Book Review: The Civil War And The Limits Of Destruction

The Civil War And The Limits Of Destruction, by Mark E. Neely, Jr.


This book is revisionist history in the best way, and looks at some elements of the question of logistical warfare in the Civil War, an area of strong personal interest [1].  At its heart, this is a book that seeks to refute the charge that the North in particular engaged in the sort of total war against the Confederacy that one hears about from those who slander Sherman and Sheridan, among others, and that the Northern armies were rapine armies of vandals who sought to exterminate the South.  This overheated but not uncommon statement turns out to be fairly easy to refute, and the author then turns to the question of the assumptions by which American armies fought in the mid-19th century, which turns out to be immensely instructive and also useful as a commentary on contemporary morality.  To oversimplify the point slightly, American soldiers fought based on how closely they viewed their enemies in terms of “race” and culture, where the closer other nations were viewed, the kinder the treatment in war and the greater restraint shown to civilians.  Where enemies were viewed as savages by those who fancied themselves to be civilized, warfare was exceptionally barbaric in nature, as on the Plains and with the French in Mexico, and however heated the rhetoric behind Union leaders, there was a great deal of restraint on their part despite Southern atrocities against black Union soldiers and terrorist and guerrilla warfare.

This book, with a bit over 200 pages of text and a lengthy section of notes befitting a book that seeks to appeal to evidence to make a novel or controversial argument, consists of a series of related essays that deal to different aspects of logistical warfare within the context of the Civil War and its times.  The author looks first at the Mexican-American War to look at whether American republican ideals influenced American conduct there, and found that racism trumped political ideals in how Mexico was judged.  The second chapter looks at the limited and civilized warfare that accompanied Price’s raid in Missouri, showing that the ferocious guerrilla warfare there was not generalized in a more conventional campaign in the same territory.  Next the author examines the complicated American response to Maximilian’s black degree that ordered (and enforced) savage treatment against Mexican liberals opposed to his French-backed government.  The author then shows the striking delicacy and moderation of Sheridan’s behavior in the Shenendoah Valley of 1864 and showed how there were serious attempts to preserve the subsistence of farmers there even while ruining the surplus that supported rebel armies.  The author then turns to the brutality of the Sand Creek Massacre and how it marked a watershed in the slow process by which civilized conduct influenced the political discourse of warfare on the plains, which would become increasingly problematic up to Wounded Knee and beyond.  The last chapter looks at the rhetorical advocacy of retaliation concerning rebel treatment of Union prisoners at Belle Isle and Andersonville in contrast to the lack of retaliation that occurred.  The author then concludes with a harsh criticism of the glorification of largely nonexistence brutality in the Civil War that skews our own perception and that encourages a hardness and brutality within ourselves.  Overall, the book is exceptionally well done and argues its points persuasively.

Those wishing to write revisionist history on the Civil War would do well to examine this book and its approach closely.  For one, the author makes sure he has command of his sources–he cites everything from memoirs to obscure diplomatic writings to orders and congressional debates.  The author explores the gulf between rhetoric and practice, and the moral blind spots of Americans in the age of the Civil War, as well as the way in which historical writers worked against sentimentalism in treating the Civil War and may have gone too far in response.  What makes this a masterful work of revisionist history is that it forces readers to confront their own harsh and bloodthirsty principles concerning warfare and our own sense of brutality, which stands in marked contrast to the admirable and striking restraint that was shown during the Civil War.  In pointing out the flagrant and offensive racism of the time and how it influenced conduct in war, the author simultaneously manages to shine a light on how we are often more savage than those whom we criticize for their Civil War conduct.  Instead of turning every savage massacre into honorable conflict, we have become more savage ourselves in striking at the logistical and economic elements of societies with whom we are at war to a far greater extent than soldiers like Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan.  This is a striking and unpleasant realization to come to for many readers, I imagine.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History, International Relations, Military History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Book Review: The Civil War And The Limits Of Destruction

  1. Pingback: Book Review: In The Presence Of Mine Enemies | Edge Induced Cohesion

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  3. Pingback: Monuments Men: The Case For Removal | Edge Induced Cohesion

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