Publication Date


Advisor(s) - Committee Chair

Glenn W. LaFantasie (Director), Carol Crowe-Carraco, Robert V. Haynes

Degree Program

Department of History

Degree Type

Master of Arts


The regnant interpretation of the American Civil War includes the fact that it evolved into a “total war,” which adumbrated the total wars of the twentieth century. Mark E. Neely, in 1991, published an influential paper calling this interpretation into question for the first time. In the article Neely revealed that the first mention of “total war” in connection with the Civil War was an article written in 1948 by John Bennett Walters about Gen. William T. Sherman and a raid he ordered on Randolph, Tennessee in reprisal for an attempted hijacking of the packet boat Eugene on the Mississippi River.

Walters castigates Sherman’s raid as brutal, cruel, and wanton and tries to depict Sherman as a violent and hateful man who set out to punish Southerners for turning their backs on the Union. He—along with modern residents of Tipton County, Tennessee—claim that Sherman burned the whole town to the ground. But a close investigation of the target of Sherman’s attack shows that Randolph, Tennessee had been a ghost town since the mid 1840s with the result that very little actual damage was done. There may have been as many as six dwellings in the area along with dozens of abandoned and derelict buildings. Sherman’s orders to the troops were to let the citizens know that Union officials abhorred this kind of violence but were forced by guerilla activities to burn their homes to discourage continued attacks on river boats. The residents were given sufficient time to remove their belongings before the buildings were set afire.

The results of this investigation suggest that the raid on Randolph might be emblematic of much of the purported devastation of the South by Sherman and his armies. Perhaps the “total war” on the South was illusory and has been greatly exaggerated along with the destructiveness of the Civil War. The term “total war” seems never to have been used in the nineteenth century. Total war is a twentieth-century term and is completely bound up with twentieth-century technology, especially with aircraft as weapons of mass destruction. The kind of destruction encompassed by “total war” was unimaginable in Civil War times, especially the deliberate killing of noncombatant civilians. It is argued, then, that the use of the term “total war” to describe the American Civil War is anachronistic and thus entails the projection of twentieth century realities into the past.


History | United States History