The American Civil War was a watershed event with global implications. Beforehand, Western armed conflicts were fought by armies largely on the European-Napoleonic model, which envisioned a victor emerging after winning battlefield engagements of massed armies. The objective was the destruction of the uniformed armed forces’ ability to fight.
Harm to the civilian populace in proximity to battlefields was considered unfortunate collateral damage. But civilians — those not in uniform — were seldom targeted. That all changed in the Civil War. Is there a forgotten lesson from this conflict?
As the Civil War began, the European-Napoleonic model for war was generally still accepted. In the early years of the war, army met army with the expectation that the political and moral questions raised would be decided in battlefield victories by men wearing uniforms. Both sides were led by officers trained at West Point. But the war took a significant turn with President Abraham Lincoln’s appointment of Ulysses S. Grant to general-in-chief of all Union forces.
The series of battlefields defeats suffered by Union armies at the outset of the conflict had convinced both North and South alike that southern military leaders were superior. Although there is a grain of truth here, Gen. Robert E. Lee had major advantages. He fought largely on his home turf of Virginia — familiar terrain — and often on the defensive. The defense is inherently stronger. Plus, he enjoyed the full support of the local populace, where many battles were fought. Lee often knew of Union troop movements because native Virginians readily supplied him intelligence. In other words, the civilian populace was a participant in the conflict.
To win, Grant had to take the fight to Lee, despite the Virginian’s many advantages. Grant knew his losses would be great, but there was nothing else for it. It was the only way. So, Grant’s strategy was unusually aggressive. The Confederates, for their part, did not have to win, but only survive. Lee hoped to eventually force a political settlement.
To achieve ultimate victory, Grant fundamentally changed the rules of the game. In addition to the engagement of armies on battlefields, Grant chose to attack Southern industry and food production that supported those armies. General William T. Sherman’s “march to the sea” that included the destruction of Atlanta was the most notable example. Civilians came to suffer a similar fate as their soldiers.
Grant reasoned that the South could not continue the fight without material support. He was proven right. And this marked a seminal change in the way that many future conflicts would be fought — from the historically accepted clash of armies to the laying waste of cities and agriculturally productive countryside. President Lincoln supported his general throughout. The United States followed an analogous strategy in World War II, where the goal “unconditional surrender” was chosen by both Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Millions died. But both fascism in Europe and imperial ambition in the Far East were vanquished.
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It is worth noting that the birthplace of such brutal ideas of warfare was the then still young nation of America. More citizens died in the Civil War than all other U.S. conflicts combined. But the price was terrible and necessary. Slavery was eradicated and the Union preserved. What would the nation have come to look like if Lincoln and Grant had not been steadfast in paying the butcher’s bill?
Our own history has proven that the goal achieved justified the stunning cost in lives spent. It is a terrible kind of arithmetic. Sometimes, and war may be the exemplar, victory absolutely justifies the bloody cost.
If America is not going to resolutely fight to win, then perhaps we should not be fighting at all.
Robert Bruce Adolph is a military strategist and former senior U.S. Army Special Forces soldier and United Nations security chief. His written works have appeared in most U.S. military publications of note, and he is also a frequent contributor to the Tampa Bay Times. He is a public speaker and the author of “Surviving the United Nations: The Unexpected Challenge.”