he US Civil War is sometimes remembered as the last “gentlemen’s war” of the nineteenth century and sometimes remembered as the first terrible modern war. In fact, it was both these things at once, a restrained and just war and a bloody and indiscriminate one. Even with 750,000 dead, the Civil War could have been much worse. Military forces on both sides sought to contain casualties inflicted on soldiers and civilians. In Congress, in church pews, and in letters home, Americans debated the conditions under which lethal violence was legitimate, and their arguments differentiated carefully among victims—women and men, black and white, enslaved and free. Sometimes these well-meaning restraints led to more carnage by implicitly justifying the killing of people who were not protected by the laws of war. As the Civil War raged on, the Union’s confrontations with guerrillas and the Confederacy’s confrontations with black soldiers forced a new reckoning with traditional categories of lawful combatants and raised legal disputes that still hang over military operations around the world today. The conflict raises important questions for us about how democracies wage war.
Aaron Sheehan-Dean is the Fred C. Frey Professor of Southern Studies at Louisiana State University and the chairman of the History Department. He teaches courses on nineteenth-century U.S. history, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and Southern History. He is the author of The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War, Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia, Concise Historical Atlas of the U.S. Civil War, and is the editor of several books.