From Limited War to Total War: The American Civil War Pt.2

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 two volumes. I am posting the second 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. This subject may be uncomfortable to many readers, and I admit that. Truthfully I abhor war but I am a realist when it comes to human nature, politics, economics, ideology, religion, and even racism and race hatred play in the world. Truthfully, if the North had continued the war with limited force, and goals, the Confederacy would have either become independent, or it would have been re-admitted to the Union with slavery intact, no Thirteenth, Fourteenth, or Fifteenth Ammendments would have been passed and any concept of civil rights destroyed. You can be sure that with Southern States read mites without change that other things would not have occurred; Women’s sufferage, Native American citizenship, citizenship and civil rights for Asian immigrants, and most recently, LGBT people are directly tied to the constitutional amendments that the war made possible.  Sometimes, as distasteful and repugnant as that may sound, a hard war is necessary to prevent an unjust peace. 

From a point of realpolitik,  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. War is not to be entered into lightly without connecting the dots between the act of policy that guides the war, as well as having the policy’s ends supported by the ways and means necessary to fulfill it, and not all of those are military. Diplomacy, economic power, and  information all play a part. 

Abraham Lincoln and his advisors came to understand this, maybe better than any presidential administration in United States history. Sadly, Lincoln was assassinated before he could guide the country through reunion, and Andrew Johnson was not up to the task. By the time Ulysses Grant became President, the opportune moment for reunion had passed. Though the South succeeded in rolling back civil rights for another century, they never were able to repeal those three critical amendments. That is why the hard war pursued by the Lincoln administration still matters for everyone with a stake in civil rights. 

Think about that, and have a great weekend,

Peace

Padre Steve+

gburg dead1

While the nature of war remained unchanged, the American Civil 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 changed dramatically. In the American Civil War the character of war changed from the emphasis of the limited wars of the 18th Century and the Napoleonic era where opposing armies dueled each other into a war that encompassed the entire population. It also challenged a generation of military officers who had grown up with Jomini’s principles of war and his emphasis on limited war.

The leading catalyst that convinced Lincoln and other Northern leaders of the need to abandon the strategy of limited war was the fact that the Confederates had “blurred the distinction between combatants and noncombatants in the parts of the Confederacy and border states occupied by Union forces. The crops and livestock of Southern civilians were feeding and clothing Confederate armies. Their slaves were the principle labor force in the Confederate War economy. Thousands of Southern civilians became guerillas who roamed behind Union lines destroying supplies and ambushing unarmed as well as armed Unionists.” [1]

The Union reaction to the Confederate actions would portent a change in the war. And soon, the war bordered on Clausewitz’s definition of absolute or total war, especially in Sherman’s march through the South, and in the actions of Confederate irregulars who used terror against Unionist civilians. The actions of irregular Confederate forces to attack his troops and supply lines caused Sherman, who earlier in the war had taken a conciliatory attitude to Southern civilians, to change his views. They had blurred the lines between combatants and non-combatants, he noted that the Union army must act “on the proper rule that all in the South are enemies of all in the North….. The whole country is full of guerilla bands…. The entire South, man woman, and child, is against us, armed and determined.” [2]

In response Henry Halleck, now backed with the legal authority of General Order 100, also known as The Lieber Code, which for the first time in American history defined the differences between partisans acting in the capacity as soldiers of the enemy army, and those who were not a part of a military unit, but rather men who blended back into the population after conducting armed attacks, [3] wrote to Sherman,

“I am fully of opinion that the nature of your position, the character of the war, the conduct of the enemy (and especially of non-combatants and women of the territory we have heretofore conquered and occupied), will justify you in gathering up all the forage and provisions which your army will require, both for a siege of Atlanta and for your supply in your march farther into the enemy’s country. Let the disloyal families of the country, thus stripped, go to their husbands, fathers, and natural protectors, in the rebel ranks; we have tried three years of conciliation and kindness without any reciprocation; on the contrary, those thus treated have acted as spies and guerillas in our rear and within our lines…. We have fed this class of people long enough. Let them go with their husbands and fathers in the rebel ranks; and if they won’t go, we must send them to their friends and protectors. I would destroy every mill and factory within reach which I did not want for my own use…..” [4]

The strategy of Sherman was to ensure that the Confederate heartland of the Deep South could no longer help to sustain Confederate armies in the field, it was military, economic, political, and diplomatic. He explained:

“I propose to act in such a manner against the material resources of the South as utterly to negative Davis’ boasted …promises of protection. If we can march a well-appointed army right through hiss territory, it is a demonstration to the world, foreign and domestic, that we have a power which Davis cannot resist.” [5]

Sherman was a pioneer of psychological warfare, he was “convinced that not only economic resources but also the will of Southern civilians sustained the Confederate War effort…. Sherman was well aware of the fear that his soldiers inspired among Southern whites. This terror “was a power,” he wrote, “and I intend to utilize it… to humble their pride, to follow them to their innermost recesses, and to make them dread and fear us…” [6]

When Confederate General John Bell Hood elected to fortify Atlanta, the largest and most important industrial city in the Confederacy against a Union attack, thereby making the population of the city a target, Sherman wrote to the Mayor of Atlanta to warn him of the consequences of allowing this:

“The use of Atlanta for warlike purposes is inconsistent with its character as a home for families. There will be no manufactures, commerce, or agriculture here, for the maintenance of families, and sooner or later want will compel the inhabitants to go…. You cannot qualify war in any harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out…. You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable…” [7]

Sherman’s strategy worked, “it deprived Confederate armies of desperately needed supplies; it also crippled morale both at home front and in the army,” [8] His armies did more than destroy factories and farms in its path, wherever they went “they broke the power of the secessionist government, the slaveholder’s social order, and most of whatever fighting spirit remained among Confederate partisans.” [9] Jefferson Davis understood the effect that Sherman’s army was having, he wrote, “Sherman’s campaign has produced a bad effect on our people, success against his future operations is needed to restore public confidence.” [10] Mary Boykin Chesnut saw the clouds of doom approaching and confided in her diary, “Since Atlanta I have felt as if all were dead in me, forever,” she wrote. “we are going to be wiped off the map.” [11]

The effects of Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas were felt in the Confederate armies at the front as just as he had predicted. Lee’s artillery chief, Brigadier General Porter Alexander wrote, “The condition of the country at large was one of almost as great deprivation & suffering as that of the army itself; & in many localities even of much greater. North Carolina, South Carolina, & Georgia had been over-run by Sherman’s army carrying off many of the Negroes & most of the stock & destroying all accumulation of provisions which they could not use, & often burning barns & dwellings & all implements of agriculture…. Naturally, the wives & mothers left at home wrote longingly for the return of the husbands & sons who were in the ranks in Virginia. And, naturally, many of them could not resist these appeals, & deserted in order to return & care for their families.” [12]  A member of the 20th Maine noted the effect on Lee’s troops opposing them at Petersburg wrote, “Since Sherman’s victories… we see the affect it is having on Lee’s Army.” They were deserting in groups, “not only privates, but many officers with them.” [13] Lee was so frustrated and angry with the desertion problem that he resorted to summary executions of the men, occasionally without hearing their appeals.

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. One writer noted in regard to the social impacts that “The Civil War uprooted institutions, transformed our politics, influenced social relationships of half a continent, and wrought changes that echo down the generations.” [14] Mark Twain wrote in 1873 that the war “uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people …and wrought so profoundly upon the national character that cannot be measured short of two or three generations.” [15]

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.  That statement, flowing from the Declaration was key to Lincoln’s understanding of human rights and dignity, and from it came the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. Those would be followed by the Republican Congresses’ passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, which overturned the Dred Scott Decision, which denied all citizenship to blacks across the country, and by Ulysses S. Grant’s Fifteenth Amendment, which gave African American men to right to vote. These were all revolutionary ideas, and there was a counterrevolutionary backlash after the war “overthrew the fledgling experiment in racial equality” but “did not fully restore the old order. Slavery was not reinstated. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were not repealed.” [16]  That is the human and political context by which we have to understand the American Civil War.

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.” [17]

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 an issue for our present and future 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.” [18] This is actually very important in our present context as since “the end of the Cold War, the tendency among civilians – with President Bush as a prime example – has been to confuse strategy with ideology. The president’s freedom agenda, which supposedly provided a blueprint for how to prosecute the global war on terror, expressed grandiose aspirations without serious effort to assess the means required to achieve them.” [19] Strategy is hard and mostly ignored until there is a crisis, “soldiers focus on their professional military duties, while politicians exercise their skill in policymaking. The strategy bridge between the two worlds, the two cultures, generally is left poorly guarded, if it is guarded at all.” [20] In the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and his administration as well as military advisers came to develop a realistic strategy to match his political goals, Lincoln understood the contexts of the war far better than his Confederate counterpart Jefferson Davis, whose administration and military leadership was never able to devise a coherent strategy because they did not fully grasp the contexts of the war, never seriously considered the ends, ways, and means to victory.

In addition to being the first modern war, or maybe I should say, the first war of the Industrial Age, the Civil War prefigured the idea of total war written about by Clausewitz that occurred in the World Wars of the Twentieth Century. The war combined a 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 had been fostered by a half century of relentless and violent propaganda that ushered from the mouths of politicians, the press and even from the pulpit brought the element of hatred to the fore of the conflict; as Clausewitz correctly observed, “Even the most civilized of peoples, in short, can be filled with passionate hatred for each other.”  [21]

As the war went on the feelings of animosity and hatred often boiled over and were reflected in the words and sometimes the actions of the soldiers. A Confederate Captain wrote his wife to teach his children “a bitter and unrelenting hatred of the Yankee race” that had “invaded our country and devastated it… [and] murdered our best citizens…. If any luckless Yank should unfortunately come my way he need not petition for mercy. If he does I will give him lead.” A soldier from a Wisconsin regiment wrote to his fiancée after the assault on Resaca, Georgia that his unit had captured twenty-three Confederates and “or boys asked if they remembered Fort Pillow and killed them all. 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.” [22]

While this was hatred was not universal and many times the combatants behaved with great chivalry on the battlefield, and Northern and Southern veterans led efforts at reconciliation after the war; such hatred was something that had not been a part of the American military experience.  The deep rooted enmity, especially in the South, would remain a constant over the next one hundred years. “White southerners who retained Confederate loyalties against Federal soldiers and northerners in general…. Confederates defiantly refused to forgive enemies who had inflicted such pain on their society.” [23] Likewise, many Union veterans felt that in their sacrifices to defeat the Confederacy and end slavery would be forgotten as time slipped by and the memory of the war subsided.

This very real hatred meant that there were many times when the American Civil War came close to Clausewitz’s understanding of absolute war in its in character, and it prefigured the great ideological wars of the twentieth century. 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.” [24] 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.” [25]

President Lincoln, as well as Grant and Sherman 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.” [26] 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.”  [27]

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.” [28] 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.” [29] 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.

But Sherman and Grant were not alone in understanding the problem of fighting a limited war against the Confederacy. In the fall of 1862 a twenty-five year volunteer officer, Colonel Strong Vincent serving with McClellan’s army in Virginia understood what had to happen if the Union were to overcome the rebellion of the Confederacy. Vincent who would be instrumental in throwing back Hood’s assault on Little Round Top, and die leading the defense of that edifice, wrote to his wife about the need for harder measures.

“We must fight them more vindictively, or we shall be foiled at every step.  We must desolate the country as we pass through it, and not leave a trace of a doubtful friend or foe behind us; make them believe that we are in earnest, terribly in earnest; that to break this band in twain is monstrous and impossible; that the life of every man, yea, of every weak woman or child in the entire South, is of no value whatever compared with the integrity of the Union.” [30]

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.” [31] 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.” [32]

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.

Notes

[1] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters p.35

[2] Ibid. McPherson Drawn With the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War p.81

[3] Lieber noted in Article 82 of the code that “Men, or squads of men, who commit hostilities, whether by fighting, or inroads for destruction or plunder, or by raids of any kind, without commission, without being part and portion of the organized hostile army, and without sharing continuously in the war, but who do so with intermitting returns to their homes and avocations, or with the occasional assumption of the semblance of peaceful pursuits, divesting themselves of the character or appearance of soldiers – such men, or squads of men, are not public enemies, and, therefore, if captured, are not entitled to the privileges of prisoners of war, but shall be treated summarily as highway robbers or pirates.” And in Article 85 that, “War-rebels are persons within an occupied territory who rise in arms against the occupying or conquering army, or against the authorities established by the same. If captured, they may suffer death, whether they rise singly, in small or large bands, and whether called upon to do so by their own, but expelled, government or not. They are not prisoners of war; nor are they if discovered and secured before their conspiracy has matured to an actual rising or armed violence.” Lieber, Francis, General Orders No. 100 : The Lieber Code INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE GOVERNMENT OF ARMIES OF THE UNITED STATES IN THE FIELD 24 April 1863 Retrieved from The Yale Law School, Lillian Goldman Law Library, The Avalon Project Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lieber.asp#sec4 1 June 2016

[4] Ibid. Weigley The American Way of War: A History of United States Military History and Policy p.148

[5] Guelzo Allen C. Fateful Lightening: A New History of the Civil War Era and Reconstruction Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2012 p.445

[6] Ibid. McPherson Drawn With the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War p.82

[7] Sherman, William Tecumseh, Letter to James M. Calhoun, Mayor of Atlanta September 12, 1864 in Perman, Michael and Murrell Taylor, Amy editors The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition Wadsworth Cengage Learning Boston MA 2011 pp.147-148

[8] Ibid. McPherson Drawn With the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War p.83

[9] Levine, Bruce The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South Random House, New York 2013 p.233

[10] Goldfield, David. America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation Bloomsbury Press, New York 2011 p.348

[11] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.775

[12] Alexander, Edward Porter. Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander edited by Gary Gallagher University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1989 pp.508-509

[13] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.469

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

[15] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters p.48

[16] McPherson, James. The Second American Revolution 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.14

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

[18] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.36

[19] Bacevich, Andrew J. The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (The American Empire Project) Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York 2008 Amazon Kindle Edition, Location 2375 of 3875

[20] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.49

[21] Ibid. Clausewitz On War p.76

[22] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation pp.49-50

[23] Gallagher, Gary W. The Confederate War: How Popular Will, Nationalism and Military Strategy Could not Stave Off Defeat Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London 1999 p.34

[24] 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

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

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

[27] Ibid. Clausewitz p.90

[28] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era  p.809

[29] Ibid. Weigley  The American Way of War: A History of United States Military History and Policy  p.149

[30]Nevins, James H. and Styple, William B. What death More Glorious: A Biography of General Strong Vincent Belle Grove Publishing Company, Kearney NJ 1997 p.57

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

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

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