Thoughts on The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865 by Mark Grimsley

Mark Grimsley. The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865. New York: Cambridge University Press; First Edition (November 26, 1995). 244 pp., 3 maps, notes, index. ISBN: 0-521-46257-6 $75.00 (Hardcover w/DJ).

I wanted to quickly explain the price listed above. I realize $75 is a LOT of money for most of the people reading this. This price refers to a new copy of the hardcover edition of the book. I was able to find a fine hardcover copy in fine dust jacket for $20. The book is well worth that price and then some. For those of you so inclined, the paperback version of the book (linked to in the first line of this entry) is more reasonably priced at $31.99 for a new copy.


I’ve owned Mark Grimsley’s book The Hard Hand of War for several years now, and my only regret is not having read it sooner. In this groundbreaking study, Professor Grimsley examines Northern military treatment of Southern civilians, from the conciliatory policy of Scott and McClellan early in the war to the “hard war” of Sherman, Sheridan, and Grant as 1865 approached. Grimsley examines why and how Northern policy changed over time, emphasizing emancipation and the military failure of Northern “conciliatory” generals such as McClellan and Buell. In the end, the author concludes poor Northern treatment of Southern civilians has been greatly exaggerated based on a hard look at the available evidence.

In the early chapters of The Hard Hand of War, Grimsley covers the legal and historical precedent set by international law and earlier military conflicts. Based on these, men in positions of power in the North decided on a policy of conciliation meant to limit the actual fighting and also any extended interaction between Northern soldiers and Southern civilians. Clearly these men were not trying to eradicate slavery. Northern soldiers were ordered to respect the private property of ALL civilians, even those who were actively working against them or who had sons in the Confederate armies.

Lincoln had no policy at this time according to the author, and this “hands off” attitude led to harder measures by some Union generals, especially Nathaniel Lyon in Missouri. In addition, the common Union soldier was taking matters into his own hands as well. These two factors combined to doom conciliation as a war winning policy from the start.

While conciliation was being practiced as a general policy in many places, some generals began to use pragmatic policies, as Grimsley calls them, designed to treat Unionists and those who were neutral much better than those who opposed the Northern war effort. Henry Halleck in Missouri and Benjamin Butler in New Orleans are two good examples of this. Some thought conciliation was working because early in the war many people living on the far edges of the Confederacy came back to the Union with little coercion. As Union soldiers and general began to practice pragmatic policy, however, conciliation depended upon the military success of George McClellan. His failure on the Peninsula in the summer of 1862 dealt conciliation a crippling blow.

In the end, conciliation gave way to pragmatic policy more quickly in the Western Theater than it did in the east and eventually to “hard war” as well. The policy in the east remained conservative until the end of 1863, while in the west it was already changing early in that year. Guerrilla warfare in places such as Missouri also hastened the slide toward hard war.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was the final death knell to conciliation. Many Northern soldiers initially reacted to the proclamation with disgust. As they saw the effect this had on the South’s ability to wage war, however, disgust gave way to reality and soldiers began to implement the policy. Grimsley argues that once emancipation was announced on paper and the initial backlash was overcome, northern soldiers set out to make it a reality in the areas they could reach. Once this happened, conciliation was over.

General Orders 100, issued by General Halleck early in 1863, was a document designed to provide legal guidelines for the prosecution of war. It approved and allowed harder war. The Vicksburg Campaign, argues the author, was the start of “hard war”, doing whatever was necessary, including the destruction of civilian property, to win the war. Grant lived off the land for a time, allowing his army to take what it needed from civilians in its path. Common soldiers started to live off the land on their own more as well since it was allowed by the generals in charge. Large scale raids such as those by Sheridan in the Valley and Sherman’s March in 1864 characterized hard war the best and most caused Southerners to remember the destruction.

In hard war, Southerners were identified as either Unionist, neutral, or Secessionist and treated accordingly. In spite of the allowance of harder war, Grimsley argues “the basic individual morality” of most Northern soldiers kept the destruction in check and focused mainly on the aristocratic planter class, the people blamed most fervently for the war. Grimsley also tries to dispel the long held myth of “every home burnt” along Sherman’s path. He argues that Sherman’s men mostly stuck to destroying public buildings while leaving individual homes intact. The Northern press, according to Grimsley’s research into the subject, never really cried out against this new policy. The men at the top who mattered, such as Lincoln, Grant, and Halleck, approved of this course and allowed it to happen.

Even Sherman, says Grimsley, tried to limit the damage to those he held most responsible for the war. The author is fascinated by Sherman’s writings on the subject which deal with his almost obsessive need to explain his actions. No other major Union figure did the same. In the end, Grimsley concludes Sherman and his men were not nearly as destructive as has been claimed. He coins the term “directed severity” to point out how Northern soldiers mostly spared homes in Georgia and North Carolina and only burned personal property on a wide scale in South Carolina, the state deemed most responsible for the war and its horrible effects.

Rather than acting as a precursor to modern wars, Grimsley calls the hard war of 1864-1865 a throwback to the massive foraging raids of Europe, the chevauchées, from the Hundred Years’ War to the Thirty Years’ War and beyond. Conciliation, “brilliant in its simplicity”, had to be tried, argues Grimsley, and seemed to be working until McClellan’s defeat in front of Richmond in 1862. Slavery, the impulse of Northern enlisted men, and other items placed a great strain on conciliation and the Emancipation Proclamation ended the conciliation experiment for good. The eventual escalation to hard war, the raids, were meant to show the Southern civilians “they could be hurt” and “the Confederate government was powerless to protect them”. Vattel’s Law of Nations recognized and allowed for the sort of wide scale foraging which occurred during the Civil War. The German Wars of the next decade turned attention quickly back to decisive battles, says Grimsley. He concludes that contemporary observers and historians still did not grasp the possibilities and results of war against civilians. The end result of Sherman’s and others’ hard war is an ingrained tendency towards directed severity down to the present day, says the author. The myth of terrible destruction, rather than truth of directed severity, has persisted. Why is this so? According to Grimsley, it has served a variety of purposes, including a way to boost southern morale during the war against the “barbarian Yankees”, ways to make living under Reconstruction easier, and ways to explain Southern economic downturn after the war. Grimsley points out that those who believe in doing whatever it takes to win can identify with Sherman’s actions. Many wanted to call Sherman’s actions the birth of “total war”, but Grimsley disagrees with this assessment. He believes Union policies were tame in comparison to some earlier European raids, the destruction of Native Americans, and the carpet bombing of World War 2. The author concludes the Union showed restraint for several reasons:

  • 1) Official Government and Military Policy
  • 2) The Morality of Enlisted Men
  • 3) Familiarity with the Enemy
  • 4) An Extremely “Politically Aware” Northern Army

The Hard Hand of War was a fascinating read and brought up many observations and questions. First, the Civil War has been studied in almost a vacuum contextually speaking. Grimsley’s book makes sure to include lessons and examples from Europe as well rather than just looking at prior American military experience.

I couldn’t help but think while reading the book that “Lost Causers” will despise it because it takes a hard look at the claims of Sherman’s destruction and finds they do not hold up well under intense scrutiny. Grimsley continually hammers home his findings on the “trinary” view Northern soldiers used when looking at Southern civilians. This was an important theme throughout the book. I believe Grimsley argued his points persuasively and shows the destruction was not as bad as it has been portrayed in some circles (Gone With the Wind, I’m looking at you). I found it very interesting that Grimsley’s perusal of letters written by soldiers participating in Sherman’s March found the soldiers did not believe anything special was going on. In other words, they were doing pretty much what they had been doing for some time already.

Before reading this book, I honestly had never heard of the term chevauchée. It describes the large raiding and foraging expeditions mounted in Europe centuries before the American Civil War during The Hundred Years’ War and The Thirty Years’ War. The Wikipedia entry on Sherman’s March mentions the term. I am curious as to when it was first used to describe Sherman’s March. I did manage to find an interesting blog entry on it after a brief Google search, but I’d like to know the first time the word was used in reference to the March to the Sea. If anyone knows I would appreciate any enlightenment you can bring to this subject.

Mark has a nice outline of his thinking on the subject up at The Ohio State University web site. For a book challenging some of the author’s assumptions and conclusions, I’ve been told to read When the Yankees Came: Conflict and Chaos in the Occupied South, 1861-1865. I plan to order the book and do just that some time soon.

Mark Grimsley’s The Hard Hand of War was an entertaining, informative, and at times surprising read. He argues persuasively, if at times a bit too repetitively, that the destruction Sherman’s troops wrought was not nearly as bad as has been portrayed in the past. Surprisingly, I believe this was the first scholarly look at the topic. Perhaps some may feel Grimsley’s arguments downplay the horrific nature of the destruction caused by the Civil War, but I believe the way the author argued his point was necessary in order to challenge the widespread belief in the mass destruction of homes and personal property. This is a book for everyone interested in the war, especially those who believe Sherman’s soldiers were thieves, murderers, and rapists. In a recent blog entry, I picked it as one of the top 5 most influential Civil War books of the past twenty years. It really is that good. Buy this one. It will make you think, and possibly rethink what you thought you already knew.

Did you enjoy this blog entry?  Subscribe to TOCWOC’s RSS feed today!

Read more Civil War Book Reviews here at TOCWOC!


8 responses to “Thoughts on The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865 by Mark Grimsley”

  1. Drew W. Avatar

    It’s been way too long since I’ve read it to comment specifically, but I am one who believes he clearly went too far in downplaying the prevalence of property destruction and bodily violence against civilians. The book’s emphasis is on policy [as one might get from the title!], and I would also maintain that the realities of policy and actual practice were not as ‘in step’ as the study asserts.

    That said, it is a very fine book that fully deserves its many accolades. My main beef is with how other readers and historians often treat it as a comprehensive last word, when it would better be considered an excellent general starting point from which to delve deeper.

    I need to buy my own copy and read it again.

  2. Brett S. Avatar


    Thanks for the comments. I look forward to checking out some of the other literature out there on the subject. Ash’s book mentioned in the entry just arrived in the mail the other day, so I’ll probably start with that. Anyobdy else have any suggestions for follow-up books?

  3. […] you say? Because Mark spoke about the destructiveness of the Civil War around the same time I was reviewing and blogging about The Hard Hand of War, his book on the subject. In his blog entry, Mark had some interesting thoughts, including his hope […]

  4. […] I’ve decided to take Gavin up on his offer, submitting Drew Wagenhoffer’s excellent review of Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering.  In a bit of shameless self-promotion, I also nominated my own review of Mark Grimsley’s The Hard Hand of War. […]

  5. Dave Powell Avatar
    Dave Powell

    Brett and Drew,

    One of the problems I have with most examinations of Sherman’s March is the almost complete lack of discussion about Rebel destruction. While trying to figure out – house by house, as it were – who was responsible for every act is impossible, the responsibility that Wheeler’s cavalry must bear is usually mentioned only in passing, if at all.

    In fact, Wheeler destroyed vast amounts of public property. He was ordered to. In addition, however, his command was among the most undisciplined of all ACW regular troops (excepting guerrilla bands) and they commited widespread personal destruction & looting as well. One of my favorite examples? A letter from an officer in Terry’s Texas Rangers sending home a set of silver candlesticks he ‘foraged.’ he wrote this letter in late 64, outside Savannah. Where do you suppose he found those candlesticks?

    The conduct of Wheeler’s men at the time drew such outrage from the locals that it prompted CSA congressional investigations and similar efforts from Confederate military authorities. Col. Roman, Beuaregard’s chief of staff, wrote a damning report in Jan 65 on the lack of discipline in Wheeler’s ranks.

    There are similar stories from earlier in the war: the sack of Cleveland Tenn by Rebel cav in Sept 1863, for example.

    This is all not to say that we should not look at the realities of Federal “hard war;” far from it. But it is also time to despel a lot of the romantic notions surrounding Confederate troops defending their homes and hearths.

    War is a brutalizing affair. Just as in the middle ages, when an army came by, whether on Chevauchee or not, it usually mattered little to the unfortunate civilians caught in the path which ‘side’ visited.

    Dave Powell

  6. […] Powell posted an excellent and lengthy response to my recent review of Mark Grimsley’s The Hard Hand of War in the comments section following […]

  7. […] This topic would have been interesting to me regardless, but it is especially so now given my recent read of Mark Grimsley’s The Hard Hand of War. The last article is South of the Border: Ulysses S. Grant and the French Intervention, a topic I […]

  8. […] other thoughts on the book here, here, and […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *