Discuss "total war." What are the roots of total war?

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bullgatortail | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Although Union General William Tecumseh Sherman popularized the idea of total war through his "scorched earth policy" during the Atlanta campaign and his March to the Sea during the American Civil War, total warfare began many centuries earlier. As early as 778 B. C., the Chinese enacted forms of total war, incorporating the entire population of the State of Qin (or Ch'in) by forcing all men not serving as soldiers to be used as farmers to feed the troops. The Greek Peloponnesian War (431 B. C.-404 B. C.) between Athens and Sparta resulted in mass enslavement and executions of civilians while nearly devastating "the economic resources of the participating city-states." Certainly, Genghis Khan was an early proponent of total war, and his Mongol armies "slaughtered whole populations" in China, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In the year 1258, as many as one million people died during his invasion of Baghdad.

In Europe, the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and the French Revolutionary Wars each caused the deaths of millions of civilians. But total war is most often credited to the policies established by Sherman during 1864-1865. Sherman termed it "hard war," and it included burning and destroying most of the buildings that his armies encountered--"the widespread destruction of civilian supplies and infrastructure." Sherman's armies lived off of the land, leaving little for the Southern civilians left behind. His armies destroyed the Southern railroads, creating "Sherman's neckties" of the rails heated and bent around trees. Sherman did not endorse the killing of civilians, though there were some accounts of murder, rape and torture by unruly troops. Sherman was particularly tough on the state of South Carolina, burning the capital of Columbia to the ground (although Sherman blamed the act on the fleeing Confederate army). However, Sherman's armies did far less damage to North Carolina during the final stages of the war. Sherman's "hard war" had the endorsement of both President Abraham Lincoln and his chief, General U. S. Grant, who both believed it 

... further undermined the Confederacy's ability to continue fighting.

Called by at least one historian as "the first modern general," Sherman's ideas of total war would be taken to greater heights in the two World Wars of the 20th century.

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