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The American Civil War Was Not Unique

1553 words - 6 pages

To claim that the Civil War was unlike any other war since is to dispute the claims of countless historians who view it as a prelude or prototype for the type of wars that followed, “Library shelves groan with works pointing to the Civil War as a harbinger of “total war” in its modern form.” This claim, as well as overlooking strategies and tactics that have been applied and evolved through subsequent wars, overlooks the significance of ideological warfare and policies of a central government such as conscription, which have been practices employed since in a wartime context. It would appear more correct to claim then, that the Civil War was unlike any other war before as it validates evidence that points to it as the first ‘modern war’ and the first ‘total war’, namely in its tactics and its technology. But while it may be true that the Civil War marks the ‘firsts’ in several ways, to state that it was unlike any war before is to ignore continuities in American wartime tradition and strategy and principles from foreign wars. This essay will argue therefore that the Civil War was different from wars before it but differences were not total and continuities certainly existed, and that it has certainly found a place within the commentaries on other wars since.

One of the ways the Civil War has been argued as being unlike any war before is through the claim that it was the last Napoleonic, pre-modern war and the first ‘modern war.’ Janda agrees that if referring to technology, “they seem to be correct, as the Civil War represents the first mass conflict of the industrial age.” The way modernity and technology infused the Civil War and marked it as different from the wars before it was particularly significant in terms of two things, supplying the armies and weaponry. Clark says that a war like this could not have been fought before because the means to feed and clothe over three million soldiers did not exist. The mechanisation of farming to produce enough food, the development of refrigeration and canning to store the food and the invention of factories mass-producing standardised clothes and goods were significant new innovations that enabled the war effort to be sustained. So significant that it may have played into the outcome of the war in that by the end of the war the Northerners still had plenty of food due to the mechanisation of farming, however Southerners were suffering a severe lack of food. Though these innovations were new in this context there is still an element of continuity in that as with most wars there is a demand for technological innovations to meet the demands of the type of war, evident in the evolution wartime technology up to the current day with, for example the development of tanks and bombs to respond to demands of the terrain and aerial warfare.

Civil War weaponry is another indicator of the way the Civil War was different to previous wars, but held the element of continuity in that war demands the...

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