A Question About Clausewitz

Everyone who writes about Civil War military history, especially on the level of strategy and policy, is bound sooner or later to mention Carl von Clausewitz and his work, On War (1832).  People invoke Clausewitz and his maxims on a periodic basis, especially the notion of the relation between military means and policy ends and the oft-quoted (if perhaps misunderstood and not precisely quoted) “war is politics by other means.”  Surely it would have helped Mark Neely in his continuing crusade to declare that the Civil War was not a total war to check into what exactly Clausewitz meant by that term (as opposed to seeking insight from the writings of Emilio Douhet, who, after all, was writing about air power in the twentieth century).

In fact, Clausewitz spoke of “absolute” war as a conflict waged to eliminate the enemy’s political independence, so, yes, the Union fought such a war … from the beginning.  The issue of escalation is separate from the issue of the end for which the Union waged war: by choosing as his preferred definition the scope of the conduct of the conflict (who’s a combatant, who isn’t, what’s fair game), Neely sets up a straw man (although he is doubtless correct in how historians tossed around the term “total” [and, for that matter, “modern”] rather carelessly).  But it seems more appropriate to discard the application of a twentieth-century concept to a nineteenth-century conflict and focus instead on nineteenth-century thought.

Now it is true that a translation of Clausewitz’s volume was not available in English until after the American Civil War, and there’s some debate over which translation is best.  I would also like to point readers to Christopher Bassford’s chapter about Clausewitz and the American Civil War here; I am particularly fond of the material just before footnote 16, for obvious reasons.  Bassford offers a telling discussion of the introduction of Clausewitz into interwar thinking in the United States here, and that might help in understanding the use of the term “total war” in the mid-twentieth century … a discussion that shaped how T. Harry Williams employed it in Lincoln and His Generals (1952).  More interesting to me would be the degree to which Henry W. Halleck and Dennis Hart Mahan were aware of Clausewitz (given their interest in Jomini, who was aware of Clausewitz, it would be odd if either of them knew nothing of Clausewitz’s thinking, even if they had not been avid readers of On War; in Halleck’s case, he cited Clausewitz’s work).

But here’s where I get to the heart of today’s inquiry.  Historians of the Civil War invoke Clausewitz’s name freely.  How many of them have actually read Clausewitz?  And no, I don’t mean a few choice passages … I mean the entire book.  I have, and I know of a few colleagues who have.  But how can we claim to apply someone’s thinking to an analysis of a historical event if we haven’t read the book in question?

Another Dirty Little Secret

As you have doubtlessly heard by now, it will not be long until Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter makes an appearance on the big screen.   Between the book and the movie, there’s been a lot of chatter about this movie.  Some people see it as funny in a bizarre way.  Others see it as a masterful exercise in marketing with the marrying together of two major obsessions (we would not expect to see Chester A. Arthur: Gnome Gatherer, for example).  I’ve heard Confederate “heritage” advocates deplore the fact that the Confederates are portrayed as vampires (and don’t you think that John Wilkes Booth is a bit of a vampire himself?).

Here’s my dirty little secret: the people who are making the movie consulted with me at several points.  That’s right … I was a historical consultant for the film, although I think that’s putting a bright face on what, after all, isn’t a story grounded in history.

It’s easy to divide my involvement into two stages, which I like to call the monumentally inconsequential and the trivially important.  In the first stage, I talked to people about the story line itself, and how to deal with some logical issues … mainly about how it seemed that if we were to be true to the theme of the story, we’d have to explain how the Confederates in the West were so much less successful than the Confederates in the East, and how did the tide in the East turned.  Perhaps the Confederate vampire detachment was limited to the East; perhaps (I ventured), Ulysses S. Grant was also a vampire hunter, and that would explain how he was able to succeed where others failed (“I don’t know what brand of garlic Grant uses,” Lincoln remarked, “but I’d sure like to know so I could send some to all my generals”).  In short, I was scrambling for explanations in light of my charge to make this fusion historical fiction as plausible (and “accurate”) as possible.

Somehow I don’t think that’s where the movie will go, for we did not build on that first long discussion.

This led to the second stage of my involvement … as someone who commented on what certain scenes might look like.  The folks were somewhat disappointed when I suggested that pirates and Native Americans were probably not walking the streets of New Orleans and  St. Louis.  I’ll be interested to see what happened to those observations.  I was never asked about Zouaves, who I think would have made a colorful addition to the story.

So all that remains for me to find out is whether my name actually appears in microscopic print in the credits.  I suspect not: the IMDb list for the film does not list my name (I have credits listed elsewhere, so this isn’t entirely vainglorious or foolish: indeed, I’m listed on one place as “Brooks D. Simpson,” while I’m simply “Brooks Simpson” in another credit).  But I thought it would be better to come clean now.  See you at the movies.