Mark E. Neely Jr.: His new book given a blistering review by James McPherson

Historians in the News

In 1992 Mark E. Neely Jr. won the Pulitzer Prize in History for his book The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties.[1] In the same year that the book came out he published an influential article in the journal Civil War History titled "Was the Civil War a Total War?"[2] His answer to that question was no. The concept of "total war" had arisen as a way of describing the horrifying destruction of lives and resources in World War II. The generation of historians who experienced that cataclysm used this phrase to describe the American Civil War as well. That conflict cost more American lives than World War II, even though the United States in 1861 had less than one quarter the population of 1941, and it left large portions of the South looking like bombed-out cities of Europe and Japan....

Neely's article had great influence. Few historians now describe the Civil War as a total war. Perhaps I was the last one to do so, in an article first published in 1992 and reprinted in 1996.[5] In the nine years that separated the second and third editions of my textbook on the Civil War and Reconstruction, I changed my occasional use of the phrase "total war" to "hard war."[6]...


eely's final chapter addresses the question of casualty figures in the Civil War. He does not challenge the data that at least 620,000 soldiers died in the war. Rather, he questions the interpretation of these data. This number of deaths "has played an important role in the modern transformation of the image of that conflict into a forerunner of terror and unrestrained violence." These 620,000 dead amounted to 2 percent of the American population in 1861. If 2 percent of Americans were to die in a war fought today, the number of American war dead would be more than six million. This startling fact might call into question the conclusion that the Civil War was "remarkable for its traditional restraint." So these figures must somehow be sanitized. The figure of 620,000 "lumps the dead from both sides together and calls them all 'Americans,'" Neely points out. "Such a mixing of opponents is rarely done in studying other American wars.... If we consider the Civil War casualties one 'country' at a time, then the 360,000 Union dead do not equal even the 407,000 Americans killed in World War II" and "the 260,000 Confederate dead constitute but 64 percent of the 407,000 Americans killed in World War II."

Such an argument is breathtaking in its contempt for the reader's intelligence. The 360,000 Union war dead were 1.6 percent of the population of Union states. An equivalent American death toll in World War II would have been 2.1 million and would today be 4.8 million. The 260,000 Southern dead constituted 2.9 percent of the Confederate population (including slaves), which would translate into 3.9 million of the 1940s population and 8.7 million today. By disaggregating the Union and Confederate tolls, as Neely wants us to do, the proportionate casualty rate for the Union is almost as large as when they are lumped together and the Confederate rate is far greater—and each is several times more catastrophic than for any other war, including World War II. These figures demonstrate the opposite of what Neely wants them to prove.

The same is true of the numbers game Neely plays with a comparison of the American Civil War and the Crimean War of a few years earlier, between 1854 and 1856. The death toll for all nations involved in that war was 640,000, which slightly exceeded that of the American Civil War, as Neely notes. What he does not tell the reader, however, is that the combined population of the four principal nations that fought the Crimean War (Russia vs. Turkey, Britain, and France) was about 130 million, four times the 32 million in the Union and Confederacy. In the Crimean War, fewer than 10 percent of soldier deaths occurred in combat; the rest were caused by disease. By contrast, 35 percent of soldier deaths in the Civil War resulted from combat wounds. On a per capita basis, combat mortality in the Civil War was therefore about fifteen times greater than in the Crimean War. This reality underscores the irony of Neely's statement that "the true significance of the Civil War casualty figures is quite the opposite of what has been asserted routinely about them in the past." In fact, what has been "asserted routinely" is exactly right, and its "true significance" undermines much of Neely's argument.

Mark Neely has been one of our best Civil War historians and Lincoln biographers for the past quarter-century. This book, unfortunately, does not measure up to his previous work.
Read entire article at James McPherson in the NY Review of Books (subscription only)

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Stephen Cipolla - 1/30/2008

McPherson's review is a reminder that the use of ill defined, contentious labels is risky business, especially when the label is intended to serve as shorthand for a statistical standard. I think James McPherson is correct in pointing up the fallacies and outright bad arithmetic in Neely's article.

But, I also think that there is no substitute for the actual statistical comparisons and qualitative evidence regarding casualties used in comparing war to war. For example, the Civil War whether characterized as "total" or "just" or "hard" is siginificant because every single casualty (dead and wounded) was a member of the same political state. We really did have blood relatives killing one another.

Our Civil War was a savage war that resulted in anchievement of a great goal -- emancipation. Hundreds of thousands died, many of whom were Southern "civilians" and the economic infrastructural development of the South, which had dominated the national antebellum economy was set back many decades.

Neither Neely nor McPherson raise the issue of the wounded, either their numbers or their treatment. This seems to be a defect of all war reporting whether journalistic or historical. The numbers of permanently handicapped and pyschological scarred CW veterans must have been staggering. And, under-reporting of injuries is certain to have occurred.

The numbers of Iraq war wounded is also staggering. In assessing the impact of war on society, which must be the primary reason for even engaging in this discourse, the numbers of wounded should never be left out of the discussion of casualties. Never.

And, the impact on the post bellum American society cannot be properly measured without equal consideration of those permanently injured and traumatized by the war, irrespective of their status as "combatants" or "civilians." If anybody understood the tactical significance of this during our civil war, it was certainly General William Tecumseh Sherman.