Book Review: The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction


by Mark E. Neely, Jr

Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2007. Pp. iii, 277. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $27.95. ISBN:0674026586

In this work, Prof. Neely, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning, The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) takes a look at how "hard" the Civil War actually was, as war. 

Neely builds upon the work of Joseph T. Glatthaar and others who have questioned the degree to which the image of a post war "Prostrate South" was accurate or mythic.  The book, however, does more than examine occupation policies and troop behavior toward prisoners, civilians, and property in the Civil War.  Neely alternates case studies of the American occupation of Mexico (1846-1848), Stirling Prices' 1863 raid in Missouri and the Union response,  French occupation policies during their intervention in Mexico (1862-1867), Phil Sheridan's 1864 campaign in the Shenandoah, the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, and Union public reaction to the opening of Andersonville at the end of the war. 

Neely concludes that, although terrible atrocities and serious devastation did occur during the Civil War, they were uncommon (though inflated post war as part of the "Lost Cause"), often committed by marginal elements in the armies, and not generally the result of policy decisions. The key element was that in Mexico and at Sand Creek a combination of racial and religious bigotry led to great brutality, whereas during the Civil War shared racial and religious heritage, as well as the common experiences of the Early Republic, contributed to a much less severe war. 

Oddly, while Neely cites the incidents of atrocities committed against black troops, such as Fort Pillow, noting the influence of racism, he fails to consider the frequent depredations by white troops on both sides against black civilians, free or slave. Despite this, an important work on nature of the war.                 


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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