Thursday, December 13, 2018

Review - "The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War" by Aaron Sheehan-Dean

[The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War by Aaron Sheehan-Dean (Harvard University Press, 2018). Hardcover, 15 photos/illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:358/480. ISBN:978-0-674-98422-6. $35]

The question of whether the American Civil War was a limited conflict still connected to Enlightenment ideals of military restraint and non-targeting of civilians or was an early version of modern total war remains much debated today. Less concerned with weighing in one way or another on that particular issue, Aaron Sheehan-Dean's The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War is primarily interested in examining the modulating interaction that existed between the many social, military, and political factors that exacerbated Civil War violence and the range of enemy responses that deescalated those very same volatile situations that threatened to spiral out of control. According to the author, in this 'calculus of violence' moral and physical restraint ultimately won out, but not without considerable stretching and violations of the rules of war by both sides.

For some time now, cracks have regularly appeared in the traditional interpretation that Civil War violence and destruction increased along a linear path, with mid-1862 being the tipping point between abandonment of limited war (or conciliatory) objectives and the earnest application of hard war. Sheehan-Dean agrees with those that have more recently argued that hard war style human violence and property destruction existed from the very beginning of the conflict. His alternative characterization of escalating violence as unevenly distributed (in both human and geographical terms) and progressing in fits and starts with periodic pull back (even during the latter years of the war when most assume peak violence to have occurred) much better fits the collective impression gained from the widest reading of the current literature.

Clay Mountcastle and Daniel Sutherland, both astute and influential scholars of the irregular Civil War, would certainly approve of Sheehan-Dean's assigning guerrilla warfare a prominent role in the amplification of Civil War violence. In the author's view, the Confederate government's early acceptance and even encouragement (or at least lack of active discouragement) of guerrilla warfare doomed vast areas of the South and Border States to lawlessness and exposed civilians (guilty and innocent alike) to harsh and frequently disproportionate Union reprisal measures. But it could have been much worse, and the author persuasively credits federal retaliation policies, or just the threat of same, for providing a reasonably effective braking mechanism to the violence. Banishment, imprisonment, bond & oath taking requirements, and other non-lethal measures were also employed to effect, particularly in the breaking up of guerrilla support networks. The personalized nature of guerrilla violence created intense emotions and desires for revenge, and it is also perceptively noted in the book that institutional procedures and the non-instantaneous nature of nineteenth century communications created delays in response that usefully doubled as cooling off periods.

As the study shows, both sides attempted to use various moral and legal considerations to elevate the justness of their own cause and diminish the enemy's, while at the same time ignoring their own excesses and ethical failings (often for same or similar offenses). Guerrilla warfare can serve as a good example of this. It is somewhat unfortunate that the author characterizes the war's guerrilla conflict as distinctly Confederate when in truth pro-Union (or anti-Confederate) guerrillas operated in contested areas with similarly muted official opposition. During the war, many Union commanders sanctioned irregular forces whose actions closely mirrored those so vehemently condemned when committed by the enemy. Placing such a strong degree of blame for the guerrilla crisis on Confederate government officials also seems only partially valid, as many of the worst actors operated in areas outside of the Confederacy itself (ex. in Missouri and Kentucky) or committed depredations in enemy occupied or isolated places beyond practical reach. In a true people's contest, as the American Civil War arguably was, it would be hard to imagine guerrilla warfare not arising within occupied rear areas or isolated districts regardless of official government policy. One of the primary reasons individuals joined guerrilla outfits was to avoid being placed under any kind of regimented control, and it is unlikely that such men would have listened to any edicts from far off Richmond or feared suppression from a vastly overstretched Confederate Army. Rather than just critiquing the Partisan Ranger Act of 1862 on the grounds of how the law sanctioned and promoted a highly inadvisable, illegal, and unjust mode of warfare while also cynically providing legal cover for those same bad actors, one might reasonably also see it as a good faith (if tragically naive) attempt to exert governmental order and regulatory oversight over a problem already getting out of hand. The book also fails to mention that the Act was repealed by the Confederate Congress in February 1864.

Emancipation, the Union Army's employment of black troops (the vast majority of whom were freed slaves), and the Confederate response to those decisions all joined guerrilla warfare as factors that significantly exacerbated the scale and intensity of Civil War violence. Like the guerrilla war, large-scale black enlistment directly contributed to heated debates within and between the warring sections over who could decide the status of lawful vs. unlawful combatants. In retrospect, it seems inevitable that widespread abuses and unlawful killings would occur when Confederate troops inculcated with servile insurrection fears encountered black soldiers assumed to have been placed into Union ranks for the very purpose of sparking mass slave uprisings and race war. From the Confederate perspective, these men were illegitimate enemies not subject to treatment under the laws of war. However, Sheehan-Dean sees this argument of inevitability as a false assumption, and cites several international examples of colonial armies putting ex-slaves in their ranks to fight against their former masters, acts that apparently did not produce violent objections of the kind seen during the American Civil War. Unfortunately, not enough contextual details are presented to properly assess the appropriateness of the comparison. Regardless, Union retaliatory measures, both real and threatened, helped ensure that black flag warfare would not be the rule whenever Confederate troops encountered black Union regiments on the battlefield, though unlawful mistreatment of black POWs continued to be routine.

Violent slave rebellion easily had the greatest potential to comprehensibly devastate the South and result in civilian casualty levels similar to those produced by contemporary Civil Wars like the Taiping Rebellion in China. That nothing of the kind occurred during the American Civil War came as a true surprise to the strongest critics, north and south, of emancipation and black enlistment. Like other scholars, Sheehan-Dean sees slaves as having been more concerned with gaining freedom than revenge. He also concurs with the view that the tenets of Christianity instilled into slaves over generations very likely had a restraining effect.

Discussed here are just some of the most significant ingredients to Civil War violence's toxic brew. Of the remaining factors discussed at some length in the book, one of the most interesting is the author's positive assessment of the role of the nation-state. Rightly and wrongly, the reputation of the modern nation-state and the nationalism associated with it took a severe hit in the aftermath of the bloodbaths of the twentieth century. However, Sheehan-Dean convincingly argues that the construct of the nation-state and all the idealized aspirations that went with it (including a desire for acceptance in the international community of nations) had salutary restraining effects on both sides during the American Civil War. Though lacking formal recognition, it's undeniable that the Confederacy created a functioning democratic nation-state in the midst of war, which was an unusual achievement for the rebelling side in historical civil conflicts of similar scale. Attaining the status of an internationally recognized and respected nation-state was important to both sides, and democratic nationhood's institutional checks and balances, accountable law and order systems, open lines of communication, and desire to appear morally upright in the eyes of the rest of the world all combined to restrain the kinds of ultraviolent excesses typically seen during civil wars.

It should also be mentioned that the author is clearly not ingenuous when it comes to assessing the laws of war and their positive restraining effects. He certainly recognizes that the laws of war were often bent and manipulated by each side, both to justify their own questionable conduct and to attempt to restrict the enemy's employment of tools and tactics of proven use against them. Moral malleability also occurred hand in hand with self-serving legal and political machinations. One of the best examples provided in the book is the war's transformation of much of the North's pacifist abolitionist element into one of the conflict's most radical proponents of unrestrained violence against enemy combatants and civilians.

In presenting the material, Sheehan-Dean does a fine job of melding his own research with a well-selected synthesis of the best existing scholarship. With some notable exceptions (for example, his insistence that the bombing of the military depot at City Point by Confederate saboteurs represented one of the war's worst atrocities), the author generally avoids channeling readers toward starkly black and white conclusions, instead inviting them to pass their own judgment. One might argue that he applies the just vs. unjust label a bit too freely in the book, but it cannot be expected that authors to be equivocal on everything, nor should they be.

It is popular to say that in war violence tends to take on a life of its own with consequences unforeseen by anyone, but Sheehan-Dean's study effectively reminds us that deliberate decisions made by the human actors in the drama are at least as important in shaping that violence, and likely more so. As terrible as the reality of the American Civil War was to both civilians and combatants, The Calculus of Violence shows that the conflict held great potential to in many ways become far more devastating.

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