Teaching Limited v. Hard War

Update: The debate went extremely well.  Both groups did an excellent job of articulating their respective positions and pointing out what they perceived to be shortcomings in the other.  I had to remind them that, in the end, they were on the same team.  That is what I find so interesting here.  In the same theater of operations you have very different approaches being employed, which gives students a window into the evolution of the war as a whole.

My Civil War class is now focused on the crucial summer of 1862.  Students now have a solid grasp of the major campaigns along the river systems out west as well as in the crucial military theater of Virginia through mid-July 1862.  We’ve spent a good deal of time examining the evolution of war during this period through a careful reading of Chandra Manning’s study of Civil War soldiers and slavery as well as the push by certain commanders in the field to broaden the scope of the war.  It’s impossible to keep a discussion of slavery out of the picture, but I am trying to hold off on a discussion of the First and Second Confiscation Acts, the actions of Fremont and Butler as well as Lincoln’s announcement of a preliminary emancipation proclamation until next week.  It’s not a perfect plan, but it does follow Brooks Simpson’s approach in his short introductory text, which students are reading.

Today students will debate the merits of a limited v. and expanded or hard war approach through a reading of two documents.  The plan is to divide the class in half with one group reading General George McClellan’s famous Harrison’s Landing letter to Lincoln of July 7, 1862 and General John Pope’s General Orders No. 5, 7, 11, and 13.  Students will be expected to debate the scope of warfare outlined in these documents based on the information known at the time.  In other words, Lee’s army is still outside of Richmond and Lincoln has not issued a proclamation.

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13 comments… add one
  • Ryan Quint Oct 11, 2010 @ 10:03

    It’s interesting to note that a couple of weeks after he issued them, Pope tried to revoke his famous orders. The revoking had little to no effect though. But at least Pope tried to rein in his soldiers somewhat. That being said, I am definitely a supporter of Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan’s tactics.

  • James F. Epperson Oct 11, 2010 @ 9:01

    I’ve always been a hard war guy. I have very little patience for McClellan and his modern advocates, because (Mac) seems to not understand that you win a war by inflicting pain and suffering on the other side, and his whole strategy was based on minimizing the pain and suffering.

    • Mark Snell Oct 11, 2010 @ 16:16


      “I have very little patience for McClellan and his modern advocates, because (Mac) seems to not understand that you win a war by inflicting pain and suffering on the other side, and his whole strategy was based on minimizing the pain and suffering.”

      Perhaps because the “other side” was comprised of Americans? Not to say that it’s fine to inflict “pain and suffering” on nationalities other than Americans, but McClellan realized that once the war came to an end, it might be easier to rebuild the United States if the casualties were kept low, and civilian suffering was minimized.


      • Kevin Levin Oct 11, 2010 @ 16:20

        Hi Mark,

        My students kept coming back to that very same point. Some of them tried to maintain a distinction between McClellan’s decisions on the field, which they questioned, and his broader strategic goals.

        • James F. Epperson Oct 12, 2010 @ 3:05

          ISTM that the problem here is that Mac is worrying about the second step (reconstruction) when he is supposed to be in charge of accomplishing the first step (winning the war), w/o which there is no second step.

          Regardless of the nationalities involved, I agree it would be a Good Thing to minimize casualties in any war. But when a nation goes to war, the goal (modern developments ignored) is to win the war. That is (or should be) paramount, since we are often talking about national survival. Mac was placing strictures on how he would fight the war, for the sake of making an easier reconstruction, as a result of which there would be no reconstruction because Mac’s way of doing things would not win the war. And the final irony is that, if Mac had been willing to fight a harder war, he might have won it before the political consequence he most feared (emancipation) got onto the table.

          • Kevin Levin Oct 12, 2010 @ 3:08

            And that was exactly the point of the Pope camp in yesterday’s debate. 😀

            • James F. Epperson Oct 12, 2010 @ 3:55

              Some of your students are very perceptive 😉

  • Peter Oct 11, 2010 @ 8:58

    One might argue that Pope’s orders are a proclamation of sorts from Lincoln. John Hennessey makes the point in _Return to Bull Run_ that Lincoln and Halleck drafted these orders and told Pope to issue them.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 11, 2010 @ 9:00

      Forgot about that. Thanks for the reminder, Peter.

      • Peter Oct 11, 2010 @ 9:06

        It is also worth considering that Lincoln chose not to issue these policies as General Orders to all of the armies, but left them at field command level, thus avoiding the articulation of a clear policy (in a sense, at this point, both the McClellan approach and the Pope approach enjoyed the same level of authority).

        • Kevin Levin Oct 11, 2010 @ 9:08

          I was under the impression that Henry Halleck, the new general-in-chief, believed Pope’s orders were counterproductive and that Lincoln had read and approved the orders before they were published. Pope’s approach also seems to fall in line somewhat with what Butler did in New Orleans.

          • Peter Oct 11, 2010 @ 9:22

            I think the larger point is that no single clear policy comes out of Washington, and field commanders are largely left to their own devices. For instance, if you were in charge someplace in late July of 1862, what would you say is the policy of the Lincoln administration?

            • James F. Epperson Oct 11, 2010 @ 9:55

              Evolving—I know that isn’t a useful answer to a commander trying to implement the policy, but I think it captures the truth of the matter.

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