by Burrus M. Carnahan. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2010. 165pp. Cloth. $30.00. ISBN: 9780813125695. eBook. $30.00. ISBN: 9780813173665.

Reviewed by Christopher N. Fritsch, Department of Social Sciences, Weatherford College. Stxoxfd [at]


Twice a year this reviewer has the opportunity to lecture upon the difficulties of the American Civil War. The lecture is based upon the dichotomy of Lincoln’s firm belief that Southern states could not and did not leave the union and the necessity of fighting a war against a uniformed and armed enemy. Lincoln’s beliefs may not appear problematic, but they were. At times, Lincoln believed himself bound by the Constitution and at other moments, felt compelled to ‘unleash the hounds of war.’

Burrus Carnahan offers us an interesting investigation, which at its heart is a study of Lincoln, the vacillating warrior. If Lincoln’s only mental and legal paradox was the impact of a naval blockade in relation to the international law of war, Lincoln’s war would have been easier to comprehend. On the one hand, Lincoln held to the Constitution in determining the government’s, and thus the military’s, relationship to citizens and their property in what was the Confederate States of America. However, Lincoln quickly understood that the conflict was a war that forced him to make difficult and, at times, unwanted decisions for all concerned.

Within weeks and months of the firing upon Fort Sumter and the first major engagement near Manassas, Virginia, Lincoln faced a number of international law/rules of war questions. At the conclusion of the First Battle of Bull Run, what was to be done with captured soldiers? Under international law, men fighting in uniform and under orders within a military unit were soldiers. They were recognized arms of a military structure that was part of a governmental system. In admitting this, however, Lincoln recognized the Confederate States of America as a belligerent under the rules of war. Thus, the creation of a program to exchange captured soldiers as prisoners of war maintained the interpretation that the United Sates and the Confederate States were sovereign nations at war with each other. Drawing this conclusion forced Lincoln and Jefferson Davis to new questions and conclusions in relation to the actions of non-uniformed citizens, retaliatory acts, and the bombing of cities. In many of these situations, Lincoln recognized the Confederacy as something beyond states in the throes of rebellion.

Lincoln, like politicians in any age, liked to pick and choose which occasions reflected the Constitution and which reflected the rules of war. It is precisely here that Carnahan shows us a Lincoln struggling between these two polar opposites. As much as Lincoln rejected the idea of recognition for the Confederacy, prisoner of war exchanges created this very idea. Rebels or traitors do not get exchanged; they were not [*244] legitimate combatants. On the other hand, privateers and their actions amounted to something very different. In theory, these sailors were not in uniform, as they attacked either American shipping interests or American naval forces. Within these situations, Lincoln decided that privateers did not fall under the category of legitimate combatants. American naval forces that captured Southern privateers held the right to bring the ship and cargo to a northern point, where they were considered prizes and the sailors considered pirates.

Much of the book, however, is devoted to reprisals against Southern civilians caught attacking military targets, the punishment of disloyal citizens, and the use of retaliatory acts against individual Southerners or groups of them and Confederate military actions. In each of these instances, local commanders made decisions which they believed to be militarily proper and military legal. Here is where Lincoln and his commanders often disagreed and as often, agreed on the impact of military campaigns and military control upon the civilian population. If these hot and cold relationships between the Commander-in-Chief and his commanders seem confusing, the extent of these mixed signals and the reasoning for them became more apparent by the end of the book.
For example, by 1862, General John Pope ordered his soldiers operating in Northern Virginia to commit acts of reprisal against the civilian population whenever there was damage done to key military necessities, such as roads, railroads, and telegraph lines. If destructive acts were perpetrated by guerilla fighters, Pope commanded his men to force local inhabitants to pay for the damage as well as repair the damage. He continued by ordering his troops to raze any building from which civilians fired upon the army. Pope, however, was not the only commander to issue such orders. By 1863, General George Gordon Meade issued similar orders to the Army of the Potomac in relation to activities in Northern Virginia. For Meade, the actions of guerillas demanded accountability from those living nearest the events. Instead of a five-mile radius, though, Meade demanded that civilians within a radius of ten miles be impressed as laborers to repair any damage done.

The retaliatory burning of homes was another aspect of war’s impact upon the civilian population. By 1864, General Philip Sheridan decided to respond to the killing of the son of the Quartermaster General-Lt. John R. Meigs. For what must have been a brutal act perpetrated by someone within the area, Sheridan ordered that all houses (and this probably meant all structures) within five miles of the incident be razed. In this instance, Union troops performed acts of retaliation for the death of one soldier. In other instances, Union troops retaliated against singular individuals, who had been or who were currently members of the Confederate government or its states. In one instance, again occurring in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, General David Hunter ordered the burning of the home of John Letcher, former governor of the State of Virginia.

Both of these created problems. In the first instance, Confederate authorities claimed that Meigs was killed by men in uniform and therefore the retaliation [*245] perpetrated upon Southern civilians was unwarranted. In the second, Letcher committed no overt act against Union troops, but since he was not at his residence in Lexington, Hunter found the property an easy target, although not one that was truly legitimate. This incident between Hunter and the personal property of John Letcher was hardly the most severe or imposing upon Southern civilians. A Louisiana woman noted that “the Yankees went down, shelled the house in the night, turning all those women and children out, who barely escaped with their clothing." (p.61). The end result of these Northern retaliatory actions was the creation of continued retaliatory actions. Confederate officers ordered their troops to pick targets such as the homes of individuals and prompted Southern guerilla fighters to continue their attacks on wagon trains, lines of communication, and railroads.

Carnahan'a presentation of both the military problems faced by United States Army commanders and Lincoln’s occasional foray into policy implementation is divided into each of the chapters with the book. The problem with Carnahan's account of Lincoln and his application of the laws of war is the almost repetitive nature of the book and the sometimes beneficial use of flashbacks into Lincoln’s personal past. For example, in the chapter ‘Personal Injury to Civilians’ Carnahan discusses the movement toward what modern military historians considered to be ‘total war.’ After a brief digression into related issues in the Russo-Japanese War, World War I, and World War II, Carnahan returns us to a world of total war which he argues Lincoln understood all too well. In comparison to the Civil War, military conflicts with Native Americans often reflected a ‘total war” mentality. In this context, Lincoln held personal knowledge about the ways in which Americans conducted themselves. As a militia captain during the Black Hawk War, Lincoln directly encountered men who wished to perpetrate revenge upon the enemy in any form. At one moment when forced to intervene, Lincoln acted against the interests of revenge and saved the life of a Native American from settlers who presumably believed that the killing of this man helped ease their anxiety over actions committed against the settlers. Thus for Carnahan, Lincoln never believed in acting out of revenge.

Carnahan’s Lincoln did not seek retribution upon Southerners. In this analysis, Lincoln became more the jurist. Here Carnahan again reaches into Lincoln’s past and develops an understanding of Lincoln as the common law attorney. To Carnahan, Lincoln read his Blackstone and his law and understood issues within a common law environment. Each case was its own problem, and each case demanded its own solution. In Carnahan’s mind this explained who Lincoln was and how he handled the war. Lincoln the common law lawyer examined things on a case by case basis – the way he understood the common law. He did not see the war in terms of general policy that could be applied to everyone. Instead, Lincoln often allowed others to develop policy, and then he subsequently handled individual grievances and complaints, much like a judge. If Carnahan is correct in his interpretation, Lincoln becomes a much more consistent decision-maker and President during the conflict (pp.109-11). [*246]

At times, what makes these aspects of Carnahan’s analysis difficult to understand is the frequent movement forward into more modern eras of military engagement and his use of flashbacks within some chapters. Although the commentary was often useful, it was sometimes difficult to develop the connections between the middle of the nineteenth century conflict, such as the Civil War, the more contemporary developments of ‘total war’ in the twentieth century and the return to the first third of the nineteenth century to discuss Amerindian conflicts. All of the information was interesting, but it made it more difficult to understand Lincoln in context with his past and with his present.

In conclusion, these misgivings about the book are merely that. In total, this book asks a very relevant question. How did Lincoln navigate the nation in an environment of civil war where many decisions impacted how one saw the conflict – internal or international? Carnahan provides us with quality research and a provocative and stimulating interpretation of these sources, and this helps him both clarify Lincoln and the nature of the war. Somehow these two must go together for us to understand both.

© Copyright 2011 by the author, Christopher N. Fritsch.