Top Menu

The Papers of the Blue and Gray Education Society, Number 16

A Scholarly Monograph By William C. Lowe

7 September 2004

This Monograph was made possible by the BGES’s Battlefield Education, Acquisition, Restoration, Scholarship Support (BEARSS) Fund

Total War

While the crisis that enveloped the United States in “civil war” had many causes that is not the purpose of this monograph. We will devote ourselves to the pattern of events in the prosecution of the war that turned the Civil War from a war of limited response to a domestic insurrection and an uprising against national authority with the clearly defined objective of restoring the Union, to a total war. The characteristics that defined such a strategy began in Missouri and swept east.

Missouri was a “war within a war.” Neighbor turned against neighbor in an ugly, vicious. no-holds-barred conflict that consumed the entire population of the state. It was a war with bands of roving guerrillas and “Jayhawkers” from nearby Kansas crossing the border to stage “hit and run” raids and to commit cold-blooded murder. It was an atmosphere of almost total anarchy. In this boiling mass of anger, violence and raging humanity, United States army commanders tried in vain to implement traditional solutions to the conflict and to restore peace and order.

In Missouri, many of the Union commanders, who would later surface as the key players in the final successful prosecution of the war, developed their first understanding of the nature of the war to come. These future generals included both U. S. Grant and William T. Sherman. What they experienced developed in them what Sherman expressed as a feeling that: “We are not only fighting hostile armies, but a holistic people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.”

As the war expanded in scope and grew in cost it became clear that complete conquest meant more than the occupation of territory or the crippling and destruction of Confederate armies. By 1864, it meant to Grant and Sherman the seizure or destruction of any property or other resources used to sustain the Confederate war effort. For as they had learned in Missouri unless the civil support base of the war effort was countered, the armies could not be totally destroyed and would continue to reconstitute themselves.

Major General Henry Wager Halleck, brought out of the West by President Lincoln to serve as General-in-Chief in Washington and who had served in Missouri, helped define the total war effort when in 1862 he wrote to Grant calling for him to “Take up all active sympathizers and either hold them as prisoners or put them beyond our lines. Handle that class without gloves, and take property for public use.. it is time that they should begin to feel the presence of the war.”

The escalation of the war required a codification of the acceptable behavior of United States soldiers operating in the South. These were detailed in General Orders Number 100 issued by the War Department, with the endorsement of President Lincoln, on April 24, 1863. This rather remarkable document defined the extent of this “civil” war. In what mode armies would later term “Rules of Engagement”, the War Department provided Instructions for the Government of (the) Armies of the United States in the Field and defined the differences between a “civil war”, a “rebellion” and an “insurrection.” The instructions further defined and outlined the relationship of the armies in the field with combatants and civilians. The concept of “military necessity” and “martial law” were discussed and applied to the current confrontation.

Traditional thinking seems to suggest that United States armies were undisciplined mobs; but, that is not supported by the printed guidance. A key element of the instruction was the definition of “military necessity”:

… As understood by modern civilized nations consists in the necessity of those measures which are indispensable for securing the ends of the war and which are lawful according to the modern law and usages of war … Military necessity admits of all direct destruction of life or limb of armed enemies and of other persons whose destruction is incidentally unavoidable in the armed contests of the war; it allows of the capturing of every armed enemy and every enemy of importance to the hostile Government or of peculiar danger to the captor; it allows of all destruction of property and obstruction of the ways and channels of traffic, travel or communication and of all withholding of sustenance or means of life from the enemy; of the appropriation of whatever an enemy’s country affords necessary for the subsistence and safety of the army…

To read the entire monograph, you may purchase it by downloading an order form or by contacting us.