–by Michael Pierce
THE CALCULUS OF VIOLENCE – HOW AMERICANS FOUGHT THE CIVIL WAR by Aaron Sheehan-Dean. Published November 5, 2018 by Harvard University Press.
More than sixty thousand books have been written about the American Civil War, with several new titles being published every month. These books tend to focus on battles and leaders, while a good number tell us of the experience of soldiers and civilians during that pivotal moment in our history.
There’s really not much new scholarship that’s being revealed. In fact, if a reader takes a moment to look at the bibliography included in many of these books, he or she will notice that most of the sources cited are books that have been published over the last 150 years or so, rather than primary sources.
I’ve been a student of the war for over forty years. Most of my personal library is comprised of volumes about the war. I have my two personal favorites (The Passing of the Armies by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Company Aytch, or, a Sideshow of the Big Show by Sam Watkins), along with the works of Shelby Foote and many others.
The Calculus of Violence – How Americans Fought the Civil War is, by far, the first original scholarship on the subject of the war in many years. Author Aaron Sheehan-Dean has provided readers with a fresh look at the conflict, with a primary focus on how both the Union and the Confederacy worked to stay within the rules of war. Both sides felt they were fighting a just war, while each side accused the other of sanctioning actions that fell outside those rules.
Aaron Sheehan-Dean’s thesis relies on just a few situations. For the Union, the Confederacy’s Partisan Ranger Act of 1862 fell outside the rules of warfare. For the Confederacy, the Union’s Emancipation Proclamation and the enlistment of black troops fell outside those standard rules.
Sheehan-Dean skillfully guides readers through his narrative, detailing how each side viewed the aforementioned incidents as illustrating the other’s willingness to violate established norms, and how threats of massive reprisals due to these perceived violations quickly fizzled out.
The author covers every theater of the war, and writes extensively on subjects not previously discussed by Civil War scholars. Specifically, he writes about how sexual violence against women was dealt with by officers in the Union army, and the fact that black women were more likely to suffer these acts t were white women in the south.
He also details how many instances of the war, such as the siege of Vicksburg and Sherman’s March To The Sea, actually fell within the established rules of war, rather than being the atrocities they were described as at the time. Much to this reviewer’s satisfaction, the author also spends a lot of time on the partisan conflict throughout the south, and specifically on that aspect of the war in Missouri and Arkansas.
Aaron Sheehan-Dean has written a remarkable book, with a fresh take on how the Civil War was fought, why it was fought the way it was fought, and how, theoretically, it could have become a much more violent conflict than it was, had each side not been bent on presenting themselves as taking the moral high ground in an effort to curtail any great escalation in violence.