2017 Civil War Institute Day One

The first day of this year’s Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College Summer Conference is in the books.

We started off with a presentation by Professor Martin Johnson of the Miami University of Ohio. He spoke on “Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Moment,” which was the result of his investigation into how Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address. It’s based on James Speed’s 1879 recollection of what Lincoln told him about the speech. According to Speed, Lincoln said he wrote half the speech the day prior to leaving for Gettysburg. Lincoln got to Gettysburg and worked on the speech, then the morning he gave the speech he and Seward walked the battlefield near where Reynolds was killed. Lincoln returned and worked on the speech some more. Finally, while Lincoln was listening to Edward Everett give his oration, he thought of some final changes to the speech, so in fact Lincoln was working on the speech almost to the moment he stood up to give the speech.

The next presentation was by Dr. Michael Neiberg of the US Army War College, on “Toward the Age of People’s War: The Civil War to World War I.” He basically argued the Civil War and World War I were both total wars. He started off by saying scholars have had a difficult time defining total war. Some use technology, others use the goals of the nation, and then others use the problem of the culture to determine it. Also, what is a limited war for one nation in the conflict could be a total war for the other nation, leading to an asymmetric situation. He connected total war to Clausewitz’s concept of absolute war. Clausewitz wrote that absolute war is the direction in which war naturally goes if nothing limits it, but there are always limiting factors such as the political goals of the state, the natural fog and friction of war, geography, the limitations on what a state can do, and the size of the armed forces. Total war, Neiberg told us, is a fetish among many scholars. Dr. Jennie Kiesling of the United States Military Academy considers the concept to be pointless. Total war, simplified, can be thought of as what you do when you win. You win when you do what you need to do and put all of your effort into winning. Total war then becomes a positive and you use all the tools in y our arsenal. In the concept of total war, the state would leave all the tactical, operational, and strategic decisions in the hands of the military professionals. He then applied Sherman’s march to the sea to this concept. Sherman had minimal political interference, he used all of his military power, and he had a positive strategic outcome. Neiberg also identified characteristics of total war. First it intentionally targets civilians as an intentional part of military strategy. He used blockades, understanding the force is fighting civilians as well as the military and strategic bombing as what how civilians get targeted.

In this, I think he’s overly broad. He counts blockades as an example of targeting civilians, yet if the blockade is against an agricultural nation, I’m not sure how much it is targeting civilians as opposed to simply targeting commerce and weapons deliveries. Civilians themselves weren’t targeted in the Civil War, except for the case of reprisals and guerrilla operations. So to my view this shows a major reason why the Civil War was not a total war.

Neiberg went on to say a total war leads to a growth in the power of government. It opens up ways for the government to do things they wouldn’t normally do. Again, I think he’s being overly broad because a national government could expand its power during conflict and retract that power afterward, as we saw with the Civil War, and still have a limited objective.

He said the American Civil War had a revolutionary effect in the elimination of legal slavery in the United States, but he said that effect was localized to the United States and there was little revolutionary change on a worldwide scale as a result of the war, as compared with World War I, which saw the elimination of four monarchies as a result of the conflict.

Neiberg told us total war creates an altered state and increases hatreds. In order for the conflict to be resolved young men have to stop willing to die for the cause, the two sides have to stop dehumanizing each other, and they have to develop a shared history of the events. Significantly, this shared history doesn’t have to be accurate. It just has to be something both sides agree on so they can move forward. He said after the Civil War people stopped willing to die for the cause. While the KKK and other white supremacist terrorist groups continued to be willing to kill, they weren’t willing to die. There wasn’t a dehumanization of the other side after the war, and the two sides agreed on a lost cause interpretation of the war. Another significant point is that this was between the white citizens of the two sides.

Ultimately, I think his concept required an altered definition of total war in order to work. I don’t think the accepted definition of using all the resources of a nation to fight the war and targeting all the resources of the opposing nation fits with the Civil War. Hence I don’t believe he’s succeeded in overturning Mark Neely’s thesis that the Civil War is not a total war.

Our final event was a conversation between CWI Director Peter Carmichael and writer Harold Holzer. Holzer reviewed how he came to write so many books about Abraham Lincoln and about his time advising scriptwriter Tony Kushner on the screenplay for the Steven Spielberg movie, Lincoln. It was an interesting and entertaining discussion.

We had an excellent day, and the meat of the program is coming up. This is a terrific conference each year, and this year is no exception.

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4 comments

  1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    As a first time participant, I am still very much processing my experience of attending CWI2017. however, the presentation of Dr. Neilberg stands apart in my notes as one that I found myself at odds with. I felt that his definition of “Total War” did not fit with what I had learned prior to the conference and was confusing at times. Applying the term “Total War” to Sherman, almost provoked me to get up and leave, however, good manners dictated that I not do this. I have spent a goodly amount of time discerning between “Total War” and “Hard War”, and by the time this particular presentation ended, I felt like I had taken 10 steps back in my understanding of both terms. The fact that Sherman could ratchet up his pressure (Atlanta) and pull it back (Savannah) would immediately disqualify him from the category of “Total War” in my mind. The blog post does a fine job of reminding us of the standard usage of the term “Total War” and I appreciate the reminder and reassurance that I was on the right track beforehand.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Shoshana. Sherman didn’t wage total war, not because he could change the amount of force he used, but because he never reached what total war is. Here’s a thought, though. We always look at the question of total war in the Civil War from the Union side. What about the confederates? Part of total war is mobilizing the entire population of a nation. The confederacy came mighty close to that. Did they use all the weapons at their disposal? They even used the forerunners of land mines. While I am not arguing the confederates waged total war, did they perhaps exhibit more of the characteristics of total war than even Sherman exhibited?

  2. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    I am interested to know if total war includes a description/definition as to how prospective POWs are treated. In both the Crater and Fort Pillow, USCT were massacred. Also, the rounding up and imprisoning of free Black men whilst the invading CSA came North calls to question how civilians were treated. I fully admit that I am way out of my perview here, answering questions with questions, but it strikes a nerve that the US troops — Sherman — were targeted for total war, etc, yet the casualties, destruction remained quite limited, and civilians were relocated for their own safety.

    1. Even in total war, prisoners are to be treated humanely. Also, enslaving civilians is still not considered to be within the bounds of legal warfare. Even in World War II, which is widely seen as an example of total war, such things were seen as beyond the pale by the international community, and when certain countries engaged in it they were considered outlaws.

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