[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-CivWar]: Glaze on Sheehan-Dean, 'The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Mon Oct 28 18:28:17 MDT 2019

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From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
Date: Mon, Oct 28, 2019 at 4:57 PM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-CivWar]: Glaze on Sheehan-Dean, 'The Calculus of
Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War'
To: <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>

Aaron Charles Sheehan-Dean.  The Calculus of Violence: How Americans
Fought the Civil War.  Cambridge  Harvard University Press, 2018.
480 pp.  $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-98422-6.

Reviewed by Robert Glaze (Lincoln Memorial University)
Published on H-CivWar (October, 2019)
Commissioned by Madeleine Forrest

Robert Glaze on _The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the
Civil War_

With its now estimated 750,000 deaths, the Civil War was
unquestionably a bloody affair. Conventional scholarly wisdom posits
that violence increased in quality and quantity over time as the war
transitioned from limited to total and Union occupation policies
evolved from soft to hard. It reached its crescendo in the bloody
battles of 1864 and Sherman's subjugation of Georgia and the
Carolinas. Reassessing this consensus, Aaron Sheehan-Dean
convincingly reveals a more complex and nuanced story. Instead of a
simple chronologically linear progression, Sheehan-Dean argues that
violence in the Civil War, which he significantly identifies as the
product of human agency, varied across time and space. Simply put,
what was the bloodiest day of the war for one locale was likely the
most peaceful for another. In this masterful exploration of Civil War
violence, Sheehan-Dean ultimately concludes that the war was "a
catastrophically bloody conflict that could have been much worse" (p.
7). During the bloodiest conflict in American history, warring sides
both aimed to wage a "just war."[1]

Numerous factors such as Christianity, Enlightenment ideology, and
respect for a shared past are credited with restraining violence, but
the author argues that the Union and Confederate governments were the
most important practical tools in limiting bloodshed.
Nineteenth-century Americans believed that only states could make
war. Both nation-states valued international opinion and respected
accepted rules of war. Both practiced conventional warfare, accepted
surrenders, and took prisoners. State-initiated restraint played out
in numerous ways. For example, despite vocally denouncing the
Confederacy's legitimacy, Lincoln and the Union treated their
adversary as a legitimate nation-state, not as a treasonous cabal.
Both sides tacitly--and usually practically--recognized the sanctity
of noncombatant life. While acknowledging that both polities failed
at times to restrain violence, Sheehan-Dean provides the
sure-to-be-debated conclusion that "the Civil War reveals that states
matter" (p. 3).

While Sheehan-Dean's thesis emphasizes restraint, he acknowledges
that the war did include episodes of unrestrained violence. In that
respect, _A Calculus of Violence_ is concerned with explaining both
the rule of restraint and the exception of excess. Guerilla warfare
proved the most significant catalyst for cruelty. Indeed, the
Confederacy's failure to bring partisans to heel is shown to be one
of that state's failures in containing bloodshed. Guerilla violence,
typically occurring at the periphery of state power, led to a violent
cycle of attacks and reprisals. Because Union officers considered
guerilla warfare a violation of accepted norms, they were less
inclined to treat partisans and their supporters with restraint.

Emancipation, which the Confederacy saw as proof of Yankee barbarism,
often led to excessive violence. Rebels saw the end of the peculiar
institution and the enlistment of black soldiers as tantamount to a
slave rebellion. With the fabric of their reality unraveling, white
Southerners lashed out in brutality. Confederate massacres of black
troops at Fort Pillow and the Battle of the Crater are cited as
evidence of racially motivated malice. Nevertheless, while such
episodes mark a departure from restraint, Sheehan-Dean explains that
they are not evidence of Rebeldom abandoning its desire for a just
war. From the Confederate perspective, because emancipation and black
enlistment were unjust, they were under no obligation to wage just
war against USCT soldiers. In addition to bloodshed on the
battlefield, emancipation increased suffering in prisoner-of-war
camps. Confederates refused to recognize USCT soldiers as legitimate
combatants and thus denied them prisoner-of-war status. Prisoner
exchange systems consequently broke down, leading to overcrowding,
disease, squalor, and death for captured combatants.

While emancipation proved a catalyst for violence, the emancipated
themselves proved a restraining force. Sheehan-Dean credits
freedpeople's decision to pursue liberty instead of revenge as
another of the war's moderating influence. "The absence of such
emancipation-related violence," contends the author, "is the single
most important factor that limited the bloodshed in the Civil War"
(p. 153). Former southern slave owners were spared the cycle of
revenge-motivated violence that plagued Haiti in the wake of its
successful slave revolt.

Lastly, nationalism proved a double-edged sword. On the one hand,
Northerners and Southerners alike valued being members of legitimate,
civilized states and they were committed to waging war accordingly.
On the other hand, one side's conviction of its own righteousness and
the other's barbarity could mentally and emotionally justify
excessive violence. Nationalistic rhetoric, whether from a preacher,
politician, or editor, was a powerful determinant for the war's

Situating the war in an international context adds further credence
to Sheehan-Dean's conclusions. The 1857 Indian Revolt loomed large in
the minds of Civil War Americans as a conflict of depravity and
atrocity. Both Northerners and Southerners bristled at comparisons to
the Sepoys. Moreover, "the most destructive nineteenth-century wars,
like the Caste War of the Yucatan or the Taiping Civil War, involved
actors who did not aspire to statehood or who rejected the Western
laws of war" (p. 3). Captured soldiers were also routinely executed
in these conflicts. While international comparisons in _The Calculus
of Violence_ are brief, the author has promised to focus on these
comparisons in a forthcoming book.

Sheehan-Dean's conclusions are a product of his book's staggering
scope. The battlefield and the home front, conventional and irregular
engagements, urban and rural settings, and the experiences of whites
and blacks are all shown careful attention. While some of these
dualities do not survive the author's analysis, it is this multitude
of perspectives that complicates the presumed linear trajectory of
Civil War violence. When comparing conventional pitched battles
exclusively, the war clearly became more violent as time progressed.
Casualties at Cold Harbor dwarfed those of First Manassas. However,
"rather than seeing the rising death toll on the battlefields as
driving a more desperate and violent war, we must also recognize that
this occurred even as participants committed themselves, in new and
earnest ways, to a lawful and just war" (p. 246).

In problematizing long-held assumptions, Sheehan-Dean adds needed
complexity to our understanding of how Americans fought their Civil
War. Clean binaries and axiomatic paradigms fare poorly in the pages
of _The Calculus of Violence_--an immensely important book that
deserves wide readership. Political, military, social, and cultural
historians of the Civil War all have much to glean from its pages.
But the book's greatest utility will likely be the dialogue, debate,
and further research it inspires within Civil War history. Graduate
seminars, conference panels, and roundtables will all profit from
this book's publication.


[1]. The author acknowledges the problematic nature of this term and,
eschewing presentism, makes it clear that he is concerned solely with
how nineteenth-century Americans conceptualized the notion of a "just

Citation: Robert Glaze. Review of Sheehan-Dean, Aaron Charles, _The
Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War_. H-CivWar,
H-Net Reviews. October, 2019.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54097

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States

Best regards,

Andrew Stewart

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