Customer Reviews: The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction
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on August 30, 2012
I will come out and say it. I am a Unionist through and through and feel that too much blame is thrown on the feet of the yanks and not enough of the blame taken by the rebs for their own actions. And I was looking forward to a read that finally tries to prove the Federals were not a bloodthirsty and lawless as described.

(Force Mind Trick) But....this is not the book you're looking for. And I will give a few thoughts on why I disagree.

This book's defense is based on three premises: The two sides weren't willing to take off the gloves because of the fact they were fighting whites as well. The discipline level was higher. And the later Union troops were more focused on proving themselves the equals to the Confederates.

1. Being the same race stayed their hands: This statement is not as accurate as he paints for the reader. Sure, during the beginning they tried to be less brutal. But, you read of Confederate troops right after First Manasass digging up a Union soldiers body to mutilate it. You read of Union troops after killing General Zollicoffer during the early part of the war and tearing out hairs of his beard for souvenirs. Lee's second invasion of the north saw Confederates look away as many Confederates all but robbed the northerners, Lee even going as far as saying to a woman complaining that everything has been taken, "Now you know something of what the people of Virginia have endured."

2. The Discipline was higher: Yes, it was, but discipline has a way of breaking down when soldiers capture cities. Fredericksburg being one example, even if the officers tried to stop their men from looting. One case sticks out quiet well in my mind. There's a story of the Overland Campaign where a Union officer told his soldiers he don't want to see them pulling apart fences, then turned around and looked away until his soldiers had dismantled an entire fence. And both sides officially authorized bushwhacking units.

3. Glory more important than revenge: There is a story of during the Georgia Campaign where Sherman's men captured a mill where 400 women were working. He kidnapped them and sent them north. Even despite the quicking an end to the war aim to do the Overland Campaign and March to the Sea and all the other maneuvers in the late part of the war was specifically meant to give the troops a chance to enact revenge against the South for their taking up arms. And meanwhile, as I pointed out, Confederate officers while they tried to limit the destruction caused by their troops in Pennsylvania, would look away at acts of revenge as long as they didn't get out of hand. You even hear of Stuart's cavalry shelling Chambersburg until they pay a ransom to be spared.

In short, this is really a book bent on not so much changing how people look at the war as to diverting their focus away from the war and looking at what other people did. It's the same as a kid who get's caught in trouble and says: "But everyone is doing it, and that kid is so much worse than I am."
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on December 3, 2011
I just do not understand how you can do a study on the destructive limits of the Civil War and not include Sherman's Meridian Campaign and his March to the Sea.
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on August 22, 2009
Neely's thesis in "The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction" is a modest one that scarcely desrves the usually derisive name of "revisionist history." He does not argue that the Civil War was a heart-warming affair of idealists, but he does argues oppose the tendency in recent Civil War writing to depict it as an orgy of violence as unrestrained, in its way, as the Second World War.

In other words, as he is constantly at pains to point out, the general run of military behavior, including - most significantly - Sheridan's and Sherman's campaigns of destruction - was relatively restrained in comparison with what could easily have been done and what other nations, France for example, were doing in their own wars of the period. Campaigns of the Civil War carried out by non-guerrilla forces were far less brutal than the treatment American volunteers doled out to Mexican civilians during the Mexican War - treatment that revolted General Winfield Scott. Rape was common in Mexico; it was rare in Georgia.

Neely cites the Confederate massacre of African-American troops at Fort Pillow as a genuine war crime, but emphasizes that it was virtually unique. The Sand Creek Massacre, in which cavalrymen slaughtered a village of peaceful Native Americans in Colorado in 1864, was another atrocity. But Neely points out an important, if distasteful, distinction between these events and the general run of things during the war. The victims at Sand Creek were Indians and the victims at Fort Pillow were African Americans. The Indians were regarded as barbarians by the vast majority of white Americans North and South, and the black soldiers at Fort Pillow were thought of as treasonous, treacherous, dangerously armed runaway slaves by the South, besides being only marginally better than barbarians. In other words, the pervasive racism of the period led to atrocities, but the sense on both sides was that, however rotten their military opponents might be, they were nevertheless civilized white Americans. This racial solidarity tended to insure more civilized rules of engagement.

It is remarkable that no matter what Sheridan may have wished, and no matter what Sherman might have done, neither army's policy or practice was to kill or to physically harm noncombatant civilians. Civilian homes and property were indeed destroyed, but Federal policy in these campaigns was to spare civilian lives. When that line of policy is crossed - as it was in the First and Second World Wars - a new kind of especially horrific war ensues, in which no-one is ever safe from death, and in which governments care nothing about destroying hundreds of thousands (or millions) of civilian lives for the sake of victory. That Sherman and Sheridan did not bring that sort of "total war" to the South, neely believes, reveals something about those days compared with ours. The North could have waged vast, murderous campaigns against Southern civilians but did not. This was small comfort to the homeless citizens of the Shenandoah Valley, Georgia, and the Carolinas, but it says something about the ethical level of Civil War America: it was slightly superior to ours and far more moderate than it could have been. Lee, for example, since the South was becoming deperate, could have blasted his way through Southern Pennsylvania but did not. On occasions when especially cruel guerrilla campaigns were waged, such as Price's raid into Missouri, the gloves came off, but only because the raiders were more like crimial mobs than like disciplined soldiers.

It is a weakness in Neely's argument that he seems to say nothing about the Siege of Vicksburg, but Grant's intention was to force the city's surrender and not to exterminate the civilian population - something, of course, which did not happen, despite the Union siege.

Some may find Neely's discussion very marginal to Civil War history - few of his facts are new - but it reveals just what were the "limits of destruction" in the Civil War, why, and for whom - and it raises the interesting issue of how our ethical standards have changed.

The book, by the way, is a very enjoyable read.
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on February 9, 2013
Especially considereing the Black Decree in Mexico - one reason European colonialism failed - Never interested in ruling or governoring in an appropriate manner.
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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.

Robin Friedman
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VINE VOICEon November 24, 2007
A thesis that Neely has explored in several of his books is repeated here: the Civil War really wasn't as vicious as the men who fought it and the civilians who suffered from it claimed. In his The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties (1992), for example, he argues that Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus and arrest of disloyalists really wasn't all that bad. Subsequent books, such as The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America (1995) and Southern Rights: Political Prisoners and the Myth of Confederate Constitutionalism (1999) reiterate this curiously apologetic theme.

The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction continues the thesis by claiming that when it comes to partisan war in the western theatre, life in prisoner-of-war camps, scorched earth campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley, and so on, the brutality of the Civil War has been overrated by a war-shy, post-Vietnam generation. Neely claims that we read these events anachronistically, failing to recognize that the Civil War was much more restrained than wars before or since.

But there are two problems with all this. The first is that, in spite of the fact that it's revisionist history, Neely's book isn't terribly original revisionist history. Mark Grimsley said the same thing (and said it better, by the way) in his The Hard Hand of War back in 1995. Moreover, many of the particular analyses that comprise separate chapters in Neely's book are also unoriginal. The revisionist denial that Sheridan ravaged the Shenandoah Valley has already been made, for example, in Michael G. Mahon's The Shenandoah Valley (Mahon's book, by the way, is just as unconvincing as Neely's chapter).

The second problem is that Neely (and Grimsley, although to a lesser extent) overplays his hand. Of course the Civil War was less brutal than the Indian wars or Maximillian's war against Mexican republicans or early modern European chevauchees. But to say that the Civil War was less brutal than other wars doesn't at all mean that it wasn't brutal, and this is the implicit conclusion with which Neely leaves his readers. It's good, as Neely does, to point out that each generation needs to be aware of the interpretive lens through which it reads the Civil War. But Neely's revisionist reading of the war as a kinder and gentler phenomenon than it was is an unfortunate return to romanticization of a national trauma whose ill-effects are still felt. This reviewer, at least, is left wondering why revisionists such as Neely are compelled to downplay what those who actually lived through the Civil War never doubted for a moment. Is this a subtle glamorization of war?

I don't know. But I find older studies that the revisionists tend to pooh-pooh--for example, Gerald Linderman's Embattled Courage (1989)or Charles Royster's The Destructive War (1993)--much more thoughtful.
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