Civil War Tactics in Perspective


How many Civil War historians also research and write about the Napoleonic era, the eighteenth century, or other wars of the 19th century?  Almost none - but the rare ones who do give us the greatest insight into Civil War combat.  How can you understand Civil War tactics without perspective, without studying what Civil War generals studied, without comparing Civil War weapons to those that came before and after?  You cannot.  How can you understand Civil War tactics by looking solely at the infantry?  Many Civil War historians attempt just that, getting bogged down in the minutiae of battles instead of gaining perspective by researching and understanding other eras.  Because of this lack of perspective, many historians don't fully understand why Civil War combat was indecisive.  And because of their lack of background, when historians specializing in the Civil War have seen Civil War generals write of "Napoleonic" tactics, firstly - they may not have understood what Napoleonic tactics were - something more than men fighting shoulder to shoulder - and secondly, it didn't occur to them that "Napoleonic" might refer to another Napoleon, Napoleon III.  Nineteenth century French tactics were an evolution of earlier tactics and included a faster 'gymnastic' pace of attack to reach enemy lines faster, hopefully negating the advantages of the new rifled musket.  (The Bloody Crucible of Courage, Brent Nosworthy) 



The Austro-Prussian War -the first modern war.

The Civil War featured a number of new innovations - ironclads, land mines, and so forth.  Railroads and steamboats made strategic shifting of troops quicker and easier, but neither side had a decisive advantage over the other in this regard.  At the operational level, railroads and river transport combined with low population density made wide sweeping operational moves more difficult, tying armies close to their railheads and giving them few choices other than direct confrontation.  This made the tactical realm more important.  In the field of tactics, it is often represented that the new rifle musket was one of the great, revolutionary innovations of the time - that it made the old tactics obsolete with the result that thousands of lives were wasted by using 50 year old tactics.  Perhaps the most famous advocate of this argument is the book "Attack and Die" by McWhiney and Jamieson, an interesting but flawed work.  Although Civil War tactics used weren't exactly Napoleonic in a Napoleon I sense, they were NOT modern either - they were an evolution and not a revolution. 

Major tactical change in the mid 19th century was pioneered by the Prussian army.  Only they dared to make radical change, and this was due to new weapons technology.  Developed in 1848, the Prussian Dreyse needle gun was a quick firing, bolt-action, breech-loading rifle that infantrymen could load and fire in a prone position.  In 1863, the Prussians estimated that three hundred of their men armed with the needle gun were superior to 900 of the enemy armed with muzzle loaders. (The Austro-Prussian War, Geoffrey Wawro p25 footnote)  In a small engagement at Lundby in the 1864 Denmark War, 124 Prussians repulsed 180 attacking Danes, inflicted 88 casualties on them as they advanced from 250 meters to 150 meters. (Austro p34)  In 1866, Prussian troops armed with needle guns easily defeated an Austrian army equipped with muzzle-loading Lorenz rifles, weapons also used in the Civil War.  Instead of using a long thin line of men to blast away at an opposing long thin line of men at close range, the Prussians used small company columns that sent men forward into skirmish lines to gain fire superiority.  The skirmish line would take advantage of the terrain, and the men, who had had extensive target practice, would take careful note of the range to the enemy and adjust their sights accordingly.  The skirmish line was now the main effort, and the column existed primarily to lend support and to send troops forward to the skirmish line.  These methods easily defeated the Austrians, who used columns of infantry for shock attacks.  At Podol, 400 Prussians defeated 2,000 Austrians, losing only 100 men compared to over 1,000 killed, wounded, and captured Austrians. (Austro p134)  At Trautenau, an Austrian "victory", 5,000 Austrians were lost compared to 1,300 Prussians. (Austro p150)  Austrian artillery was effective out to 5,000 meters, but the gunners were vulnerable to fire from the needle gun.  One Austrian battery at Koniggratz lost 54 men and 68 horses to rifle fire in the course of several minutes, (Austro p 252) something the likes of which had not seen in the American Civil War.  Although only one Prussian bullet out of 250 fired actually hit anyone - little different from the past - the Austrians lost 5 men to every one the Prussians lost - plus the rapid fire had an immense psychological impact on the enemy. (The Franco-Prussian War, Geoffrey Wawro p51)  Prussian cavalry, despite facing rifled muskets, were effectively used against fleeing infantry and even successfully captured an enemy artillery battery. (Austro p262)  Had armies of the American Civil War faced the Prussians, they too would have been slaughtered.

Prussian Needle Gun


In response to these developments, the French army fielded the breech-loading Chassepot rifle which could fire 8 to 15 rounds per minute compared to the 4 to 5 rounds of the Prussian needle gun. (Franco p52)  The Chassepot had a longer range as well.  In the early skirmishes of the Franco-Prussian War, it was clear that the Chassepot was superior.  In one instance, a French platoon held off a company, and in another, three Frenchmen stopped a column of Prussians. (Franco 87, 93)  In addition to quick firing, breech loading rifles, the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 also featured breech-loading artillery, effective out to 3,800 meters, and the mitrailleuse, a crude machine gun mounted on an artillery carriage.  The mitrailleuse mowed men down at a range of 1,200 yards firing 100 to 200 rounds per minute. (Franco 53)  All of these weapons lead to a genuine tactical revolution.  Prussian weapons and tactics were matched against even superior French small arms, and Prussian frontal attacks consistently failed.  Newer, more lethal weapons had forced new tactics, and combat was less decisive.  By the Franco-Prussian War, artillery and infantry could still co-operate in battle, but cavalry co-operating with infantry in the attack was no longer practical.  In one instance, "Bredow's Death Ride", Prussian cavalry charged the French in a desperate attack to gain time.  Although the French line was pierced, the Prussian cavalry lost half its men.  Cavalry's use was now mostly limited to screening the army. (Franco 61)  Infantry fighting exclusively as skirmishers made infantry fire even more deadly and made the men more steady than if they were in closed order.  Jean Colin in his classic "Transformations of Warfare" explains:

"Comparative isolation is good for the morale of a man from the time he finds himself in the zone of fire.  If men are close to each other emotions are transmitted and hyper-excitement is reciprocally induced - this is very bad for the steadiness of the combatant. ... If the intervals are large, the man who falls has plenty of room, is seen by a less number of people, and drags no one down in his fall; the moral(e) impression made on his comrades is slighter, their courage is less shaken." (Transformations of War, Jean Colin p81)  

French Chassepot

So by 1870, all factors conspired to make combat less decisive.  Much more so than during the American Civil War, the defense was now supreme, and an army with an average of one man per yard of front could be expected to hold its position.  Shallow flanking moves became the key to success on the battlefield, and victory came at the operational level.  In comparison, even behind entrenchments, Lee's army at Spotsylvania averaged 5 men per yard of front, and Civil War armies on occasion averaged 8 men per yard of front.  It was the increased volume of fire that forced tactical change.  In America, it was only after the Civil War when quick firing breechloaders became more common that tactics changed significantly.  In 1866-67, Emory Upton updated the tactical manual, advocating use of a single rank of men armed with Spencer repeater - one rank of Spencer armed men was equal to two ranks with rifled muskets. 

As weapons technology continued to advance through the 19th century, the indecisive trench warfare of the First World War was the next logical step.  In 1914 the battle line stretched so far that there was no flank remaining to attack.  Infantry units of 1914 were still armed exclusively with rifles.  To break this deadlock, rifle units were replaced with units armed with a mix of weapons down to the squad level - grenades, flame throwers, mortars, and squad automatics, all used together for the purpose of fire suppression -  keeping the enemy's head down.  This was a modern version of combined arms tactics, which included massive artillery support, allowing the infantry to move forward for the kill.  This was the beginning of modern tactics like those still used today.  The family tree of these modern tactics goes back to mid 19th century Europe - not to the American Civil War.  European neglect of the American Civil War was less a reflection of elite condescension and more a reflection of the greater importance of what had occurred closer to home. 




Casualty Figures

Further proof that Civil War weapons were not as deadly as they are often portrayed can be found in casualty figures.  Historians charting the lethality of weapons discovered a counter-intuitive trend.  As the lethality of weapons increased, the percentage casualties per unit of time has decreased.  So while battles in the linear era produced casualties in the range of 10 to 40% per day, by World War II, casualties on the order of 1% per day were considered heavy.  Let's take a look at some battles over a range of time periods to compare the losses - killed and wounded only but excluding captured or missing. (generally, figures are from David Chandler's Guide to the Battlefields of Europe)

Marlburian - early 1700s

battle French Loss % Allied Loss %
Blenheim 35%? 23%
Ramillies 20% 6%
Oudenarde 7% 5%
Malplaquet 15% 22%


Frederican - mid 1700s

battle Prussian Loss % Enemy Loss %
Kolin 43% 22%
Rossbach 3% ?
Leuthen 18% 15%
Zorndorf 35% 45%


Napoleonic- early 1800s

battle French Loss % Enemy Loss %
Austerlitz 12% 19%
Auerstadt 27% 14%
Eylau 19% 35%
Friedland 9% 41%
Borodino 23% 33%
Salamanca 28% 10%
Vitoria 10% 7%
Waterloo ? 22%


Civil War

battle CSA Loss % USA Loss %
Second Manassas 18% 21%
Antietam 26% 17%
Fredericksburg 7% 11%
Chancellorsville 22% 16%
Gettysburg 37% 28%
Wilderness 19% 18%
Spotsylvania 23% 18%
Shiloh 27% 21%
Murfreesborough 27% 27%
Franklin 23% 8%


19th Century

battle Loss % Loss %
Solferino 13% (French) 12% (Austrian)
Koniggratz or Sadowa 3% (Pr.) 12% (Aus.)
Gravelotte and Mars la Tour 11% (Ger.) 11% (Fr.)
Sedan 4% (Ger.) 14% (Fr.)


As you can see, there isn't a great deal of difference in percentage casualty rates between Civil War battles and battles of 150 years before.  Although there aren't a great deal of mid to late 19th century European battles to compare to, it is clear that casualty rates were lower than earlier battles, often much lower.  This indicates that later wars like the Austro-Prussian War and the Franco-Prussian War, rather than the Civil War, were significantly different - more modern than wars of the past.  Later, we'll gain insight about the tactics of the 18th century and the Napoleonic Wars - and to study their evolution.  After all, that is exactly what Civil War commanders did.   





Rifled Musket Revolution or Evolution?

But why compare Civil War tactics to those of the eighteenth century and Napoleon's time?  After all, the rifled musket had changed everything.  Right?  That's been the orthodox opinion of widely respected historians.  This view reached such such an unquestioning, cult-status that one historian has even pointed to First Manassas as an example of the increased lethality of the rifled musket when, in fact, the armies were equipped almost exclusively with smoothbores at that point.

Grady McWhiney and Perry Jamieson's "Attack and Die" make perhaps the most extreme case, taking at face value outrageous claims from 1859.  On page 49, they write:

"Cadmus M. Wilcox, who reviewed the status of the rifle in the late 1850s, said that well-directed rifle fire was "irresistible" at 600 yards and still destructive at 1,000 or 1,200 yards."

Carrying this flawed assumption to its logical conclusion, reflected in the title of their book, they assert on page 6:

"The rifled muzzleloader gave the defense at least three times the strength of the offense; consequently, it would have been possible theoretically for the Confederates using defensive tactics to have remained in their entrenchments and to have killed every man in the Union Army before the South exhausted its own human resources."

John Hennessey, in his excellent book "Return to Bull", written before the standard interpretation was widely questioned, gives a less extreme, conventional version of the effect of the rifled musket.  He writes:

 "Civil War tactics were largely the product of Napoleon Bonaparte.  That meant, most particularly, that their theory was predicated in large part on the use of the bayonet.  But in 1862, after First Manassas, Shiloh and Gaines Mill, the rifle musket, now in vogue on both sides, had rendered the bayonet charge impractical.  While Napoleon's charging lines at Waterloo or Austerlitz had been exposed to musket fire for a hundred yards, the rifle muskets could ravage a charging line with accuracy from 350 yards in, and do damage at more than 500 yards.  By 1862, most battle lines never made it close enough to engage in a classic hand-to-hand fight.  Most soldiers found their bayonets more useful as candle holders or pot hooks than as weapons of death." (Return to Bull Run, John Hennessey p247)


Not to disparage Mr. Hennessey, but he misunderstands Napoleonic tactics and the use of bayonet.  In Napoleon's time, as well as in the Civil War, the bayonet was a psychological weapon - and a powerful one.  With few exceptions, the bayonet charge was conducted only after achieving fire superiority - which created morale superiority.  Combat in many ways was a contest of wills - fight or flight.  The time for a bayonet attack was when the enemy was psychologically fragile.  An advance with cold steel was intended to end the fight by causing flight.  The fact that bayonet wounds have always been rare does not prove that the bayonet was an ineffective weapon.  It proves the exact opposite.   

As we will see, Civil War rifle-muskets aren't all that they're cracked up to be.  Arguably a more important advance in small arms technology was the percussion cap, which, unlike flints, were consistently reliable.  A much higher percentage of shots after the first volley were fired successfully, and the infantryman could pay more attention to his aim without gunpowder burning near his eyes.   


Old Flintlock Mechanism on a Brown Bess

Simple and Reliable Percussion Mechanism on a Civil War Rifle Musket.  Note also adjustable sights

Rifled bullets flew a straighter, more predictable course.  But in one important respect the rifled musket was actually inferior to its predecessor.  A bullet traveling down a smoothbore barrel would bounce around, with its final trajectory determined by its final bounce.  But at fairly short range, 100 yards or less, the smoothbore was quite good, with between 40-75% of shots hitting a simulated line of cavalry in various peacetime experiments.  At 200 yards, 18-30% of shots hit the target. (Hughes 27-28).  Interestingly, the distance between the bastions of forts was dictated by the range of smoothbores - which was considered to be around 300 yards!  The rifling in the new rifled muskets gave the bullet a much truer course, but they also created much more friction than in smoothbores, which lowered the muzzle velocity significantly.  This meant that the bullet traveled a more parabolic course.  So even though the bullet flew a truer course, its relatively slow speed meant that at long range the shooter had to estimate the range accurately to within a few yards in order to hit his target.  Jack Coggins writes, "A bullet fired by a kneeling man at the belt buckle of a man running toward him at an estimated range of 300 yards would pass over the head of a man 250 yards away. Thus, if the shooter had overestimated the range by as little as 50 yards he would have missed."  In addition, the bullet would fall at the feet of a man 350 yards away.  The further the range, the more vital the estimate of range was, and the more difficult the task became.  Twentieth century studies show that people are very bad at estimating ranges, with errors usually around 30%. (Ohio Dept of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife website)  Modern rifles are much better long-range weapons, in no way comparable to the older rifled musket.  While the rifled musket bullet would rise 43 inches over the line of sight, a World War II era M-1 rifle bullet would rise just 7.2 inches above the line of sight, making accurate range estimation much less important.  (Coggins 38-9)  Brent Nosworthy's "Bloody Crucible of Courage" says that the Union army quit making adjustable sights for their rifle muskets because the men were too frightened in battle to adjust them.  Perhaps it wouldn't have mattered if they did.  Similar things happened on the Confederate side of the battlefield.  In "The Science of War", GFR Henderson on page 245 says that Confederates immediately removed the sights when they received Enfields because they preferred to judge distance by instinct.



Despite the flatter trajectory of modern bullets, even today, firefights rarely occur at ranges over 400 yards.  The human eye is the reason for this.  In fact, at 500 yards, a human face can only be made out as a light spot. (Hughes 26)  Even at just 70 yards range, a man's image is just 1/8 of an inch high at the end of a rifle barrel.  Moving the rifle 1/8 of an inch to the side results in a miss of 18 inches.  If your life was in danger, as it always is in battle, could you expect to hit your target?  Many men were too frightened to even tell whether their weapon had fired.  Not even noting the absence of a kick to their shoulder, a strong enough force to leave a bruise, men simply loaded one round on top of the other.  SLA Marshall, in a flawed but important study of Korean War combat, found that a substantial portion of infantrymen in battle never fired their weapons; the fear of death simply overcame them.  It is expecting a great deal for an infantryman to accomplish the simple task of loading and aiming a musket in battle.  People are not designed to face that sort of danger.  They are designed to run for their lives. 

When you also figure that after some artillery fire and a volley or two of musketry there may have be so much smoke that men couldn't even see the enemy, how can you expect them to hit anything?  It should be no surprise that Paddy Griffith in "Battle Tactics of the Civil War" calculated an average first volley of around 140 yards, little different from previous wars, and with little difference in lethality.  When you consider that each man was eager to open fire, to do something seemingly constructive against the threat facing him, 140 yards was too far away for an effective volley.

So although rifle-muskets were an improvement over smoothbores, the advantage appears slight.  Grady McWhiney's thesis that there was a rifle revolution and that the Confederates wasted their manpower in futile frontal assaults is dead wrong.  The technology of rifled muskets didn't make combat indecisive.  Other factors were involved, however.




What were Napoleonic tactics, and how do they differ from Civil War tactics?

If you understand how Napoleon fought, you will see that Civil War tactics were different in a number of important ways.  These differences perhaps explain much of why Civil War combat tended to be indecisive.

In the gunpowder age, battle was often indecisive; Napoleonic combat, the ultimate development of linear tactics, is the exception.  To understand Napoleonic tactics, you first have to understand how and why they developed.  To do that, you have to go back one hundred years before even Napoleon's time to the invention of the socket bayonet.  Before then, an infantry battalion was an unwieldy and vulnerable combination of musketeers and pikemen, with the pikemen protecting the musketeers from enemy pikemen and cavalry.  When the socket bayonet replaced the plug bayonet, musketeers shed themselves of pikemen because they could now protect themselves and still fire their muskets.  Musketeers stretched themselves thinner, first into six ranks, then four, then three, and finally just two.  It was still an awkward system in some ways, with difficulty deploying an army from the march into line of battle.  In Marlborough's day, in the early 1700s, it took most of the day to prepare for battle, and it was impossible to surprise an enemy on the march.  When battle began, the whole of the infantry would typically attack together simultaneously in two lines.  The logical place for cavalry was on the flanks.  In battle, the cavalry would defeat the opposing enemy horsemen then attack the rear of the enemy infantry just like in the 1600s - but also much like during the American Civil War, at least in theory.  By Napoleon's time, however, this would change - thanks to advances in infantry tactics.

With the use of thinner battle lines - two or three ranks - a quicker, simplified system was developed to deploy from marching column into line of battle.  Battle was becoming more practical, no longer a rare and consensual event.  Frederick the Great perfected this system, marching and deploying on the enemy's flank for a devastating attack.  If you have read about Frederick at Leuthen, you will see the similarities with Jackson's attack on the XI Corps at Chancellorsville and Early's attack at Cedar Creek.  And if you have heard of Rossbach, then you might be skeptical of Longstreet's hoped-for turning movement at Gettysburg.  Indeed, in many ways the Civil War looks more like the Seven Years War than it does the Napoleonic Wars.




Let's take a look at change in the 18th century and the development of Napoleonic tactics, one feature at a time. 


There was plenty of room to improve upon mid-18th century tactics, and the defeated and humiliated French army lead the way with reform.  The Austrians had already made great strides in reducing the weight of their cannon, with their new pieces weighing only half as much as their predecessors.  The French adopted these concepts with the Gribeauval system.  Frederick had already complaining in the Seven Years' War that the new Austrian artillery was killing off his highly trained infantry, who were renown for their discipline and quick rate of fire.  The new lighter field artillery had the potential to revolutionize warfare.  There was no choice for a monarch but to enter into an artillery arms race - or else have his army slaughtered.  Masses of the new mobile guns, grand batteries, could be brought to bear against the enemy, blowing holes in his line and demoralizing his men.


Frederick was also whining that Austrian light infantrymen sent ahead of their main line were picking off officers and men while taking cover behind trees and terrain features.  With an army made in many cases of forcibly recruited men held in bondage only by the threat of severe punishment, Frederick couldn't trust his men to go forward and skirmish.  With the prospect of freedom, they might run away and never be seen again.  Frederick resisted this change, at least for a while, before embracing it.  Other armies developed highly trained and motivated special units of light infantry too.  Although skirmishers of the French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic times are often stereotyped as ill-trained levies good for nothing more than swarming in dense masses in front of the enemy line, modern historians dispute this.  Whenever possible, skirmishers of the era were highly motivated, well trained, and good shots.  Their calm, slow, well-aimed fire, combined with artillery, gradually wore down the enemy and un-nerved the survivors before the main attack.


A misunderstanding of early English-speaking historians has distorted our understanding of a major aspect of Napoleonic warfare - the use of columns.  Focusing on the Peninsula War and relying almost exclusively on British sources, some historians came to the misguided conclusion that the French primarily used battalions of infantry for shock action in columns of attack.  As early as the mid 1700s the French were keeping their second line in column formation to allow for a flexible response to problems or opportunities on the first line.  During the 1777 Battle of Brandywine, the British army, generally thought of as conservative, advanced on the rebels in maneuver columns then deployed into an open-order line.  By Napoleonic times French infantry, preceded by skirmishers, advanced toward the enemy in battalion-sized columns for more flexibility and maneuverability on the battlefield, allowing them to adjust to enemy deployments, better seize opportunities, or attempt to flank the enemy line.  Before contact with the enemy, however, the columns would deploy into line for the firefight.  A bayonet charge in column formation was only done after gaining firepower superiority when the enemy troops looked shaky and on the verge of breaking.  Against most armies, this method worked very well.  The infantry's increased flexibility helped in other ways.  The infantry columns also allowed much closer cooperation with the artillery, which was better able to mass against a portion of the enemy line or even move forward with the infantry.  More importantly, closer co-operation with the cavalry was also possible.  Unlike in the 18th century, cavalry could advance right along with the infantry, and the infantry was not restricted to an attack by the whole army. 


While 18th century cavalry was placed exclusively on the flanks, the new infantry columns allowed the mounted arm to advance in columns directly in support of the infantry, and even change places with them to lead the attack.  To protect themselves. enemy infantry would form squares, but in so doing they deprived themselves of much of their firepower and their ability to maneuver.  If artillery could be brought forward, the enemy squares would be blasted out of existence.  Either way, a massive hole was formed in the enemy line, and decisive victory was assured.

In terms of grand tactics, Napoleon would typically threaten the enemy's flank, forcing him to commit his reserve.  He always kept a large reserve available, a vitally important part of his system, to either exploit success or stave off defeat.  Most often, with the enemy reserve committed, Napoleon would send his own reserve into the weak point in the enemy line and secure a decisive victory.  Co-operation among all three combat arms was key to Napoleon's system, and the reserve decided the battle.  Does this sound like Civil War tactics to you?  No, far from it!  Civil War armies kept few reserves, and Civil War combat featured little in the way of combined arms cooperation.  Unlike the Napoleonic Wars, and more like the 18th century, reserves were a rarity in the Civil War, and a commander had few options once a battle "developed" to maturity.  Civil War tactics were NOT Napoleonic, at least not in the sense of Napoleon I.

Map of the Battle of Waterloo, 1815

Note that Napoleon's army (in blue) has cavalry not only on the flanks but also behind the infantry.  The same is true for Wellington's army.  Also note that Napoleon has a large reserve composed of Lobau's corps and the Imperial Guard.  This deployment is very unlike that of a Civil War army.


Map of Bussaco, 1810 - Napoleonic Tactics Gone Bad

In the rough terrain of the Iberian peninsula, French artillery was less effective, and cavalry couldn't cooperate very easily with infantry.  Here at Bussaco, large numbers of British skirmishers hid the infantry line and allowed a surprise volley followed by a decisive bayonet charge on the un-deployed French columns.


French tactics in Spain and Portugal didn't work out so well, and their old school British opponents may have never understood their intent.  Rough terrain complicated the system considerably.  It was difficult to mass artillery batteries, and it was difficult for cavalry to support the infantry.  Wellington sometimes sent as much as one third of his men forward as skirmishers, and the French could never gain superiority over them.  Since Wellington kept his infantry hidden behind the reverse slope, the French maneuver columns blundered upon the British line and were surprised.  Struggling to deploy into line and disorganized and shocked by the surprise encounter, the French received one or two close range volleys from their British opponents who then let out a cheer and charged.  The British system worked consistently, except at Albeura - and at Waterloo, where the open terrain suited Napoleon's methods.  Terrain explains much of the British success against the French.  In part, terrain also explains why combined arms tactics were so rare during the Civil War, but we'll discuss that later.  Perhaps because of the British success, and because of the bloody nature of Napoleon's later battles, post-Napoleonic military theorists became somewhat reactionary and supported tactics which looked backward to the 18th century.



Civil War Tactics Look Like a Poor Man's 18th Century


The first American army, the Continental Army, was based on its British opponent during the Revolution; even then, the British were known for a brief musketry exchange followed by a charge.  Civil War tactics don't resemble this, or British Peninsula tactics, or Napoleonic tactics.  But Civil War tactics do resemble the 18th century in that infantry was typically formed in two lines flanked by cavalry.  Civil War battles sometimes even featured a Frederican style oblique order attack.

Although Gettysburg featured a Napoleonic concentration of artillery, genuine Napoleonic tactics for example, would have involved cavalry supporting Pickett's Charge - and Union cavalry charging in pursuit of the defeated Confederates- in short, it would have been combat with the potential for decisiveness.  The technology of rifled muskets didn't make this sort of thing impossible.  Koniggratz in 1866 shows this as do some later Civil War battles like 3rd Winchester.  Because combined arms attacks weren't regularly attempted, battle was predictably indecisive.

Unlike Napoleonic and eighteenth century battle, all too often, Civil War combat degraded into a confused infantry firefight with officers gradually losing control, with any hope for maneuver lost.  After the onset of confusion, shock action with the bayonet was not practical.  Due to lack of training and discipline - an inevitability to some degree with a volunteer army of a democratic government - it was always difficult to get men to close with the enemy.  Once an infantry advance stopped in order to fire, it could rarely be made to continue forward.  GFR Henderson wrote on page 215,

"Occasionally, when protected by unusually strong defenses, the leaders were able to induce their men to reserve their fire to close range, but, as a general rule, whether defending or attacking, the men used their rifles at will.  The officers were never sufficiently masters of their soldiers to prevent them, when bullets were whistling past, from immediately answering the enemy's fire.  In the best Confederate regiment, in the midst of a conflict, the ardent and burning inclination of the soldiers was obeyed rather than the commands of the officers."

Prussian observer Justus Scheibert believed that a deficiency in lower level officers, who showed "ignorance of military things", explained why the brigade became the tactical unit of the war, "hence stiffness in the lines and clumsiness in management and direction of troops".  Poor performance on the battlefield was the result, and "the loss of an upper-level commander would cripple (the) advance".  He described an attacking infantry division as "like ghosts of days and ways of Frederick the Great.", in essence a poor man's version of mid 18th century methods.  (Scheibert 49)  He described a typical attack;

 "The nearer to the enemy, the more faulty the lines and the more ragged the first (line) until it crumbled and mixed with the skirmishers.  Forward went this muddle leading the wavy rest.  Finally the mass obtruded upon the point of attack.  In a sustained, stubborn clash, even the third (line) would join the melee.  Meanwhile the usually weak reserve tried to be useful on the flanks, or stiffened places that faltered, or plugged holes.  In sum it had been a division neatly drawn up.  Now its units, anything but neat, vaguely coherent, resembled a swarm of skirmishers." (Scheibert 41)

In contrast, Scheibert writes:

"Prussian tactics freed (officers) to use their own minds...  Liberated battalion and even company commanders could be the heads of tactical units, their own, and make them fight as right-thinking officers saw fit and as well-trained troops best could.  The flexible line at the forward edge resembles a chain, then with detachable links under independent guidance.  At crisis they can dismember into smaller and even the smallest units without dysfunction...  Our Prussian tactics thus gave our line officers energy, elasticity, and speed - to the entire army's benefit...  Furthermore, diligent peacetime training provided our troops an abundance of formations, something to fit any circumstance...  Lee, the first American to acknowledge this superiority, replied in the thick of Chancellorsville when I spoke with amazement at the bravery of Jackson's corps: 'Just give me Prussian formations and Prussian discipline along with it - you'd see things turn out differently here!" (Scheibert 49)  

An extreme example of how potentially decisive combat degraded into chaos is Brawner Farm.  Jackson had the opportunity to attack and crush an isolated and much smaller Union division with his corps, but the attack stalled, and an indecisive firefight resulted, and because of Jackson's peculiarities, his subordinates feared to take the initiative and stood idly by while the opportunity to destroy a Union division was lost.

The human element is important in combat.  Men are not machines, and American volunteers were not European professionals.  The Comte de Paris wrote in his "Campagne du Potomac" on pages 144-4:

"The will of the individual, capricious as popular majorities, plays far too large a part.  The leader is obliged to turn round to see if he is being followed; he has not the assurance that his subordinates are bound to him by ties of discipline and of duty.  Hence come hesitation and conditions unfavorable to daring enterprise."

 On a more personal level, a New Yorker in "Battles and Leaders, vol 2, p662" wrote:

"The truth is, when bullets are whacking against tree trunks and solid shot are cracking skulls like egg shells, the consuming passion in the heart of the average man is to get out of the way.  Between the physical fear of going forward, and the moral fear of turning back, there is a predicament of exceptional awkwardness, from which a hidden hole in the ground would be a wonderfully welcome outlet."

What could negate these natural tendencies?  GFR Henderson explains, "Mutual confidence is the force that drives a charge home; and this quality is the fruit of discipline alone, for in almost every campaign it is the better-disciplined troops who have displayed the greatest vigor in assault."  Henderson also cites (on p216) a comment by Lord Wolseley, who stated that a single corps of regulars on either the Union or Confederate side, would have won the war on account of their superior mobility and cohesion - both traits coming from discipline.  In James I Robertson's "Soldiers Blue and Gray", page 123, early in the war Joe Johnston is quoted, "I would not give one company of regularsfor a whole regiment!"  Relying on an army of volunteers enlisted at the start of wars was perhaps the country's only choice, but the quality of Civil War armies was questionable, and this was not a new thing.  In "Civil War Infantry Tactics", Earl Hess points out that the army of the War of 1812 did poorly with the sole exception of Jacob Brown's army near Niagara, and in the Mexican War, "The volunteers gained a well-deserved reputation for lacking discipline, marauding, committing atrocities against helpless Mexicans, and running away from battlefield dangers."    

Could Civil War battles have been decisive?


Maybe.  Skirmishers weren't consistently well used.  In the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars, skirmishers could all but decide a battle, but we don't see that in the Civil War.  The Confederate army improved in this respect through the war, forming elite sharpshooter battalions in each brigade, but the Union army allowed its light infantry to decline over time.  Why couldn't the Union army have formed units similar to the Confederate brigades' sharpshooter battalions and one-upped them by giving their skirmishers more repeating rifles?  Properly organized Union skirmishers with repeaters firing rapidly from a prone position might have easily dominated Southern light infantrymen - and possibly even repulse full scale attacks.  Could the cavalry have advanced with and supported infantry like in Napoleon's time?  If you accept the argument that rifled muskets were little better than smoothbores, then maybe they could.  Although admittedly an occurrence of the smoothbore era, Jeb Stuart successfully attacked Union infantry at 1st Manassas.  Later examples were not as successful.  At Gaines Mill and at Cedar Mountain, Union cavalry unsuccessfully attacked infantry, but these failures should come as no surprise since these were desperate attacks by small units against unbroken advancing infantry. 

Perhaps fences and broken terrain with numerous woodlots made cavalry attacks on infantry impractical.  At Chancellorsville, for example, a single Union cavalry regiment attacked down a narrow road, unable to change direction.  Failure was the predictable result.  Lack of training and experience in the cavalry arm may also have made it impractical.  In the Confederate service, the men owned their horses, making them less willing to risk them.  Regardless of who paid for them, horses were expensive, and it was difficult to find forage for them in a country more sparsely populated than Europe.  European cavalry was the product of years of training, a horse alone requiring three years to train.  Further, Union cavalry were armed with repeating rifles, and in many cases served as mounted infantry, which meant that they largely abandoned the full potential of shock attack, their traditional battlefield role.  Late in the war, the Union cavalry did occasionally mount large scale shock attacks against infantry and conducted after-battle pursuit only late in the war - at Third Winchester, Cedar Creek, and Sailos Creek to great effect, for example.  We may never know what could have been.  

The Union cause was handicapped by Winfield's Scott's attitudes toward cavalry at the beginning of the war.  Believing that cavalry was obsolete because of advances in weapons technology, Scott raised few cavalry regiments at the beginning of the war - a war that would soon be over, so he thought.  Only with the rise of McClellan were significant numbers of cavalry regiments raised.  Even then, it took time to train them, and many were used to protect lines of supply or were dispersed throughout the army.  It was only late in the war that the Union army had large bodies of cavalry available.  Even then, it wasn't always properly used.  Having a good body of cavalry available for the Overland Campaign, Grant sent it on a raid to Richmond, losing not only any usefulness on the battlefield but also its usefulness with screening and reconnaissance.




An Artillery Revolution?


We have seen that the effectiveness of rifled muskets wasn't as great as is often portrayed.  So far, we haven't said much about Civil War artillery.   The supposed threat that rifled muskets posed to artillerymen is largely an illusion.  Artillery units suffered lower casualty rates than the infantry, in line with experience in previous wars.  New rifled artillery pieces were accurate at long range, making columns vulnerable.  At ranges less than 1,000 yards, brass Napoleon guns were more useful. (Fratt 50)  Civil War brass guns were nowhere near as effective as the artillery of the 1866 and 1870 wars in Europe.  The guns do look much like their Napoleonic predecessors, but appearances can be deceiving.  The 12 pounder Napoleon guns were actually a great improvement over their predecessors.


Could the increased effectiveness of Civil War era artillery help explain the tactical changes since Napoleon's time?  Perhaps advances in artillery explain why it was rare for infantry to advance in maneuver columns, and almost never with cavalry support.  Prussian observer Justus Scheibert says as much; "Americans tried the column for offense and gave it up because artillery poured murder on their columns." (Scheibert 41)  The only alternative, advancing over long distances in line, was cumbersome and likely to result in confusion.  Better discipline and better coordination between units was required to successfully attack in line.  At Waterloo the contending armies started the battle 700 yards from each other.  Due to improved artillery technology, at Gettysburg the armies were separated by a distance roughly twice that, around 1,400 yards. (Fratt 53-4)

Just as in Napoleon's time, brass smoothbore pieces dominated the battlefield.  Let's take a look at what had changed.  Civil War armies preferred the 12 pounder Napoleon gun, named after Napoleon III, and used them almost exclusively for their smoothbore needs.  In contrast, Napoleon's Grand Battery at Waterloo - created for long-range bombardment - was made up of 24 12-pounders and 48 6-pounders.  So only around one-third of the Emperor's Grand Battery was made of Civil War sized weapons. (Barbero 102)  Overall for the battle, just 80 of Napoleon's 534 pieces were 12 pounders, just 15% of the total. (Fratt 44)  As low as this percentage may seem, Wellington's Peninsular veterans were shocked at even this proportion of 12-pounders.

The universal Civil War use of long range 12-pounders had significant benefits.  More guns along the battle line could be concentrated against the enemy in both attack and defense.  At Gettysburg, guns from along most of the Union line were able to concentrate against Pickett's Charge.  In Napoleon's time, this sort of thing just wasn't practical.  For short range defense against infantry attack, the 12 pounder was a great advancement from the past because a canister round from a 12 pounder not only contained more projectiles, those projectiles could be shot much further.  This made the weapon much deadlier than its smaller rivals.  (Eighteenth century tests showed that canister projectiles spread 32 feet per 100 yards of range.) (Hughes 35) 


Another improvement of the 12-pounder Napoleon was far and away the most important and dramatic.  Before and during the Napoleonic Wars, direct fire cannon at long range were limited to round shot.  Howitzers, for indirect fire at a higher trajectory, fired a shell, a hollow projectile filled with explosive detonated by a fuse which was set alight during firing.  Around 1800, Henry Shrapnel invented the round that bears his name, a shell filled with powder and small round balls, a much more lethal round than the simple shell that it made obsolete.  When it was invented, the shrapnel round could only be fired by howitzers, a small fraction of the artillery pieces in use.  With advances in metal technology, however, and with a reduction in the powder charge from 1/3 to 1/4 of the weight of the projectile, the shrapnel round could be fired from a standard piece styled a "gun-howitzer", the famed Napoleon gun-howitzer.  Seventy eight bullets were contained in a single 12 pounder shrapnel round.  (Coggins 67)  No longer was the artilleryman limited to roundshot at long range.  Now he could deliver killing power said to approach that of canister at nearly a mile's range.  In British peacetime experiments, around 10% of the bullets in a shrapnel round hit a target. (Hughes 38)  Both enemy infantry and cavalry were made more vulnerable.  Brent Nosworthy notes that during the 1859 Italian War, artillery disrupted a cavalry unit from over a mile away, preventing it from forming and attacking.  Confirming that this thinking was prevalent during the Civil War, in 1865, Francis Lippitt wrote in "A Treatise on the Tactical Use of the Three Arms, Infantry, Artillery and Cavalry",

"Since the introduction of the new rifled arms, exposing cavalry masses to a deadly fire at far greater distances than ever before known, a fire often reaching to the reserves, it seemed doubtful whether the maneuvering and charging in heavy compact masses, which formerly rendered cavalry of the line so formidable, would any longer be practical."

So more than any other cause, advances in artillery technology made the combined use of cavalry and infantry for decisive combat a difficult proposition.

Despite all this, many historians still believe that artillery wasn't important during the war.  Casualties caused by artillery fire were negligible - or so they say.  A frequently cited example is the Wilderness, where artillery was said to account for only about 6% of all casualties.  Paddy Griffith points out that many casualties attributed to small arms fire may in fact have been caused by artillery, specifically by the small round balls in Shrapnel rounds.  Griffith suggests that the percentage of casualties caused by artillery in this battle were probably in proportion to the percentage of artillerymen in the armies.  Because of the terrain, this battle, and this result, represent an extreme case.  Lee knew that he was deficient in artillery, and he fought in the Wilderness in order to negate the Union advantage.  The relative ineffectiveness of artillery in this battle is clearly an aberration.  Chancellorsville was also fought in the Wilderness.  In this battle, perhaps only the Confederate guns at Hazel Grove allowed Lee to capture Fairview Heights and defeat the Union army.  Look at Spotsylvania a year later, also fought in the Wilderness.  The massive Union attack on the Mule Shoe broke through because Lee had withdrawn his artillery the night before.  Several days later, a Union attack on the base of the salient failed quickly and decisively due to Confederate artillery fire.  And we must remember that most ground was NOT as unfavorable as the Wilderness.  Take a look at the more open ground at Malvern Hill, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg and the importance of artillery is obvious.  Clearly artillery was important or army commanders wouldn't have eagerly added to their stocks of guns up until the last year of the war.  In fact, Paddy Griffith suggests that in some battles, artillery accounted for 20 to 50% of casualties.  Those who over-estimate the advantages of the rifled musket say that it threatened to make the artilleryman obsolete, but perhaps the opposite was more true.  Although many historians do not stress this point, or even acknowledge it, advances in the artillery arm had made Napoleonic combined arms tactics difficult to impossible.



C-Cubed and Staffs


Earl Hess in "Civil War Infantry Tactics" points out the fact that Civil War armies had great difficulty coordinating large attacks, having trouble coordinating divisions and corps - much less whole armies.  In the West, the Confederate Army of Tennessee had trouble cordinating attacks above the brigade level while its Union counterpart, although better, nevertheless gained victory operationally rather than tactically.  In the East, the Confederate army coordinated attacks at the brigade level at Seven Pines and Malvern Hill and at the division level at Second Manassas and Pickett's Charge, but in 1864 and 65, counterattacks were typically at the brigade level - a regression rather than a progression.  The Union Army of the Potomac, Hess argues, was the only army of the war to regularly show competence in coordinating attacks.  At Five Forks, for example, Gen Warren distributed copies of a map showing the plan of attack; even still, Warren lost control of two of his three divisions and was relieved of command by Sheridan as a result - for remaining in place so that his subordinates would be able to find him.  Difficulty coordinating - "articulation" is the word that Hess uses, made flank attacks and the exploitation of success difficult.  Frustratingly, despite making these arguments, Hess then downplays the consequences of the failure of Civil War armies to "regularly organize large formations on the corps level" and makes no attempt to explain the reasons for this failure.  What were the reasons?

Issues of staff, command difficulties, military education, and philosophy of command are key to understanding this; they were as important as technology and tactics - perhaps more so.  A general's staff was like the nervous system of the army; an inadequate staff made it virtually impossible to control an army.  Sharing the same background, commanders on both sides fought using staffs that were much smaller and much less competent than their European counterparts.  For a more lengthy treatment, please see "A Litany of Incompetence - Staff and the Civil War".



The Civil War was not particularly modern tactically, but it was not fought using the tactics of Napoleon I either.  Regardless of the reasons - technology, tactics, terrain, command and control problems - or more likely a mixture of all these things - circumstances tended toward making Civil War combat less decisive than Napoleonic combat.  Whether Napoleonic combined arms cooperation was still possible on a large scale during the Civil War is debatable.  But the advent of rifled muskets doesn't explain this failure.  Advances in artillery technology had more effect, but even these changes don't offer a complete explanation.  Command, control, and communications problems, along with difficult terrain, made decisive battle more difficult to achieve.  Numerous are the examples of Civil War battles on the verge of decisiveness - but without that final step that would have annihilated the enemy - Shiloh, Second Manassas, Antietam, Gettysburg, Chickamauga.  Perhaps this failure to achieve decisive results encouraged the late-war custom of entrenching, although there are other explanations.  The Prussian observer Justus Scheibert argued that breastworks were "safeguards against panic". (Scheibert 50)  Earl Hess argues that troops entrenched as a reaction to the shock of battle.  The effectiveness of artillery perhaps contributed to the practice.  Others point out that entrenching freed up troops to turn or flank the enemy - so entrenching was essentially a method to facilitate maneuver - one which had the opposite effect.  GFR Henderson saw a relationship between entrenching and enemy discipline.  He wrote, 

"Very early in the War of Succession, the Federal commanders, recognizing their enemy's disposition to bring matters to a speedy issue, made use of earthworks and entrenchments; the Confederates, at a later period, when the desperate assaults on the Fredericksburg heights taught them that the Northern battalions had at length learnt to follow their officers to certain death, gave up their trust in broken ground and sheltering coverts, and adopted the same means of stiffening the defence.  In 1863, the third year of the war, both armies became equally formidable on the defensive, ... (and) the confusion of the earlier fields of battle was no longer seen."

Only one side had to entrench in order to force their opponent to do so.  To do otherwise was just too risky, and there was no turning back.  All of the explanations above have validity.  The 1864 campaigns little resemble those of 1862 or 1863.  Battle lines were stretched thinner, putting commanders even more out of touch with the situation, and making armies even more difficult to control than before.  At any rate, battle tactics had failed.  Perhaps the use of entrenchments was inevitable, with a bloody attritional struggle like the Overland and Petersburg Campaigns being the predictable result.  Eventual Union victory was the result of operational successes like Vicksburg and Appomattox - and not from the destruction of enemy armies on the battlefield. 




Sources and Suggested Reading:

Michael A. Bonura, Under the Shadow of Napoleon

Bowden and Ward,  Last Chance For Victory

David Chandler, Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough, The Campaigns of Napoleon

Phillip Cole,  Civil War Artillery at Gettysburg, Command and Communications Frictions in the Gettysburg Campaign

Jean Colin,  Transformations of Warfare

Christopher Duffy,  Instrument of War: The Austrian Army in the Seven Years War

Lee W. Eysturlid, The Formative Influences, Theories, and Campaigns of the Archduke Carl of Austria

Steven Fratt, The Guns of Gettysburg - North & South August 2004

Gates, David, The British Light Infantry Arm, c. 1790-1815

Paddy Griffith  Battle Tactics of the Civil War, Forward Into Battle, Battle

Edward Hagerman, The Civil War and the Origin of Modern Warfare

William Hazen, A Narrative of Military Service

GFR Henderson, The Science of War

Earl Hess, Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War

Earl Hess, Civil War nfantry Tactics

Ian Hope, A Scientific Way of War

Wayne Hsieh, West Pointers and the Civil War

BP Hughes,  Firepower

Robert K Krick, Stonewall Jackson at Cedar Mountain

Brent Nosworthy Anatomy of Victory, With Cannon Musket and Sword, The Bloody Crucible of Courage

Peter Paret, The Cognitive Challenge of War: Prussia 1806

Christopher Perello, The Quest for Annihilation

Robert Quimby, Background of Napoleonic Warfare

Fred Ray, Shock Troops of the Confederacy  

Carol Reardon, With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other

Justus Scheibert, A Prussian Observes the American Civil War

Moxley Sorrel, Recollections of a Confederate Staff Officer

Arthur Wagner, Organisation and Tactics

Geoffrey Wawro,  The Austro-Prussian War, The Franco-Prussian War



Copyright 2008-16, John Hamill


Back to Civil War Virtual Battlefield Tours