The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction
By Mark E. Neely Jr.

Illustrated, index, 277 pp., 2007. Harvard University Press, 79 Garden St., Cambridge, MA 02138, $27.95 plus shipping.

Reviewer: Ethan S. Rafuse
Ethan S. Rafuse is associate professor of military history at the U. S. Army Command and General Staff College. His publications include A Single Grand Victory: The First Campaign and Battle of Manassas; George Gordon Meade and the War in the East; and, most recently, McClellan’s War: The Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union.

For over a generation, historians have devoted much attention to the destructive forces that were unleashed during the Civil War, and the extent to which these gained ascendancy in the course of the conflict’s evolution from a “limited war” to preserve the “Union as it was” to a “total war” out of which came a “Second American Revolution.” 

This, Mark E. Neely Jr. contends in The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction, has created a badly distorted perception of the war and its place in American history, one that ignores the enduring presence of forces that inclined participants in the war to exercise restraint in the use of violence.

This, he argues, is especially evident when one compares the conduct of the war between the North and South with conflicts during the Middle Period in the Americas in which racial differences existed between the combatants.

Neely develops his argument in a series of well-executed case studies of the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, Sterling Price’s raid and the war in Missouri in 1864, the French intervention in Mexico that produced the short, sad reign of Emperor Maximilian, Philip Sheridan’s operations in the Shenandoah Valley, the Sand Creek Massacre, and debate in the North over how to respond to Southern treatment of prisoners of war.

In these, Neely expands upon themes presented his landmark 1991 Civil War History essay in which he argued there was a tremendous gulf between the rhetoric Civil War participants used and their actual actions.

This led him to question the popular tendency to view the Civil War as a “total war” that marked a significant break with past practices in Western warfare and whose destructiveness and blurring of the distinction between combatants and non-combatants foreshadowed the world war that ended on the USS Missouri in 1945. 

Of course, the notion that, for all its destructiveness, there remained a strong element of restraint in how the Civil War was conducted was fully and effectively presented in Mark Grimsley’s 1995 study The Hard Hand of War.

Neely, however, disagrees with Grimsley’s explanation for the persistence of restraint. Grimsley’s argument that it was a product of a strong sense of civic mindedness and morality among the “thinking bayonets” of the Union army, Neely contends, “put too sunny a face on a reality that at bottom was rooted in perceptions of race.”

Sure, he argues, Northern soldiers were quite capable of demonstrating civic mindedness and a moral sense that was manifest in what was actually fairly mild treatment of white Southerners —even in such notorious episodes as the burning of the Shenandoah Valley in 1864 — but where, pray tell, were those qualities at when it came to the very rough treatment white Americans accorded Mexicans and Native Americans?

 As with all of Neely’s works, from his Pulitzer Prize-winning study of the Lincoln administration and civil liberties to his recent examination of party conflict in the Civil War North, this is a impressively researched, clearly written, and informative study that offers a host of provocative challenges to some of the most enduring assumptions about the Civil War.

While it is certain that not all readers will finish the book convinced by all of Neely’s arguments, it will be the rare reader who does not find here much food for thought.