The First Total War

Review: Williamson Murray, Wayne Hsieh, 'A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War'

Grant at Cold Harbor
Grant at Cold Harbor

As fractured as politics are today, it could be worse: consider 1860. A significant chunk of Americans were horrified by the fact that their country was headed in a direction they had not anticipated, and for which they had never offered their approval. I refer, of course, to Northerners opposed to slavery.

The treatment of Africans as property had gone in the span of seventy-some years from an institution grudgingly tolerated by most of the founders as an evil necessity of political union—and something expected somehow to fade away—to an institution that Southern elites insisted was the future. Following the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas Nebraska Act, and the Dred Scott decision, by the late 1850s it seemed that slavery was something that would continue to expand ever west, and something that, as a point of constitutional law, might not be possible to forbid even in the North.

The consequence: in a chaotic election, the little-known nominee of a recently formed party hostile to slavery was elected president with only 39 percent of the popular vote. Most of the South seceded in response and, as Lincoln later put it, "the war came." Even to this day, apologists for the Confederacy will argue that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War—that it had to do instead with the sovereign rights of states. The authors of this new one-volume military history of the conflict do their part to contribute to total victory over this myth, producing as evidence the 1861 words of Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy's vice-president:

Those ideas [of the founding fathers that slavery would fade away] rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. … Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas … its corner-stone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

Thus, in a development foreshadowed by the mass mobilizations of revolutionary France, armies of both the Union and the Confederacy were motivated by nationalist ideology—and both sides underestimated the fervor of their opponents. They also failed at first to appreciate the savage cost that would be exacted by the combination of mass ideological armies with the technology of the Industrial Revolution. The men most responsible for the Union victory—Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman—succeeded because they came to understand how progress had changed the nature of war.

Such are the principal themes of this engaging history. It is unexpected that a book proceeding down such a well-trod route of march as the American Civil War could read fresh, but Williamson Murray and Wayne Hsieh have written such a book. It must help that neither man is a professional Civil Warrior—Murray, a student of Donald Kagan, has written predominantly about strategy over the course of his long career, and Hsieh, an associate professor of history at the Naval Academy (and a Washington Free Beacon contributor) is a specialist in the 19th Century American military. Early signs that their book is not a conventional entry in the genre come with their summoning of the names James Mattis and Vo Nguyen Giap, and section titles that include the phrase "Net Assessment." I don't think they will take offense at the observation that this is as much a book about strategy that uses the Civil War for data, as it is a book about the Civil War that yields insight into strategy.

Along with the canard that slavery didn't cause the thing, the authors would also consign to the dust heap of Civil War historiography the argument that the South didn't stand a chance. They also work to elevate the attention paid to the western theater of operations, where Grant receiving his bloody education in command proved to be almost as important to the Union in the long run as his opening of the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers at Forts Donelson and Henry in 1862—an effort that the authors compare to the Solomon Islands campaign of World War Two, in that both laid the foundation of distant victories.

Although the North possessed obvious advantages in industry, manpower, and finance, its political fault lines were such that it could have eventually lost the taste for more fighting. Moreover, the South possessed distinctive advantages in its size (the authors point out that the distance from Baton Rouge to Northern Virginia is roughly that from central Germany to Moscow) and wild terrain, not to say the intense commitment of its population to the cause of secession. To overcome these obstacles, the North would have to project combat power across vast distances and break the fighting will of an entire people.

Grant, the hero of this book, was among the first to see these things. Shiloh, the first great "killing battle" of the war and a blundering near-loss for the Union, led to the still junior general being condemned as a butcher in the Midwestern and antiwar Northern press. But the bloodletting taught Grant that the Napoleonic phenomenon of a decisive battle—a goal that motivated Lee until nearly the end of the war—was not how the North was going to win. He recorded in his memoirs:

Up to the battle of Shiloh I, as well as thousands of other citizens, believed that the rebellion against the Government would collapse suddenly and soon, if a decisive victory could be gained over any of its armies. Donelson and Henry were such victories. … But when Confederate armies were collected which not only attempted to hold the line farther south…but assumed the offensive and made such a gallant effort to regain what had been lost, then, indeed, I gave up all idea of saving the Union except by complete conquest.

Murray and Hsieh point out that while the logic of such a strategy was obscured by ideologically motivated historians in the century after the war, it was quite clear to its designers—the politician Lincoln, and the generals Grant and Sherman. These men shared not only the impressive ability to understand and adapt to the realities of a rather terrible modernity, but also extraordinary reserves of commitment.

Consider the horrifying first night of Shiloh. A profoundly shaken Sherman, whose initial failures that morning have almost led to the destruction of the Union's army, seeks out his boss amongst the shattered bodies of Northern troops lying in a driving rainstorm, prepared to recommend an escape attempt before the dawn. He comes upon Grant sitting on his horse, on the lines, in pitch darkness. Sherman decides to open casually.

"Well, Grant, we've had the devil's own day, haven't we?"

Grant's reply? "Yes. Lick 'em tomorrow, though."

The North had impressive material advantages, to be sure. But its greatest advantage, the now finally fading romance of Robert E. Lee notwithstanding, was the quality of its leaders.