The U.S. Civil War in Global Context — Not that Big of a Deal?

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April 12 marked the 150th anniversary of the shelling of Fort Sumter, the island battery in Charleston harbor whose surrender to South Carolinian secessionists signaled the start of the Civil War. And while our attention rightly falls on the war’s dramatic — and traumatic — legacy, one which is still being grappled over to this day, it’s worth setting the conflict in a more international light.

Much is often made of the U.S. Civil War being the world’s first “modern” conflict — not only was it one of the first to be documented by traveling journalists and photographers, but the action was highly mechanized, conveyed via telegraph lines, rail and ironclad ships, with mines and advanced breech-loading rifles deployed on the battlefield. Trenches were dug and great new weapons of destruction let loose upon armies and cities. All in all, it was a shadow of grimmer wars to come in the early 20th century.

But Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh, an assistant professor of history at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, challenges the idea often invoked by some overeager American pop historians that the U.S. Civil War was in and of itself the singular most defining conflict of the 19th century. He writes:

A more general understanding of the Civil War as the first “modern” or “total” war raises more questions than answers… At the climactic “Battle of Nations” at Leipzig in 1813, Napoleon commanded 177,000 men, while the Allied forces mustered over 250,000 men in opposition, excluding 140,000 nearby reinforcements. The French suffered 68,000 casualties, while the Allies lost at least 50,000 men. In comparison, the Gettysburg campaign [arguably the most momentous of the war] counted 30,100 Federal and 27,125 Confederate casualties during the entire campaign, out of 112,700 deployed personnel in the Army of the Potomac and about 80,000 men in the Army of Northern Virginia. In other words, the initial Allied forces at Leipzig outnumbered both Union and Confederate armies combined, while French casualties alone exceeded the sum of both American armies’ losses.

Not only was it less of an epic clash than other 19th century wars, it also wrought less destruction on the land, according to Hsieh:

Looking at the war as a whole, the Civil War’s overall bloodiness, while substantial, was hardly unprecedented. During the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), the Holy Roman Empire saw its population decline by around 4 million persons, out of around 20 million at the start of the war. Or one can point to the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) in China, which tallied up 20 million or more fatalities. These disconcerting butcher’s bills included large numbers of civilian deaths; during the Civil War, the best estimate of non-combatant fatalities counts up roughly 50,000 deaths, most from indirect causes such as disruptions to agriculture and overcrowding.

This is not to say the Civil War was a cakewalk — just a reminder that, as the centennials and centennials-and-a-half tick by, one ought to keep in mind the fraught and bitter legacies of other great wars that aren’t returning to our frontpages.