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Seventeen years ago, in a spirited and widely reprinted article, Mark E. Neely Jr. sought to refute the notion that the Civil War had been a “total war.” Ever since then, Neely writes in his most recent book, The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction, he has “been looking for the factors that explain the restraint of the Civil War soldiers.” Neely pursues this end by emphasizing every element of restraint in soldierly conduct while diminishing the scope and meaning of all brutal behaviors. He deals with war as either to – tally destructive or completely re strained, as if it could not be both, as though ambiguity is not central to understanding warfare.

First let me emphasize that there is something to the argument that in the gross sense the Civil War was less than total. The conflict did not lead to genocide, a policy of rape or the permanent expulsion of civilian populations. Neely argues, as have previous historians, that cultural inhibitions on killing, raping and evicting white civilians limited the slaughter during that conflict. As he points out, such racial limits did not apply during the prolonged war against American Indians before or after the Civil War. Neither have they applied to civil wars elsewhere or to colonial wars and other race wars.

Too few historians have sought to understand the Civil War within the context of other wars. Therefore Neely spends nearly a third of his book discussing warfare in Mexico. Neely argues that during the Mexican-American War American soldiers at first behaved with “semi-savagery,” plundering, burning and probably raping their way through the land. The professional military men running the U.S. Army, however, soon demonstrated that “stern discipline could override the [racist] ethos of the war and keep in check the brutal impulses fired by cultural beliefs.” This was a prelude to the “quiet and gradual victory of discipline” Neely believes characterized soldiers’ behavior during the war, when all those wild militiamen learned to submit to the iron bar of American military appropriateness.

Neely’s second reference to Mexico concerns French invader Maximilian’s “Black Decree” of October 3, 1865, which prescribed a policy of shooting enemy prisoners of war. Estimates of the killing that followed range from 2,000 to 40,000, but the point Neely makes is that Civil War authorities never issued such a murderous decree, further demonstrating the moral superiority of American men at arms compared to other armies.

Had he looked further afield, Neely could have found far better comparisons to push his argument. The French wars of religion led to mass slaughter, as did the Thirty Years War, not to mention the rape and slaughter of civilians by Germans and Russians and ethnic cleansing in World War II. If the level of warring against civilians is the best measure of the totality of war, which I believe to be the case, then the Civil War was indeed less total than others. Neither North nor South ever promulgated an explicit genocidal policy.

Neely’s argument does not stop there, however. He seeks to demonstrate that in general the Civil War was re strained. It does not follow logically that the absence of genocidal policies means that the war was less than horrific by other meaningful measures.

Although nowhere does he discuss the widespread killing of POWs and civilian males, torture and mutilation of enemy fighters, and looting and burning of whole counties in the guerrilla war theaters of the Civil War, neither does Neely deny that such acts occurred. Yet eschewing any depiction of guerrilla behavior makes such warfare something of a nonhuman abstraction.

In addition, Neely focuses solely on Missouri, ignoring the considerable literature concerning the guerrilla conflict that burned along the border between the combatants, especially in the upland regions of the South. Missouri, the only site he discusses, was a “sideshow…savage at tacks were an exception,” Neely insists. Moreover, Regular armies drew a firm line be – tween fighting guerrillas and fighting Regulars, attacking the former with brutality—again undescribed—but treating Regulars with generosity.

Deploying a similar argument by reduction, Neely fails to engage the history of the widespread killing of surrendered African-American soldiers. Here again, he briefly discusses only one incident, the Fort Pillow massacre, calling it a unique sideshow and ignoring the growing literature that analyzes numerous other such massacres, and the degree to which shooting surrendering blacks was overtly stated policy in many Confederate regiments. Neely fails to note that even though Robert E. Lee was standing a only a few hundred yards away, he never protested the slaughter of disarmed African Americans at the Crater, a massacre that was fully analyzed in J. Tracy Power’s superb study Lee’s Miserables.

Neely does make this sort of point when he discusses the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, where somewhere between 200 and 450 peaceful Cheyenne Indians were slaughtered. Again, Neely uses this case to demonstrate general restraint—this was the first such episode of Indian warfare to be labeled a massacre by military authorities, he argues, thus demonstrating that the discipline they were learning when fighting the Confederates actually softened Union anti-Indian policy. During the next 25 years, several massacres followed Sand Creek, but authorities never again labeled them as massacres, nor does Neely discuss them.

As for killing POWs, we do not know how many surrendering soldiers were executed. Books mention such incidents, but no one has at tempted to synthesize available information. In guerrilla warfare, such executions were the norm; district commanders made this official policy, even if they wrote orders in encoded euphemisms. Moreover, in a catastrophe unmentioned by Neely, 25,897 of 214,865 Confederates (12 percent) in Union POW camps and 30,218 of 194,793 Unionists (15 percent) died in such hellholes as Andersonville. Charles Sanders has demonstrated in his book While in the Hands of My Enemy: Military Prisoners of the American War that “Union and Confederate leaders knew full well that their policies and actions were resulting—directly and unambiguously—in the suffering and deaths of thousands of prisoners.” A total of 56,194 prisoner deaths, most of which could have been prevented, demonstrate anything but a general policy of civilized restraint toward enemy POWs.

What of the scorched-earth policy of Union Generals Sherman and Sheridan? As for Georgia and the Carolinas, Neely settles for one paragraph, stating that the damage Sherman’s armies caused has been greatly exaggerated. More fully discussing the Shenandoah Valley, Neely argues that the fierce language used by Sheridan and Grant was exaggerated and not followed by ferocious action. To the contrary, he writes, “ordinary soldiers [behaved with] habitual and internalized restraint.” Neely relies on reports of general officers to suggest that they did not discuss massive burning of the Valley. He assumes that such reports told the real story, that if anything, in order to please Grant, they exaggerated the destruction caused by Union armies.

As I found in the reports of Union officers in Missouri, the reports were restrained, but the troops were not. Occasionally an officer would tell the truth about shooting a suspected civilian guerrilla sympathizer in cold blood, and then be disciplined (if lightly) for murder. The common euphemism was “being shot while attempting to escape.” It is naive to take such reports at face value—the unease was with openly reporting the destruction they were wreaking, not with performing it.

Neely’s final chapter contends that the military death count for the war (620,000) vastly exaggerates the level of killing and dying. He divides the toll into two sets—360,000 Union dead and 260,000 Confederates—and argues that because Confederates were not Americans, the total of “American” deaths is well below the 407,000 WWII figure. Neither does Neely consider the 50,000 to 100,000 civilians who likely died by war-caused deprivation and outright killing, nor the hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians psycho logically or physically maimed.

Having reduced the generally accepted death toll through this intellectually astounding argument, Neely concludes that Americans were “lucky” that the “country’s bloodiest war pales in comparison” to wars elsewhere. Many historians, he believes, have long “distorted at best” the impact of this civilized and limited war.

Neely criticizes my book Inside War as gloomy, whereas I consider it a realistic account. He argues that, beyond sensationalizing the bloodiness of the Civil War, it and the guerrilla war literature that has followed are suspiciously driven by “the interests and methods of the New Social History…which for the first time brought the common people…into the pages of academic history books…and conversely began to crowd the generals and politicians out of them….Guerrilla warfare had the essential quality needed for social history: it involved whole communities, not soldiers alone, but men, women, children, slaves and yeomen.” Neely on the whole condemns the way in which social history has inevitably led to a distorting concentration on the horrors of war because it views warfare from too close.

Neely discusses John Keegan’s seminal history, The Face of Battle, which Neely correctly observes, “began to write military history more from the point of view of the common soldier in his trench than from that of the general….The effect was naturally bloody, like touring a slaughterhouse rather than having a steak in the dining room of a meatpacking executive.”

Neely writes from the perspective of the general staff dining room, where war is alchemized into abstractions such as restraint and discipline, while modern cultural historians of the war are down in the trenches, smeared with blood. For them, the war was a messy, decentralized affair, where general policies were barely articulated and soldiers followed their own destructive and often murderous imperatives. Americans trapped in that conflict were not so “lucky.”


Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.