Sunday, August 5, 2012

Just Finished Reading

At the recent Society of Civil War Historians meeting in Lexington I came real close to buying a couple of books on the destructive nature of the Civil War. These two books, Ruin Nation: Destruction and the Civil War, and War Upon the Land: Military Strategy and the Transformation of Southern Landscapes during the American Civil War both look like great reads, and hopefully I will get them in the near future. So, it was with those books in mind, that when I saw The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction by Mark E. Neely, Jr. at my local library, I decided to pick it up. But, as I quickly found, this was not a book so much about the physical damage caused to structures, landscapes and bodies of America and Americans by the war, but rather a new look at how the conflict has long been interpreted.

Through various comparisons, Neely contends that the Civil War, as contrasted with other conflicts of the same era, was actually not the brutal war that has been presented to us in histories.

Neely's first looks at American soldiers' experiences in the Mexican War as compared to those of Civil War soldiers. The atrocities that volunteer troops perpetrated and that were recorded by their officers on their Mexican enemies and civilians was much more severe than any Civil War invasion by either side. Neely contends that the reason for this was the racial sentiments that the soldiers brought with them. Because the the people were thought to be inferior and religiously different it was easier to treat them more harshly in the earlier war than against than it was against homogeneous protestant former countrymen in the Civil War.

One region that in some respects deserves its terrible reputation in the Civil War was Missouri. Guerrilla operations in that state were probably the most atrocious of the war, but as Neely shows, a conventional war occurred when regular military troops conducted operations in the state. Neely examines General Sterling Price's fall 1864 raid and demonstrates that although after experiencing two years of terrible guerrilla warfare, that did not influence Federal reprisals when faced with regular Confederate forces.

Neely looks closely at the other conflicts and instances during the era in the remaining four chapters. He examines the civil war that happened in Mexico at the same time that the America experienced its own internal conflict. He found that war, which was led one one side by French installed Emperor Maximilian, was even more severe in the level of atrocities than the American conflict the Mexico some twenty years earlier.

Sheridan's Shenandoah Valley Campaign, usually referred to as one of the Civil War's most destructive events, gets a reexamination by Neely, who finds that the destruction of the valley's resources was secondary to Sheridan's main mission of destroying Gen. Jubal Early's army.

The 1864 Sand Creek massacre of American Indians in Colorado by Union troops also gets a chapter. Nelly explains that like the Mexican War atrocities, the perceived racial inferiority of the Native enemies led to unrestrained violence against even women and children.

The conditions at Andersonville prison, once reported to the Union authorities, could have led to a violent reprisal against Confederate prisoners, but as Neely contends, "When all was said and done, the president and the society he directed to victory in the Civil War came down on the side not of retaliating for atrocities but of avoiding atrocity. They came down on the side of not making terrible but making it no worse than necessary."

Neely ends The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction with a conclusion that does not call for a return to sentimentalism in examining the war, but rather explains that it is necessary to acknowledge race as a real influence and reason for atrocities in warfare then as now. In the Civil War, "Honor and Christian charity had their place, all right, but it was a place reserved in that era mostly for white and 'civilized' belligerence."

I appreciated Neely's perspective and this book made me think differently about how the Civil War has been interpreted. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.25.

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