Some military historians have argued that the American Civil War was the first “total war” because of the high death rate and the scorched earth tactics used by some of the most senior Generals in the Union Army, such as Ulysses S. Grant and William Sherman. In Grant’s view the Confederate Army would only be routed if its economic base or infrastructure was completely destroyed. This included transport and communications and supplies of food, weapons, ammunition and money. The objective was not only to destroy the South’s physical capacity to wage war but to also destroy civilian morale in the Confederacy. The most powerful expression of this strategy was the march by Sherman’s troops from Atlanta, Georgia to the seaport of Savannah in the autumn of 1864, burning crops, killing livestock, wrecking railroad and telegraph lines and destroying property along their way.
Although the US Federal Government had introduced the Lieber Code to codify the rules of war in 1863 it still permitted reprisals and summary executions of guerrillas and other severe measures against civilian populations that supported them. Within the context of a civil war this meant that civilians who supported secession from the existing state were perceived to be traitors who had forfeited rights to protection by that state. This has continued to be a problem in virtually every subsequent civil war, ensuring that atrocities against soldiers and civilians have been common.