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?