From Limited War to Total War: The American Civil War Pt.1


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

As always I continue to revise my Gettysburg and Civil War text and it looks like I will have to split the text into at least tow volumes. I am posting about half of a majorly revised section dealing the the nature of the war, and how it changed from a limited war to a total war. The fact is that leaders in the South and the North, like so many other leaders in history and even today, failed to understand what the war that they helped unleash would bring about.

Have a great weekend,


Padre Steve+

The American Civil War was the first modern war. It was waged between two peoples who shared much in common but were divided by different ideologies which encompassed politics, economics, society, law, and even religion. But even so, at the beginning of the war few people on either side anticipated what the war would entail, the sacrifices involved, or the change that would be wrought by it. Winston Churchill’s words of caution to leaders that embark on war, would have been good advice to leaders in the South and the North in early 1861: “Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”

Likewise the American Civil War was a watershed event in an era of incredibly rapid change. It was an era which introduced changes in weaponry. New types of weapons were developed, more lethal versions of older weapons were introduced. Likewise, tactics, army organization, logistics, intelligence and communications, as well as social, and economic structures across the country evolved as the war progressed.

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 changed the character of the war by re-introducing the concept of “total war” to the world. As such, “because its aim was all embracing, the war was to be absolute in character” [2] it was a true revolution in military affairs.

The Civil War was truly a revolution in military affairs, but at the beginning of the war many people, including military leaders failed to understand this. It was a war that began as one type of “war and evolved into something quite different.” The conflict began as a limited war in which both sides imagined that small armies would fight a relatively quick war which would end with either a restored Union, or an independent Confederacy. But by late 1862 it had become a total war, involving massive armies, as well as the destruction of vast areas of civilian lands and properties. The miscalculation of Southern leaders about the will of the Northern leaders and population to pursue a war, their precarious assumption that Great Britain and France would enter the war, followed by their inept diplomatic efforts to be recognized by those nations, their lack of resources or an industrial base to produce the weapons needed for war, coupled with their inability to anticipate what would be needed to win the war, and to defend their territory ensured their eventual defeat. In marked contrast to the South the Federal government headed by Abraham Lincoln “developed a national strategy to give purpose to a military strategy of total war, and preserved a political majority in support of this national strategy through the dark days of defeat, despair, and division.” [3]

At the beginning of the war President Lincoln attempted a strategy of conciliation in order to attempt to coax seceding states back into the Union and by conciliation to keep those considering seceding from doing so. However, Lincoln’s attempts were met with outright rejection, before, during, and after the secession crisis. He spoke directly to the Southern states in his First Inaugural Address, saying “We are not enemies, but friends,” [4] only to be accused of deliberately lying to the South by pledging to maintain control of Federal installations and forts in the South, like Fort Sumter which was now surrounded by massed batteries of Confederate artillery and demands that it surrender. Jefferson Davis wrote, “The Lincoln Administration deliberately lied to us, baiting us with false promises and pacific pledges all the while it was planning for war. Never in history has a government behaved with such malicious deceit and bad faith.” [5]

When the troops of South Carolina opened fire on Fort Sumter the die was cast, and Lincoln chose the path of war in order to restore the Union, “not because he wanted to, but because the South forced his hand.” [6] His proclamation calling for troops to suppress the rebellion described the kind of war that he foresaw, “the utmost care will be observed… to avoid any devastation, any destruction of, or interference with, property, or any disturbance of peaceful citizens in any part of the country.” [7]

Though he pursued the option of war to restore the Union, Lincoln initially he adopted a soft-war strategy in which Confederate armies were the target. This was in large part due to the efforts of Secretary of State Henry Seward and General-in-Chief Winfield Scott. Though he adopted a strategy that required the North to conquest the South, initially he did so with the expectation that after battlefield defeats the Confederates would eventually return to the Union. Some early victories, particularly those of Grant in the west at Forts Henry and Donaldson seemed to confirm the validity of such an approach.

However, Grant, after being roughly handled in the near disaster at Shiloh, gave up on the idea of limited war. He now believed that it was necessary to seize or destroy any property or resources that could be used to sustain the Confederate war effort. Before the Confederate counteroffensive at Shiloh Grant had said that he had been careful to “protect the property of the citizens whose territory was invaded;” and afterwards his policy became to “consume everything that could be used to support or supply armies.” [8]

Henry Wager Halleck, who had long been a proponent of Jominian limited war, backed up Grant in August 1862 ordering Grant to “Take up all active [rebel] sympathizers… and hold them as prisoners or put them beyond our lines. Handle that class without gloves, and take their property for public use…. It is time that they should begin to feel the presence of the war.” [9]

As the war went on it became apparent to many people in the North, and in the armies on the front lines that harder measures were required, especially with the escalation of guerilla attacks behind Union lines, as well as the involvement of Southern civilians in attacking Union troops in occupied areas of the South. “Senator John Sherman wrote his brother William of a growing sentiment “that we must treat these Rebels as bitter enemies to be subdued – conquered – by confiscation – by the employment of their slaves – by terror – energy – audacity – rather than by conciliation.” [10]

Some Union military commanders other than Grant became early exponents of a hard war, among them was Major General John Pope, who as commander of the Army of Virginia issued a “series of orders authorizing his officers to seize Confederate property without compensation, to execute captive guerillas who had fired on Union troops, and to expel from occupied territory any civilians who had sheltered guerillas or who had refused to take an oath of allegiance to the United States.” [11]

Henry Halleck as well wrote to Grant in April 1863 that “the character of the war has changed very much…. There is now no possible hope of reconciliation with the rebels. The Union party in the South is virtually destroyed. There can be no peace but that which is forced upon it.” In May he wrote another general in Memphis, “We must live upon the enemy’s country as much as possible, and destroy his supplies. This is cruel warfare, but the enemy has brought it on himself by his own conduct.” [12]

As late as 1862 there were some in the North, especially in the Democratic Party fought against any move toward a harder war strategy. One of these was Major General George McClellan who in a brazen attempt to be named General-in-Chief after his failed Peninsular campaign attempted to school President Lincoln in the ways of politics and strategy.

“The time has come when the Government must determine upon a civil and military policy, covering the whole ground of our national trouble…. This rebellion has assumed the character of a war: as such it must be regarded; and should be conducted upon the highest principles known to Christian Civilization. It should not be a War looking to the subjugation of the people of any state, in any event. It should not be, at all, a War upon the population; but against armed forces and political organizations. Neither a confiscation of property, political executions of person, territorial organization of states or forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment.” [13]

Lincoln read McClellan’s letter in his presence and refused to comment upon it. Instead he infuriated McClellan by naming Henry Halleck as General-in-Chief, calling for more troops, and deciding on a strategy in which emancipation would play a key role. Since the leaders of the Confederacy to its dying day refused to countenance emancipation, these decisions would change the character of the war from a limited war to bring about political reunion to a war that would drastically change American politics, economics, and society.


[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] McPherson, James M. Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1991 p.74

[4] 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.133

[5] Davis, Jefferson in Oates, Stephen B. The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm 1820-1861 University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln and London, 1997 p.413

[6] Stoker, Donald The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2010 p.18

[7] Ibid. Weigley The American Way of War: A History of United States Military History and Policy p.133

[8] McPherson, James M. Drawn With the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1996 p.76

[9] Ibid. McPherson  Drawn With the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War p.79

[10] McPherson, James M. Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief Penguin Books, New York and London 2008 p.103

[11] Ibid. McPherson Drawn With the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War p.79

[12] Ambrose, Stephen E. Halleck: Lincoln’s Chief of Staff Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge and London 1960 and 1992  p.119

[13] McClellan, George B. Letter to Abraham Lincoln July 7, 1862 in Perman, Michael and Murrell Taylor, Amy editors The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition Wadsworth Cengage Learning Boston MA 2011 p.140

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