To claim that the Civil War was unlike any other war since is to dispute the claims of countless historians who view it as a prelude or prototype for the type of wars that followed, “Library shelves groan with works pointing to the Civil War as a harbinger of “total war” in its modern form. ” This claim, as well as overlooking strategies and tactics that have been applied and evolved through subsequent wars, overlooks the significance of ideological warfare and policies of a central government such as conscription, which have been practices employed since in a wartime context.
It would appear more correct to claim then, that the Civil War was unlike any other war before as it validates evidence that points to it as the first ‘modern war’ and the first ‘total war’, namely in its tactics and its technology. But while it may be true that the Civil War marks the ‘firsts’ in several ways, to state that it was unlike any war before is to ignore continuities in American wartime tradition and strategy and principles from foreign wars.
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This essay will argue therefore that the Civil War was different from wars before it but differences were not total and continuities certainly existed, and that it has certainly found a place within the commentaries on other wars since. One of the ways the Civil War has been argued as being unlike any war before is through the claim that it was the last Napoleonic, pre-modern war and the first ‘modern war. ‘ Janda agrees that if referring to technology, “they seem to be correct, as the Civil War represents the first mass conflict of the industrial age. The way modernity and technology infused the Civil War and marked it as different from the wars before it was particularly significant in terms of two things, supplying the armies and weaponry. Clark says that a war like this could not have been fought before because the means to feed and clothe over three million soldiers did not exist. The mechanisation of farming to produce enough food, the development of refrigeration and canning to store the food and the invention of factories mass-producing standardised clothes and goods were significant new innovations that enabled the war effort to be sustained.
So significant that it may have played into the outcome of the war in that by the end of the war the Northerners still had plenty of food due to the mechanisation of farming, however Southerners were suffering a severe lack of food. Though these innovations were new in this context there is still an element of continuity in that as with most wars there is a demand for technological innovations to meet the demands of the type of war, evident in the evolution wartime technology up to the current day with, for example the development of tanks and bombs to respond to demands of the terrain and aerial warfare.
Civil War weaponry is another indicator of the way the Civil War was different to previous wars, but held the element of continuity in that war demands the evolution of technology. Janda says that “The weaponry of total warfare did not originate in the Civil War, and it came to maturity only on the Western Front in 1914,” The shift from the 4ft smooth bore musket used in the American Revolution to the rifled musket with a grooved barrel enabling the bullet to fire straighter and faster and over a much longer range meant the guns used in the Civil War were more deadly than those of the previous era.
These inventions were taking place prior to the Civil War, and essentially mark technological advancements in the Civil War as in a continuum with technological advancements taking place over time and their execution in other wars both before and since. So while it was the first war to employ this ‘modern’ weaponry that had much higher death rates, it still had the element of continuity. The impact of this type of weaponry on battle tactics is another area in which there were similarities with earlier wars as well as fundamental differences.
Clark says that the advantages of speed and accuracy of this new weaponry should have meant an abandonment of classic Napoleonic tactics including frontal and mass infantry assaults, but they didn’t, and that particularly the earlier part of the war simply combined older modes of the war with new weaponry. Clark says that this may have been for cultural reasons, in that there was a definite element of heroism attached to mass cavalry charges in the American imagination, and that it remained that the only way a general could move his men was on horseback on the field.
This indicates that on a very important level, that of battlefield experience, the Civil War was not entirely unlike any war before it. This weaponry also had implications for the development of new styles of warfare that have been of great significance in subsequent wars. Commanders in the war realised that they could entrench themselves behind things, and the range at which the new weaponry could fire placed defenders at a significant advantage. This style of warfare was embraced for the first time by Grant’s army who entrenched themselves around the city of Vicksburg, with soldiers rotating themselves in and out of the trenches.
By the end of the war however, soldiers were living in the trenches for long periods at a time, very much resembling the style of trench warfare that was employed in WWI , thereby indicating that it was not like any other war since. The transformation of the belief that the war could be won in one climatic battle and the shift from intermittent battles to relentless campaigning and fighting on multiple fronts echoes also in wars since, particularly both the First and Second World Wars.
One tradition that has featured in wars since, significantly in the war in Vietnam, but also in wars previous to the Civil War was that of guerrilla warfare. Clark notes that the South in particular had a long tradition of guerrilla warfare, dating back to the revolutionary era, and because of this, at the beginning of the war in both the North and South there was the expectation that they would need to fight and therefore prepare for partisan warfare. Another way that the Civil War has been argued as being unlike any war before is through the claim that it was the first “total war. Grimsley, argues that it was not unprecedented for soldiers to target civilians with the aim of attacking specifically civilian morale , but the indication that the distinction between combatants and non-combatants became irrelevant, “we are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and we must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war, as well as the organized armies,” particularly in Sherman’s March to the Sea indicates a quantativley different type of total war.
Grimsley mentions that Sherman’s “new chevauchee” had its origins in an original chevauchee, which “dated back to the Hundred Years’ War, and were massive raiding expeditions in which the English systematically pillaged or destroyed everything in their path,” thereby finding continuities with wartime practice before the Civil War. It is certainly not a point of disagreement that the strategies of total war in the Civil War make it unlike any war since. Janda’s argument is that his type of warfare was employed very soon after in the war against the Native Americans, and Grimsley finds that it has reflections in the precision bombing by US forces in Europe during the Second World War, as well as noting that “At least two writers have drawn direct connections between Sherman’s march and the 1968 My Lai massacre. ” Other aspects which point to the Civil War as having reverberations in wars since are drafting of troops and its significance as an ideological war.
The Civil War was the first in the United States to introduce a draft, and Clark states that the United States had never had Federal Bureaus responsible for determining the number of troops to be raised before. It significance was in the increasing centralisation of the government and the growing fear at its power over the people, evident in the New York Draft riots. Such fears and disputes regarding conscription have manifested themselves in wars since, for example in Australia in the First World War.
As an ideological war, the Civil War was significant also as one of the first with a major feature being “the similarity of white Southerners to their Northern counterparts,” with only distinct ideological differences, a feature that has been intrinsic since particularly to the Vietnam War. To claim that the Civil War was unlike any war before or since is an argument which overlooks many of the continuities of time displayed in a history of warfare. Certainly it can be claimed to be the first type of war in several of its features, but entirely different isolates it from this history and leaves out very important aspects of it.