Tuesday, July 12, 2011

When is Total War Total?

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

One of the the things Civil War historians encounter all the time is the nagging question: was the Civil War a total war?

This is actually not as easy a question to answer as one might think. Naturally one would tend to look at the military aspects of the war and what total war even means. Total war suggest exactly that - total...the intentional and indiscriminate destruction of the enemy's military and civilian existence - perhaps something such as the United States' incendiary bombing of Tokyo during WWII would be a good example of this definition.

But does this apply to the Civil War? Mark Grimsley's outstanding Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865 suggests not. Grimsley concludes that a Union war initiated with a conciliatory policy eventually turned to a hard war - leveled against some civilians in an effort to demoralize the southern populace and wreck their ability to wage sustained warfare. But this was far from the total war in the 20th or 21st century definition of the term.

But there are, of course, other ways to consider a total war. Economic expansion and state centralization are also good indices to suggest a society aligning itself along the total war axis. In terms of the Civil War, scholars such as J. Matthew Gallman and Stanley Engerman argue that the United States saw relatively little of this activity as a direct result of the war. In fact, they conclude that while the United States saw limited economic change in terms of the expansion of firms and centralization (based on comparative decadal evidence form the 1850s and 1870s), the Confederacy - a nation conceived on the notion of the supremacy of state rights - was profoundly centralized. Does that mean the Confederacy waged a total war? Hmmmm........

But that aside, perhaps we can evaluate the notion of total war by asking the participants. Northerners experienced nothing even close to the hardships endured by some southerners. As my former adviser Gary Gallagher points out, just read Little Women to get an idea of how the war affected the northern homefront. Then again, even many southerners saw little of the war in their backyards. The citizens of Montgomery, Alabama, for example, did not have to deal with Union forces until the very end of the war.

But what about the residents of the northern part of Virginia? They suffered the hardships of war for four years. As Armies passed through and fought over their land - taking their livestock, burning up their fence rails, drinking their wells dry, etc - their left an unrecognizable landscape in their wake. Ask those people who lived through it - I'll bet they would say it was a total war...in every aspect of the term.




  1. Anyone contemplating whether the American Civil War can rightfully be called "total war," should read Niall Ferguson' _War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West_, and then consider the question and its implications.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. Interesting article. Talk about Northern Virginia. If I am not mistaken, Winchester changed hands something like 70 times during the War. I would say those citizens experienced total war!