The Civil War had a lot of "firsts". Some were firsts just for the United States while others were firsts for military history/society as a whole. For an exhaustive list of those firsts, check out the list provided by Shotgun's Home of the American Civil War here. I have not gone through that list in detail and so I cannot comment on the accuracy of everything provided, but it does provide some food for thought. During the course of the Civil War, the nation first experienced conscription, resistance to conscription, aerial reconnaissance, a Presidential assassination, and combat between ironclad vessels just to name a few. Many people have called the American Civil War the first modern war.
But what do people mean when the say that? If you take modern to mean the weaponry used, then it certainly was by the standards of the time. As we discussed above, we certainly did have some innovations. However, part of the reason for the casualty rates is due to the fact that the tactics did no adapt to the weaponry until the latter part of the war, and even then we had the occasional lapse (ie; Battle of Franklin). That said, a soldier from Grant or Lee's army who served in the trenches around Petersburg and Richmond would certainly have recognized the type of fighting that took place later during World War 1. But does that fact alone make the Civil War "modern"?
Others have spoken of Sherman waging "Total War" on his March to the Sea. The dictionary defines total war as "a war that is unrestricted in terms of the weapons used, the territories or combatants involved, or the objectives pursued; especially one in which the laws of war are disregarded." Sherman did not "make war" on the civilian population in Georgia in the same way that we would do to Germany or Japan in the 20th Century. Yes, his objectives were not fully military in nature to the extent that he wanted to destroy the ability of the South to wage war, but he did not intentionally set out to kill civilians and though yes, some private homes were destroyed, there is not, to my knowledge, any written order to his troops telling them to burn every home they came across. If Sherman waged total war in Georgia, what then do we call our practice of firebombing Japanese cities during World War 2? Are each of those examples total war, just taken to a higher degree (no pun intended)?
I happen to think that Winston Churchill was a wise man. In 1901 while speaking on the floor of the House of Commons, he said "The wars of peoples will be more terrible than the wars of kings." I know that Mr. Churchill was an adept student of history. Perhaps he looked back to our Civil War as a reference when he made that statement. We certainly proved that it was true, at least in our country. And World War 1 proved that he was right as well.
So whether you agree or disagree as to how modern the Civil War was or to whether or not Sherman waged total war on his March to the Sea, I think we can all agree that Americans between 1861-1865 became very proficient at killing each other on a wide scale which has become almost unfathomable to us today.
My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Civil War Addict.