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 soldiers and civilians, combatants and noncombatants, and this no one in the Civil War did systematically.”4

Neely’s article had great influence. Few historians now describe the Civil War as a total war. Perhaps I was the last one to do so, in an article first published in 1992 and reprinted in 1996.5 In the nine years that separated the second and third editions of my textbook on the Civil War and Reconstruction, I changed my occasional use of the phrase “total war” to “hard war.”6 This terminology is now as ubiquitous as “total war” once was. It is derived from Mark Grimsley’s 1995 book The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861– 1865.7 Grimsley takes his title from a statement by General William T. Sherman in 1864: “We are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.”8

Sherman was the chief practitioner of this prescription. But his armies did not kill civilians. They did not even commit the “wanton pillage” and “destruction” of Southern legend. They destroyed a great deal of civilian property in their campaigns through Mississippi, Georgia, and especially South Carolina. But most of this destruction, according to Neely and Grimsley, was limited to resources that supported or could support the Confederate war effort. It was a policy of “directed severity” that struck a “balance between severity and restraint” and was “discriminate and roughly proportionate to legitimate needs.” Compared with the scorched-earth policies of Philip II of Spain against the Dutch, with those of the British in Ireland in the seventeenth century, or with all armies in Germany in the Thirty Years’ War—not to mention World War II—“the restraint of Union armies in the Civil War acquires fresh salience.”9

The old total-war thesis focused on the radical transformation of the Southern socioeconomic order as well as on the destruction caused by the conflict. The Civil War liberated four million slaves. It destroyed the wealth and the national political power of the Southern planter class. As Mark Twain wrote in 1873, the war


uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people,…and wrought so profoundly upon the national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations.10

To those who lived through this transformation, it seemed total.

In his new book on the limits of destruction in the Civil War, Mark Neely does not address such vast transformations. His purpose is to amplify his 1991 challenge to the “total war” thesis and to argue that

the American Civil War was, if anything, remarkable for its traditional restraint…. The relative absence of atrocity from the Civil War remains to this day one of its most remarkable qualities.

Neely protests too much. Inconsistencies, contradictions, and illogical use of evidence mar his effort to portray a war in which 620,000 soldiers died and billions of dollars’ worth of property was destroyed as one that was characterized by “remarkable restraint.”

Neely compares the American Civil War with three other nineteenth-century conflicts: the Mexican-American War, the French intervention in the Mexican civil war, and the Indian wars on the American frontier. American volunteers in the Mexican War, according to their own commander, General Winfield Scott,

committed atrocities—horrors—in Mexico…. Murder, robbery, & rape on mothers & daughters, in the presence of the tied up males of the families, have been common all along the Rio Grande.

American soldiers perceived Mexicans as belonging to “another race, and one with a parasitic religion,” writes Neely, and treated them accordingly:

Racial constructs help explain the unrestrained passions or the unfeeling contempt exemplified by the American volunteer in Mexico, and racial constructs likewise explain the restraint of white Civil War soldiers fighting other white soldiers.

But what about white Confederate soldiers fighting black Union soldiers? Neely acknowledges the atrocity at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, in which Confederates murdered more than a hundred black soldiers after they had surrendered, and mentions in passing other and almost equally notorious such cases. But these were exceptions, he maintains; the norm was restrained combat between white soldiers.

“Nor was revenge a significant factor in explaining the behavior of most Civil War troops,” Neely writes, in contrast with American soldiers in Mexico, especially Texans, who were motivated by a desire for vengeance against the army that had killed Texans in cold blood at the Alamo and Goliad a decade earlier. To minimize the revenge motive among Civil War soldiers, however, is to ignore a great deal of evidence of just such a motive and the behavior it produced. The letters and diaries of Confederate soldiers bristled with stereotypes of the “thieving hordes of Lincoln” who were the “lowest and most contemptible race upon the face of the earth.” Southerners constructed a “Yankee race” to substitute for the “mongrel race” of Mexicans they had fought in the earlier war. One Confederate captain told his wife to teach their children “a bitter and unrelenting hatred to the Yankee race” that had

invaded our country and devastated it…[and] murdered our best citizens…. If any luckless Yank should unfortunately come into my way he need not petition for mercy. If he does I’le give him lead.

A Missouri Confederate vowed that when the Confederate army regained his state, “vengeance will be our motto.” An officer in the Army of Northern Virginia, grandson of Benjamin Latrobe (who had helped design the Capitol and White House), directed artillery fire against Union attackers in the Battle of Fredericksburg. Afterward he rode over the battlefield and

enjoyed the sight of hundreds of dead Yankees. Saw much of the work I had done in the way of severed limbs, decapitated bodies, and mutilated remains of all kinds. Doing my soul good. Would that the whole Northern army were as such & I had my hand in it.11

Even if Neely is wrong about the lack of significant motives for revenge among Confederate soldiers, is he right about Union soldiers? Not for Unionists from East Tennessee or other regions in the Confederacy where savage internecine warfare took place. An Ohio captain serving with West Virginia soldiers was astonished by “this passion, this desire for revenge…. Hate rankled in their breasts.” An East Tennessee Union soldier vowed that “if I live, I will be revenged” on the Confederates occupying his homeland. “Yes I will draw their blood and mutilate their dead bodies and help send their souls to hell.”12 Black soldiers went into action after the Fort Pillow massacre shouting “Remember Fort Pillow!” “The darkies fought ferociously,” wrote Captain Charles Francis Adams Jr. after an attack by a black division at Petersburg, Virginia. “If they murder prisoners, as I hear they did…they can hardly be blamed.”13


It was not only black soldiers who exacted revenge for Fort Pillow. A white Wisconsin soldier wrote to his fiancée in May 1864 that when his regiment assaulted Confederate defenses at Resaca, Georgia,

twenty-three of the rebs surrendered but the boys asked if they remembered Fort Pillow and killed all of them. Where there is no officer with us, we take no prisoners…. We want revenge for our brother soldiers and will have it…. Some of the [rebels] say they will fight as long as there is one of them left. We tell them that is what we want. We want to kill them all off and cleanse the country.14

The more one learns about such attitudes and incidents—and they were not the rare exceptions that Neely implies—the more one questions his assertion that “Civil War soldiers behaved differently toward the enemy” than American soldiers in Mexico.

Neely is on firmer ground in his contrast of the Civil War with the “unrestrained ferocity and destructiveness” of warfare against Indians. In a chapter on the Sand Creek Massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians by white Colorado militia in 1864, Neely correctly concludes that even in the savage guerrilla conflict in Missouri, soldiers and guerrillas did not cross “the barriers to slaughter of women and children perpetrated at Sand Creek”—and, for that matter, on other occasions. By comparison, Civil War soldiers perhaps did show “remarkable restraint.”

The same may be true with respect to a comparison with the 35,000 French soldiers whom Emperor Napoleon III sent to Mexico to install Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian as emperor of that strife-torn country in 1864. These soldiers carried out Maximilian’s “Black Decree” of death to any captured Mexican soldiers who had fought against his rule. Thousands of them were in fact “killed in cold blood by French and imperial forces,” writes Neely. Even the “record of the US army in Mexico in 1846–1848” did not “come close in brutality to the record of the French and imperialists in Mexico twenty years later.”

What did come close in brutality, if not in scope, to the French and Mexican case was guerrilla warfare in the Civil War, especially in Missouri. That state had a civil war within the Civil War, a war of neighbor against neighbor and sometimes literally brother against brother, an armed conflict along the Kansas border, which went back to 1854 and had never really stopped, of ugly, vicious, no-holds-barred bushwhacking that came close to total war.

Bands of Confederate guerrillas led by the notorious William Clarke Quantrill, “Bloody Bill” Anderson, and other pathological killers, including such desperadoes as the James and Younger brothers, murdered and burned out Missouri Unionists. Kansas “Jayhawkers” and Union militia retaliated in kind. In contrapuntal disharmony the guerrillas and Jayhawkers plundered and pillaged their way across the state, taking no prisoners, killing in cold blood, terrorizing the civilian population, and leaving large parts of Missouri a scorched earth. In August 1863 Quantrill’s band rode to Lawrence, Kansas, and killed all the adult males they found there—more than 150 in all. A year later Bloody Bill Anderson’s gang took twenty-four unarmed Union soldiers traveling home on furlough from a train, shot them in the head, then turned on a posse of pursuing militia and slaughtered 127 of them, including the wounded and captured.

Neely acknowledges the barbarity of guerrilla and counterguerrilla warfare in Missouri. “But such savage tactics were an exception,” he maintains. “Missouri was itself an exception.” He gives virtually no attention to guerrilla warfare elsewhere in Confederate and border states, which was almost as savage as in Missouri. In East Tennessee it was “War at Every Door,” as the title of a book about that region described it, an “Uncivil War,” according to the title of another.15 Neely dismisses the irregular warfare in these places as “sideshows” to the real war of conventional armies facing each other on battlefields like Shiloh and Antietam and Gettysburg and Chickamauga and Spotsylvania. But much recent scholarship argues otherwise. “Confederate irregular forces were intended to be an adjunct to the conventional field armies,” writes one historian. They “developed into a powerful tool for the Confederate war effort” and forced the Union army to develop “an extensive counterirregular program wherever it faced Confederate unconventional forces.”16

By 1864 the Union response to both conventional and irregular Confederate warfare included the “hard war” destruction of Confederate resources practiced by General William T. Sherman’s army in its campaigns through Georgia and South Carolina and by General Philip H. Sheridan’s army in its Shenandoah Valley campaign. In his report on the march through Georgia, Sherman estimated the damage “at $100,000,000; at least, $20,000,000 of which has inured to our advantage, and the remainder was simple waste and destruction.”17 The devastation in South Carolina was far greater, for Union soldiers considered that state the fount of secession. “The whole army is burning with an insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina,” wrote Sherman. “I almost tremble at her fate, but feel that she deserves all that seems in store for her.” The Union chief of staff, General Henry W. Halleck, had written Sherman that if he captured Charleston, “I hope that by some accident the place may be destroyed, and if a little salt should be sown upon its site it may prevent the growth of future crops of nullification and secession.”18

Sherman’s army did not get to Charleston, but Confederate troops themselves burned much of that city when they evacuated it. Union soldiers burned plenty of other places in South Carolina, including the town of Barnwell, which they renamed “Burnwell.” The Pennsylvania soldiers in Sherman’s army felt a grim sense of satisfaction in retaliating for the burning of Chambersburg in their state by Confederate soldiers.

Neely briefly acknowledges the destructiveness of Sherman’s march through Georgia, but insists that “it provided a notable exception to the rule of the Civil War in regard to the private property of the enemy.” He does not mention the march through South Carolina, but presumably he would describe it as another exception. By the time Neely gets to General Philip Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley campaign, to which he devotes an entire chapter, he apparently senses that the reader has grown skeptical of the claim that all of these exceptions prove the rule of “remarkable restraint.” Instead, Neely seeks to minimize the extent of devastation in the Shenandoah Valley. The reader will not find Sheridan’s own report of October 7, 1864, quoted by Neely. “I have destroyed over 2,000 barns filled with wheat, hay, and farming implements,” Sheridan wrote; “over seventy mills filled with flour and wheat; have driven in front of the army over 4[,000] head of stock, and have killed and issued to the troops not less than 3,000 sheep.” This was just the beginning. By the time he was done, wrote Sheridan, “the Valley, from Winchester up to Staunton, ninety-two miles, will have but little in it for man or beast.”19

Neely does quote reports by other Union officers, in which he somehow finds evidence that the destruction was not so bad after all. The valley, wrote one, “has been left in such a condition as to barely leave subsistence for the inhabitants.” Another noted that “nothing is left where we have been but corn and not much of that. Barns and mills are destroyed. Hay and grain has been given to the flames.” The point here, writes Neely, is that Union soldiers did leave enough corn for “the subsistence of the inhabitants.” How they were to grind it when all the mills were destroyed is not made clear.

Neely’s final chapter addresses the question of casualty figures in the Civil War. He does not challenge the data that at least 620,000 soldiers died in the war. Rather, he questions the interpretation of these data. This number of deaths “has played an important role in the modern transformation of the image of that conflict into a forerunner of terror and unrestrained violence.” These 620,000 dead amounted to 2 percent of the American population in 1861. If 2 percent of Americans were to die in a war fought today, the number of American war dead would be more than six million. This startling fact might call into question the conclusion that the Civil War was “remarkable for its traditional restraint.” So these figures must somehow be sanitized. The figure of 620,000 “lumps the dead from both sides together and calls them all ‘Americans,'” Neely points out. “Such a mixing of opponents is rarely done in studying other American wars…. If we consider the Civil War casualties one ‘country’ at a time, then the 360,000 Union dead do not equal even the 407,000 Americans killed in World War II” and “the 260,000 Confederate dead constitute but 64 percent of the 407,000 Americans killed in World War II.”

Such an argument is breathtaking in its contempt for the reader’s intelligence. The 360,000 Union war dead were 1.6 percent of the population of Union states. An equivalent American death toll in World War II would have been 2.1 million and would today be 4.8 million. The 260,000 Southern dead constituted 2.9 percent of the Confederate population (including slaves), which would translate into 3.9 million of the 1940s population and 8.7 million today. By disaggregating the Union and Confederate tolls, as Neely wants us to do, the proportionate casualty rate for the Union is almost as large as when they are lumped together and the Confederate rate is far greater—and each is several times more catastrophic than for any other war, including World War II. These figures demonstrate the opposite of what Neely wants them to prove.

The same is true of the numbers game Neely plays with a comparison of the American Civil War and the Crimean War of a few years earlier, between 1854 and 1856. The death toll for all nations involved in that war was 640,000, which slightly exceeded that of the American Civil War, as Neely notes. What he does not tell the reader, however, is that the combined population of the four principal nations that fought the Crimean War (Russia vs. Turkey, Britain, and France) was about 130 million, four times the 32 million in the Union and Confederacy. In the Crimean War, fewer than 10 percent of soldier deaths occurred in combat; the rest were caused by disease. By contrast, 35 percent of soldier deaths in the Civil War resulted from combat wounds. On a per capita basis, combat mortality in the Civil War was therefore about fifteen times greater than in the Crimean War. This reality underscores the irony of Neely’s statement that “the true significance of the Civil War casualty figures is quite the opposite of what has been asserted routinely about them in the past.” In fact, what has been “asserted routinely” is exactly right, and its “true significance” undermines much of Neely’s argument.

Mark Neely has been one of our best Civil War historians and Lincoln biographers for the past quarter-century. This book, unfortunately, does not measure up to his previous work.

This Issue

February 14, 2008