,000 by 2016. The formal end of the Afghan War signifies the conclusion of the longest war in United States history. This is as appropriate a time as any to reflect on the costs of war. While the Afghan War has been described as limited war, it begs the question of what constitutes Total War.

    On Sundays, DailyHistory.org will publish older, outstanding posts. Today’s article was originally posted by Alex Sayf Cummings at Tropics of Meta back in October 2012. He posts asks whether or not Civil War should be considered the first “total war.”

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