Was the American Civil War the first Modern War?

Gervase Phillips points out the limitations in a common interpretation.

Union counter-attack at The Angle, third day, Gettysburg 1863It has been something of a commonplace to describe the American Civil War as the first modern war. Following the First World War, military theorists such as J.F.C. Fuller began to argue that the manner in which the Confederacy had been crushed foreshadowed the methods of 20th-century warfare. The Second World War seemed to confirm that interpretation; in 1948 John Bennett Walters identified Union General William Sherman as the architect of modern war, his campaigns characterised by ‘wanton destruction’ and ‘outrages’ against civilians. For nearly half a century this analysis was an orthodoxy.  

More recently, however, historians such as Mark E. Neely Jr. have suggested that Civil War generals waged war ‘the same way most Victorian gentlemen did’, with considerable restraint. Similarly, military historians, such as Paddy Griffith, have emphasised continuity rather than change in the tactical conduct of the war. On balance, we now have a more nuanced understanding of the conflict’s place in history: an essentially conventional 19th-century war, yet one which harboured some dark portents for the future.

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