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8-08-2015, 23:33

Civil War Tactics and Strategy

ONEOF THE peculiarities of the Civil War that immediately strikes a student is the lack of decisive victory on the battlefield. Armies were thoroughly trounced—Pope's at Second Bull Run, Johnston and Beauregard's at Shiloh—and there would be further notable victories, such as Chancellorsville, Chickamauga, and others, yet almost never was an army actually destroyed in the field. One looks in vain for an Austerlitz, a Jena-Auerstadt, or a Waterloo. This can hardly be blamed on the soldiers themselves. Even the most insensitive imagination is awed by the courage and endurance the soldiers displayed on both sides of the war. He is a rare person who can stand in the Cornfield at Antietam, or along the Sunken Road at Shiloh, without being almost overwhelmed by the courage and suffering so freely poured out there. Some, but only some, of this inability to achieve victory can be blamed on the generals. There were some generals who were outright incompetents, others who made mistakes, either of commission or omission, and many who for one reason or another failed to seize opportunity when it was offered to them. Yet that is true in any war, generals being as human as the rest of us, and by and large it is probably safe to assert that no war in history has produced any better galaxy of generals than the American Civil War did. Napoleon's twenty-six marshals included a great many first-rate fighters, but not more than half a dozen really outstanding generals. On the Union side, Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Thomas could easily have carried a baton in Napoleon's Grand Army, and so could many a corps commander, Sedgwick, Reynolds, Hancock, not to mention a host of commanders coming up the ladder toward the end of the war. On the Confederate side Lee and Jackson were virtually incomparable as tacticians, and their subordinates— Longstreet; the two Hills, Daniel Harvey and Ambrose Powell; Cleburne; the fabulous Jeb Stuart as a cavalryman—rank with any generals any other army or any other war has ever produced. Indeed at least part of the fascination of the Civil War for military buffs is watching genius and near-genius at work on the available material. Why then the inability to achieve decisive victory in the field? Partly, of course, just because there were so many good commanders on either side; they tended to balance each other out. But it was not that alone. Even when Lee, for example, faced a very mediocre opponent, Burnside at Fredericksburg or Hooker at Chancellorsville, he could not destroy his victim. Only Grant managed that, at Fort Donelson and again at Vicksburg, but both of them were sieges where the defeated army had no place to go; and in the Appomattox campaign, when Lee's army was so worn down by siege and attrition that the operation was far from typical of the war. The answer to this indecisiveness must therefore be sought elsewhere, in the operative military theories of the day, in the material conditions under which those theories were put into practice, in the available technology, and in the tactics that necessarily flowed from that technology. A brief examination of these may suggest why so many battles and campaigns were repetitious bloodlettings without immediately visible result. To the extent that it was dominated by anything, the military theory of the era was essentially the product of the Napoleonic Wars, especially as their lessons had been distilled by the great Swiss thinker and writer Henri Baron Jomini. Serving as a staff officer in the French, and subsequently the Russian, armies, Jomini had worked out what he called the principles of war, and had published widely in the years after 1815. His ideas, and those of Napoleonic warfare generally, had been instilled into young American military minds by such great teachers as Dennis Hart Mahan at West Point. Henry Halleck, for example, was considered the most knowledgeable exponent of Jomini's ideas in America, and his proposals after Shiloh are full of ideas of "concentrating on strategic points," and other such stuff he got from Jomini. Though Jomini's articulation of the principles of war was widely accepted, so that the idea of them is now commonplace, his attempt to derive practical rules by which one might fight and win wars was less successful. He himself had had plenty of practical experience, though more on the staff level than in the actual hurly-burly of combat, but his theories came out looking more like rules for chess than for war. He fell into disrepute in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though he has recently enjoyed something of a rehabilitation at the hands of American Civil War scholars. The other major name for military theory in the period was Carl von Clausewitz, and he has since been accepted as the ultimate philosopher of war. His vogue, however, was yet to come, and few of the American officers of the Civil War would even have heard of him. What Americans found themselves forced to do in the Civil War was adapt what they knew and what they had been taught of military history and military theory, and what their own common sense and experience taught them, to the conditions of the United States in the 1860s. Jomini, for instance, had said a good deal about lines of operation, but he had not said much about railroads for the simple reason that there were none when he had his experience of war. As late as 1859, France and Austria had fought a short war in Europe, and their generals, not knowing much about railroads, had done their best to ignore their existence; it was once said that this was "a war of 1859 fought by armies of 1809 using tactics of 1759." Americans, amateurs and civilian soldiers fighting a tremendous war, could not afford to play games as if they were European professionals isolated from dayto- day realities. The overall grand strategy of either side was eminently straightforward, and has already been touched upon. For the Union, it was to reconquer and reoccupy the national territory, and restore the authority of the central government, and to do so while avoiding the foreign intervention that might well make such a task impossible. For the Confederacy it was simply to defend its claimed national territory until it achieved either victory on the battlefield, or foreign recognition, or failing those, simply to stay alive until the North sickened of the war and its costs, and recognized the impossibility of its own war aims. To achieve these overall aims for either side—one obviously must inevitably be disappointed—was a matter of military strategy. The initiative here lay with the North; it must conquer the South, and thus it had the luxury, such as it was, of choosing how to go about it. Neither side, of course, had the added luxury that students enjoy, of reflecting at leisure how best to achieve its ends. For the men involved, these things all had to be hammered out as they were happening, under the intense pressure not only of events but of divided counsels and ambitions as well. The first Northern strategies brought mixed results. The policy of isolating the Confederacy from the outside world worked, at least to the extent that foreign intervention was avoided for the crucial first months of the war. The actual blockade was less effective than was hoped; more exports got out, and more supplies got in, than the Union would have liked, and the Confederacy proved more adept than had been suspected at producing the materiel it needed. The ground strategy of reoccupying territory was far less successful, for the simple reason that Confederate armies kept getting in the way. And even where they did not, in large stretches of central Tennessee, for example, the hostility of the population and its support of raiders and guerrillas meant that an inordinate proportion of Union strength had to be dissipated in guarding supply lines, railroad bridges, depots, and other military and support installations. Eventually the Union armies virtually gave up the hope of occupying territory, and resorted instead to a policy of large-scale raiding and destruction of the Confederate infrastructure, its economy, its manufacturing and transportation facilities, that enabled it to sustain the war. In this they struck not only at the Confederacy's ability to support the war in a material sense, but in a psychological sense as well. Memoirs of the period are replete with stories of Confederate women berating Union soldiers for making war on women, when they could not defeat Confederate armies, and the Union soldiers replying that it was the women, after all, who were keeping the war going: You wanted your men to go off and make war; this is what war is. If you now complain that you don't like it, you shouldn't have started it. Call your men home, and that will end it. This was in effect an example of the ulterior strategy; the British theorist and historian Liddell Hart thought this was seldom effective in war, but it certainly worked in the later stages of the Civil War. It did so, of course, because the armies, to come back to the original point, were incapable of defeating each other decisively in the field. Looked at from a Jomini-like theoretical construction, each army, or each of the several Union and Confederate armies, operated forward from a given base of operations. For example, in the Shiloh campaign Johnston moved out from his base at Corinth, and Grant from his base at Fort Henry; Grant advanced much farther than Johnston did, but he had the Tennessee River as a logistics line, while Johnston had to march overland. Theoretically and ideally, as the armies approached each other, one should be able to maneuver onto the flank of the other, threatening the enemy's line of communications while preserving its own. If it did this, it could force the enemy to fight at a disadvantage; so fighting, the enemy would, or should, be defeated, and, driven off its line of supply and retreat back to its base, it could then be completely routed and captured or destroyed. That was what was supposed to happen, but in practice it hardly ever did. Shiloh, to use it as an example again, was basically a meeting or encounter battle. Johnston wanted to flank Grant, and drive him away from his communications on the river, but he could not manage to maneuver his troops to do it. So the two just went at it, hammer and tongs. On the Peninsula in the Seven Days, Lee managed to lever McClellan away from his base at West Point on the York, but McCellan, thanks to the navy, was able to shift his base south to the James and set up shop all over again. Thus Lee's tactical ability to rough up McClellan was offset by the latter's strategic possibility of a shift of base. The eastern theater, indeed, presented almost insuperable obstacles to decisive victory. These lay especially in the base line available to either side. Normally a base line would be roughly perpendicular to the line of operations—as a Jomini would envisage it—but in this area, the base line of either side was actually a concave curve: for the Confederacy from Richmond curving northwest up toward the mountains, and for the Union curving northwest to southeast roughly along the line of the Potomac and the shore of Chesapeake Bay. Thus if either army were maneuvered off its original line of operations, it was still likely to be pushed toward rather than away from another segment of its base line. No matter how hard an army tried, or even how successful in battle it might be, it thus became virtually impossible to drive an enemy into a position where he could be destroyed. This then accounts for the repetitive nature of the fighting in the east. Just as the Low Countries are the "cockpit of Europe," because geography has forced generals to fight the same battles over and over again, generation after generation, so northern Virginia became the cockpit of the Civil War; a fifty-mile-radius circle placed in the middle of the Richmond-Wash- ington-Shenandoah Valley triangle takes in Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, and the Wilderness, the vast majority of the great battles of that theater of the war. On this larger strategic canvas, it was not only geography that impeded success; it was equally difficult to achieve coordination in the fourth dimension, time. The Union, with the burden of the offensive, repeatedly tried to bring about a concentration in time, so that all its armies in all their theaters would advance at the same moment, and thus overwhelm the Confederacy. Instead, they repeatedly advanced piecemeal, allowing the Confederates to shuffle troops from one theater to another and meet them in succession. In 1862, Halleck and Buell more or less moseyed along, each going his own way at his own pace. Lincoln, unable to achieve this coordination himself, appointed McClellan as his overall commander, and when McClellan failed in this regard, he eventually brought Halleck east to do the job. Halleck failed also, and Lincoln finally made Grant his commander in chief. It might have been expected that with those two mechanical marvels of the modern age, the railroad and the telegraph, to help them, achieving coordination and concentration would have become easier than it had been in the past, but such did not seem to be the case. Field commanders still reserved the right to go off on their own hook, in some unforeseen direction, or indeed not to go off at all. The indignant, hurt, frustrated, and angry exchanges between the War Department and some of the field commanders would almost be amusing in another context. It is not only strategy that is difficult, however. If we move to the battlefield, we find the tactical problems even more daunting. The tactical systems employed by both sides in the Civil War were a variation on, indeed almost the last variation on, the linear tactics of the eighteenth century. These had been evolved through the dynastic era, and were a response to the weapons technology of the period. Basically they had been developed to utilize the firepower of the flintlock- mechanism, muzzle-loading musket. Under this system, soldiers in their assorted units, battalions, or regiments, were formed up in long lines, three or four, or in the British case two, ranks deep, which enabled each army to bring as many muskets to bear on the enemy as possible. Two opposing lines would approach each other and exchange fire, ideally carefully controlled volleys, until one broke, or the other charged and closed with the bayonet. Commanders played games with this system literally for generations, for it changed little from about 1715 until about 1830. Frederick the Great, for example, developed the idea of the oblique attack, whereby his line came down on the enemy line at an angle and rolled it up. In the French Revolution the French experimented with the shock power of the column for breaking the line; this was something of a misnomer, for the "column" was really only a very thickened line. One reason the linear system lasted so long was that there was little change in weaponry throughout the period. The flintlock musket was in universal use; it could be fired a couple of times a minute, depending upon the skill and practice of the soldier, but it was not really accurate beyond perhaps seventy-five yards. Indeed, in the eighteenth century such weapons were produced without sights; the soldier simply "presented" his piece and fired in the general direction of the enemy line. Anybody who got hit at a distance of more than about sixty yards was unlucky indeed. This being the case, the whole course of a battle was capable of mathematical calculation. A line or column could charge home, by crossing that last fatal fifty yards at a run. While they were doing it, the opposing line could get off two or perhaps three volleys. If the attackers could get enough men through those volleys and across that fifty-yard-wide "killing zone" to close with the bayonet, they could, presumably, win the fight. Sometimes they could do it, as the British did at Minden, sometimes they could not, as at Fontenoy. Given the relative inadequacy of the weapons, what was most important was fireand- march discipline, and keeping the men under control and in coherent formations so they could carry out the necessary maneuvers. Hence the obsession of commanders such as McClellan with drill for the army. Unfortunately for the men of the Civil War, the technology changed just before the war began. In the 1840s the French army developed the minie ball, named after its inventor. This was essentially a soft-lead, shaped bullet that, upon the firing of the weapon, expanded into rifling grooves inside the barrel of the piece. Rifles, as opposed to smoothbore muskets, had been around for a long time, but they were expensive, slow to load, and prone to fouling. Now, with the new minie ball, every soldier could be armed with one. This rifled bullet had the effect of widening the killing zone in front of a line. Instead of taking effective fire at about 50 yards, the attacking force now came under it at 100 or even 150 or more yards. Under those circumstances, it became very difficult, and very costly, to carry an attack through to a successful conclusion. The leaders of the Civil War did not quite know what to do about this. In the years before the war, the U.S. Army rewrote its tactical manual, and William J. Hardee, subsequently a Confederate corps commander, produced a new book, Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics. McClellan ordered several thousand copies of it for the Federal army, though it might have given someone pause to think that the other side wrote the book. Hardee's Tactics was the Bible of young officers learning their business in the war. But Hardee had not really known what to do about the new weapons, either; all he did in his book was shake out the formations a little bit, and try to increase the pace at which attackers moved. Neither proved very effective. Indeed, in the conditions under which Civil War battles were fought, most officers were still necessarily more concerned with maintaining unit cohesion and control than with the danger of enemy fire. There are common instances of troops being stopped to reform their ranks and dress their lines while under enemy fire, which is, to say the least, a trying exercise. In spite of the deadly nature of Civil War firepower, it was still necessary for armies to fight, of course. And they tried desperately to overcome their problems. In battle after battle, the attacker would attempt to outflank the defender; Chancellorsville is the outstanding example of this, practically in all military history. Often, of course, the terrain of a battle was so tangled or unknown that units got all mixed up. In the Wilderness some regiments launched attacks by compass bearing. An officer would pull out his pocket compass, take a line of sight, and lead his men forward until they bumped into something — officers led from the front in the Civil War, which is one reason so many of them were killed. But often there was nothing to do but launch a full-scale frontal attack, as on the second day at Shiloh or Chickamauga, or, in the classic setpiece occasion of the whole war, Pickett's charge at Gettysburg. Here, in the open, was war in all its gory glory, and those who saw it, or took part in it, never forgot it. If they lived through it. The force of the firepower, and the deficiencies of the tactical systems employed, explain why the battles were so bloody. Men wrote of whole trees being stripped by bullets, and even of trees being cut down by them, let alone by cannon fire, yet the men still stood up to it. They had to stand, of course, because it was almost impossible to load a muzzle-loading rifle lying down. Very soon in the war, wherever possible the troops dug trenches and threw up breastworks; and such fieldworks, if the defenders were given a little time for preparation, became all but impregnable to an attacker. When the Union army tried to take the Confederate position on Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg, there could have been few men below the level of corps command who did not recognize the impossibility of what they were trying to do. At Cold Harbor in 1864, the troops designated for the attack pinned little slips of paper with their names on them to their backs, so their bodies might be identified after the slaughter ended. That men should stand up and go forward in the face of such knowledge invites reflection upon the human condition. Ironically, the muzzle-loading rifle of the Civil War era was not the latest word in firepower. Breech-loading weapons were becoming available, and not only that, but repeating rifles were also developed by now. These might have been put into general use, had it not been for the conservative attitude of military procurement people; their view was that to increase the firepower of the soldier would simply encourage him to waste ammunition, and would thus cause insurmountable supply problems. Nevertheless, a few Federal infantry units, mostly western ones, bought their own repeating weapons, and in the last stages of the war Federal cavalry was armed with repeating carbines, one reason why Sheridan's cavalry performed so well in the Appomattox campaign. Given the increasing superiority of firepower over maneuver, and especially of defensive firepower from prepared positions, it was very difficult to win a battle, and usually as costly, or even more costly, for the attackers than for the defenders. Traditionally, of course, the offense is indeed more costly, but that is supposed to be offset by the fruits of victory; that is, the attacker suffers more heavily making his attack, but he then inflicts disproportionate casualties on his fleeing enemy. In the Civil War, however, the enemy seldom fled, except at First Bull Run and a few smaller battles. Even in such horrendous defeats as Chickamauga and Chancellorsville, the defeated side, the Federals in both cases, retained sufficient cohesion to draw off the field in good order, or at least with a rearguard in adequate strength to discourage pursuit. This had to be coupled with the facts that the victor was often as exhausted by his victory as the loser was by defeat; the victor, in possession of the field, also got the task of cleaning up the debris — few Civil War commanders were ruthless enough to leave wounded to fend for themselves while they went off in pursuit of the enemy, even if they might have shortened the war by doing so; and finally, a retreating army, abandoning its wagons and trains and cluttering the roads as it went, could move much faster than an advancing one. So almost invariably, the loser got away with much of his army, to fight again another day. Part of this may be attributed to the inadequacy of the cavalry arm of both sides through much of the war. Traditionally, cavalry served three purposes: reconnaissance and screening, which meant seeing what the enemy was doing while keeping him from seeing what you were doing; shock action at the climax of the battle; and pursuit. In this war, neither side could provide much in the way of shock; in the face of the minie rifle, the great cavalry charges, Austerlitz, Eylau, Waterloo, were all but a thing of the past. This left the other two functions, which were basically those of light cavalry. Both gray and blue riders performed screening and reconnaissance work, though for virtually the entire war, the Confederacy did it much better than the Union. But with a few exceptions, neither was very effective in pursuit, largely because the country was usually not open, and perhaps more because formed infantry, even beaten infantry, still could not be broken by cavalry. The weapons technology simply made it impossible. Throughout most of the war then, cavalry functioned largely as mounted infantry, moving on horseback, but usually fighting on foot. Acting in this way, both sides produced some effective cavalry leaders and actions, though the honors clearly went to the Confederacy, with Stuart and the man who was arguably the most talented light cavalry-mounted infantry leader in history, Nathan Bedford Forrest, "that devil Forrest" as he was habitually called by opposing commanders. This type of action was great for raiding rear areas, and annoying the enemy, and it could even have strategic ramifications, if supply routes were interdicted sufficiently to halt operations. But one looks almost in vain for the devastating pursuit, such as that after Ulm or Jena-Auerstadt, that transformed a battlefield victory into a crushing triumph. It was ironic and unfortunate that these classic victories of the Na- poleonic era, Austerlitz, Jena, Waterloo, were still fresh in men's minds. For they created the illusion that decisive victory could be achieved on the battlefield, and Civil War leaders, especially Robert E. Lee, sought again and again to emulate the Napoleonic victories, without really recognizing that the time for them was past. The battles of the Civil War thus have all the movement and flair of the earlier era, but in their actual results are really closer to the numbing horror of World War I, which in time was just about as far away from the Civil War as the Civil War was from Napoleon. The other combat arm that merits at least passing consideration is artillery. This was pre-eminently an infantry war, in which artillery, like cavalry, played a supporting but not a starring role. At the beginning of the war, the United States Army possessed only about 4,200 cannon, and the vast majority of them were heavy pieces in coastal fortifications; only 167 were "field" artillery. The entire Union army employed about 7,900 cannon in the war, compared with more than 4,000,000 small arms, that is, individual weapons for individual soldiers. Numbers alone do not tell the tale, of course; firing shells, solid shot, or spraying grape and canister across a battlefield, the artillery, when properly employed, could be highly effective. Generally speaking, Union artillery was superior to Confederate; there was more of it, it was better supplied, and with some exceptions it was better handled. Malvern Hill in the Peninsula is usually considered its outstanding early triumph, but both sides performed occasional prodigies of fighting, such as the Confederate gunners on the first afternoon of Shiloh, or the Union artillery that shot the heart out of Pickett's charge at Gettysburg. Even in such notable cases, though, it still took infantry to finish the work at hand. In studying the Civil War, then, one returns, again and again, to the men themselves. In part to the spirit and sense that motivated them to do what they did, but also in practical terms to see what they themselves learned and how they responded to field conditions. In the battles, they soon learned to dig, whenever they had a chance to do so. The attackers, of course, could not dig in; except in a siege, the two concepts were mutually exclusive. But the defenders learned very rapidly to take whatever cover they could find, a shallow ditch, a stone wall, a rail fence, a little fold in the ground, and to improve it as fast as they could. Bayonets were used far more frequently for scratching at the ground in the hope of creating cover, than they were for charging the enemy. Senior officers sometimes discouraged this practice, in the belief that it inspired too defensive-minded an attitude in their men. But the men dug anyway; they might perceive themselves as mere instruments or victims of fate, but that did not mean they were fools, and they took whatever chance they could to lengthen the odds in their favor. Eventually this penchant for digging would transform the battlefield, and soon the face of war. By 1864 it was a rare, or a new, unit that did not seek to entrench whenever it stopped, and later in the war, in the operations around Atlanta or Petersburg, for example, trenches were a common and dominant feature of the battle terrain. Another thing the men did, though this speaks less directly to tactics and strategy, was to develop an attitude that slowly altered the war. In 1861 and early 1862, under McClellan, the Army of the Potomac was punctiliously correct, and Confederate territory and property was handled with kid gloves, as it were. However, John Pope was cut from rougher, western, cloth. Under him the soldiers began to think that Confederates were indeed the enemy, rather than unfortunate civilians and erring cousins. If slaves of Confederates ran away to the Union lines, they would find shelter, such as it was; if they were not treated very kindly, at least they were not returned to their owners. Confederate chicken coops became fair game, and Confederate pigs legitimate targets. Pope did not encourage this, but he did not discourage it either. One early observer of the Union forces commented, "The problem with this army is that it doesn't hate enough." To its undying credit, it never did learn to hate very much. But it slowly learned to disregard the niceties. By mid- 1862, ideas were changing. Most of the fancy uniforms were gone now; on the one side changed for homespun butternut brown or dingy gray, on the other for shapeless but serviceable blue trousers and a simple dark blue fatigue jacket. Men were sloughing off the nonessentials. This war was proving to be a serious business, a far cry from what they had expected a year ago.