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date: 30 September 2022

The Violence of the Civil War in Comparative Perspectivefree

The Violence of the Civil War in Comparative Perspectivefree

  • Aaron Sheehan-DeanAaron Sheehan-DeanDepartment of History, Louisiana State University


The US Civil War was the deadliest event in American history, but not the bloodiest civil war or even the worst conflict of the 19th century. Generations of writing about the Civil War from a domestic perspective have generated false impressions about which aspects of the conflict were unique and which more commonplace. The American conflict was one of a number of national struggles in the mid-19th century. Some of these—the wars for Italian and German unification, for instance—are well known but are rarely considered alongside the US experience. Other conflicts—the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Polish Uprising of 1863, or the Taiping Rebellion—occurred concurrently with the Civil War but because of their imperial context are usually treated separately. Americans, and people around the world, consumed news about all these conflicts. They compared, contrasted, and evaluated behavior based on what they saw, seeking both internal reassurance about their own ways of war-making and external validation in the form of allies and material support. Historians gain a better understanding of which Civil War participants experienced lethal violence and why by contextualizing those actions as the participants themselves did—within a global framework.


  • Civil War and Reconstruction
  • Political History


The US Civil War was the deadliest event in American history by several orders of magnitude. At least 750,000 people died (out of a population of 30 million) and perhaps a million soldiers left the war with injuries.1 The demographic consequences reflected the regional nature of the conflict—nearly one-quarter of the South’s military-age white men died in the conflict. This terrific bloodletting has produced a myopia among Americans seeking to understand the nature of the Civil War within the 19th-century world more generally. Despite its high casualty totals, the American conflict was not the deadliest in terms of total numbers (that dubious honor is held by China for the Taiping Rebellion) or in per capita terms (the War of the Triple Alliance consumed an even greater number of Paraguayans). Only in recent years have historians begun to contextualize the Civil War in relation to either historical or concurrent civil wars and national conflicts, though much work remains to be done. Over the last decade as well, historians have situated the Civil War more fully in the broader context of American imperialism and racialized violence in the pre- and postwar decades.

In order to conduct a meaningful comparative analysis, historians must be clear about the primary criteria in each place that determined who was exposed to military violence and of what kind. Scholars must distinguish between traditional or regular military violence of the sort that occurs between uniformed soldiers within a command structure on a battlefield and irregular violence that might occur against noncombatants via regular soldiers, irregulars such as guerrillas, or civilians taking advantage of the chaos of war. In the US context, for instance, race was the most important determinant of who was exposed to unnecessary violence. Although white soldiers made up a majority of both armies and suffered a majority of the battlefield injuries, Black men and women and Indigenous people were more likely to experience unjust violence at the hands of soldiers or guerrillas.2 Place, loyalty status, and gender proved additional key distinctions. Another key factor limiting vengeance was the desire of Abraham Lincoln and Northern military leaders to induce Confederates to reestablish their loyalty to the United States. The presence of regular army forces (of either side) deterred irregular violence and kept most noncombatants safe. In areas without a military presence, women in particular were vulnerable. The courts-martial records for the US Army reveal that women living alone on the margins of occupied areas were the most likely targets for sexual violence. Black women, particularly enslaved women, experienced the most vulnerability and suffered the most sexual assaults by uniformed soldiers.3 Any comparative or globally contextualized effort will need to account for the methods by which people in a given place identified who belonged to protected categories such as “noncombatant.”

In addition to the identifying patterns of violence—who could be exposed to what sort of violence—it is necessary to appreciate how each culture understood and created meaning around different acts of violence. For instance, a key limit in the US conflict was the belief (grounded in European laws of war) that commanders laying siege to a city should allow civilians to exit the city if they desired to do so, regardless of whether this impeded military operations. Even in the most notorious case where these rules were not followed—William T. Sherman’s bombardment of Atlanta in 1864—roughly 75 percent of the civilian population had already abandoned the city when the attack began. The result was that despite five weeks of intense shelling, only twenty civilian deaths occurred.4 In China, by contrast, the custom was for attacking armies to lock civilians inside cities. During the Taiping Rebellion, this produced huge casualty numbers; as a result, in some places, tens of thousands as people died from infected water or starvation.5 Despite the universality of the “laws of war” projected by its crafters, there were no universally shared norms for military behavior in the 19th century. For instance, the Comanche and other Plains Indian communities respected hand-to-hand combat and condemned the willingness of white soldiers to kill indiscriminately (rather than selectively) on a battlefield, while white soldiers felt the opposite.6 The meaning of violence is socially constructed—different communities understand acts of communal and personal violence differently—which means that scholars operating in a comparative mode must attend carefully to the cultural context of each place.

That said, both sides in the American Civil War trumpeted their adherence to the laws of war. They did so for strategic reasons. The Confederacy hoped to use their adherence to accepted norms as a way to leverage recognition as a bona fide state. The United States condemned the South’s reliance on guerrilla fighters and their refusal to respect Black soldiers as public enemies (and hence, eligible for capture and parole), hoping that such a critique would encourage European nations to refuse foreign recognition. For the most part, both sides observed the laws of war when white soldiers clashed on battlefields, but the Confederacy refused to exchange Black soldiers when captured and, in many brutal instances, Confederates killed their opponents rather than allow them to surrender.7 Nonetheless, the rough adherence to the laws of war ensured a lower casualty total, as did the North’s generous policy of parole and loyalty oaths for soldiers at the war’s end.8 A much worse potential outcome can be seen in the conclusion of the Paris Commune of 1871, when French forces spent a week executing Communards in the streets rather than accord them the protections offered to regular soldiers. Perhaps 25,000 French men were killed in this fashion, more than in almost any single battle of the US Civil War.9

Battlefield Violence

News about the American conflict circulated around the globe in the mid-19th century, helping establish a baseline for what other people expected in a secessionist conflict of this sort. The Civil War also offered an opportunity to evaluate the use of industrial technology in warfare. Although in some respects the conflict relied on old methods—most war matériel moved by foot, human or animal—both sides also relied on new technologies. Foreign armies sent observers to North America in order to gather information about the effectiveness of new weapons, enhanced fortifications, and the strategic and tactical changes that such new technologies demanded. The scale of casualties in the Civil War confirmed the modern scale of war inaugurated by the Crimean War in the late 1850s. That was the first conflict in which participants (the Russians against a coalition composed of the Ottoman Empire, Britain, France, and Piedmont–Sardinia) had relied on rifled weapons, steamships, and the telegraph. Despite lasting only two-and-a-half years, the war caused the deaths of 750,000 soldiers and an unknown number of civilians.10 Like the Crimean Conflict, the US Civil War revealed that wedding modern technology to mass armies driven by commanders committed to victory could generate horrific casualty totals.

Technology, Tactics, and Commitment

Despite the attention paid, then and in later historical accounts, to new weapons—the rifled musket, the repeating rifle, and rifled artillery—it is not clear that these tools alone are what made the Civil War violent. Attacks by infantry regiments armed with rifled muskets proved little more deadly than those with smoothbore muskets from earlier generations.11 It is true that infantry commanders only slowly modified their tactics to accommodate the increased lethality of rifled weapons. Some continued to order frontal attacks against entrenched enemies as late as 1864 (most infamously in the Union attack at Cold Harbor, an order that Ulysses S. Grant later expressed regret for ordering). But what generated high casualty totals in the American Civil War was the willingness of soldiers on both sides to continue fighting despite these escalating figures. The first major clash—at Manassas Junction in central Virginia—generated roughly 4,600 total casualties (of whom about 20 percent were killed). That total shocked Americans at the time. It was one of the deadliest battles that had been fought in North America up to that point. By the spring of 1864, during the Overland Campaign, the combined Union and Confederate armies experienced that same number of casualties (with a higher fatality rate) every day for nearly six weeks.

Late 20th-century Civil War historians have worked hard to explain the willingness of the civilian populations on both sides to commit to an increasingly deadly conflict. Nationalist sentiment in North and South helped ordinary people make sense of their sacrifices and encouraged them to remain invested in the conflict.12 Both armies built disciplinary apparatuses to punish deserters (often lethally) so we cannot discount the role of coercion, but it is equally clear that people at the time dedicated themselves to the future of their nation-states.13 The willingness to sacrifice did not spring fully born overnight; as soldiers died, both states (the United States and Confederate States) worked hard to memorialize and marshal their deaths into a national pantheon that encouraged commitment to the cause. In wars of national unification that occurred over shorter spans of time or that involved sharper cultural, especially linguistic, differences among the participants, the casualty totals were noticeably lower. Witness, for instance, the wars of German unification between 1864 and 1871, fought against communities that had historically defined themselves in terms quite distinct from that of the emerging German nation—Denmark, Austria, and France.14 Although these were dramatic and consequential conflicts, they happened quickly and with relatively few casualties. An episode similar to the American experience occurred as Paraguay resisted the incursions of the Triple Alliance of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. In that conflict, lasting from 1864 to 1870, even after the defeat of the regular Paraguayan Army, the people continued to fight, mostly in guerrilla fashion.15 The result was a devastating loss of life in what remains the bloodiest interstate war in Latin American history.


The nationalist armies of the United States and the Confederate States made the Civil War a true popular conflict. This aspect of the conflict generated a commitment that mercenaries or even imperial armies rarely maintained and that led to a higher death toll. At the same time, the unified nature of the armies in the US Civil War discouraged the more decentralized campaigns that marked some of the other wars of the mid-19th century. Although pro-Confederate guerrillas operated within most areas of the South, both militaries were centrally directed and under the command of civilian authorities. This was a democratic war. In comparison, the Taiping Rebellion began with a messianic vision of expelling the ruling Qing Dynasty and establishing a Christian and Westernized regime composed of native Han Chinese (the Qing’s origins were traced to Tartar or Mongol people from the North). Given China’s population at the time (more than 400 million people) and its size, the conflict fragmented over time as different regional commanders came to direct their own armies. This resulted in significant variations in the war experience, with some commanders recruiting locals into their armies and others coercing them, which in turn generated resistance and more violence.16

As the Civil War came to a close, Confederate General Robert E. Lee faced a similar conundrum. Some of his officers advised him to release his men rather than surrender, and to encourage them to take up guerrilla fighting in their home regions of the South.17 Lee refused and, in the process, helped deescalate a situation that would certainly have generated yet more violence. This did not always occur in 19th-century conflicts. In Poland’s campaign for independence, launched in 1863, the Polish could not build an army sufficient to meet the Russians in regular battle. As a result, they resorted to guerrilla warfare, especially attacks on isolated units of Russian soldiers. This strategy, though it played to European notions of suppressed minorities struggling to assert national autonomy in the face of empires, generated serious repercussions. The Russians responded with a devastating counterinsurgency campaign that beat back the guerrilla threat, in part by putting pressure on irregulars’ civilian supporters.18

The fact that commanders from both militaries in the US Civil War had been educated in the same mode of warfare, at the same place (West Point), and often together, enabled easier negotiations that helped diminish revenge when unjust violence did occur. One of the key methods that helped keep violence in check was what one historian calls “rites of retaliation.”19 Under the laws of war, if one side committed an unsanctioned act (by killing a captive or committing an atrocity, for instance), the other side could respond with a proportional and equivalent act as a way to restore order. These events, which occurred in all theaters of the war, were often managed by officers on the ground without recourse to superiors in Washington or Richmond. They followed a consistent script involving an exchange of letters, accusations, countercharges, demands for evidence, time for investigations, and promises to remedy any unjust actions. Despite the inflammatory rhetoric that often accompanied these negotiations, the end result provided a way for each side to save face and address conflicts over the ways of war without initiating cycles of escalation. Because so many of the national wars of the mid-19th century initiated within imperial systems (for instance, the Greeks in the 1820s, Indians in 1857, the Polish in 1863) the participants rarely possessed a common store of linguistic and cultural frameworks to help them navigate moments when the wars threatened to spin out of control.


One of the key deescalating factors in the American Civil War was the willingness of both sides to take and hold prisoners of war (POWs). Although the Confederacy broke the cartel (the agreement between North and South reached in 1862 over how to exchange captured soldiers) in 1864 over their unwillingness to recognize Black men as legitimate soldiers, during the greater part of the conflict both sides allowed men to surrender on the battlefield. Once taken prisoner, they were treated like uniformed soldiers according to the laws of war. For much of the war, both sides agreed to exchange prisoners at the conclusion of battles or to send men home with paroles, which required an oath not to rejoin their units until they were officially exchanged. This ensured small prison populations in the first two years of the conflict. The Lincoln administration agonized over the decision to recognize captured Confederates as public enemies because they feared it would signal a recognition of the Confederate state, but they had little choice given the scale of the war. The experience in conflicts where prisoner-of-war status was not granted contrasted sharply with what happened in America. The example of the Paris Commune (discussed in the Introduction) is one counterexample. The other notable one, in terms of scale, was the Taiping Rebellion, where Chinese armies rarely provided quarter to men on the battlefield or to those captured in cities. The result was that tens of thousands of rebels were killed.20 The key to taking prisoners was recognizing the enemy forces as legitimate combatants. The British Empire had proven itself unwilling to do this during the Indian Rebellion of 1857.21 Prisoners were routinely killed, the leaders of the rebelling military units in dramatic fashion, and news of such decisions established one pole in the global debate over insurrectionary movements.

Despite the willingness of Union and Confederate leaders to take prisoners, the experience of being a POW proved deadly for many. President Abraham Lincoln and his chief commander, Ulysses S. Grant, gradually recognized the war’s awful arithmetic” (in Lincoln’s phrase)—that the North had the manpower to fight through even its worst defeats. They never adopted a strategy of attrition—that is, the deliberate killing of enemy soldiers in an attempt to reduce the army—but they held prisoners indefinitely after 1863, partly as a way to put pressure on the Confederacy’s ability to fight. The result, in 1864–1865, was hundreds of thousands of men being held in POW camps in the North and South. As the Confederacy lost its ability to provision its armies and its citizens, it reduced the rations supplied to captives. At the worst POW facility, Andersonville, in southwestern Georgia, the supply problem was compounded by a brutal indifference to the suitability of the prison’s location (in terms of access to water), overcrowding, and a lethal attitude among guards. The result was a tragic loss of life, with 13,000 fatalities.22

Home Front Violence

The American Civil War was marked by deaths that served no obvious military purpose, though perhaps fewer than occurred in other contemporary conflicts and certainly fewer than would have taken place if participants had not roughly adhered to the laws of war. Nonetheless, the death of any noncombatant in a war is a cause for regret. There were surprisingly few mass casualty events and even in the infamous example of General William T. Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” his soldiers targeted property rather than civilians.23 The destruction of foodstuffs and transportation networks, both accomplished by Sherman’s troops, created serious hardship for Southern civilians, but we have few records that demonstrate deaths from starvation. Even taking into account the difficulty of documenting such a process, the evidence reveals suffering but not death. If the war had continued another year beyond its end in early 1865, it is possible that even this primarily agricultural community would have experienced episodes of genuine starvation.

In other theaters of war, civilians suffered from Union military policies that sought to create stability and order. Missouri was plagued by guerrilla conflict throughout the war. It reached its peak in 1863 and in response the Union commander for the state issued “General Order No. 11,” expelling all disloyal residents of three western Missouri counties. The army then burned houses and barns. Nearly 40,000 people were left homeless at the onset of fall, and probably several hundred people within this community perished as refugees.24 General Order No. 11 was unique in the Civil War, both in its scale and the degree to which it targeted noncombatants. Still, the policy was adopted as a nonlethal way of disrupting the civilian supply chain that enabled guerrilla fighters to operate within the state. In other instances, such the Polish–Russian conflict referenced in the subsection “Command,” or the use of irregular tactics against the US Army during the Second Seminole War, the consequences for noncombatants were terrible.25 Particularly, in their campaigns against Indian communities in the postwar years, the US Army refused to distinguish between genuine combatants and noncombatants when it faced what it regarded as irregular warfare. “Winter campaigning,” which was intended to drive Indian communities without a break until they collapsed from exhaustion, became a hallmark of the Plains Wars of the 1870s.26

Winter campaigning and General Order No. 11 were both unusual in that they focused military pressure on households. Because of the extraordinarily high enlistment rate in Confederates armies—nearly 90 percent of eligible military-age men in some areas—most Southern households during the Civil War were female-headed. They may have included young male children or enslaved men, but they rarely counted adult white men. This meant that women, both white and Black, were on the front lines of the Home Front. When Union armies entered and occupied the South, they negotiated with women over issues relating to housing, labor, military intelligence, guerrilla operations, and most importantly, national loyalty. In most cases, Northern soldiers treated Southern women according to the dictates of gender common in the antebellum years. In those places, such as New Orleans, where women behaved as political actors, that treatment could shift. It was very rare for armies to target women for lethal violence, but they could be arrested or exiled if their disloyal behavior was deemed a threat.27 Among the most disagreeable aspects of the war for white Confederate women was the requirement that they take a loyalty oath to the Union in order to participate in markets or to receive emergency rations.28 In New Orleans and other occupied cities, Union commanders compelled women to take loyalty oaths, which compelled some diehard Confederates into refugee status. In other cases, women took the oath but maintained a secret loyalty to the Confederacy. In both cases, the war created a new context where women could engage in public political acts and where men were forced to reckon with this new dynamic. Unlike in some 20th- and 21st-century wars, rape was not used as a tool of war. Soldiers did sexually assault Southern women, more often targeting Black women than white women, though they ran a high risk for this behavior; if caught and convicted, they faced execution, especially from zealous provost marshals like Marsena Patrick, with the Union’s Army of the Potomac.29


Every 19th-century conflict included irregular fighters. Some wars, like the process of Italian unification, began irregularly and then transformed into more traditional military campaigns. Famously in this case, Giuseppe Garibaldi and his “Expedition of the Thousand” started in Sicily and marched north through the Italian peninsula. His meeting with Victor Emmanuel, the leader of Sardinia–Piedmont, enabled the two commanders to unify their armies into one that even hostile powers recognized as a legitimate military.30 In other cases, the use of guerrilla fighters discouraged foreign recognition and generated brutal counterinsurgencies that doomed rebellions.31 In the US context, in the early 21st century historians began to finally take guerrillas seriously. Doing so forced them to shift away from an exclusively Eastern-theater focus (that is, the area between the Atlantic Coast and the Appalachian Mountains). And even beyond simply adding the western theater (the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River), historians now pay attention to those areas where regular armies were scarce, but violence and conflict continued. These include parts of every Confederate state, and several border Union states. The numbers of guerrillas have remained difficult to ascertain—most were organized locally and disbanded as needed to avoid capture—but tens of thousands probably operated during the war.

Their military experience was a precarious one. Because guerrillas operated outside the laws of war (they did not wear uniforms, follow the orders of the main Confederate military structure, or operate in ways that adhered to the norms), they were rarely given the opportunity to surrender. Union officers who captured guerrillas were within their rights to order “drumhead courts martial,” which nearly always resulted in immediate execution. Commanders could, and did, capture and imprison guerrillas (several hundred were housed at the Union prison at Alton, Illinois), but it took a steady hand to not react to what most soldiers regarded as the guerrillas’ wanton disregard for the commonly accepted laws of war. The summary treatment they received was authorized by the Lieber Code, which gave commanders the right to execute men caught with arms operating outside the purview of the regular Confederate army. Confederate President Jefferson Davis denounced this policy, but as a West Point graduate and former Secretary of War, he knew as well as anyone the perils of mounting irregular military resistance.


As mentioned above, the most wanton violations of the laws of war occurred when Confederate soldiers encountered Black soldiers. Confederate guerrillas also used lethal violence indiscriminately against enslaved people, especially those who were imagined to be plotting insurrection or escape. White Northern soldiers often shared the same callous racist attitudes as Confederate soldiers, and on some occasions grossly mistreated Black Southerners, but the advent of emancipation as a war strategy in 1863 put them in the position of needing the knowledge and manpower of Black people. The military opportunity created by Black people’s fifth-column position within the Confederacy tempered some of the cruelest aspects of the conflict. Nonetheless, Black Southerners, enslaved and free, experienced a precarious war. Their efforts to pursue autonomy could lead to freedom, recapture, or a bewildering oscillation between these statuses.32 Those Black men who escaped slavery, joined the Union Army, and took the field experienced an unjust war if they were captured. In this, the Civil War recreated the uneven experiences of enslaved people in the American Revolution and other national conflicts into which they were drawn.33

Emancipation expanded Northern manpower and ennobled the Union cause. From the Confederate perspective, Lincoln’s policy was a deliberate effort to incite “servile insurrection.” White Southerners anticipated that they would face an indiscriminate uprising of enslaved people predicated on murder and arson. Nothing of the sort happened. Instead, when they could, enslaved people pursued their freedom; only in exceptional cases did they choose instead to enact violence against slaveholders.34 This was one of the most important deescalating factors at play in the Civil War. Despite this being an example of what did not occur, we should not underestimate its significance. Despite the nonviolent posture of enslaved people in the United States, foreign observers regarded the experience of military emancipation as a warning. Brazil and Cuba, the last two slave societies in the western hemisphere, followed the progress of the war carefully. The defeat of the Confederacy and passage of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery isolated their own slave systems. Furthermore, property-conscious slaveholders in both countries hoped to avoid the uncompensated nature of American emancipation.35 Both countries pursued statutory measures that ended slavery in the 1880s. The American example was a negative one—representing what those countries hoped to avoid—but it certainly hastened the end of slavery more generally in the Americas.

Discussion of the Literature

The historical literature on violence in the Civil War used to be organized around two positions—that the war was a terrible harbinger of the industrialized violence to come in World War I, or that it was a relatively restrained conflict harkening back to the gentleman’s wars of the 18th century. Though easy to stereotype, these positions reflected deep disagreements about the nature and significance of guerrillas, the importance of different regional theaters of war, and, ultimately, whether the conflict represented an enviable American capacity for moderation or embodied the brutal essence of a history built on slavery, colonial warfare, and a tradition of violent interpersonal relations.36 In particular, scholars of the Civil War used to describe it as a “total war.”37 The analytical slipperiness of this term—whether it refers to the use of certain technologies of warfare, the full mobilization of a society for war, repeated violations of the laws of war, the direction of lethal power against noncombatants, or some combination of these and other factors—has reduced its utility.38 Today, historians are more likely to see violence and restraint as simultaneous features of a conflict that occurred across thousands of square miles and involved 3 million men.39

Another feature that has changed interpretations of Civil War violence is more attention to the global context. Where a previous generation of historians viewed the rise of the nation-state as inevitable, if not natural, early 21st-century scholarship is a reminder of the persistence of empires (especially those of the British and French, but also the Russian, Chinese, and Ottoman empires) through the 19th century.40 Compared to the process of Italian unification or even the wars of German unification, the American Civil War indeed looks bloody. But when the conflict is compared to the ongoing efforts of the British to maintain hegemony in India during what they called the Sepoy Mutiny, or the Russian suppression of the Polish pursuit of independence in 1863, the North’s long and difficult effort to repudiate Southern secession looks more like a part of global struggles over central authority.41 The American episode certainly produced more casualties than either of those wars, but the conflicts followed a similar pattern. The emergence of global historians and the pressure within a variety of fields—most importantly for the present purposes, military, political, and intellectual history—to conduct more comparative and transnational analyses have enabled a rising generation to connect the US Civil War to contemporary conflicts in a way that their predecessors rarely did. The results highlight both similarities and differences between it and other contemporary conflicts. The nearly simultaneous emancipation of the serfs in Russia and of enslaved people in the United States, a feature that played no small role in securing Russian support for the North during the war, reveals the divergent paths taken as a result of the profound political differences between these places.42

Direct comparative work asks a lot of historians who have mostly been trained within their own nationalist historiographies. Notwithstanding the language difficulties and the addition of a new country’s set of archives to visit, there is the deeper challenge of reframing questions that have organized generations of research to date. The domestic focus of most American Civil War literature means that scholars know a great deal about the deep causes of the conflict as well as how people on all sides conceptualized it. A global or comparative framework rarely empowers historians to speak to these older questions. As a result, it is incumbent upon those working in this mode to frame new ways of generating meaning from the past. While it may not be possible to speak to the particulars of causation, process, or outcomes (global events only occasionally impinged directly on the war itself), a comparative framework nonetheless enables new insights into the big processes of the 19th century—nationalism and state making, emancipation, violence, and war.

Primary Sources

Primary sources from the US Civil War are voluminous (the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion runs to 128 volumes and includes only a fraction of the raw material housed at the National Archives). Nonetheless, for scholars conducting comparative analyses, several basic bodies of material offer a good place to start. The aforementioned Official Records (OR) contains most of the major correspondence and reporting among Union military officials. It includes Confederate material, though much of that was burned during the evacuation of Richmond. Because American armies operated in such a decentralized fashion during the Civil War, using the OR gives the researcher access to important ground-level sources. Complementing the military records are the debates of both the US and Confederate States (CS) Congresses. US records are more complete, but both offer a vital window into the changing attitudes of policymakers. The collected papers of major figures in the conflict—Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and Ulysses S. Grant, in particular—provide another key access point to understanding the decision-making process. The three figures identified above have complete and professional publication projects devoted to their lives, which provide full bibliographic and contextual information for every document. Other leading figures—such as Charles Sumner (a leading Republican Senator and chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee) and Benjamin Butler (a prominent Northern politician and US general)—have more informal 19th-century paper collections devoted to them, which are nonetheless valuable.

The US Army has produced several specific bodies of material relating to the behavior of its troops. The most important of these was issued as General Order No. 100 in April 1863 and is also known as the Lieber Code, after its author, Francis Lieber. The Lieber Code represented the first attempt to systematize the laws of war. Lieber was well versed in the European writing on the laws of nations and warfare (Vattel, Grotius, and earlier Catholic writers) and his work became the foundation for the Rules of Engagement used in today’s American military.43 Before the Lieber Code, the US Army maintained its own set of regulations and issued tactical manuals to its officers, though these offer surprisingly limited direction about the behavior of troops. European armies at the time likewise maintained and developed over time their own rules for troop behavior. These provide an essential starting point for any evaluation of wartime violence. In some cases, the judicial or disciplinary unit of a given military will generate material that testifies to the nature of wartime violence. Usefully, this can include both violence committed by that nation’s troops themselves—for instance, the prosecution of soldiers for “conduct unbecoming”—and particular crimes committed against civilians (theft, rape, or murder, for example).

Beyond military records lies a vast array of primary sources. The ingenuity and creativity of the historian is the key to unlocking these records. Some historians of violence focus on popular discourse by attending to debates within newspapers and other periodicals. Others focus on literature—analyzing fiction, poetry, and drama to uncover attitudes regarding the meaning of violence in a given culture. For wartime comparisons, the sources left behind in the form of diaries or letter collections (if these are available) are a crucial complement to military or official records. Most armies have a vested interest in minimizing the evidence of crimes committed by their own soldiers, so identifying the testimony of civilians through personal records or newspapers is quite valuable. At the macro level, social historians or demographers may generate material about population decline or migration patterns that can be connected to specific wartime events or processes. Although these might not be considered true primary sources because they are often produced after the conflicts have concluded, they nonetheless provide important context for evaluating the effect of wars on a given population.

Further Reading

  • Bayly, C. A. The Birth of the Modern World, 1780–1914. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.
  • Dilbeck, D. H. A More Civil War: How the Union Waged a Just War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.
  • Fellman, Michael. Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri during the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Gandhi, Rajmohan. A Tale of Two Revolts: India’s Mutiny and the American Civil War. London: Haus, 2011.
  • Geyer, Michael and Charles Bright. “Global Violence and Nationalizing Wars in Eurasia and America: The Geopolitics of War in the Mid-Nineteenth Century.” Society for Comparative Studies in Society and History 38 (October 1996): 619–657.
  • Grimsley, Mark. The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy toward Southern Civilians, 1861–1865. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Kalyvas, Stathis N. The Logic of Violence in Civil War. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Lang, Andrew F. A Contest of Civilizations: Exposing the Crisis of American Exceptionalism in the Civil War Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021.
  • Neely, Mark E. The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.
  • Neff, Stephen C. Justice in Blue and Gray: A Legal History of the Civil War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.
  • Osterhammel, Jürgen. The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.
  • Platt, Stephen. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War. New York: Vintage, 2012.
  • Sheehan-Dean, Aaron. The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.
  • Silkenat, David. Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019.
  • Sutherland, Daniel E. A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
  • Witt, John Fabian. Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History. New York: Free Press, 2012.


  • 1. David Hacker, “A Census-Based Count of the Civil War Dead,” Civil War History 57 (December 2011): 307–348.

  • 2. Aaron Sheehan-Dean, The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).

  • 3. Charles Royster, The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans (New York: Vintage, 1991), 342; Mark Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Reid Mitchell, The Vacant Chair: The Northern Soldier Leaves Home (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 104–110; Anne Sarah Rubin, Through the Heart of Dixie: Sherman’s March and American Memory (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 49; and Steven J. Ramold, Baring the Iron Hand: Discipline in the Union Army (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010), 300.

  • 4. Stephen Davis, What the Yankees Did to Us: Sherman’s Bombardment and Wrecking of Atlanta (Atlanta, GA: Mercer University Press, 2012).

  • 5. Stephen R. Platt, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War (New York: Vintage, 2012).

  • 6. Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 231–291.

  • 7. George S. Burkhardt, Confederate Rage, Yankee Wrath: No Quarter in the Civil War (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007); and Gregory J. W. Urwin, Black Flag over Dixie: Racial Atrocities and Reprisals in the Civil War (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004).

  • 8. William A. Blair, With Malice Toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

  • 9. John Merryman, Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune (New York: Basic Books, 2014).

  • 10. Orlando Figes, The Crimean War: A History (New York: Metropolitan, 2010).

  • 11. Earl Hess, Civil War Infantry Tactics: Training, Combat, and Small-Unit Effectiveness (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015), xiii; and Brent Nosworthy, The Bloody Crucible of Courage: Fighting Methods and Combat Experience of the Civil War (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2003), 571–593.

  • 12. Gary W. Gallagher, The Confederate War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997); Anne Rubin, A Shattered Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Confederacy, 1861–1868 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); and Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

  • 13. Peter S. Carmichael, The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

  • 14. Dennis Showalter, The Wars of German Unification, 2nd ed. (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).

  • 15. Harris Gaylord Warren, Paraguay and the Triple Alliance: The Postwar Decade, 1869–1878 (Austin: University of Texas, 1978).

  • 16. James H. Cole, The People Versus the Taipings: Bao Lisheng’s “Righteous Army of Dongan” (Berkeley, CA: Center for Chinese Studies, 1981).

  • 17. The decision-making is chronicled in Edward Porter Alexander’s memoir, Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander, ed. Gary W. Gallagher (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).

  • 18. Jerzy Lukowski and Hubert Zawadzki, A Concise History of Poland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 150–152.

  • 19. Lorien Foote, Rites of Retaliation: Civilization, Soldiers, and Campaigns in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021).

  • 20. Platt, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, 51, 267.

  • 21. Bruce Watson, The Great Indian Mutiny: Colin Campbell and the Campaign at Lucknow (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1991), 105.

  • 22. William Marvel, Andersonville: The Last Depot (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994).

  • 23. Joseph T. Glatthaar, The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman’s Troops in the Savannah and Carolinas Campaign (New York: New York University Press, 1985).

  • 24. Dennis K. Boman, Lincoln and Citizen’s Rights in Civil War Missouri: Balancing Freedom and Security (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011); Ann Davis Niepman, “General Orders No. 11 and Border Warfare During the Civil War,” in Kansas City, America’s Crossroads: Essays from the Missouri Historical Review 1906–2006, ed. Diane Mutti Burke and John Herron (Columbia: State Historical Society of Missouri, 2007); and Albert Castel, “Order No. 11 and the Civil War on the Border,” Missouri Historical Review 62 (July 1963): 357–368.

  • 25. Megan Kate Nelson, Trembling Earth: A Cultural History of the Okefenokee Swamp (Athens: University of Georgia, 2009).

  • 26. One example of this strategy can be found in Elliott West, The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

  • 27. Kristen L. Streater, “‘She-Rebels’ on the Supply Line: Gender Conventions in Civil War Kentucky,” in Occupied Women: Gender, Military Occupation, and the American Civil War, eds. Lee Ann Whites and Alecia P. Long (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009), 88–102.

  • 28. Jacqueline G. Campbell, “‘The Unmeaning Twaddle about General Order 28’: Benjamin F. Butler and Confederate Women in Occupied New Orleans,” Journal of the Civil War Era 2 (March 2012): 11–30.

  • 29. Marsena Rudolph Patrick, Inside Lincoln’s Army: The Diary of Marsena Rudolph Patrick, Provost Marshal General, Army of the Potomac, ed. David S. Sparks (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1964).

  • 30. Harry Hearder, Italy in the Age of the Risorgimento, 1790–1870 (New York: Routledge, 2013), Originally published in 1983.

  • 31. Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Reckoning with Rebellion: War and Sovereignty in the Nineteenth Century (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2020), 14–50.

  • 32. Amy Murrell Taylor, Embattled Freedom; Journeys Through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018); and Joseph Reidy, Illusions of Emancipation: The Pursuit of Freedom and Equality in the Twilight of Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

  • 33. Christopher Leslie Brown and Philip D. Morgan, eds., Arming Slaves: From Classical Times to the Modern Age (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006).

  • 34. Sheehan-Dean, Calculus of Violence, 132–179.

  • 35. Robert Conrad, The Destruction of Brazilian Slavery, 1850–1888 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972); Matt Childs, “Cuba, the Atlantic Crisis of the 1860s, and the Road to Abolition,” in American Civil Wars: The United States, Latin America, Europe, and the Crisis of the 1860s, ed. Don Doyle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 204–221; and Christopher Schmidt-Nowara, “Empires Against Emancipation: Spain, Brazil, and the Abolition of Slavery,” Review (Fernand Braudel Center) 31 (2008: 2): 101–119.

  • 36. Mark E. Neely, Jr. The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

  • 37. James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); Mark E. Neely, Jr., “Was the Civil War a Total War?,” Civil War History 37 (March 1991): 5–28; and Harry Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (New York: Viking, 2006).

  • 38. Eugenia C. Kiesling, “‘Total War, Total Nonsense’ or ‘The Military Historian’s Fetish,’” in Arms and the Man: Military History Essay in Honor of Dennis Showalter, ed. Michael S. Neiberg (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 215–242.

  • 39. D. H. Dilbeck, A More Civil War: How the Union Waged a Just War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016); Wayne Hsieh, “Total War and the American Civil War Reconsidered: The End of an Outdated ‘Master Narrative,’” Journal of the Civil War Era 1 (September 2011): 394–408; and Sheehan-Dean, Calculus of Violence.

  • 40. Jürgen Osterhammel, “Imperial Systems and Nation-States,” in The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 392–429.

  • 41. Sheehan-Dean, Reckoning with Rebellion.

  • 42. Peter Kolchin, Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987); and Amanda Bellows, American Slavery and Russian Serfdom in the Post-Emancipation Imagination (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

  • 43. John Fabian Witt, Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History (New York: Free Press, 2012).