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Did the North win by waging total war in the Civil War? Total war is a “war that is unrestricted in terms of the weapons used, the territory or combatants involved, or the objectives pursued, especially one in which the laws of war are disregarded.”

Civil War Total War-The Myth

The contention of some historians that the Civil War was the first modern “total war,” setting the precedent for the murderous wars of the twentieth century, appears to be a new twist on the Myth of the Lost Cause. It implies that the Union prevailed by waging war of unethical scope and severity. “It was Lincoln, Grant, and the Civil War that incorporated total war into modern experience,” asserts Charles Strozier. He adds that “the totality of the modern state seems to require unconditional surrender as a necessary correlative of its total wars. The American Civil War brought that into focus.”


The accusation of brutality in the Union armies’ conquest of the South began right after the war. In 1866, Pollard contrasted the Yankees’ behavior with that of Lee’s army, which, he maintained, abided by its commander’s order to protect the property that lay in the path of its Gettysburg campaign. “No house was entered without authority; no granary was pillaged; no property was taken without payment on the spot, and vast fields of grains were actually protected by Confederate guards. . . . ” In fact, however, the rebels in Pennsylvania foraged extensively and confiscated livestock, transportation vehicles, and thousands of wagon loads of grains and produce—sufficient to constitute a fifteen-, twenty- or fifty-mile reserve train of wagons. Confederate “payments” for property were made in essentially worthless Confederate currency, and as many as several hundred blacks were kidnapped and sent South into slavery.

By mid-1863, Pollard continued, Southerners were exasperated by “what they had experienced of the enemy’s barbarities in their own homes,” and some urged a due measure of retaliation by Lee’s army in Pennsylvania. “[I]t was not advised that houses should be burned, or robbed, jewelry stolen, and women raped in Pennsylvania, in exact imitation of the acts of Northern troops in Virginia and Mississippi,” but that “a devastation of the enemy’s country” should be inflicted “to teach the enemy a lesson.” Lee ignored such calls for vengeance, writes Pollard, who provided no evidence of or specifics about the alleged barbarity of the Union forces.

It is only fairly recently that the twentieth-century concept of “total war” has been applied to the Civil War. According to Mark E. Neely Jr., the term was first used in 1948 by John B. Walters in an article about Sherman for the Journal of Southern History and was quickly adopted by the famed Civil War historian T. Harry Williams. His masterly Lincoln and His Generals begins with the assertion: “The Civil War was the first of the modern total wars…. ”

Other prominent Civil War historians followed Williams down that path.6 For example, in 1996 James M. McPherson commented that “by 1864 a group of generals including Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan had emerged to top commands in the North with a firm grasp on the need for coordinated offensives in all theaters, a concept of the Civil War total war strategy necessary to win this conflict, the skill to carry out the strategy, and the relentless, even ruthless determination to keep pressing it despite a high cost of casualties until the South surrendered unconditionally.”

McPherson explains, “The kind of conflict the Civil War had become merits the label of Civil War total war. To be sure, Union soldiers did not set out to kill Southern civilians. Sherman’s bummers destroyed property; Allied bombers in World War II destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives as well. But the strategic purpose of both was the same: to eliminate the resources and break the will of the people to sustain war.”

Civil War Total War-The Reality

The reality is that the North won by “hard war,” not total war. Civil War total war—defined by the wanton killing of massive numbers of civilians—has a long and brutal history. It was waged by Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, the Romans against the Carthaginians, Catholics and Protestants in Germany’s Thirty Years War, Germans in the First and Second World Wars, and the Russians and Japanese in World War II. The Civil War simply does not belong in this category.

The methods, not the “strategic purpose,” make a conflict a “ total war.” Unlimited, large-scale attacks on civilians—like those on London, Coventry, Dresden, Berlin, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and countless other cities in World War II—are absent from the Civil War. If Sherman’s bummers, on their March to the Sea, had executed large numbers of civilians, they could be accused of total warfare. But the intentions of eliminating enemy resources and breaking the will of its people, logical goals of virtually any war, do not make a war “total.”

Most of the killings of civilians during the Civil War occurred in Missouri, Kansas, the Appalachian sections of many Confederate states, and Texas. They were generally carried out by civilians engaged in local guerilla warfare and not by organized military units. The worst was the execution of about 150 men and boys in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1863 by William Quantrill’s pro-Confederate Raiders. Not long afterward, in 1864, Bloody Bill Anderson executed twenty-four unarmed Union soldiers pulled from a train, and he slaughtered 127 men in a pursuing militia posse, including the captured and wounded.8

Perhaps the most common killings of innocents by military units were the executions of surrendering or surrendered black Union troops and their officers in many places, including Fort Pillow,9 Olustee (Florida), Milliken’s Bend, Saltville (Virginia), the Crater, and Poison Springs (Arkansas). Neither Confederate nor Union regular armies, however, engaged in large-scale campaigns that included the deliberate killing of innocent civilians. Civil War armies engaged in hard war—but not total war. The evidence deserves more detailed examination.

What did Sherman’s army really do in Mississippi, Georgia, and the Carolinas in 1864–65? In early 1864, his army lived off the countryside in his Meridian Campaign, a “dress rehearsal” for the March to the Sea. As they stormed through Georgia later that year, “sixty thousand Union troops destroyed railroads, torched cotton bales, emptied corncribs and smokehouses, and seized hogs, horses, and mules. Most significantly, [they] freed thousands and thousands of enslaved laborers along their path.” Sherman’s large army was able to live off the country between

Atlanta and Savannah because Sherman had studied an 1860 census report on the population, livestock, and agricultural production of each Georgia county he passed through. He later said, “No military expedition was ever based on sounder or surer data.”

His March to the Sea is described in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Civil War:

Sherman’s men were under orders to “forage liberally on the country during the march”—that is, to seize the food, fodder, and horses needed to sustain the army. Foraging parties organized daily in each regiment performed their tasks with a vengeance. Self-appointed or especially ruthless foragers, known as “bummers,” were little more than ransacking thieves as they plundered the possessions of rich and poor, of slaves as well as their masters. . . . At a cost of just 2,000 casualties, Sherman’s march across Georgia crippled much of the war-making potential and morale of the Confederacy. His army accounted for some $100 million in property damage as it brought the war home with frightening reality to Confederate civilians.

The Lost Causer Pollard had to stretch the evidence to speculate that civilians were killed in the March to the Sea. He described massive damage to, or theft of, barns, crops, furniture, pianos, jewelry, beehives, sorghum barrels, and other property. Labeling Sherman’s property destruction “savage warfare,” Pollard continued, “If [a property owner] escaped, and was hiding in a thicket, this was prima facie evidence that he was a skulking rebel; and most likely some ruffian, in his zeal to get rid of such vipers, gave him a dose of lead, which cured him of his Secesh tendencies.” Not much there to support allegations of total war.

Sherman’s army continued its destructive progress through the Carolinas in early 1865. His men particularly hated South Carolina, the birthplace of secession, and they probably destroyed more property there than anywhere else. The notorious burning of one-third of the capital city, Columbia, was the combined work of evacuating Confederates burning large quantities of cotton in the streets, high winds blowing up, and drunken Union soldiers (before Sherman had them stopped). All these actions were consistent with Sherman’s statements that “we are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people” and must make them “feel the hard hand of war.”

There are few reports of rapes or killings of civilians perpetrated by Sherman’s army. A recent study by Lisa Frank of the relationship between his soldiers and Southern women excoriates the soldiers for entering bedrooms and parlors, as well as seizing personal treasures and letters, in an effort to humiliate and demoralize elite white women along their route. There is no mention of rape or murder. Being caught in the path of Sherman’s army was harrowing, but it was not total war.

What did Sheridan’s troops do in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864–65? They burned barns, silos, crops, and some houses; they stripped the valley of livestock and foodstuffs that had been used to support Confederate troops throughout the war. There was no program to kill civilians, and, at most, only a few of them died. Two years later, Pollard harshly described Sheridan’s destruction of agriculture: “Of this and other like atrocities of the enemy, there has been attempted a very weak excuse, to the effect that if the private property of the inhabitants of the Confederacy had not been destroyed, it might have been converted to the uses of the belligerent Government, and have helped to sustain it. Once for all, it may be said that this excuse excludes every sentiment of humanity in war, and may be logically carried to the last extremity of savage warfare.” Understatement was not a characteristic of Pollard’s work; overstatement became a basis for myths.

Sherman’s and Sheridan’s destructive sweeps through the South occurred late in the conflict, when the North realized that it would have to wage “hard war” to win. Grant had realized after “Bloody Shiloh” in April 1862 that a decisive Union victory would not bring down the Confederate government without “complete conquest.” In his memoirs he wrote, “Up to that time it had been the policy of our army, certainly of that portion commanded by me, to protect the property of the citizens whose territory was invaded. . . . After this, however, I regarded it as humane to both sides to protect the persons of those found at their homes, but to consume everything that could be used to support or supply armies. . . . [S]uch supplies within the reach of Confederate armies I regarded as much contraband as arms or ordnance stores. Their destruction was accomplished without bloodshed and tended to the same result as the destruction of armies. . . . Promiscuous pillaging, however, was discouraged and punished.” This policy—hard war, not total war—was followed with few exceptions for the balance of the war.

The North’s approach to slavery exemplifies the movement toward hard war. Lincoln rejected appeals for emancipation for more than a year into the war. He made several offers of compensated emancipation to the Border States—Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri—to secure their continued allegiance to the Union. When the need for more Union soldiers and the need to deplete the labor force of the South outweighed the Border State concerns, the president issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862 and his final proclamation on January 1, 1863.

The North’s approach to slavery exemplifies the movement toward hard war. Lincoln rejected appeals for emancipation for more than a year into the war. He made several offers of compensated emancipation to the Border States—Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri—to secure their continued allegiance to the Union. When the need for more Union soldiers and the need to deplete the labor force of the South outweighed the Border State concerns, the president issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862 and his final proclamation on January 1, 1863.

Even though Lincoln’s emancipation of Southern slaves fulfilled his dual goals and was clearly intended “to eliminate the resources and break the will of the [Southern] people to sustain war,” it was not an act of total war. It did result in an increasingly overwhelming loss of “property” by the Southern people and culminated in the Thirteenth Amendment, which Congress passed and sent to the states for ratification in January 1865. In tandem with Lincoln’s anti-slavery moves, Congress passed two confiscation acts to deprive the enemy of property; the Confederate Congress passed similar legislation.

The Civil War was a “mighty scourge,” as Lincoln called it, but despite the best efforts of the Myth-makers, it was not America’s introduction to “total war.” The mass killings of civilians that did take place were the work of Confederate sympathizers. War is not pretty, but claims that the Union waged total war are far from the mark.

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