Was It More Restrained Than You Think?

In 1992 Mark E. Neely Jr. won the Pulitzer Prize in History for his book The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties.1 In the same year that the book came out he published an influential article in the journal Civil War History titled “Was the Civil War a Total War?”2 His answer to that question was no. The concept of “total war” had arisen as a way of describing the horrifying destruction of lives and resources in World War II. The generation of historians who experienced that cataclysm used this phrase to describe the American Civil War as well. That conflict cost more American lives than World War II, even though the United States in 1861 had less than one quarter the population of 1941, and it left large portions of the South looking like bombed-out cities of Europe and Japan.

The Civil War mobilized human and economic resources in the Confederacy and the Union on a scale unmatched by any other event in American history except perhaps World War II. For actual combat duty, the war of 1861– 1865 mustered a larger proportion of American manpower than that of 1941– 1945. And in another comparison with that global conflagration, the victorious power in the Civil War did all it could to devastate the enemy’s economy as well as the morale of its home-front population. Union armies were remarkably successful in this effort. The Civil War wiped out two thirds of the assessed value of wealth in Confederate states, two fifths of the South’s livestock, and more than half of its farm machinery—not to mention one quarter of the Confederacy’s white men of military age. While Northern wealth increased by 50 percent from 1860 to 1870, Southern wealth decreased by 60 percent.3

Such devastation might seem to merit the description “total war.” But Neely’s article challenged that notion. He maintained that true total war—or, in the words of the Prussian Carl von Clausewitz, “absolute war”—makes no distinction between taking the lives of enemy soldiers and those of enemy civilians. It is war “without any scruples or limitations,” war in which combatants give no quarter and take no prisoners. World War II approached this. Germany deliberately murdered millions of civilians in Europe and bombed cities in England; Allied strategic bombing killed hundreds of thousands of German and Japanese civilians; and both sides sometimes refused to take prisoners or killed them after they had surrendered. In that sense of totality, the Civil War was not a total war. Although suffering and death from disease were common among prisoners of war, and Confederates sometimes murdered captured black soldiers, there was no systematic effort to kill prisoners. And while soldiers on both sides in the Civil War pillaged and looted civilian property, and several Union commanders systemized this destruction into a policy, they did not deliberately kill civilians. “The essential aspect of any definition of total war,” wrote Neely in 1991, “asserts that it breaks down the distinction between…

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