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From The Soft Finger to the Hard Hand: The Evolution of the Union’s Civilian Policy

Atlanta ruins after Sherman’s March (George Bernard, c. 1864)

In The Hard Hand of War, Mark Grimsley addresses the evolution of Union military policy towards Southern civilians and specifies three separate phases of policy: conciliatory, pragmatic, and hard war. This policy changed with the Union’s changing war aim from the defense of the Union to the abolition of slavery and every stepping stone in between. The hard war policy came to a head after the failure to break the Confederacy by both respectful occupation and concentration on the battlefield. For hard war, the focus shifted to the destruction of the Confederate infrastructure and the confiscation of private citizens’ property, especially though who outright supported the Confederate cause.

By definition, conciliation means to placate or pacify, and the Union military policy aimed to do just that. Under the advice of the “slavocracy”, or the Slave Power Conspiracy, the one-fourth of the white population that owned slaves had the rest under their rule and were forcing them into agreeing with secession and diminishing their already small voice in the matter. Thus, “[invading] the South with fire and sword” (9) was an unnecessary action, seeing as the power resided in the Southern planter class. Furthermore, it was believed that the “rebellion lacked popular support” (10) and the Union military had to be soft towards the general Confederate civilian so that they would not be fueled against the Union and begin to support the rebellion. The guidelines established in Emmerich de Vattel’s The Law of Nations also prescribed a conciliatory policy towards civilians, especially if the Union wanted their support and their willingness to come back. He warned against devastation, for “those who tear up the vines and cut down the fruit trees, are looked upon as savage barbarians…They desolate a country for many years to come, and beyond what their own safety requires” as well as “inflame the minds of the contending parties with increasing animosity.” According to Vattel, all that could be taken from enemy civilians was that “which may augment his strength and enable him to make war” (15). This was, for the most part, observed by Union troops. After the Seven Days Battle for Richmond in the summer of 1862, the Union government as well as the morale of the people needed a new policy that would call for a harder military strategy.

The Stampede (Casemate Museum: Harper’s Weekly, August 17, 1861)

The pragmatic period of military strategy focused on the battlefield rather than the civilian. Much policy was up to the discretion of the commanding officer and depended on what worked best in a current situation with an eye towards military necessity. In 1861, Major General Benjamin Butler extended refuge towards runaway slaves at Fort Monroe, Virginia. He claimed these slaves as “contraband of war” and gave military necessity to the confiscation of slaves “used in direct support of the Confederate war effort” (123) as codified in the First Confiscation Act. However, when Major General John Frémont ordered the confiscation of property and complete emancipation of slaves from those supporting the Confederacy by use of guerrilla warfare, Lincoln completely rejected his actions, citing the lack of military necessity to permanently confiscate their slaves. While Butler deemed his refugees “contraband of war”, it gave the feeling of impermanence while also benefitting the Union’s war aim but the permanent solution for slavery must be addressed “according to laws made by law-makers, and not by military proclamations” (124). The respect previously held for the property of private civilians had diminished and emancipation had finally become intertwined in Union military policy. These two elements called for an even more intense military plan.

The hard hand of war came down after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863. With the legalization of black troops, the Union had motivation to bring the backbone of the Confederate infrastructure into the Union’s grasp and thus completely undermine the economic structure of the Confederacy. The loss of the slave power and support of the war effort not only hurt the Confederacy, but also helped the Union when those slaves joined Union military ranks. The Union further attempted to put an end to Confederate progress by enacting preventative measure by the way of raids ensuring the inability of Confederate troops to acquire necessary provisions, most famously done by Major General William Sherman. Most importantly, emancipation was seen as the best way to dismantle Confederate infrastructure and unless the Union destroyed the Confederacy, they would “become slaves themselves” (141). The goal now was to conquer the Confederates by any means necessary, including the confiscation of property from all civilians, regardless of their level of affiliation or support of the rebellion.

The difference Grimsley draws between hard war and total war is imperative to understanding the 19th-century hard war philosophy. Though hard war does involve all aspects of a society, it denotes the destruction of all of these societal aspects, while total war denotes the mobilization. It also embodies the elements of war with the goal of the “erosion of the enemy’s will to resist by deliberately…subjecting the civilian population to the pressures of war” (5).

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