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At the time the United States Civil War started in 1861,
both the Unionists and the Confederates thought that the war would be short and
it was under strict regulations so as to not involve or harm citizens. However,
as the war progressed more was required to be done by the Unionists to get the
Confederacy to capitulate and thus resulted in the war becoming a “total war”.
The change into a “total war” was inevitable due to the underlying motive of
the war being to abolish slavery and not solely bringing back the seceded states
into the Union. Also, the war was not going to be as short as what people had
thought making it inevitable to involve more of society and pillaging in order
to bring an end to the war.

Primarily, in the beginning of the war it was
thought that the Unionists were fighting the Confederates in order to bring
them back into the Union after they had seceded. However, many people knew that
this was not the real cause of the war; it was emancipating the slaves. Slavery
was always in question although war was thought to be fought over reinstatement
of Confederacy into the Union. After the election of 1860 where Abraham Lincoln
won fifty-nine percent of the electoral vote, Southerners thought their power
would be diminished as the Republican party’s goal was to stop the expansion of
slavery and congress would try to create and Amendment in the Constitution,
abolishing slavery. But, the republican’s goal was not to abolish slavery but
to stop its spread. Therefore, in fear of this happening the South seceded and
the war was then thought to be fought over the restoration of the Union, not the
emancipation of the slaves. However, this motive changed after Abraham Lincoln’s
Gettysburg address which was after the wounding of about fifty thousand men. He
stated that “our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived
in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” (Abraham
Lincoln 1863) in making his reference to the Declaration of Independence he includes
the whole population, even the African slaves not just the non-slaved
population. He also states, “that this nation, under God, will have a new birth
of freedom,” (Abraham Lincoln 1863) and this new birth of freedom means the
freedom of the slaves. By saying this he is in effect changing the motive of
the war to being freeing the slaves. However, he is not changing the motive, he
is just bringing out a motive that was always present in the war since the beginning,
the fear of the South of the slaves getting their freedom. Now the war would
involve another part of the population, the slaves, thereby making the war a “total
war”. It always involved the slaves and therefore it this transition was always

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Secondly, the idea that this war would be a short war was in
everyone’s head, but in reality, this war could never be short. This was
displayed in the Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861 which was thought to be the
battle that ended the dispute. There were sightseers who brought champagne and
picnic baskets to watch the battle. This displays that people did not think
that this war would be a large one with such a mass scale of fatalities. It was
thought that the war was to be a “limited war” as according to general George McClellan
in his letter to Abraham Lincoln on July 7th 1862, where he states
that, “it should not be, at all, a War upon population; but against armed
forces and political organizations.” (George McClellan 1862) He thought that
citizens should not get involved in the war and it should be between armies and
governments as the war was to be “limited.” However, this changed further along
the line in Sherman’s march to the sea from November 15 until December 21, 1864
where Major General William Sherman took his arms and began a three-hundred-mile
journey to the sea where the army destroyed railroads, resources and towns in
an effort to strangle and starve the Confederacy’s army into submission. This
now involved more of society as the army was now attacking populations.



In conclusion, the American Civil War changed from being a
“limited war” to being a “total war” because of the change in the aims of the war from attempting to
reinstate the seceded southern states into the Union – to being about freeing
the slaves. It also changed into a “total war” after the realization that the
“limited war” was not going to be as
quick as what the people had thought. The war had changed to involve
more of society and pillaging in order to bring an end to the war.


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