War to the Hilt

The American Civil War was a war of many "firsts."  In addition to being one of the bloodiest wars of the 19th century in the Western world, it showcased the first widespread use of a number of technological advancements in warfare, including ironclad warships, the telegraph, the railroad, and repeating weapons.  It also foreshadowed a shift in warfare from being largely a seasonal conflict of professional armies to a national war effort that fully involved the civilian populations of both sides.

"Do all the damage to railroads and crops you can. Carry off stock of all descriptions... so as to prevent further planting. If the war is to last another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste." General Ulysses S. Grant

Confiscation of Civilian Property

Photo of Union troops in front of Robert E. Lee's home
Union troops in front of Arlington House, Robert E. Lee's confiscated home

Library of Congress

In May of 1861, Union forces crossed the Potomac River to establish a hold on the Virginia heights overlooking Washington, D.C. One prime objective was the estate of Arlington, built in happier times by Robert E. Lee's father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis. It was built to overlook the new capital of a growing, prosperous, and unified nation. By 1861, however, the United States government considered it hostile territory, and its absent owner a traitor.

Nonetheless, Union General Irvin McDowell, a prewar friend of Robert E. Lee, used the mansion grounds as his headquarters, but personally refrained from occupying the residence. Instead, he stayed in a tent in the yard and posted guards to prevent looting of the inhabitants' belongings. By that point, the Lee family were among the first of many refugees of the war.

Three years later, the property had been confiscated on a technicality of wartime tax law, and Union dead were being buried in Mrs. Lee's rose garden. Debate continues to this day regarding the degree to which personal vindictiveness played a role, but the fact remains that the Lee s never again resided in the estate, and many in the North found it quite appropriate that this was the case.

Prisoners as Pawns

Sketch of Andersonville prison as it appeared in August 1864
Andersonville prison as it appeared in August 1864, drawn by former prisoner Thomas O'Dea

National Park Service, Andersonville National Historic Site

Looking at the individual military service records of troops from the war, modern researchers are sometimes struck by the frequency with which some soldiers were captured, paroled, and captured again. In an age that placed faith in oaths and honor to a degree that seems naïve today, captured troops were sometimes returned and then allowed to remain in parole camps, on their word not to engage in military operations, until they were officially exchanged.

By the summer of 1863, this chivalric policy had ended. In response to the Confederate government's official policy of treating white officers of African American troops as inciting slave insurrection, and the re-enslavement of their troops, the Union policy changed to end the exchange of prisoners. Prisoners in the last year of the war could expect to spend their time amongst the fetid fevers of Andersonville or chilly snows of Camp Douglas or Elmira. The change in policy also reflected a cold calculation on the part of General Ulysses S. Grant and others in the Union high command - with an inability to replace troops captured in batte, the Confederacy could be defeated more quickly if their soldiers were held as prisoners, rather than being exchanged.

Total Warfare - Destruction of Property

Period sketch of Union cavalry burning the Shenandoah Valley in the fall of 1864
Union cavalry burning the Shenandoah Valley in the fall of 1864

Virginia Historical Society

In the spring and early summer of 1862, "Stonewall" Jackson played a fast war of maneuver to defeat several Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley. Towns such as Winchester changed hands numerous times, but survived relatively unscathed. By the fall of 1864, however, Union generals David Hunter and Phil Sheridan were conducting an intentional scorched earth policy, destroying all resources that could be used by the Confederacy to continue the war. The autumn of 1864 is still known in the Shenandoah Valley as "the Burning."

The nation was nominally reunited in 1865, but the outlook was grimmer and less romantic. Too many lives and limbs had been lost, and too many fortunes and youths had been shattered forever for the survivors ever to regain the thrill of flying banners and blaring bands that had opened the spring of 1861. True, slavery had ended, and some had made fortunes from the war, but there was a hard edge to American culture that arguably had not been present before the war. The Plains Indians and the freedmen in the neglected cotton fields of Georgia and ruins of Richmond, Petersburg, and Columbia would find themselves on the receiving end of it.

Last updated: August 14, 2017