Total War at Home and on the Battlefield

Lesson Content

Inquire: A “Total War”


After the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861, both the North and the South realized the Civil War would not be quick, nor easy. However, neither envisioned the ultimate cost of human lives and resources that the Civil War would claim on both sides.

As more battles raged on and the loss of life mounted, both societies and economies became increasingly war-centered until eventually, the war enveloped everything. This was certainly not a war where some went off to battle while the rest of the country went about its business awaiting their return. This was to become a “total war” — a military conflict in which the contenders are willing to make, or are required to make, any sacrifice in lives and other resources to obtain a complete victory.

As it developed, the Civil War became the first total war of the modern era.

1st Ohio Volunteer Infantry at the Battle of Vienna, Virginia.

Big Question

Why is the Civil War considered the first “total war” of the modern era?

Read: Total War - Total Mobilization


By late 1862, both Union and Confederate forces moved toward total war, although neither ever entirely abolished the distinction between the military and civilians. Total war requires the government to increase in size and scope; both the Confederate and Union governments had to expand to manage the logistics of recruiting men and maintaining, feeding, and equipping an army.

Confederate Mobilization

After the initial, emotional outburst of enthusiasm for war waned in the South, the Confederate government had to institute a military draft. Under the terms of the draft introduced in April of 1862, all men between the ages of 18 and 35 would serve three years. The draft affected men differently based on their socioeconomic class. Loopholes permitted a drafted man to hire a substitute, allowing many wealthy men to avoid service. When the Confederate Congress exempted anyone who supervised 20 slaves, dissension exploded. Many started to conclude that it was “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” This sentiment, and the suffering of their families, led many to desert the Confederate armies. Claiming power over the states, the Confederate Congress denied state efforts to circumvent the draft.

DecorativeIn order to fund the war, the Confederate government also took over the South’s economy. The government ran all Southern industries and built substantial transportation and industrial infrastructure to make the weapons of war. Over the objections of slaveholders, the Confederacy seized many slaves from their owners and forced them to work on fortifications and rail lines.

Concerned about the mass resistance and unhappiness with the new government measures, the Confederate Congress gave President Davis the power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus in 1862. Habeas corpus, the right of those arrested to be brought before a judge or court to determine whether there is cause to hold them, was suspended with a stated goal of bolstering national security in the fledgling republic. In reality, without habeas corpus, the Confederacy could arrest and indefinitely detain any suspected enemy without giving a reason. The Confederate central government’s increasing power stood as a glaring contradiction to pro-Confederate advocates’ earlier argument around states’ rights.

The war efforts were costing the new nation dearly. Nevertheless, the Confederate Congress catered to wealthy plantation owners and refused to place a tax on slaves or cotton, despite the Confederacy’s desperate need for the revenue. Instead, the Confederacy drafted a taxation plan that kept the Southern elite happy but did not meet the war’s needs.

As a result, the Confederate government resorted to printing immense amounts of paper money, which quickly led to runaway inflation. Food prices soared, and poor, white Southerners faced starvation. In April of 1863, thousands of hungry people rioted in Richmond, Virginia — many of whom were mothers who could not feed their children. The riot ended when President Davis threw them all his pocket change and threatened to have Confederate forces open fire on the crowds.

Union Mobilization

Mobilizing for war proved to be easier in the North than it was in the South. During the war, the federal government in Washington D.C., like its Southern counterpart, undertook a wide range of efforts to ensure its victory. The federal government grew dramatically as virtually every sector of the Northern economy became linked to the war effort.

In keeping with their platform of forbidding slavery in new western territories, Republicans in Congress passed the 1862 Homestead Act which provided incentives for settlers to move West. Settlers could lay claim to 160 acres of federal land by residing on a property for five years and improving it in some way. The act motivated free-labor farmers to move west and increased agricultural output for the Union’s war effort.

DecorativeThe Union’s Congress paid for the war through several strategies. First, they levied a tax on the income of the wealthy and on all inheritances. They also put high tariffs in place. Finally, Congress passed two National Bank Acts, in 1863 and 1864, calling on the U.S. Treasury to issue war bonds and on Union banks to buy the bonds. The Republicans also passed the Legal Tender Act of 1862, calling for paper money — known as greenbacks — to be printed. Some $150 million worth of greenbacks became legal tender, and the Northern economy boomed. While high inflation also resulted, it was not the crippling inflation seen in the South.

Like the Confederacy, Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus. In 1861 and 1862, he did so selectively in the slave state of Maryland — home to many Confederate sympathizers — in an effort to ensure that Washington D.C. remained safe. The Lincoln administration also closed down 300 newspapers during the war as a national security measure.

In 1863, facing a serious loss of manpower through casualties and expiration of enlistments, Congress authorized the government to enforce conscription, resulting in riots in several states. Resistance was so great in some parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Indiana that the army had to send in troops to maintain order. Tempers continued to flare over provisions that allowed exemptions for those who could afford to hire a substitute. In July of 1863, when draft offices were established in New York to bring new Irish workers into the military, mobs formed to resist. At least 74 people were killed over three days. The same troops that had just triumphantly defeated Lee at Gettysburg were deployed to maintain order in New York City. In keeping with the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, African Americans were not citizens and were therefore exempt from the draft, leading to anti-African American violence in the North, especially among Irish immigrants in New York.

Women’s Mobilization

Dorothea Lynde Dix

As men on both sides were mobilized for the war, women also joined in the fight. In both the North and the South, women were forced to take over farms and businesses abandoned by their husbands who were off to war. Women organized themselves into ladies’ aid societies to sew uniforms, knit socks, and raise money to purchase necessities for the troops.

In the South, women took wounded soldiers into their homes to nurse. In the North, women volunteered for the United States Sanitary Commission, formed in June of 1861. Women volunteers inspected military camps to improve cleanliness and reduce the number of soldiers dying from disease, the most common cause of death during the war. They also raised money to buy medical supplies and helped take care of the injured. Other women found jobs in the Union army as cooks and laundresses.

Women’s roles changed dramatically during the war. Before the war, women of the North had been prominent in a number of industries including textiles, clothing, and shoe-making. But, with the conflict, women made great strides in occupations ranging from government civil service to agricultural field work. As men entered the Union army, women’s proportion of the manufacturing workforce went from one-fourth to one-third. At home, women organized over 1,000 soldiers’ aid societies, rolled bandages for use in hospitals, and raised millions of dollars to aid injured troops.

Clara Barton

Nowhere was women’s impact greater than in field hospitals close to the front. Dorothea Dix, who led the effort to provide state hospitals for the mentally ill, was named the first superintendent of women nurses. She set rigid guidelines; according to rumors, Dix sought respectable women over the age of 30 who were “plain almost to repulsion in dress” and thus could be trusted not to form romantic liaisons with the soldiers. Clara Barton became one of the most admired nurses during the war and, as a result of her experiences, formed the American Red Cross.

Reflect: Same Issues, Same Argument


During every war, United States citizens and their government face the same issue — tension between limiting civil liberties and civil rights in order to provide more safety and security. During the Civil War, individual liberties were surrendered and both governments controlled communications to enforce greater safety and security.

Were the governments’ acts — doing away with the writ of habeas corpus, using the military to stop demonstrations against the draft, closing down 300 newspapers who were critical of the war effort — justified?

Expand: Officers And Gentlemen: Military Leadership in the Civil War


Robert Edward Lee

The Civil War battles in which so many lives were lost came down to the famed military commanders on both sides. Many of the opposing officers were actually friends who had been classmates at West Point and fought at each other’s sides in the Mexican-American War of 1848. Specifically, four leading men changed the course of the war.

The Confederates

Robert E. Lee, the famed Confederate commander, was in fact offered the position of commander in chief of the Union army by President Lincoln before Virginia seceded from the Union. Lee, born into one of the South’s most prominent families, was the son of a Revolutionary War hero and was married to Mary Anna Custis Lee, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. Although Lee came from such a family and did not favor secession, he joined the Confederate army out of duty to Virginia. As the unquestioned military leader of the South, Lee was a brilliant military strategist, continually outsmarting and defeating opponents with armies much larger than his own.

General Stonewall Jackson

In contrast, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, a Confederate general, was an intensely religious man. A former teacher at Virginia Military Institute, he believed that the Southern cause was sacred. He was known for being fearless in battle and would drive his troops to the point of total exhaustion, seemingly insensitive to their hardship and suffering. After Jackson won five battles in one month, an aura of invincibility surrounded him. It lasted until his death in the spring of 1863 during one of his most dramatic victories, the Battle Of Chancellorsville.

The Union

For the first three years of the war, the Union Army had five different commanders as Lincoln grew impatient with each one’s caution or inflexibility. None could win the decisive battle that Lincoln needed.

Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant, the commander and future president, was chosen as the general who could finish the job. He had fought in the Mexican-American War, won battles at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in Tennessee during the winter of 1862, and led the Union troops during the pivotal Vicksburg Victory. In those battles, Grant earned the nickname “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, which may be why Lincoln turned to him.

After becoming commander of the Union Army, Grant relentlessly pursued Lee, fighting him blow for blow and continuing to advance regardless of the mounting Union casualties. Grant recognized he was in a war of attrition that Lee could not win — the South was out of soldiers, out of resources, and losing their will to fight. Grant was the first Union general to understand his resources and what they meant: the superior population numbers, manufacturing, diverse agriculture, and shipping in the North meant everything was replaceable. The Butcher, as many called him, knew he could lose every battle and just keep advancing. He could literally lose his way to victory.

General WT Sherman

Grant’s most trusted officer, William Tecumseh Sherman, had fought with Grant earlier in the war. Sherman’s job was to take Atlanta, an action that was a key part of Lincoln’s strategy to conclude the war. Sherman was a nervous, talkative master strategist who understood how difficult the war would be to win. Sherman accepted the notion of total war and felt that making life very difficult for Southern civilians was the best way to weaken the Confederate Army’s resolve.

In 1864, Sherman led the first campaign in which civilians were treated as the enemy. Sherman’s March on Atlanta is legendary for destroying the countryside and annihilating a historic city. His ruthless and destructive drives across the South resulted in Sherman’s March to the Sea; from Atlanta to Savannah, the Union army destroyed everything in its path in hopes of demoralizing the South. Homes were looted, food was stolen, crops were destroyed, orchards were burned, and livestock was killed or confiscated, despite strict instructions regarding the preservation of civilian property. Savannah fell on December 21, 1864 — a Christmas gift for Lincoln, Sherman proclaimed. In 1865, Sherman’s forces invaded South Carolina, capturing Charleston and Columbia. From South Carolina, Sherman’s force moved north in an effort to join Grant and destroy Lee’s army.

Sherman’s March

Sherman’s marches through the South are his legacy. Sometimes referred to as, “the most hated and despised man in the history of Georgia,” Sherman’s willingness to engage in a “total war” offensive was instrumental in demoralizing the South.

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Lesson Resources

Lesson Toolbox

Additional Resources and Readings

The Civil War, Part I: Crash Course US History #20

A Crash Course video discussing the beginning of the Civil War, including the generals and officers chosen on both sides

Bet You Didn’t Know: Trench Warfare

A video discussing how war strategies in World War 1 occurred earlier in the American Civil War

Civil War Casualties

A Civil War Trust article discussing the high casualties brought on by total war

Sherman’s March to the Sea

A Discerning History video breaking down Sherman’s destructive march strategy

Sound Smart: Women in the Civil War | History

A video, from the “Sound Smart” series, providing more information on the role of women in the Civil War

Lesson Glossary


AJAX progress indicator
  • 1862 Homestead Act
    incentive in which settlers who moved west could lay claim to 160 acres of federal land by residing on a property for five years and improving it in some way
  • greenbacks
    money printed through the Legal Tender Act of 1862, which boomed the Northern economy
  • habeas corpus
    the right of prisoners to be brought before a judge or court to determine whether there is cause to hold them
  • Sherman’s March to the Sea
    a march led by William Tecumseh Sherman from Atlanta to Savannah, in which the Union army destroyed everything in its path in hopes of demoralizing the South
  • total war
    a military conflict in which the contenders are willing to make, or are required to make, any (and possibly a complete) sacrifice in lives and other resources to obtain a complete victory

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Jay Reynolds for The TEL Library.  CC BY NC SA 4.0

Video and Activity authored by the TEL Library.  CC BY SA 4.0

Adapted Content:

Title: U.S. History: Rice University, OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: The Southern Homefront: U.S. History Online Textbook, DOA. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: The Northern Homefront: U.S. History Online Textbook, DOA. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: Of Generals and Soldiers: U.S. History Online Textbook, DOA. License: CC BY 4.0

Media Sources

DecorativeShermans marchVariousWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeBrady – General WT ShermanMatthew BradyWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeUlysses Grant 3Brady National Photographic Art Gallery (Washington, D.C.)Wikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeJackson-Stonewall-LOCUnknownWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeRobert Edward LeeJulian VannersonWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeResistance to Confederate conscriptionCurrier and IvesWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeClara Barton by Mathew Brady 1865 Matthew BradyWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeDorothea Lynde DixSamuel BroadbentWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeHomestead Act 05 (7268340896) Bureau of Land ManagementWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
Decorative1st Ohio Volunteer InfantryFrank LeslieWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain