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A Revisionist Civil War History
on August 27, 2008
In his book "The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction" (2007) historian Mark Neely offers a challenging reassessment of the destructive, brutal character of the American Civil War. Neely is Professor of History at Penn State University. He has written widely on the Civil War and on Lincoln. In considering differing views of the Civil War, Neely appropriately reminds his readers near the conlusion of his book that "[w]e should remain open to alternative viewpoints and not be committed to a single narrative." (p. 203)
Neely attempts to challenge a commonly-held view, among both scholars and laymen, that the Civil War at least in its late stages became an unusually brutal and destructive conflict -- the harbinger of "total" war as practiced in the 20th Century. He argues that, to the contrary, the Northern and Southern Armies fought in a limited fashion, without undue and unnecessary destruction of the property and lives of civilians and noncombatants. He denies that, in comparing the Civil War with other conflicts, it was particularly brutal or horrid. Neely attributes what he finds to be the relatively civilized conduct of the Civil War to racial perceptions. Soldiers of both North and South treated each other with more respect than was the case when the perceived enemy was of a different race, such as Indian or Mexican.
Neely develops his case in several different ways. First, he contrasts the Civil War with contemporary or earlier wars of the United States. Thus, Neely points out the many instances of brutal conduct by American volunteers against the enemy and against civilians in the Mexican-American War of the late 1840s, the conflict that proceeded the Civil War. During and shortly after the Civil War, the French overthrew the Mexican government and established an Emperor, Maximillian, in an attempt to reestablish a foothold in North America while the United States was otherwise occupied. Maximillian waged war against the Mexican populace with a brutality unmatched in the American conflict. Then again, during the course of the Civil War, the United States was engaged in fighting the Indian tribes on the plains. Neely documents the tactics of burning, destruction, and massacre of innocents that were practiced against the Indians but did not form the general practice of either side in the Civil War. Neely has done a service in reminding of his readers of these too-little known conflicts(the Mexican American War, Maximillian's "black decrees", and the Indian wars) in considering the Civil War, even if he does not convince the reader that the Civil War had a more benign character.
Neely also tries to make his case by examining various incidents in the Civil War itself. He spends a great deal of time discussing guerilla war in Missouri, concluding that participants in that troubled theater of the war distinguished between all-out guerilla warfare and war fought between the regulars of the two sides. He denies that the early guerilla fighting in Missouri proved a harbinger for the war as a whole. In a lengthy chapter, Neely discusses Sheridan's Shenendoah Valley campaign. He denies that this campaign evidenced "total" warfare designed to deprive civilians of subsistence resources. He makes the same points, more briefly, about Sherman's campaigns. Neely considers the brutal treatment of prisoners at places such as Andersonville and the Union's threats to retaliate for this treatment. He finds these threats were mostly empty and made largely for political reasons. The brutality of the war, argues Neely, never matched the thunderous pronouncements of the politicians.
In the final chapter of his book, Neely challenges the casualty figures generally accepted for the Civil War (620,000 dead) by arguing that these figures were inflated for political reasons, that they include the many more soldiers who died from disease rather than from combat, and that Southern fatalities should not be included, anymore that German or Japanese fatalities should be included in counting American deaths in WW II. This final section of the book is weak, both in its arguments and its conclusions.
There is something to be learned from this book. The chapters encouraging the reader to compare the Civil War experience with other contemporary wars are provocative and well-done. There is much to be said for challenging widely-held views and for reminding the reader of the changing character of historical interpretation. But Neely does not establish his broad position. As it progressed, the Civil War became an increasingly hard fought conflict directed at military personnel and at the enemy's capacity to sustain war and to maintain the will to continue the battle. At times, Neely himself seems to acknowledge the character of the conflict. He did not persuade me that it was otherwise.
This book will be of most interest to serious students of the Civil War who wish to broaden their perspective of the conflict and think about alternative interpretations.