The Civil War is often portrayed as the most brutal war in America's history, a premonition of twentieth-century slaughter and carnage. In challenging this view, Mark E. Neely, Jr., considers the war's destructiveness in a comparative context, revealing the sense of limits that guided the conduct of American soldiers and statesmen.
Neely begins by contrasting Civil War behavior with U.S. soldiers' experiences in the Mexican War of 1846. He examines Price's Raid in Missouri for evidence of deterioration in the restraints imposed by the customs of war; and in a brilliant analysis of Philip Sheridan's Shenandoah Valley campaign, he shows that the actions of U.S. cavalrymen were selective and controlled. The Mexican war of the 1860s between French imperial forces and republicans provided a new yardstick for brutality: Emperor Maximilian's infamous Black Decree threatened captured enemies with execution. Civil War battles, however, paled in comparison with the unrestrained warfare waged against the Plains Indians. Racial beliefs, Neely shows, were a major determinant of wartime behavior.
Destructive rhetoric was rampant in the congressional debate over the resolution to avenge the treatment of Union captives at Andersonville by deliberately starving and freezing to death Confederate prisoners of war. Nevertheless, to gauge the events of the war by the ferocity of its language of political hatred is a mistake, Neely argues. The modern overemphasis on violence in Civil War literature has led many scholars to go too far in drawing close analogies with the twentieth century's "total war" and the grim guerrilla struggles of Vietnam.
In a perceptive and rigorously argued call to resist the temptation to describe the Civil War as an unusually destructive or brutal war, Mark Neely finds new ways to examine old questions and to challenge prevailing interpretations. This is another first-rate work from one of the best and most imaginative scholars working in the field of Civil War history.
Neely tackles a fascinating and important topic: were terror and brutality a key part of the Civil War? He makes a compelling case that the combat was more controlled than we now often accept. His account is original-in some cases clearly pathbreaking-and his tone passionate and gripping. This is a major contribution that will capture a wide readership.
An intriguing new book...Neely argues forcefully and thoughtfully for a more realistic, less gory understanding of the great war...Whatever you think of Neely's arguments, you cannot reject them as poorly conceived or loosely defended. He is a thoughtful expert who delivers a book that you cannot read without transforming your view of the Civil War and its place in American history.
Impressive and lively.
A seminal work on a big issue, The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction should stir up much productive discussion.
Using comparisons to other wars in other nations in the 19th and 20th centuries, Neely finds that the U.S. Civil War was not nearly as bloody as conventional wisdom (and much scholarly wisdom) has held.
- 288 pages
- 5-1/16 x 7-7/8 inches
- Harvard University Press
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