In the years following World War II, it became common among historians to assert that the American Civil War had foreshadowed the great global struggles of the twentieth century. The war of 1861-1865, after all, had witnessed the early development and use of trench warfare, ironclad warships, rapid-fire weapons, and even airships and crude machine guns. Its soldiers had traveled to the battle front aboard railroad cars and steam-driven transports; its generals had communicated with one another via endless miles of telegraph wire. It was one of the first struggles in which manufacturing and mass politics significantly affected the fighting and the outcome. Perhaps most telling, it was a struggle in which civilians became the focus of deliberate military attack. For all these reasons, historians claimed, the Civil War should properly be seen as the first modern war and the first total war.
Both phrases remain common taglines for the struggle. Yet in recent years their appropriateness has been challenged. Sometimes the objections hinge on misgivings about the utility of such characterizations. Modernity, for example, is an elastic concept. Every war, in a sense, is "modern" when it occurs. The longbowmen of Henry V fought with state-of-the-art weapons, as did the legionnaires of Caesar and the arquebusiers of the duke of Parma. The term "total war" also invites queries: Total in terms of what? The total mobilization of society? The total extermination of an enemy people? Taken literally, such apocalyptic struggles seldom occur. But objections of this sort are mere semantic quibbles. At a more serious level, to assert that the Civil War was the first modern or total war is to make a statement about its proper place in the larger history of warfare.