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Book excerpt: The Civil War eventually had to be a war on Southern white culture

The Civil War was the harbinger of war in the twentieth century.


What Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, and the hard men who served under them knew by early 1864 was that their armies were going to have to break the popular will of the Confederate people, not only in the present, but also for the future, or the North was not going to win the war.

Ironically, Jefferson Davis in his carping memoirs understood this reality. “At the commencement of the year 1862 it was the purpose of the United States Government to assail us in every manner and at every point. . . . The usual methods of civilized warfare consist in the destruction of an enemy’s military power and the capture of his capital. These, however, formed only a small portion of the purposes of our enemy. . . . Thus, while the Executive was preparing immense armies . . . with which to invade our territory and destroy our citizens, the willing aid of an impatient, enraged Congress was invoked to usurp new powers, to legislate the subversion of our social institutions [i.e., slavery], and to give the form of legality to the plunder of a frenzied soldiery.”

In that sense, the Civil War was the harbinger of war in the twentieth century. Without the destruction of the deep feeling of national identity for which the enemy was waging war, there would be no peace. It was, therefore, a war against the South’s white population as well as its armies, a course that the great wars of the twentieth century followed. Thus, the war represented not some peculiar American approach to conflict that emphasized sledgehammer blows, but the political reality that only war waged against the very idea of a Confederate nation would break the nationalistic fervor the French Revolution and its successors had called forth.

In the American Civil War, moreover, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution came together in a fashion that allowed for the mobilization of great armies in both the North and the Confederacy and the maintenance and projection of Northern military forces over continental distances.

“Excerpted from A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War by Williamson Murray & Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh © 2016 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.”

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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