While not all scholars believe that Sherman and Grant truly created a new form of warfare, it is often said that the two of them did create the form of warfare that is called “total war.” Total war is different from other types of war in that it targets civilian and economic resources in addition to the military.
In traditional forms of war, armies are supposed to fight against other armies. The only legitimate and important targets of attacks are military targets. Civilians and economic targets are supposed to be left alone. Generals Grant and Sherman did not adhere to this vision of war. Instead, they used a strategy in which they attacked civilians and, most importantly, economic resources. However, these generals were not really trying to kill civilians. Instead, they were trying to destroy the civilian efforts that helped the South’s war effort. They wanted to destroy crops so that the South would have a harder time feeding their armies and their civilian population. They wanted to destroy railroads so that the Confederates would have a harder time moving supplies from place to place. These were not military targets, but they were targets that helped the South wage war. The strategy of total war holds that it is acceptable and important to attack anything that can help win a war.
The campaign that is most associated with total war is Sherman’s “March to the Sea.” In this campaign, Sherman, having taken Atlanta, marched his army across Georgia. On his way, he had his soldiers destroy everything in their path that could conceivably help the Confederate war effort. Grant is also associated with this campaign in that he ordered Sherman to engage in attacks on the Confederate economy.
It is hard to say for sure whether this strategy was effective. In one sense, we can argue that it was effective because the Union did win the Civil War. The Union was able to win in part because of its superior military and economic power. We can certainly argue that the strategy of total war helped to decrease Confederate economic and military power, thus making the Union even more superior. However, it is not possible to know for certain whether this strategy helped cause the Union to win because we cannot go back and rerun the war, preventing the Union from engaging in total war. While we cannot be certain, most people would argue that total war was a successful strategy. Proof of this can be seen by the fact that total war has been used time and again since the Civil War.