From Limited War to a People’s War

Gettysburg_General_Armistead_Picketts_Charge_small

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Here is another reworked section of my Civil War and Gettysburg text. It deals with how the how the American Civil War changed from being a limited war to a people’s war, driven by a mutual hatred and hostility. It was the first war which came close to approximating Clausewitz’s definition of total war, and though it was ignored by world military leaders as an aberration over for fifty years, it prefigured the Wold Wars, as well as the civil wars of the 20th Century. It demonstrates that once the genie of war is out of the bottle, and the passionate hatreds of peoples are unleashed, that policy will will adjust itself. Most wars can and should be averted if leaders work to control the fear and passions of their people and not as so often the case stoke the fires of those fears and passions into an uncontrollable rage directed against the intended target. This is especially true in civil wars which are often waged with a ruthlessness unseat in most wars conducted by nation states against other nation states, unless those wars are driven by religion, ideology, or ethnic hatred.

So I hope that you find this interesting and informative.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

The Beginning: Limited War

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,” [1] 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.” [2]

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.” [3] 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.” [4]

Though he pursued the option of war to restore the Union, Lincoln initially 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. It was a limited war strategy, “based on an assumption that a majority of the southern people were loyal to the Union and that eleven states had been swept into secession by the passions of the moment.” [5] In fact it was hardly a military strategy at all, “but more of a police action to quell a rather large riot.” [6]

After the defeat at First Bull Run, Congress passed a resolution defining Union war aims. It is notable in terms of how soft and its deference to the feelings of Southerners. Introduced by Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky, a key border that that had not seceded but had declared its neutrality, the resolution stated:

“Resolved by the House of Representatives of the Congress of the United States, That the present deplorable civil war has been forced upon us by the disunionists of the Southern States now in revolt against the constitutional Government and in arms around the capital; that in this national emergency Congress, banishing all feelings of mere passion or resentment, will recollect only its duty to the whole country; that this war is not waged upon our part in any spirit of oppression, nor for any purpose of conquest or subjugation, nor purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the rights and institutions of those States, but to defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution and to preserve the Union, with all the dignity, equality, and rights of the several States unimpaired; and that as soon as these objects are accomplished that the war ought to cease.” [7]

It was an incredibly weak statement of war aims based on the notion that most Southerners were actually Unionists and would come back to the Union. The feeling was increased by some early victories, particularly those of McClellan to secure West Virginia, and Grant and Flag Officer Foote in by the west in their capture of Forts Henry and Donaldson. For a brief time these victories seemed to confirm the validity of such an approach.

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Winfield Scott

But the issue was not just with the politicians. Many early Union commanders raised in the niceties of Jominian limited war, and sometimes restrained by their religious upbringings were averse to taking casualties. Winfield Scott believed that only a thin line separated war from murder, and before Bull Run the elderly general noted, “No Christian nation… can be justified in waging war in such a way as shall destroy five hundred and one lives, when the object of the war can be attained at the cost of five hundred. Every man killed beyond the number absolutely required is murdered.” [8] George McClellan was also casualty averse, he told his soldiers that he would watch over them “as a parent over his children…. It shall be my care, as it ever has been, to gain success with the least possible loss…” [9] But McClellan’s “fixation with avoiding casualties, revealed a deep sensitivity of nature admirable in most of life’s pursuits but crippling in war. Battle evokes the cruelest probing of the general in command: young men will die and be maimed, win or lose; and the hard choice must be made when opportunity offers, which may (or may not) save many more lives in the long run than will be lost in a day.” [10] Even George Gordon Meade who would command the Army of the Potomac during Gettysburg, which was the bloodiest battle of the war, and who under Grant would be involved in other costly battles “believed that to ensure minimal losses on both sides, the North should prosecute the war “like an afflicted parent who is compelled to chastise his erring child, and who performs the duty with a sad heart.” [11] The lack of resolve of many overly cautious generals, especially in the east to fight a hard war against the Confederates would lead to several bungled opportunities to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia, outside the gates of Richmond, at Antietam, and during the pursuit from Gettysburg.

But after series of defeats in the East in 1862 at the hands of a revitalized Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under the command of General Robert E. Lee served notice on Lincoln that the war would be more difficult than previously imagined, and that a hard war strategy was needed.

The Link Between War and Statecraft

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George McClellan

The strategies and operational methods employed by commanders such as Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and George McClellan embraces the tenants of Henri Jomini, the French military theorist and exponent of limited war, McClellan in his fixation with geographic places, Lee and Jackson in their love of the offensive. Each “failed to grasp the vital relationship between war and statecraft…. They might win victories – Lee won a series of spectacular ones – but they lacked the vision to win a mighty struggle between two societies.” [12] McClellan, told Lincoln “Woe to the general…who trusts in modern inventions, and neglects the principles of strategy.” But modern inventions, the railroad and the rifle, had conspired with mass citizen armies, themselves reflecting the ideologies of democratic society, to undermine the principles he espoused.” [13] McClellan, who had so deeply imbibed of the theories of Jomini, could not see that war had changed and the principles of Jomini could not win the war against the Confederacy, but others in the North would begin to see this.

But public sentiment in the North was beginning to shift, while there were still a good number of politicians willing to either let the South go its own way or to allow it to return with little substantive change, others were beginning to realize that the people of the South were serious about secession and were irreconcilable in their view that the break between them and the North was final. The New York Times which represented the views of moderate Republicans including Lincoln editorialized, “The country is tired of trifling…. We have been afraid of wounding rebel feelings, afraid of injuring rebel property, afraid of using, or under any circumstance, of freeing rebel slaves. Some of our Generals have fought the rebels – if fighting be it called – with their kid gloves on…” [14]

Lincoln was the political leader who first understood the connection, but militarily it was not until the “emergence of Grant and Sherman did Civil War military leadership break free of Jominian shackles to anticipate modern warfare.” [15] British military historian and theorist J.F.C. Fuller likened the change in the war to be a “return to barbarism,” and noted that “the more stubborn and indecisive became the fighting, and the more the outcome of the war was prolonged, the intenser grew the hatred, until frustration awakened a spirit of vengeance in the hearts of the Federals against the entire population of the South.” [16] Of course the hatred of the Confederacy came late as compared to much of the early nearly pathological and religious hatred of the Union by the radical secessionist, fire-eaters in Southern states even before the war began Thus, compared to the South, the hatred came slow, but when it boiled over the people of the South felt the pain of war as much as their armies did in the field.

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Stonewall Jackson 

From Limited War to a People’s War

While those who planned for a limited war like Winfield Scott and his Anaconda plan failed to understand the changing character of war, it did provide “both an education for Lincoln, and a firm foundation for the Union’s strategic thinking.” [17] The hard experience of war would point others in the same direction, including both Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, and it would be these men who along with Lincoln provided developed a grand strategy that would defeat the Confederacy. It was a strategy which was in line with the political goals of the North, and which marshalled the might of the Union military, diplomatic, economic, industrial and informational strengths, against the Confederacy.

In the South one of the few proponents of this new type of warfare was a former Regular Army officer and professor at the Virginia Military Institute, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. In May of 1861 he moved across the Potomac to occupy the heights that surrounded Harper’s Ferry. Chastised by Lee, then serving as Jefferson Davis’s military adviser, Jackson proposed a strategy of invading the North and “burning Baltimore and Philadelphia and making Northerners understand on a visceral level what the war was going to cost them.” Likewise, he explained to Virginia Governor John Letcher a “black flag” strategy in which meant all Union prisoners of war would be summarily executed. [18]

Later Jackson had the chance to expound on his strategy to another general and suggested that he be given an army to cross the Potomac to “cut of the communications with Washington, force the Federal government to abandon the capital… destroy industrial establishments wherever we found them, break up the lines of interior intercourse, close the coal mines, seize and if necessary, destroy the manufactories of Philadelphia and of other large cities within our reach…. Subsist mainly on the country we traverse, and making unrelenting war amidst their home, force the people of the North to understand what it will cost them to hold the South in the Union at the bayonet’s point.” [19]

The fact that his plan was unrealistic based on the South’s actual military situation and capabilities, as well as opposed by Jefferson Davis as well as Robert E. Lee, takes nothing away from its similarity to the strategy later developed by Grant and Sherman. The problem was as Jefferson Davis wrote in July 1862, “The time and place for invasion has been a question not of will but power,” and then proceeded to recount a conversation with an unnamed Brigadier General the previous fall that appears whose plans did not match the reality of the number of troops available for such an operation. [20] From this meeting Davis got “the not altogether inaccurate idea that Jackson was an offense crazed fanatic.” [21] However, it shows that the desire to take the war to the enemy citizenry was not confined to the North and had the South had the military means that it many have attempted a similar strategy to that later employed by Grant and Sherman.

Grant, who had scored impressive victories at Forts Donaldson and Henry changed his view on how the war should be pursued after being roughly handled in the near disaster at Shiloh. After that battle, Grant 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 “carful 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.” [22]

Henry_Halleck_by_Scholten,_c1865

Henry Wager Halleck

Henry Wager Halleck, who had long been a proponent of Jominian limited war in late 1862 under the influence of Francis Lieber. When Halleck heard complaints that General Horatio G. Wright was pursuing too soft of policy toward rebels in Kentucky, Halleck did not intervene, but offered strong advice to Wright. “Domestic traitors, who seek the overthrow of our Government, are not entitled to its protection and should be made to feel its power…. Make them suffer in their persons and property for their crimes and the suffering they have caused to others…. Let them feel that you have an iron hand; that you know how to apply it when necessary. Don’t be influenced by old political grannies.” [23]

Halleck also backed up Grant in August 1862 when Grant was beginning to pursue the hard war policy in the west by 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.” [24]

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.” [25]

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Ulysses S. Grant

By early 1863 Grant was fully on board with the policy of the Union government, especially emancipation, and the need for the war to be carried through to a conclusion that would completely subjugate the Confederacy. He wrote to one of his generals, “Rebellion has assumed that shape now that it can only be terminated by the complete subjugation of the South or the overthrow of the Government. It is our duty, therefore, to use every means to weaken the enemy, by destroying their means of subsistence, withdrawing their means of cultivating their fields, and in every other way possible.” [26]  Some Union military commanders other than Grant became early exponents of a hard and brutal 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.” [27] Jackson, who himself had once proposed the “black flag” strategy against the North and its soldiers “considered Pope’s orders “cruel and utterly barbarous.” [28]

Henry Halleck 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.” [29]

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.” [30]

Lincoln read McClellan’s letter in his presence and refused to comment upon it. One historian described Lincoln’s reaction to McClellan’s suggestion, “That policy had been pursued for over a year and Lincoln was convinced that it had failed. He was ready to move on.” [31]  Instead of complying with McClellan’s demands Lincoln 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.

While the nature of war remained unchanged, the American Civil war dramatically 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 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. The changes challenged a generation of military officers who had grown up with Jomini’s principles of war and his emphasis on limited war including McClellan and Lee, but Grant, who had never read Jomini and denied the validity of general principles of war that were valid in all times wrote, “There are no fixed laws of war which are not subject to the conditions of the country, the climate and the habits of the people. The laws of successful war in one generation would ensure the defeat in another.” [32]

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.” [33]

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 Georgia and the Carolinas, 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.” [34]

Notes

[1] 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

[2] 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

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

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

[5] Ibid. McPherson Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution p.75

[6] Ibid. McPherson Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution p.75

[7] U.S. Congress The Crittenden Resolution of July 22, 1861 in The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection edited by William E. Gienapp, W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2001 p.117

[8] Faust, Drew Gilpin, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War Vintage Books, a division of Random House, New York 2008 p.34

[9] Sears, Stephen W. To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1992 p.21

[10] Sears, Stephen W. Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam Houghton-Mifflin Company, Boston and New York 1983 p.32

[11] Ibid. Faust This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War p.34

[12] Gallagher, Gary W. “Upon Their Success Hang Momentous Interests”: Generals in Why the Confederacy Lost edited by Gabor S. Boritt, Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford 1992 p.86

[13] Strachan, Hew European Armies and the Conduct of War George Allen and Unwin Publishers, Ltd. London 1983 p.73

[14] McPherson, James M. Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief Penguin Books, New York and London 2008 p.105

[15] Ibid. Gallagher “Upon Their Success Hang Momentous Interests” p.86

[16] 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.107

[17] Ibid. Stoker The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War p.411

[18] Gwynne, Samuel C. Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson Scribner, a Division of Simon and Schuster New York 2014 p.45

[19] Ibid. Gwynne Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson p.173

[20] Davis, Jefferson, Letter to John Forsyth July 18th 1862 in Major Problems in American Military History edited by John Whiteclay Chambers II and G. Kurt Piehler, Houghton-Mifflin and Company, Boston and New York 1999 pp.159-160

[21] Ibid. Gwynne Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson p.172

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

[23] Marszalek, John F. Commander of All of Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London 2004 p.168

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

[25] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief p.103

[26] Catton, Bruce. Grant Moves South Castle Books, New York, 2000, originally published by Little Brown and Company, New York 1960 p.402

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

[28] Ibid. Gwynne Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson p.396

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

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

[31] Gallagher, Gary W. The 1862 Richmond Campaign as a Watershed in Major Problems in the Civil War and Reconstruction: Documents and Essays Third Edition Wadsworth Cengage Learning Boston MA 2011 p.157

[32] Ibid. Strachan European Armies and the Conduct of War p.73

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

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

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