Can “The Burning” in the Shenandoah Valley be considered “total war?”

Posted on October 29, 2008 by


I just read Chris Wehner’s most recent post, American Civil War Educators Teaching Myths, at Blog 4 History, and was particularly interested in the remark about Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley. Without a doubt, the devastation left in the wake of Gen. Philip Sheridan’s move through the Valley in late September and early October 1864 was tremendous, but was it really “total war?”

Chris states

What we see with the usage of “total war” is the varying types of definitions; which is problematic. We need to teach the right definition of total war as: the breakdown in the recognition between combatant and non-combatant (or something like that), and then the understanding of what “modern” total war is compared to what might have seemed like total war.

So this raises a question that I have raised before, was the Civil War, taken on its own terms and without “presentism,” a war that was as “total” as war could have been at that time, place, and situation?

In working with the records of my home county (Page County, Virginia), I know that, in the wake of Sheridan’s “burning,” the county petitioned the Confederate government to release men lost as a result of conscription to the Confederate army. Several of these men, by occupation, were millers or had something to do, one way or another, with the production of grain in the county. The petition also laid claim that, if these men were not released from service, many citizens in the county faced starvation.

On the other hand, I have come across a number of resources from the county from around the time of the Christmas of 1864 that painted another picture. Most of these recollections were written by Confederate soldiers who were at home recuperating from wounds. Lt. George Daniel Buswell, of Co. H, 33rd Va. Infantry (of the Stonewall Brigade) , was one such soldier. Ironically, in the wake of ‘The Burning’ and in consideration of the county’s appeal to the government, one would think things rather grim by this time (but do we think in terms of modern warfare or with their ideas of warfare in mind?). However, Buswell noted, as early as Thursday, December 22, 1864, that he sleighed to school and taught  until the “boys turned the teacher out at noon.” A few days later, on Sunday, December 25, Buswell wrote of Christmas and drinking eggnog and then moving on to a family member’s house where there was a “nice crowd present.” In the days that followed, dancing seemed to be the business of the day through New Year’s Eve. On December 26, Buswell, in a crowd of folks, and along with Lt. Oliver Hazard Perry Kite (also of the same company and also recovering from a wound), headed for Mr. John Welfley’s where “they had a dance.” The following day there was another dance at Jack Kite’s. With a brief respite from the dance on December 28, the pleasant pastime resumed once again with yet another dance at Noah Kite’s (Alma), followed by yet another on New Year’s Eve, at Mr. Leonard S. Printz’s house.

Now I know that engaging in merriment in the face of disaster is nothing new, but I’m not so sure that what can be found in the recollections in the aftermath leave us with the feeling that what they experienced was “total war” in the modern sense. I think that we can agree that the definition of “total war” has changed over the years and “total war” today would not even offer opportunities such as those made to the citizens of Page County in December 1864. So, to answer Chris’s question, “yes,” despite the merriment surrounding the Christmas of 1864 and through New Years Day of 1865, even in the absence of documentation clearly stating the perceptions of those living through it, the citizens of Page County had never witnessed anything like the devastation inflicted upon the area as that which took place in Oct. 1864.  It wouldn’t be a far stretch to say that, to them, it probably was what they would call “total war.” However, in today’s idea of the devastation possible in modern warfare, “no,” this would not be considered “total war.”

When it comes to teaching the concept of “total war” in the classroom, there is a clear need to distinguish what we perceive as “total war” from what their perceptions probably were in the wake of “The Burning.”

Chris raised an excellent question, especially in terms of how “perceptions of the modern” can impact our ability to understand the past in the mindset of those who lived at the time of the events.