The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

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.
— R. G. Lowe
Civil War Book Review
A seminal work on a big issue, The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction should stir up much productive discussion.
— John Cimprich
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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.
Cameron McWhirter

Boston Globe

Impressive and lively.
David Waldstreicher

Library Journal

Pulitzer Prize winner Neely (history, Pennsylvania State Univ.; The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties) has written a scholarly but readable study of what is often described as America's most destructive war. Neely considers the war's destructiveness in a comparative context and considers the war's reputation for brutality to be one not earned in context. He first looks at the Mexican War, skillfully explaining the differences and similarities in soldiers' behaviors in that conflict and the Civil War. Then he looks at Confederate Gen. Sterling Price's 1864 invasion of Missouri, describing Confederate guerrilla tactics. The year 1864 is also his focus for Gen. Philip Sheridan's "scorched earth" policy in Virginia, in fact more controlled than the brutal massacres of Indians on the Great Plains. Neely also analyzes the sometimes exaggerated descriptions of battles printed in newspapers of the day. Using numerous sources, he effectively covers a complex subject in this credible study that asks us to take a new look at this war. Highly recommended for most collections for its scholarship, analysis, and contribution to Civil War literature.
—David Alperstein

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674026582
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 11/15/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.54 (w) x 8.44 (h) x 0.94 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark E. Neely, Jr., is McCabe-Greer Professor of the History of the Civil War Era, Pennsylvania State University, and the author of a number of books, including his Pulitzer prize-winning The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Destructiveness in the Civil War 1

1 The Mexican-American War: Republicanism and the Ethos of War 6

2 Price's Raid: Limited War in Missouri 41

3 Emperor Maximilian's Black Decree: War in the Tropics 72

4 The Shenandoah Valley: Sheridan and Scorched Earth 109

5 The Sand Creek Massacre: The Grand Burning of the Prairie 140

6 Avenging Andersonville: Retaliation and the Political Uses of Hatred 170

Conclusion: The Cult of Violence in Civil War History 198

Notes 221

Selected Bibliography 253

Acknowledgments 267

Illustration Sources 269

Index 271

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