Civil War Combat Tactics
by Ajhall on Apr 10
In a recent blog, 1stTexReb alludes to some important details often overlooked by casual readers of Civil War history. His first, and perhaps most important reference is to the relative lack of true military training at ALL levels. America had almost no military tradition in the war fighting sense that their European contemporaries did. The regular forces of the US, the standing army, was essentially a constabulary force roughly along the lines of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The US had a deep suspicion of standing armies. The experience of the Revolutionary War and the tyranny enforced by British Regulars was still too fresh in the collective conscience of the nation, north and south to want a standing army. Jefferson was cool at best to the idea of an American military academy, viz West Point. He almost prevented its chartering.
The US Army’s brightest stars were primarily engineers, and its combat arm, such as it was, existed primarily to keep law and order and protect settlers on the opening Western frontier. There was some coastal defense work within the scope of their duties, but not much, and this type of experience would be almost useless in the Civil War. Almost no officer had any experience handling units larger than a small Civil War brigade. Officers at all levels had little formal training in the “higher” arts of war. Henry Halleck, “Old Brains”, was well-known within the US Army as a military “scholar”, and he had almost no higher training. His writings were really little more than translation of French works already well-known in Europe. Most US Army officers were at least passingly familiar with the writing of Baron Henri Jomini, often seen as the leading military mind of the first half of the 19th century. Jomini wrote extensively on the technical aspects of combat, but his tactics were linear and orderly, not the kinds of things useful in combat on the densely wooded, sparsely populated North American continent. Clausewitz had written his seminal “On War”, but it was not yet widely read or readily available even in Europe. His theories, which were more strategic and theoretical in nature, were decades away from even grudging acceptance.
All this to say the officers charged with fighting the war knew only slightly more than the soldiers they were to lead. Moving relatively large numbers of troops — above the company level — in a meaningful way was and is an extremely difficult task. Multiply that by several factors as you move up the organizational table to regiment, brigade, division and corps, and it becomes exponentially more difficult. Add an almost non-existant staff to do the dirty work of turning orders into meaningful directions, and it becomes even harder. At the outset of the war, no on either side officer had any experience doing it. We can’t judge their early performances on the knowledge held even a year or two later. The Civil War leader had to learn on the fly in a form of savage OJT. The wonder is they did as well as they did. As they got better, the war became ever so much more savage and bloody. The best leaders were the ones who could learn from their experiences — Grant, Jackson, Thomas, Cleburne and especially Forrest.
The individual soldier had almost as much to learn. The officer corps, top to bottom, was drawn from the same social framework as the common soldier. The private likely knew his company commander as just another citizen from his home area. Not having experience subordinating himself to anyone, he wasn’t much impressed with ol’ Joe from up the road telling him what to do. But he had to learn in order to fight effectively and have a chance of surviving. The skills he learned (as often as not, learned by the officer teaching just the night before, from a manual) were first company level maneuvering, and once that was “mastered”, battalion (regimental) level maneuvering, then brigade and so forth. The evolutions were incredibly complex even by today’s standards. In addition, and vitally important to understanding how he fought, he had to learn how to load and fire his piece to such a level that doing so became an automatic thing: Remove cartridge of powder and ball from the ammunition pouch; tear open with the teeth; pour powder and properly insert the mini ball in the barrel; remove the ramrod and seat the ball; return the ramrod to it’s holder; half-cock the hammer, remove the old firing cap and put a new one on the nipple; draw the hammer back to full cock; aim; fire; repeat the process, all in the raging, smoky, screeching heat of battle, with enemy bullets whizzing by and artillery booming overhead and around him. There was simply no way to effectively engage in small unit combat. Massed fire, provided by machine guns, sub-machine guns and semi-automatic rifles in later wars, could only be brought to bear by massing the troops in line of battle and trying to have them fire as a unit. Skirmishers, or pickets, as 1stTexReb astutely points out, served primarily to give early warning of enemy movements, and forcing enemy units to deploy into line of battle, thus slowing down their forward movement. All of this tended, along with the thick, forested terrain, negated much of the longer range impact of the rifled musket.
Some specialized units, such as cavalry, especially later in the war, became very adept at small unit combat. This was especially true when they were armed with repeating rifles. Even if armed with muzzle-loaders, the smart commander could get a lot out of forces by using the speed and mobility provided by horses, and not engaging in slugging matches with infantry forces. Though they had access to the vicious cannister rounds, artillerists were especially vulnerable to massed infantry fire. Cannister could devastate attacking forces in a way similar to a machine gun, but it too was a muzzle-loader, even harder to load and maintain than a musket. It was a desperate moment indeed when artillery was forced to fire double-shotted cannister. Artillery was not meant for or used as a close in offensive weapon. Civil War combat was by and large a savage, close-in, head on shooting match between equally well (or poorly) trained and led units. It was not pretty, and it was not romantic. There was little time to think or make rational individual judgements. The forces did not, and realistically could not engage at longer ranges
SITE DE REFERENCE : http://www.americancivilwarforum.com/civil-war-combat-tactics-185.html