Total War is an oft-used phrase in modern warfare. The textbook description of Total War is war in which a belligerent engages in the complete mobilization of fully available resources and population.
However, Total War in the American Civil War did not begin with a formal directive from the Lincoln administration. It was a gradual descent from a war conducted by rank amateurs to one in which increasingly veteran soldiers foraged throughout the countryside at will with the passive approval of their commanders.
The average Union soldier never accepted the policy of conciliation with the Confederacy. They looked upon them as the reason why they had left their homes and families to defend the Union. For northern soldiers the concept of the Union and its defense was paramount. They did not volunteer to free the slaves but to preserve the Union. Gary Gallagher in The Union War is very clear about this and backs his theory up with numerous quotations from contemporary sources.
Gallagher insists, abolition always “took a back seat” to the paramount goal of saving the Union. Most Northerners remained indifferent to the plight of the slaves. They embraced emancipation only when they concluded it had become necessary to win the war.
They fought because they regarded the United States as a unique experiment in democracy that guaranteed political liberty and economic opportunity in a world overrun by tyranny. Saving the Union, in the words of Secretary of State William H. Seward, meant “the saving of popular government for the world.”
They also saw the need to punish the South for their secession in a Biblical sense. One Ohio soldier wrote, “I believe, generally, there is no remission of sin without the shedding of blood and the sin of rebellion is no exception. True here as very often, the blood of the innocent must mingle their blood with the guilty.”
Nearly every military order that touched on soldier’s conduct toward civilian populations emphasized that Southern property was to be respected. Soldiers were told that bad behavior would embitter the local populations and prevent reconciliation.
But tell that to cold, wet soldiers who have just marched 20 miles whose supply system was inadequate or downright broken. The supply systems of both armies were not capable of maintaining the ever-increasing sizes of both armies. Until the latter stages of the war the Union supply chain was unable to adequately feed their troops. As the Union armies picked the South clean, Confederate troops in all theaters suffered with shortages in all areas of supply.
Initially, Union troops offered to pay for food with greenbacks but in many cases most Southerners refused to accept payment. Union soldiers were always in need of firewood and rail fences and farm structures were always in danger to foragers. Anecdotes from throughout the war tell stories where deserted hamlets were quite literally taken apart for soldier’s needs.
Soldiers who felt that their normal rations were inadequate simply decided on their own to forage for food. Despite the official policy of issuing vouchers, local inhabitants constantly complained to higher authorities.
In some areas, local farmers engaged in a blatant form of price gouging. They raised the prices of all of their commodities to extremely high levels. In Unionist western Maryland farmers raised the price of watermelons from two cents to twenty-five cents. Other commodities also saw a precipitous rise in prices.
Civilians in the contested areas of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia often found that they were at the mercy of both armies. As the tide of battle ebbed and flowed across the countryside, soldiers from both armies foraged for food, livestock and wood.
Especially contested was the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, an area that was contested throughout the war. By 1864, the agricultural economy of the Valley was wrecked with barns burned, livestock taken and fields stripped of food sources. More importantly, farmers were drafted into the Confederate Army which further reduced the production from this vital area. Here is the link to a series that gives an overview of the destruction of the Shenandoah Valley.
Gradually, soldiers on both sides used foraging as a means of supplementing their diets. They regularly seized food stuffs, livestock and other supplies without compensation. Officers in some cases deliberately ignored orders and allowed their men to forage freely. Some Union commanders were well known for allowing their men to pillage at will.
Brig. Gen. Louis Blenker and Maj. Gen. David Hunter were two such commanders who used wholesale pillaging as a weapon against the secessionists. In Western Virginia, Col. Robert McCook‘s brigade was well-known for their pillaging the homes of secessionists. As early as October 1861, the brigade was already burning houses and public buildings along its line of march.
The success of the policy of conciliation was dependent on two variables: the willingness of Union soldiers to leave civilians alone and the willingness of civilians to leave soldiers alone. Almost from the outset, soldiers found that neither condition was possible.
Maj. Gen. Phillip Sheridan’s 1864 campaign in the Shenandoah Valley is still remembered today as “The Burning”.