American Civil War: The First Total War?

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“The proper strategy consists in inflicting as telling blows as possible on the enemy’s army, and then in causing the inhabitants so much suffering that they must long for peace, and force the government to abandon it (the war). The people must be left nothing but their eyes to weep with.” (General Philip Sheridan, 1870)

Among historians, the term ‘total war’ has no one definitive meaning. To some it is the complete breakdown of the distinction between civilian and non-civilian targets; to others, it is the mobilisation of an entire society’s resources for war. In spite of these differing opinions, it seems as if one war – the American Civil War – stands out as the earliest encapsulation of total war theories. From Sherman’s ‘March to the Sea’ to Sheridan’s devastation of the Shenandoah Valley, the Union undoubtedly focussed on the obliteration of civilian targets to crush the Confederacy.

On 21 July 1861, 32,000 men under Federal Brigadier General Irvine McDowell came up against the 35,000 men of Confederate Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard in Prince William County, Virginia, at the First Battle of Bull Run. This marked the first major clash of the war, yet the nature of contemporary strategy and tactics remained shockingly primitive.

It was customary for American generals of the time to study at West Point – the most revered military academy in the United States. Having been first established in 1802 by Colonel Johnathan Williams, West Point grew to affluence during the 1820s under the leadership of Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, who was posthumously labelled as the “father of the military academy”. During this period, Thayer established a basic pedagogical system centred around the Napoleonic tactics of the early 19th century. Burgeoning military leaders were also taught to develop a distinct sense of professionalism and group identity; it was believed that war at the time should be fought by professionals, not citizen militias.

Studies at West Point were further influenced by the beliefs of some of Europe’s leading military thinkers, most notably the Swiss, Henri Jomini. Jomini, heavily influenced by the wars of Frederick the Great and Napoleon, believed in the advantage of the ‘central position’, that not only provided an army with interior lines of communication but allowed them to focus the bulk of their force on a fixed point in the enemy’s line, crushing their defences. He was also a firm believer in a chivalric war, with limited warfare, fighting and objectives. In the early 19th century, Jomini’s writings became scripture for American generals, however, by 1861, these principles were markedly outdated.

At Bull Run, both McDowell and Beauregard were so committed to Napoleonic tactics, that they both attempted to mimic Napoleon’s manœuvre sur les derrières (movement on the backside) from Austerlitz in 1805. The generals both weakened their left wing, while simultaneously flanking with their right, resulting in a stalemate, as the armies had effectively flipped sides. Strategically, Bull Run was of little importance, yet more people died in the battle than any other in American history up until that point (800 casualties on both sides) – it provided a sinister foretaste for what was to come.

The First Battle of Bull Run also provided another important precedent for the changing nature of warfare – the role of the railway. In the closing stages of the battle, 2,500 Confederate troops arrived at the scene, helping to turn the tide against the Federals. Despite not necessarily being an effective use of the train – the Confederate force got lost and only by chance ended up colliding with the Federals – it provided a pertinent example of the potential of the train in transporting troops and supplies to the battlefield. Yet, it would take another two years for this potential to be effectively exploited.

In 1861, it seemed inevitable that the North would come out victorious in the conflict. The North had a population of 22 million, more than double that of the South, who only had nine million; the North had two million soldiers in comparison to the South’s one million; the North also made up 90% of the manufacturing and 97% of the arms production in America at the time. Yet from April 1861 to January 1863, the Union’s success was very limited. The Federals had been defeated at the Second Bull Run and Fredericksburg, while McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign was an utter failure; the North had even faced an invasion from Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in September of 1862. However, the ultimate failure of this invasion at the Battle of Antietam gave Lincoln the courage to draft the first true total war strategy of the war: the Emancipation Proclamation.

Decreed on 1 January 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation declared that “all persons held as slaves within any State…in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free”. This granted freedom to the 3.2 million slaves in the South, while also permitting slaves to serve in the Union army, bolstering their manpower by an additional 180,000 men. At face value, this seemed to be primarily a humanitarian act aimed at alleviating slaves from the atrocities they faced at the hands of Southern farmers. However, Lincoln’s paramount objective was to save the Union, thus, to him, the core aim of emancipation was simply to support the war effort. This mindset was evidenced in a letter to Horace Greeley on August 23, 1862, in which Lincoln famously wrote: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it”.

The Emancipation Proclamation marked a major turning point in Union strategy. It not only bolstered the Union’s military strength but had profound impacts on the labour force of the South, crippling its economy. Yet, perhaps the most pertinent impact of emancipation in the context of the war was its political and moral implications. It framed the war not only as a conflict to unify the seceded states but also as a struggle for freedom and human rights against an oppressor, playing a vital role in garnering public support for the war effort. For the first time, Union strategy addressed politics and societal mobilisation for war, setting a precedent for the total war policies of the following two years.

Less than three months after emancipation, Lincoln introduced conscription in March 1863, drafting all male citizens aged 20-45 into the Union army. Conscription was bitterly resented by the Northern populus, evidenced by the bloody New York City draft riots from 13-16 July that year. Irrespective of this unrest, the newly enlarged Federal army was put to use in November of 1863, where they were tasked with seizing the railway of Chattanooga – a key transportation hub in Tennessee.

Having broken through the Confederate line at Missionary Ridge, Union general Joseph Hooker then launched a three-pronged attack, surprising the Confederate troops, and forcing an eventual retreat on November 25. This gave the Union access to railway lines reaching Nashville, Atlanta and Memphis, while also allowing them to capitalise on the pro-Union sentiment in Tennessee. Although the Chattanooga Campaign was by no means a crushing victory, the seizure of the railway allowed for the development of mass mobilisation strategies, as expeditions into the deep South could now receive ammunition and food through train lines. From this point onwards, the Union’s strategy became clear; rather than focussing every general on engaging the Confederates in pitched battles, some would embark on campaigns targeting Southern civilian property with the aim of defeating the peoples’ will to fight, thus forcing a Confederate surrender.

The first real test of this new strategy came in September 1864, when Union General-In-Chief Ulysses Grant ordered General Philip Sheridan’s army of nearly fifty-thousand men to march to the Shenandoah Valley, with the aim of destroying existing agricultural goods and any possibility of producing such goods in the area for the remainder of that season. Put another way, Grant ordered Sheridan to take control of the landscape away from the local residents.

Prior to the war, the Shenandoah Valley had been one of the most fruitful regions of Virginia. The valley’s numerous mills transformed wheat into flour, wool into textiles, skins into leather, and trees into lumber. These products were then transported by three railroads serving the region, which moved the vast agricultural stores from the valley to Virginia’s urban areas in the east. With the outbreak of armed conflict in 1861, the resources of the Shenandoah Valley made it one of the most important and contested areas in the country. Often referred to as the “granary of the Confederacy”, the valley became a lynchpin of the Southern cause and a primary target of the Northern war machine.

However, from the outset of the war until its final six months, the valley remained an elusive goal for the Union forces. First under the legendary Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, then under the irascible Jubal Early, the Confederate Army protected the fertile Shenandoah from all Union incursions. Grant, recognizing the importance of the Shenandoah for the Confederates as both a storehouse and a secure transportation route, had already made an expedition into the region, however, his forces had been easily repelled. After this ignominious defeat, Grant realized that aggressive operations in the valley were of no use to him and decided instead that the best alternative was to make the region “untenable for either army.”

Sheridan’s campaign in the valley began slowly, but after several battles against Jubal Early’s Confederates, he gained unstoppable momentum. Pursuing Early’s retreating forces, Sheridan marched three columns of his army up the Valley Turnpike, passing and burning every farm and field that he encountered. In a report to Grant, Sheridan wrote: “I have destroyed over 2,000 barns filled with wheat, hay and farming implements; over seventy mills filled with flour and wheat; have driven in front of the army over 4,000 head of stock, and have killed and issued to the troops not less than 3,000 sheep”.  By laying waste to Turnpike, the valley’s most visible and material source of strength, Sheridan’s campaign furthered the Union cause more than almost any campaign up to that time. It was a strategic, logistic, political, and psychological success.

Sheridan’s devastation of the valley provided the first large-scale demonstration that the strategy of exhaustion could accomplish the psychological and logistical damage envisioned by Grant. It would not be the last, however. As Sheridan was wrapping up his campaign in the Shenandoah, another of Grant’s commanders was beginning his own farther south. On 15 November 1864, William T. Sherman cut loose his supply lines and set out on his infamous ‘March to the Sea’.

Prior to 1864, Sherman had already proven his usefulness as a total war commander. In May 1863, Sherman had led Union forces into Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, but had not remained there long. However, on July 4, Vicksburg finally surrendered to Grant’s siege, and he ordered Sherman to once more assault Jackson, with the aim of rendering it useless to the Confederacy. The ensuing Union assault was felt throughout the northern part of the state as Mississippians fled before the Union. The Confederates evacuated Jackson on the night of July 16, leaving it to the mercy of the soldiers who wreaked havoc on the capital. Three days later Sherman wrote that “Jackson, once the pride and boast of Mississippi, is now a ruined town.” But now, in early 1864, Sherman was given a greater task; during the next eight months, his army was to repeat their performance on a larger scale in Georgia, with the aim of devastating the state and crushing their will to fight.

In its first phase, the Georgia campaign presented problems that Sherman had not faced in Mississippi. As he moved southward along the Chattanooga railway to Atlanta, he was confronted by a well-organized, battle-hardened army under the command of General Joseph E. Johnston, one of the ablest of the Confederate military leaders. Additionally, Sherman’s operations were also rendered more difficult by the mountainous terrain that had to be traversed. Under such conditions the loose organization and lax discipline of the Mississippi campaign had to give way to compact order and carefully planned manoeuvring, thus there was less opportunity to carry the war to the civilian population.

However, this by no means meant that Sherman had abandoned his concept of total war, evidenced by the thoroughness of his destruction of town after town as they came within the range of his operations. For example, his mass deportation to Indiana of approximately five hundred women workers from the Roswell cotton and woolen mills in July 1864; his seizure of noncombatant citizens to be used as hostages to prevent local resistance to his foraging parties; his condonement of pillaging wherever the opportunity presented itself; and finally, his callous suggestion to one of his subordinates that in retaliation for attacks on Federal communications, he was to “burn ten or twelve houses of known secessionists, kill a few at random, and let them know that it will be repeated every time a train is fired on.”

With the capture and subsequent destruction of Atlanta in the early spring of 1864 and the withdrawal of the greater part of the Confederate army northwestward, Sherman was once more in a position to carry on the type of campaign for which his men had been trained for in Mississippi. Thus, on 15 November, as his army of 62,000 rolled into the Georgia countryside, Sherman’s devastating ‘March to the Sea’ began.

The march was 400 miles long, from Atlanta to the Georgian coast, yet Sherman moved almost entirely unopposed. Over the course of a 25-day march to the coast, the army went about burning houses and barns, and tearing up 300 miles of rail track; such was their isolation from their supplies that they even had to live off the land. It is estimated that the troops seized over 6,000 horses and mules, 13,000 cattle and four and a half million kilograms of grain and fodder. Whereas Grant’s Army of the Potomac focussed on the traditional aim of defeating the enemy’s army in battle, Sherman’s aim was to destroy the economy that sustained those armies, as well as terrifying the enemy’s civil population into submission. Through his brutal ‘March to the Sea’, Sherman was undoubtedly able to achieve this.

11 days after reaching the coast, Sherman’s army moved into Savannah. Merely a day after occupying the city, Sherman wrote that if Grant did not need his force immediately in Virginia he “could go on and smash South Carolina all to pieces.” However, Sherman was kept in waiting, until February 1, 1865, when his army was ordered to move to Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. Upon arriving at the northern limits of South Carolina, Sherman left behind him a trail of terror and desolation, of burned homes and towns, devastated fields and plundered storehouses, and systematic torture, pillage, and vandalism unequalled in American history.

While Sherman moved towards Richmond, devastating the Carolinas, Sheridan was also pressing towards the capital from the Shenandoah. This threat of encirclement, coupled with the incessant pressure from Grant’s Army of the Potomac, forced Lee to surrender in the Appomattox Court House on 9 April 1865, thus ending the Civil War.

The American Civil War marked the epoch of a new kind of war. For the first time in a major conflict, the press and public opinion had to be taken into consideration. Not only was there no censorship, but elections were held in wartime, thus for a wartime leader, the political implications of the actions of their generals were crucial (Lincoln nearly lost the election of 1864). Moreover, the new technologies of the railway and the telegraph proved vital in facilitating the mass mobilisation strategies required in wars of this scale. But perhaps the most pertinent takeaway from the Civil War was the importance of total war strategies in securing a complete victory. Sheridan and Sherman proved that by focussing on the destruction of civilian property, they were able to cripple the Confederate economy, thus crippling the army also and preventing any possibility of a Southern resurgence. Ultimately, it was these total war strategies that had the most profound impact on the outcome of the war, as they obliterated both the Southern economy and morale, something that no pitched battle was ever able to achieve.

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