Shiloh, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg—tens of thousands of soldiers died on these battlefields, and throughout the Southern states civilians suffered terrible cruelty. At least three-quarters of a million lives were lost during the American Civil War. Given its seemingly indiscriminate mass destruction, this conflict is often thought of as the first “total war.” But Aaron Sheehan-Dean argues for another interpretation.
The Calculus of Violence demonstrates that this notoriously bloody war could have been much worse. Military forces on both sides sought to contain casualties inflicted on soldiers and civilians. In Congress, in church pews, and in letters home, Americans debated the conditions under which lethal violence was legitimate, and their arguments differentiated carefully among victims—women and men, black and white, enslaved and free. But as Sheehan-Dean shows, these well-meaning restraints could lead to more carnage by implicitly justifying the killing of people who were not protected by the laws of war. As the Civil War raged on, the Union’s confrontations with guerillas and the Confederacy’s confrontations with black soldiers forced a new reckoning with traditional categories of lawful combatants and raised legal disputes that still hang over military operations around the world today.
In examining the agonizing Just War debates of the Civil War era, Sheehan-Dean discards conventional abstractions—total, soft, limited—as being too tidy to contain what actually happens on the ground. He helps us appreciate instead how the war’s participants lived with the contradictions inherent in a conflict that was both violent and restrained.