In an earlier blog entry on Civil War strategy, I mentioned that, one of the unique aspects of the Civil War was that the professional soldiers who made up the command structure of both sides had a common background of military education and practical experience. As a result, all of them proceeded from a common basis in terms of both their tactical and strategic thinking. Further, that thinking involved both tactical and strategic principles that were the products of an earlier era, and, while strategy would change and do so in a revolutionary manner, tactics would only change slightly. Thus, tactically, it was a war of stagnation, which cost many lives.
Tactics were, for the most part, outdated when the war began. The tactics in vogue were those of the Mexican War, of an era of smoothbore muskets and the bayonet. The tactical doctrine of that time was centered on the infantry and infantry tactics were the core of an offensive-minded tactical doctrine. The infantry used two-line formations for both defense and assault, with deep columns used for shock attacks or when the terrain dictated their use. Formations were close and relatively slow rates of advance were used. Assaults were usually preceded by small groups of skirmishers, typically a company per attacking regiment. If the infantry succeeded, their breakthrough would be supplemented by heavy cavalry using the saber charge to run down fleeing enemy infantry. Artillery, meanwhile, was used on both the offensive and defensive. On the defensive, they were to use solid shot and explosive rounds against advancing infantry to break up their attack, and then add the use of canister at close range to cut them down. Offensively, artillery would support attacking infantry with barrage and counter-battery fire, then roll forward with the infantry to blast holes through the defenders at close range.
However, all of this was predicated on the use of the smoothbore musket as employed in Mexico, where these tactics were used over and over again with success, even against fortified enemy positions. These tactics were learned by the Civil War’s commanders as young officers both in Mexico and from Winfield Scott’s 3-volume treatise, “Infantry Tactics,” which was the standard text of the time. Unfortunately, the advent of the rifle would change everything. The U.S. Army standard 1861 Springfield rifle was accurate to 300 yards as opposed to the musket range of less than 100 yard. Scott’s book was replaced by Major William Hardee’s “Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics” in 1855. Hardee’s book borrowed from the French and intended to take the increased accuracy and range of the rifle into account. The French solution to the introduction of this new technology was simply speed of movement. The French had begun developing a tactical countermeasure in the form of a new style of infantry--battalions of athletes capable of sustained movement at a jog. They were called the Chasseurs and the first units were deployed in the late 1830's. As Colonel Le Louterel put it in1848, "The new infantry ... would move so fast that they would be exposed to relatively few of the enemy's shots, and would demoralize him by their onset to the extent that his aim would be spoiled."
However, the French Chasseur concept was abandoned in France, just as their tactics were adopted in the U.S. Army. The French had learned that men could not outrun bullets, no matter how fast they jogged. At the start of the war, most Union regiments used some combination of both Scott and Hardee's, accepting Hardee's rules for the exercise and maneuvers of light infantry, but integrating elements of Scott's that were more practical for use with longer rifles.
Thus, when the war began, the tactics of the attacker were those of an earlier technological era being used against a defender with a more lethal and advanced weapon. In fact, historians Grady McWhiney and Perry Jamieson estimate that the rifle gave the Civil War defender three times the strength of the attacker. The rifle allowed attacking troops to be engaged at longer ranges and for longer periods as they made an assault. Further, artillery could no longer move forward to support the infantry lest their gunners be cut down by the defender’s rifle fire. Cavalry, too, could not make saber charges against the kind of fire that modern rifles could produce. Amazingly, despite this, there would be very little innovation or change and, thus, all commanders on both sides were practitioners of outmoded tactics.
Frontal infantry assaults were still occurring in the closing days of the war. Worse, as the war went on, both sides began to make more and more use of field fortifications, which made infantry assaults even more costly. This use of fortifications came primarily from commanders’ West Point training as engineers and the instruction they received there from Dennis Hart Mahan, who, as the instructor in military arts and sciences, emphasized their use. Mahan believed that fortifications allowed volunteer soldiers to equal regulars. However, it also may have been a sign of war weariness, as well. In his book, “Battle Tactics of the Civil War,” Paddy Griffith accounts for the increasing use of fortifications as the war went on as a sign of battle-weary troops. He believes that the psychological power of entrenchments was appealing to men who had been pushed too far.
Interestingly, Griffith dismisses the advent of the rifle as having had any impact on the length of the war or the casualties. Griffith maintains that the rifle’s effects are merely popular folklore. He believes, rather, it was the human factor that caused the casualties, the lack of decisive battles, and the length of the war. His explanation is that officers were inexperienced and poorly trained, leading volunteer troops who could not properly execute the tactics of the time. While I do not entirely agree with Griffith, there may be a kernel of truth to this argument. Certainly it can be said that few generals were ever able to take advantage of an offensive breakthrough, primarily because the reserve forces were not up to the complicated task of moving through the lead elements to reach the point of attack. Typically, if the slow communications even allowed a commander to hear about a breakthrough in time to take advantage of it, the follow-up attack would lose all cohesion as the reserves collided with the lead element. This clearly was caused by a lack of training and experience.
But, at the same time, Griffith’s conclusions on the effect of the rifle do not bear up under close scrutiny. He bases his ideas on what he calls “statistics,” which are drawn from anecdotal evidence and often do not present any kind of a reasonable scientific sampling. As a result, his conclusions seem painfully stretched. From all the other evidence, a convincing case can be made that the rifle clearly did cause the carnage of the war when applied against inappropriate tactics.
There were a few attempts to modify and experiment with infantry tactics, most of them in the Federal forces with the work of Emory Upton. Upton despised the frontal assaults being made and was able to successfully use less structured formations of troops moving rapidly in the attack against a small, vulnerable point in the line. Rather than attacking in the line formation, Upton experimented with attacks from the column formation. In this tactic, men in a column are swept along, with little opportunity to deviate or take cover. Hardee's tactics were based in large part on the idea of troops moving from place to place in column formation, but deploying into line for battle. A line formation in the assault delivers more firepower since everyone in both of its ranks can shoot. The column, however, has more penetrating power since it overwhelms defenders with superior numbers at the point of impact. Its drawback is that only the first rank or two can shoot, even though all are vulnerable to being shot. The heaviest Union column assault of the war seems to have been that led by Upton at Spotsylvania. There, Upton employed 20,000 Union infantrymen in close order formed a solid rectangle. However, casualties were still very high. Eventually, Upton’s work employed even less formal formations and, while successful, they would not enter Army doctrine until after the war.
Cavalry tactics did, however, see some changes. The advent of the breech-loading, multiple round carbine in the Union army gave the cavalry increased firepower. Phil Sheridan was able to take that firepower and transform his cavalry into a highly mobile force that could move quickly and fight dismounted to some combat power. This, in turn, permitted the cavalry to be used as a flanking or blocking force, which Sheridan employed with great success in the Shenandoah Valley and, again, in the final pursuit to Appomattox. This tactical concept is still the basis for fast moving armored cavalry units.
Thus, while the Civil War would serve as the genesis for new strategic concepts, tactical innovation languished. The sad part of that situation is that it cost so many lives. Thousands of volunteer soldiers were simply thrust forward to face hailstorms of rifle and artillery fire using the tactics of another era. The result was unimaginable carnage and casualty lists no one thought possible.