The term “bloody” is so frequently attached as qualifier to the American Civil War that we tend to accept it without question. But how bloody was it? According to some estimates, in excess of 620,000 soldiers died on both
Acclaimed historian Aaron Sheehan-Dean ponders just that in his magnificent, ground-breaking work, The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War , an engaging and extremely well-written analysis of a long-overlooked topic hiding in plain sight. More than 60,000 books have been written about the American Civil War, and each time I crack the cover of another I cannot help but wonder if there yet exists anything new to say about it. In this case, Sheehan-Dean one-ups hopes for fresh perspective with something akin to epiphany! The very definition of war implies violence, of course, and historians have a fairly good sense of how much violence was contained in the totality of those four years of armed conflict, but what was it that set those decidedly finite parameters? Were there certain guardrails in place, and if so, why? Confronted with something so conspicuous yet so generally ignored in the literature can be startling—and highly rewarding.
In the ancient world, survival of the conquered on and off the battlefield was subject to whims of kings or commanders, and the outcome was typically grim. The Assyrians were known to be especially sanguinary, the Greeks less so, but despite his disapproving tone we know from Thucydides’ account of the siege of Melos—which ended with the Athenians putting all the men to the sword—that massacre was far more often the rule than the exception. In the contemporary world, there are a whole host of international agreements specifically structured to protect noncombatants, but look only to the streets of Ukraine or across the landscape of the Middle East to observe how meaningless these turn out to be for those casually and euphemistically dismissed as “collateral damage.” The rest of Europe was appalled when German zeppelins bombed London in 1915, but whatever may be solemnly sworn to on parchment, such tactics are today nothing less than standard operating procedure. Yet, sandwiched between these ancient and modern extremes was an era in the West when rules of engagement among warring nations were less fuzzy and more generally respected. This was the milieu that hosted the American Civil War.
Throughout history, while levels of violence in war have often been arbitrary, restraint in warfare was governed by law and custom. At the outbreak of the Civil War, what we understand today as international law was nonexistent. The behavior of belligerents was instead governed by unwritten codes that evolved over centuries of European conflicts that looked to rules of engagement on the battlefield, secured the lives of prisoners of war, and made clear distinctions between soldiers and non-combatants. Those operating on behalf of the enemy out of uniform were treated as spies or saboteurs and subject to execution. Civilians were not to be targeted. This is not to say that abuses never occurred, nor that hapless inhabitants caught up in the path of invading armies did not suffer, but these customs of war were commonly observed by those engaged in hostilities.
The United States regarded the seceded states as in rebellion and refused to recognize the Confederate States of America as a rival nation, although it was nevertheless compelled to treat it as such in certain situations, as during a truce or in a prisoner exchange. This was similar to the dynamic during the Revolutionary War, when the British came to treat captured Continentals as prisoners of war, rather than as rebels subject to hanging. Still, circumstances sometimes made for some awkward posturing by the Lincoln administration, such as when it imposed a naval blockade of southern ports, since it is impossible to blockade your own country. Foreign recognition, especially by European powers such as Great Britain and France, was a cherished hope of the Confederacy. While it was ultimately not to be, the dream never really died, which, the author emphasizes, motivated the CSA to act within the confines of established European traditions of war in order to assert their legitimacy as a member of the family of nations. For its part, the United States not only abided by these identical customs but was careful to do nothing which might strain those boundaries and provoke foreign sympathy for the Confederacy that might lead to recognition, a stumble certain to jeopardize the cause of Union. The matter was further complicated by the curious reality of adversaries each governed by representative democracies, with public opinion and the support of the electorate vital to their respective conduct of the war.
It was a mutual respect for these customs of war that defined the state of affairs as belligerency commenced, but unanticipated factors threatened to upset that uneasy balance almost from the outset. The first was when Jefferson Davis quietly sanctioned guerrilla warfare by failing to discourage it, over the objection of soldiers of the regular army such as Robert E. Lee. Historically, there was a distinction between officially organized “partisans” and gangs of guerrillas, but here lines were very blurred. Bands of raiders responsible for so much bloodshed in competing causes in the pre-war era in places like Kansas were embraced as worthy irregulars by the Confederate cause across the southern geography. These loosely organized marauders operated out of uniform to harass, sabotage, and pick off Union ranks. There was uncertainty as to what to do with these “bushwhackers” when captured. Many were executed, as the customs of war would dictate. This was branded as murder by the Confederacy, even as their protest was muted. But not every irregular captured by the north was put to death.
The second was the status of the human property that the Confederate cause held so dear. Despite loud cries to the contrary in the postwar period that still echo into today’s politics, the southern states seceded principally in order to champion human chattel slavery in their “proud slave Republic,” with hopes of one day expanding it beyond their borders. Historians distinguish between societies with slaves and slave societies; the CSA was a slave society. The labor of enslaved African Americans was a critical piece of the southern war effort that freed up a larger percentage of white southerners to fight. And we now know that tens of thousands of “camp slaves” routinely accompanied Confederate forces on campaign, providing the essential support for an army in the field performed by the typical soldier in blue on the other side. When Union armies moved onto southern soil, escaped members of the local enslaved population sought refuge behind their lines. Initially, southern masters demanded their return in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act, and some northern officers complied. Others refused. Lincoln dithered at first. The northern cause was preservation of the Union; emancipation would not become a war aim until some time later. There was, too, a need for a delicate balancing act to avoid alienating the coalition of border slave states still loyal to the United States. Still, it was clearly in the north’s interest to deprive Richmond of what after all amounted to a human component of the enemy’s materiel. With that in mind, the decision was made not to return “contrabands,” which enraged the south by an act they deemed dishonorable.
But anger turned to outrage in the third instance, when Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation not only declared free all the enslaved in the rebellious states but also called for recruiting black men into uniform. For the south, this was a violation of civilizational norms, which was furiously denounced and accompanied by threats to return to slavery or even execute captured black troops, and severely punish their white officers. Lincoln countered with his own warnings of reprisals, which led to an official standoff. But it was different in the field. Confederates frequently murdered black soldiers seeking surrender. There were well-publicized massacres of large numbers of United States Colored Troops (USCT) at places like Fort Pillow and the Battle of the Crater, but such atrocities on a smaller scale were more common over the course of the war than were once acknowledged. Still, as in the case of southern guerrillas who fell into the hands of Union forces, not all suffered this terrible fate; despite uncertain status, both groups ended up as well in respective prisoner of war camps. Likewise, after Fort Pillow, some African Americans, swearing revenge, summarily executed captured Confederates, but not every black soldier resorted to such measures. In the end, restraint ruled the day more often than we would expect.
The author has a lot to say about restraint, which is key to his thesis that under the circumstances we might have expected the Civil War to be far more brutal than it turned out to be. One salient aspect that generally escapes consideration is the conspicuous absence of slave insurrections during the war years: a noteworthy example of self-restraint by the enslaved population. The plantation elite long lived in terror of uprisings such as the 1831 Nat Turner revolt that saw the slaughter of whites by their chattel property, but these incidents were not only exceedingly rare in the antebellum, but despite increased vulnerabilities on the southern home front never occurred during the Civil War. More than 500,000 enslaved individuals fled to northern lines as refugees during the Civil War; very few resorted to acts of violence against their former masters. By the end of the war, USCT made up about ten percent of the Union army, where the overwhelming majority served with bravery and distinction as part of a regular uniformed fighting force. Given the inhumanity that was part and parcel of the African American experience in chattel slavery, it is indeed remarkable that episodes of retaliation against those who held them in cruel bondage were not more prevalent.
Overall, civilians fared far better in the Civil War than in most ancient or modern wars. Much has been made of northern so-called “hard war” policies that the south viewed as barbaric, but under scrutiny it seems that “Lost Cause” hyperbole has distorted historical memory. The infamous 1863 Union Army directive General Order No. 11, which banished 20,000 residents of four counties in western Missouri, is frequently cited as an especially heinous act. But this was a direct response to the slaughter of about 150 men and boys at Lawrence, Kansas at the hands of Confederate guerrillas led by William Quantrill and, as the author underscores, this tactic of mass relocation likely reduced the number of vigilante reprisals that might otherwise have occurred. Likewise, Sherman’s march has long been characterized as unduly harsh, although the truth is that few noncombatants were killed along the way. On the other hand, Sheehan-Dean is clear that there is no doubt that even when not targeted by bullets, civilians suffered through lack of access to food, shelter, and medical care when caught in the path of armies, and the majority of this took place on southern soil.
As for the behavior of the regular armies on both sides, the author notes that the customs of war were generally respected, and neither combatants nor civilians were subjected to the kind of unrestrained brutality that might have been visited upon Native Americans with little hesitation. This brings to mind British horror when Germans introduced machine guns to World War I battlefields, although the Brits themselves had slaughtered some 1,500 African Ndebele warriors in 1893 with similar firepower. There were supposed to be rules for how “civilized” white men waged war; these rules did not apply to those deemed the “other.” Of course, that is likely how some Confederates reconciled the murder of black troops seeking surrender. But it is also, as the author reminds us, how Union officers justified executing captured guerrillas, another group of “outsiders.” Despite this, episodes of restraint on both sides were far more common than we might expect. As Sheehan-Dean eloquently argues:
The wartime calculus created by the Civil War’s participants sanctioned episodes of grim destruction and instances where the inertia of violence weakened … Moments of charity occurred wherever Union commanders and Confederate commanders or Southern politicians negotiated surrenders—of forts, armies, and towns—without violence. They happened when soldiers surrendered on battlefields and became prisoners of war. They even happened when officers used threats of retaliation to demand an end to unjust practices. In most cases, a retaliatory order de-escalated the situation. The most pivotal moment of de-escalation was the decision by enslaved people to pursue freedom rather than revenge … [p355]
At the outset of the Civil War, the closest thing to a manual of conduct for war was a wordy treatise based upon European history and tradition by Henry Halleck, who later became Lincoln’s General-in-Chief. But, as chronicled in some detail in The Calculus of Violence, formal rules of warfare were officially established on the Union side through the Herculean efforts of German-born Francis Lieber, who based what came to be known as the Lieber Code upon a “just war” theory. This first modern codification of the laws of war has had a lasting legacy, deeply influencing the later Hague Conventions and Geneva Conventions that established the existing tenets of international law and determined what acts of war can be considered tantamount to a war crime. Of course, there’s no shortage of irony to the awful truth that civilian populations often fared far better in Lieber’s day than they have in the days since. Structured, codified, hallowed international law has done little to mitigate the harsh reality found in the mass murder of populations who happen to get in the way of belligerents.
No review, no matter how detailed, could possibly do justice to the breadth and depth of ideas explored in this book, but it is a
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