How Do You Define Total?
It’s comforting to know—especially for magazine and book publishers—that America’s Civil War continues to inspire debate on a number of fronts. One argument centers on the nature of the conflict: Was it a “total war” in that any target, military or civilian, was fair game to an opposing army (story, P. 28)?
Compared with many European conflicts, or most fights between American Indians and whites, the Blue and the Gray weren’t as harsh with each other. William T. Sherman’s 1864 March to the Sea and Philip Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign of the same year are generally cited as the two prime examples of when the war approached “total.”
But thousands of other incidents occurred that brought civilians into the cross hairs. The National Archives has a large number of what are commonly called “damage claim” files for Northern citizens. Noncombatants turned in damage claims to try to get recompensed when their property was damaged in the course of military action.
Many of those claims are shocking in scale. Entire farmsteads, the culmination of generations of hard work, were often wiped out. The soldiers who caused the devastation were generally not acting on any larger military imperative or orders. Their destruction was more casual—fence rails needed for cooking fires, larders and livestock too tempting to resist. For the victims, however, the result was the same as if “Uncle Billy” Sherman himself had ordered the action.
When Major John I. Nevin’s 93rd Pennsylvania, a VI Corps regiment, crossed the Potomac back into Virginia near Lovettsville at the end of the Gettysburg Campaign, Nevin noted in his diary, “A fine barn was set on fire this evening, he is a Secesh.” It would have been hard to convince that unlucky Virginia farmer that the war was anything but total.
Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.