If there is one thing that Aaron Sheehan-Dean’s new book, The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought in the Civil War, delivers on from the outset is that the irregular war no sideshow to the larger military campaigns beginning in 1861. Typically, large histories of the Civil War relegate moments of irregular or guerilla warfare to its own chapter, thus denying or minimizing its importance to the evolution of fighting between 1861 and 1865.
Here is one example of how Sheehan-Dean moves beyond this problematic approach:
Most historians mark the war’s opening with the firing on Fort Sumter. Starting the narrative in Charleston Harbor–at a military installation by uniformed soldiers of two hostile nations–presents the Civil War as a regular military conflict. But the Civil War also began on the streets of Baltimore and St. Louis. And from the beginning, it was a conflict defined as much by its irregular features. These cities both lay along the border between North and South, the region where the war’s irregular violence was worst. Observers pondered: Would Fort Sumter or Baltimore define the coming conflict? The irregular fighting in Baltimore inspired one Northern paper to declare it a ‘reign of terror,’ intentionally summoning the specter of the French Revolution. The Civil War never generated a terror of the sort led by Robespierre, but that does not mean its participants exercised the gentlemanly restraint we might imagine characterized warfare in the age of honor. (pp. 49-50)
One of the things that I find very helpful about analyzing the Baltimore and St. Louis street riots alongside the bombardment of Fort Sumter is that it gives us the perspective of Americans North and South in 1861 looking forward and not knowing how the fighting would evolve and what rules of warfare would be embraced. Americans, according to Sheehan-Dean simply did not know how the war would be fought in 1861.
The other point I want to make is a more subtle one about historiography or the debate about the place of irregular warfare within the larger war. Certainly this question has divided historians in recent years, most recently in the pages of one of the academic journals devoted to the Civil War. That Sheehan-Dean – who studied under the historian who has been quite vocal in questioning the emphasis or importance of irregular warfare in recent years – is taking such a strong stand suggests that this question has been largely settled.