Review: The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War by Aaron Sheehan-Dean


For decades historians have debated the military significance and legacy of the American Civil War. Was the conflict the last Napoleonic war or was it the first modern war? When looking at the traditional military history of the Civil War, historians often track a change over time from the spaced-out battles of the early years to the continuous warfare of the 1864-1865 campaigns. Looking at that trajectory it is easy to claim that the war became more violent as it progressed from 1861 to 1865. Aaron Sheehan-Dean brings a new dimension to that question. By opening up the study of violence in the Civil War to non-traditional warfare and making comparisons to international events, The Calculus of Violence argues that the American Civil War was violent or restrained at different times and places during the war, that violence occurred along a spectrum over the course of the conflict but did not move in any linear progression. Sheehan-Dean also demonstrates that the Civil War, considered devastating to the United States at the time, did not compare to other uprisings and conflicts around the world that were far deadlier.

Sheehan-Dean analyzes a “calculus” of violence, where those fighting on both sides of the conflict were both violent and restrained when it benefited them. The emphasis on restrained or just war significantly reduced the violence of the Civil War and its resulting death toll. Because both the United States and Confederate States sought recognition as legitimate nations on the world stage, both sides followed the laws of war and argued that the violence committed by their troops was just. Sheehan-Dean analyzes how societal views, military and international law, and the culture of the nineteenth century created a desire to limit killing to certain, legitimate circumstances. For example, civilians were considered outside the world of war and not legitimate targets of violence. This prevented the war from becoming a wider bloodbath where opposing sides in the civil conflict attacked the homefront as well as military targets.

While Civil War officers and soldiers considered themselves largely keeping in line with a “gentleman’s war,” the violence of the American Civil War did escalate past those boundaries. Guerilla warfare is one area where violence spiked. Guerilla fighters spanned that boundary between soldier and civilian and sometimes this caused situations were guerillas were executed without due process or civilians got caught up in the fighting. In addition, there are a few examples of large-scale violence towards civilians such as Quantrill’s massacre of civilians at Lawrence, KS. This quasi-military violence is different than the violence of an organized battlefield and opening up the analysis to include irregular warfare disrupts the neat progression of the war held by some historians.

One of the arguments that I found most interesting was that emancipation and African American men donning the Union uniform had a profound effect on the violence of the Civil War. On the one hand, the United States Colored Troops and the looming threat of emancipation led to an increase in military violence in the last years of the war. The Confederacy did not accept black men as legitimate Union soldiers and viewed them instead as fugitive slaves engaging in a form of slave rebellion. This led to events such as Fort Pillow and the Crater where the death toll was higher due to the massacre of black troops and white officers. The breakdown of prisoner exchanges over the issue of black soldiers also led to the overcrowding of military prisons and the increased death tolls at Andersonville and other POW camps. However, African Americans were also the reason why the Civil War was not as bloody as it could be, Sheehan-Dean argues. One of the largest fears in the antebellum south was that of slave rebellion, that slaves would gain arms and get their revenge for generations of slavery. When emancipation came however, the slave population of the south did not rise up en masse and massacre their former masters. They chose the peaceful routes of running away, joining the Union army or contraband camps, and following the official plan for emancipation and reconstruction in order to earn citizenship and a place in postbellum America. Their restraint, Sheehan-Dean states, is a big reason that the Civil War did not escalate to a bloodier conflict.

The amazing part of this work is the sheer breadth of topics and research that Sheehan-Dean includes. He covers traditional battlefield engagements, guerilla warfare, abolition and emancipation, how the language of violence was used, the laws of war, violence against civilians, and much more. He covers so much material that I could not think of any gaping holes in the topic that he did not manage to at least touch on. The breadth of content meant that he did not go into great depth with every topic, however that did not detract at all from the overall argument he builds in the book. The wealth of research and examples that he uses in the book support the wide argument that he makes and demonstrates how well he researched this topic. There is certainly a scholarly discussion that can stem from this work and I look forward to how the historical community builds upon this research. It was a thought provoking read that alerted me to many topics and events that I was not well versed in, and an enjoyable read on top of that.

Dr. Kathleen Logothetis Thompson earned her PhD in Nineteenth Century/Civil War America from West Virginia University, and also holds a M.A. from WVU and a B.A. from Siena College. Her research is on mental trauma and coping among Union soldiers and she is currently working on her first book, tentatively titled War on the Mind. She currently teaches history at several colleges and universities and leads tours of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park for several years and is the co-editor of Civil Discourse.