Daily Archives: June 8, 2015

The First Modern War – Introduction

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Those who are habitual readers here know that I teach military history and ethics. One of the things that I lead is a Staff Ride at Gettysburg for which I am in the process of writing a text which will probably when I am done will be two, maybe even three books. The text is massive and I have been done a lot of editing, revising and even expanding it as I come to realize just how limited my previous vision was for producing it.

I have been writing about the pursuit of truth for several months, and one of those truths is that war cannot be separated from its contexts and that military power alone does not win wars or establish a just and equitable peace. That is one of the problems with many who write popular military history, they are so focused on the battles, campaigns, tactics and technology that they focus so much on the military aspects, that the miss the other contexts that are so important.

A few days ago I released a section of this same chapter dealing with women in the Civil War. Today is the introduction to that chapter, appropriately titled “The First Modern War.” It deals with the political, social-cultural, economic, technological, military strategic, geographical, and historical contexts of the war and introduces us to the importance of capable and competent civilian leadership as was exhibited by Lincoln and his advisers; and that how that knowing understanding the contexts keeps leaders from seeking short-cuts from the snake oil salesmen who promise a “silver bullet” with which all war can be won.

I’ll be releasing the second section of this chapter dealing with the importance of civilian leadership either tomorrow or Wednesday because I need to get my opinion piece that deals with the Duggaring of the Religious Right.

So, have a wonderful evening.


Padre Steve+

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The American Civil War was the first modern war. It was a watershed event in an era, which introduced changes in new types of weapons, more lethal versions of older weapons, tactics, army organization, logistics, intelligence and communications. Though the war did not change the essential nature of war, which Clausewitz says is “is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will” [1] it expanded the parameters of war and re-introduced the concept of “total war” to the world and “because its aim was all embracing, the war was to be absolute in character.” [2] In a sense it was a true revolution in military affairs.

The Civil War was truly a revolution in military affairs. The war changed the character of war, as it had been known for centuries, since the Peace of Westphalia and the end of the Thirty Years War. In the American Civil War, the character of war changed from a limited war waged between opposing armies to a total war, waged between two people who shared much in common but were divided by an ideology which encompassed politics, economics, society, law, and even religion.

The war was revolutionary in other ways, and brought about a host of social, philosophical, economic, and political changes which continue to impact the lives of people in the United States and around the world even today. Some of these, especially those regarding the abolition of slavery and emancipation, as well as the beginnings of the Women’s Rights movement have had a ripple effect in matters of political and social equality for other previously disenfranchised groups of citizens. As one author noted “The Civil War uprooted institutions, transformed our politics, influenced social relationships of half a continent, and wrought changes that echo down the generations.” [3]

In a sense, when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed “a new birth of freedom” in his Gettysburg address it served as a watershed moment in American history because it brought to the forefront the understanding of Jefferson and the other signers of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal.

Thus it is important to study the Gettysburg campaign in the context of the Civil War because the campaign of 1863 in the east cannot be divorced from what was happening in the west at Vicksburg, nor the Union blockade, nor the diplomatic, economic and informational aspects of the war. Likewise the Gettysburg campaign cannot be separated from its relationship to the broader understanding of the nature and character of war. To do this one must examine the connection between them and policies made by political leaders; to include the relationship of political to military leaders, diplomats, the leaders of business and industry and not to be forgotten, the press and the people. Likewise we must understand the various contexts of war, to include the social, political, ideological and even the religious components of war, how they impacted Civil War leaders and why civilian policy makers and military leaders must understand them today.

While the essential nature of war remains constant, wars and the manner in which they are fought have changed in their character throughout history, and this distinction matters not only for military professionals, but also policy makers. The changing character of war was something that military leaders as well as policy makers struggled with during the American Civil War much as today’s military leaders and policy makers seek to understand the character of warfare today. British military theorist Colin Gray writes “Since the character of every war is unique in the details of its contexts (political, social-cultural, economic, technological, military strategic, geographical, and historical), the policymaker most probably will struggle of the warfare that is unleashed.” [4] That was not just an issue for Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, both of whom struggled with the nature of the war which had been unleashed, but it is one for our present political leaders, who as civilian politicians are “likely to be challenged by a deficient grasp of both the nature of war as well as its contemporary context-specific character.” [5]

In addition to being the first modern war, or maybe I should say, the first war of the Industrial Age, the Civil War became a “total war.” It was the product of both the massive number of technological advances which both preceded and occurred during it, in which the philosophical nature of the Industrial Revolution came to the fore. Likewise, the enmity of the two sides for one another which had been fostered by a half century of relentless and violent propaganda which ushered from the mouths of politicians, the press and even from the pulpit, even to the point of outright armed conflict and murder in “Bleeding Kansas” during the 1850s.

As a total war it became a war that was as close to Clausewitz’s understanding of absolute war in its in character waged on the American continent, and it prefigured the great ideological wars of the twentieth century, as J.F.C. Fuller noted “for the first time in modern history the aim of war became not only the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces, but also of their foundations- his entire political, social and economic order.” [6] It was the first war where at least some of the commanders, especially Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman were men of the Industrial Age, in their thought and in the way that they waged war, in strategy, tactics even more importantly, psychologically. Fuller wrote:

“Spiritually and morally they belonged to the age of the Industrial Revolution. Their guiding principle was that of the machine which was fashioning them, namely, efficiency. And as efficiency is governed by a single end- that every means is justified- no moral or spiritual conceptions of traditional behavior must stand in its way.” [7]

Both men realized in early 1864 that “the South was indeed a nation in arms and that the common European practice of having standing armies engaged each other in set-piece battles to determine the outcome of a war was not enough to win this struggle.” [8] Though neither man was a student of Clausewitz, their method of waging war was in agreement with the Prussian who wrote that “the fighting forces must be destroyed; that is, they must be put in such a position that they can no longer carry on the fight” but also that “the animosity and the reciprocal effects of hostile elements, cannot be considered to have ended so long as the enemy’s will has not been broken.” [9]

William Tecumseh Sherman told the mayor of Atlanta after ordering the civilian population expelled that “we are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make the old and young, the rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.” [10] Sherman was one of the first American military leaders to understand that a civil war could not be waged according to the limited war doctrines most American officers had been taught. He not only “carried on war against the enemy’s resources more extensively and systematically than anyone else had done, but he developed also a deliberate strategy of terror directed against the enemy’s minds.” [11] While some might find this troubling, the fact remains that it was Sherman’s Southern sweep of all that lay before him that broke the back of the Confederacy.

Abraham Lincoln came to embrace the eternal nature of war as well as the change in the character of the war over time. Lincoln had gone to war for the preservation of the Union, something that for him was almost spiritual in nature, as is evidenced by the language he used in both of his inaugural addresses and the Gettysburg Address. Instead of a war to re-unite the Union with the Emancipation Proclamation the war became a war for the liberation of enslaved African Americans, After January 1st 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, Lincoln “told an official of the Interior Department, “the character of the war will be changed. It will be one of subjugation…The [old] South is to be destroyed and replaced by new propositions and ideas.” [12] That too was a modern understanding of war.

Of course, the revolution in military affairs that characterized the Civil War took time, but it was the political and military leaders of the North who better adapted themselves and their nation to the kind of war that was being fought. “Lincoln’s remarkable abilities gave him a wide edge over Davis as a war leader, while in Grant and Sherman the North acquired commanders with a concept of total war and the determination to make it succeed.” [13]

At the beginning of the war the leaders and populace of both sides still held a romantic idea of war. The belief that the war would be over in a few months and that would be settled by a few decisive battles was held by most, including many military officers on both sides. There were some naysayers like the venerable and rather corpulent General Winfield Scott, but politicians and the press mocked Scott and those who even suggested that the war would be long, hard, and bloody. Of course those who predicted a short, easy, and relatively bloodless war who were proven wrong, and the war became the bloodiest war ever waged by Americans, and it was against other Americans.

The Civil War became an archetype of the wars of the twentieth century, and I believe will be so for the twenty-first century as well because of the emphasis on competing ideologies often buttressed with near fanatical religious extremism. The American Civil War evolved into a clash between peoples with radically different ideologies, which extended beyond the province of purely military action. The war “was preceded by years of violent propaganda, which long before the war had obliterated all sense of moderation, and awakened in the contending parties the primitive spirit of tribal fanaticism.” [14]

Those who conducted the American Civil War added new dimensions to war, and the technology they embraced increased war’s lethality in ways that they did not anticipate. For the first time since the 30 Years’ War, this war on the American continent saw opponents intentionally target the property, homes and businesses of the opposing civilian populations as part of their military campaign. The Civil War was a precursor to the wars that followed, especially the First World War that it prefigured in so many ways.

British general and military theorist J.F.C. Fuller encapsulated the massive amount of change brought about by the Civil War quite well in his book A Military History of the Modern World:

The war fought by Grant and Lee, Sherman and Johnston, and others closely resembled the First of the World Wars. No other war, not even the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, offers so exact a parallel. It was a war of rifle bullets and trenches, of slashings, abattis, and even of wire entanglements- an obstacle the Confederates called “a devilish contrivance which none but a Yankee could devise” because at Drewry’s Bluff they had been trapped in them and slaughtered like partridges.” It was a war of astonishing in its modernity, with wooden wire-bound mortars hand and winged grenades, rockets, and many forms of booby traps. Magazine rifles and Requa’s machine guns were introduced and balloons were used by both sides although the confederates did not think much of them. Explosive bullets are mentioned and also a flame projector, and in June, 1864, General Pendleton asked the chief ordnance officer at Richmond whether he could supply him with “stink-shells” which would give off “offensive gases” and cause “suffocating effect.” The answer he got was “stink-shells, none on hand; don’t keep them; will make them if ordered.” Nor did modernity end there; armoured ships, armoured trains, land mines and torpedoes were used. A submarine was built by Horace H. Hundley at Mobile….” [15]

However, like all in nearly all wars, the many lessons of the American Civil War were forgotten, or even worse, completely dismissed by military professionals in the United States as well as in Europe. Thus 50 years later during First World War, the governments Britain, France, Imperial Germany, Austria-Hungary and Imperial Russia wasted vast amounts of manpower and destroyed the flower of a generation because they did not heed the lessons of the Civil War. For that matter neither did General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force who three and a half years after those countries destroyed the flower of their nation’s manhood and repeated all of their mistakes with the lives of American soldiers. Fuller noted:

“Had the nations of Europe studied the lessons of the Civil War and taken them to heart they could not in 1914-1918 have perpetuated the enormous tactical blunders of which that war bears record.” [16]

The lessons of the war are still relevant today. Despite vast advances in weaponry, technology and the distances with which force can be applied by opponents, war remains an act of violence to compel an enemy to fulfill our will. War according to Clausewitz is “more than a chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case.” [17] but it is always characterized by the violence of its elements, the province of chance and its subordination to the political objective and as such forces political and military leaders as well as policy makers to wrestle with “the practical challenge of somehow mastering the challenge of strategy in an actual historical context.” [18]

Colin Gray in his book Fighting Talk emphasizes that the “contexts of war are all important.” Gray makes a case for seven essential contexts that must be understood by policy makers and military leaders regarding war, which if ignored or misunderstood “can have strong negative consequences.” [19] Gray enunciates seven contexts of war that policy makers as well as military professionals ignore at the own peril: There is the political context, the social context, the cultural context, the economic context; the military-strategic context, the geographic context and the historical context. Gray notes these seven contexts “define all the essential characteristics of a particular armed conflict.” [20]

Gray discusses the importance of this. Noting that strategists are “ever on the look out for shortcuts” [21] and because they are pragmatic, wanting simple and well defined solutions they tend not to want to deal with complexities that muddy the water, that those who decide on strategy are “eternally at hazard to the siren call of the technological solution, the cultural fix, the promise of historical understanding and so forth.” [22] He notes that there are always those trying to sell strategists catalogs, which promise “products that answer the strategist’s questions” turning “the base metal of confusion of information into the pure gold of comprehension.” [23] But such easy answers are often little more than snake oil. The virtue of seeing war through all of these contexts “obliges strategists to examine holistically, in the round,” [24] that the “recognition of war’s multiple contexts helps immunize the strategist against getting captured by such fantasies.” [25]

The study of the Civil War can be helpful to political leaders, military strategists, joint planners and commanders because it so wonderfully shows just how important understanding the context of wars is. Likewise it gives us an American context where we can see the interplay of how Clausewitz’s “paradoxical trinity- composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and the element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.” [26]

This is especially important, because we live during an era of great technological, social, geopolitical and philosophical change, just as did the leaders of the United States and the Rebel Confederates States did in the ante-bellum and the war years. The importance of this cannot be underestimated, for in this era of change, like in every era, some leaders and commanders were either resistant to, or failed to understand the changes being forced upon them in their conduct of war by the industrialization of war and its attendant technology.

Examples of this are found in the actions of so many leaders and commanders in the Civil War. Like the American political and military leaders who in Iraq “were ignorant of how to conduct themselves in a military and social-cultural context of irregular warfare” [27] many of the officers who fought the Civil War completely ignorant of what they were facing. Educated in Napoleonic the principles of Henri Jomini, officers who only knew limited war in Mexico and irregular warfare against Indians were faced with fighting a total war on a continental scale. The war witnessed a host of new technologies and “many officers found themselves wholly unprepared for what they faced, in effect, compelled to purchase learning with lives.” [28]

However, unlike many political leaders, Abraham Lincoln came to understand the radical and revolutionary nature of the war and had to find military leaders who understood the same. In frustration Lincoln rebuked those who urged limited war saying “The government cannot much longer play a game in which it stakes all, and its enemies stake nothing. Those enemies must understand that they cannot experiment for ten years trying to destroy the government, then if the fail still come back into the Union unhurt.” [29]

Eventually Lincoln found Ulysses Grant and his lieutenants William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan. These me not only understood the military aspects of the contexts of the war, but embraced them and applied them with ruthless skill and vigor that stunned the leaders and the people of the South. When John Bell Hood wrote Sherman a letter in which he condemned the Union commander for the destruction of Atlanta, and the forced evacuation of its inhabitants, even invoking God’s judgment Sherman would have nothing of it. Sherman wrote back that “Hood’s appeal to a “just God” was “sacrilegious,” Sherman insisted, for it was the South which had “plunged a nation into war, dark and cruel war, who dared and badgered us to battle.” Having created the war, the South would now experience it.” [30]

Strategists and planners must develop a philosophical foundation that they must seek to understand the contexts of war matters now more than ever. By looking at the Gettysburg campaign in context we can begin to draw lessons that we can apply today. Not that our situation is the same as the leaders who led the Union and Confederacy in the Civil War, but exploring these issues is vital to us understanding the contexts of the wars that we fight today and the world in which we live.


[1] Clausewitz, Carl von. On War Indexed edition, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1976 p.75

[2] Fuller, J.F.C. The Conduct of War 1789-1961 Da Capo Press, New York 1992. Originally published by Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick N.J p.99

[3] Lowry, Thomas P. The Stories the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg PA 1994 p.176

[4] Gray, Colin S. Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy Potomac Book, Dulles VA 2009 p.36

[5] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.36

[6] Fuller, J.F.C. A Military History of the Modern World, Volume Three: From the Seven Days Battle, 1862, to the Battle of Leyte Gulf, 1944 Minerva Press 1956 p.88

[7] Ibid. Fuller A Military History of the Modern World, Volume Three p.88

[8] Flood, Charles Bracelen, Grant and Sherman: The Friendship that Won the War, Harper Perennial, New York 2005 p.238

[9] Ibid. Clausewitz p.90

[10] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.809

[11] Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military History and Policy University of Indiana Press, Bloomington IN, 1973 p.149

[12] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.558

[13] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.857

[14] Ibid. Fuller The Conduct of War 1789-1961 p.99

[15] Ibid. Fuller A Military History of the Modern World, Volume Three p.89

[16] Ibid. Fuller A Military History of the Modern World, Volume Three p.89

[17] Ibid. Clausewitz On War p.89

[18] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.38

[19] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.5

[20] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.3

[21] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.5

[22] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk pp. 5-6

[23] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.5

[24] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.5

[25] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.5

[26] Ibid. Clausewitz On War p.89

[27] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk pp.38-39

[28] Sinnreich, Richard Hart Awkward Partners: military history and American military education in The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession edited by Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York 2006 p.56

[29] McPherson, James M. Drawn With the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1996 p.80

[30] Fellman, Michael. Lincoln and Sherman in Lincoln’s Generals edited by Gabor S. Boritt University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln NE 1994 p.153


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