The Character, Nature and Context of The Civil War and Why it Still Matters Part 2


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Here is part two to yesterday’s post.

Since I am now working my way back to Gettysburg his is a significant revision of an article that I published here earlier in the year and that is a part of my Gettysburg Staff Ride text. The actual full title of the chapter is The Foundations of the First Modern War: The Character, Nature and Context of the Civil War and its Importance to Us Today but that is rather long to put as the title here. This is pretty detailed and specialized so many may not want to read it, however, for those with in interest in how United States policy in regard to how we use our military today and the myriad of tensions that we wrestle with that have been with us for about 150 years it should prove enlightening. Todays article is more concerned with how the war was waged and developments which began in the Civil War which changed the ways that later wars were conducted.

Have a great night! 


Padre Steve+

Part Two…


Weaponry, Tactics, Technical Advancements and Mobilization

All of these factors influenced and affected the Union and Confederate armies as they campaigned. Likewise, advances weaponry particularly the rifled musket, posed a conundrum for officers educated in the Napoleonic tactics that both armies began the war. The tactics the officers were educated in were developed at a time when the maximum effective range of muskets was barely 100 meters. Yet by 1860 the rifled muskets had an effective range of about 400 meters, and the advent of the repeating rifle increased the firepower available to individual soldiers. This made it especially difficult for the armies that fought the Civil War to “rise up and deliver a frontal attack became almost always futile against any reasonably steady defenders. Even well executed flank attacks tended to suffer such heavy casualties as experienced riflemen maneuvered to form new fronts against them that they lost the decisiveness they had enjoyed in the Napoleonic Wars.” [1] Despite the increased range and accuracy that came with the rifled musket tactics in all arms were slow to change and even at Gettysburg Lee would demonstrate that he had not fully appreciated the effects of the change of warfare learned during the battles of 1862.

Though there were a number of mounted combats between Union and Confederate cavalry, “they were incidental both to the cavalry’s primary role and to the course of tactical development” [2]which generally fought dismounted. The way in which both sides used their cavalry showed that by the end of 1863 each had “arrived at a war of tactical entrenchment dominated by infantry armed with the rifled musket, and supported by the defensive deployment of smoothbore artillery.” [3]

Another issue faced by all of the officers now commanding large formations in the Civil War was their inexperience in dealing with such large numbers of troops. When the war began, the officers educated at West Point, as well as others who had been directly appointed had previously only commanded small units. Even those who commanded regiments such as Lee seldom had more than a few companies with them at any given time. Those who had campaigned and fought in Mexico, and had some experience in handling larger formations were handicapped because that war was still very much a Napoleonic War fought with Napoleonic era weapons against a more numerous but poorly equipped enemy.

These men were now faced with the task of organizing, training and employing large armies made up primarily of militia units and volunteers. Most had little experience commanding such units and their experience with militia and volunteer formations during the Mexican War did not increase the appreciation of Regulars for them or for their leaders. J.F.C Fuller noted that at the beginning of the war “the Federal soldier was semiregular and the Confederate semiguerilla. The one strove after discipline, the other unleashed initiative. In battle the Confederate fought like a berserker, but out of battle he ceased to be a soldier.” [4] Both required certain kinds of leadership and Regular officers serving in both the Union and Confederate armies “embedded with the volunteers to give them some professional stiffening privately regarded them as uncontrollable adolescents who kicked off every back-home restraint the moment they were on campaign.” [5] Over the course of time this did change as the units of both armies learned to be professional soldiers.

The Regular Army numbered but 16,000 men at the beginning of the war most scattered in isolated posts and coastal defense fortifications around the country. Most of the Army remained loyal to the Union, “except for 313 officers who resigned their commissions, but this force was swamped by a Union war army that reached about 500,000 within four months of the firing on Fort Sumter.” [6] These officers however were among the Army’s best and brightest who rose to prominence and fame in their service to the Confederacy.

At the beginning of the war General George McClellan successful fought the break-up of the Regular Army. He helped keep it separate from the militia units organized by the States. This preserved a professional core in a time where the new volunteer units were learning their craft. In the North a parallel system “composed of three kinds of military organizations” developed as calls went out for “militia, volunteers and an expanded regular army” went out. [7]

Regular Army units were formed for the duration and were exclusively under the control of the Federal government. While comparatively few in number they often held the line and kept the Army of the Potomac intact during the early battles where volunteer units collapsed. Volunteer regiments, often officered by regulars or former regulars “remained state-based, and they signed up for two- or three- year periods, after which they returned to civilian life and their evaporated without any further fiscal obligations.” [8] Some of the volunteer regiments were formed from various state militia units, but since few states had effective militia systems, militia units “were usually employed only on emergency rear-echelon duties, to free up the volunteers and regulars.” [9]

The Confederacy faced a similar situation to the Union, but it did not have a Regular Army and all of its units were raised by the various states. “In early 1861 the Confederate Congress authorized the creation of a provisional army of 100,000 men. To get these troops [the first Confederate Secretary of War Leroy Pope] Walker asked state governors to raise regiments and transfer them to the national army. The War Office provided generals and staff officers and, in theory at least, could employ the troops and their officers in any way it pleased once they mustered the provisional army.” [10] Some states were quite cooperative but others were not and the tension between the central government in Richmond in regard to military policy and some states would continue throughout the war. The quality of these units varied widely, mostly based on the leadership provide by their officers. That being said many of the regiments mustered into service early in the war proved tough, resilient and served with distinction throughout the war.

Southern units were officered by a collection of professionals from the Ante-bellum Army, militia officers, political appointees or anyone with enough money to raise a unit. However command of divisional sized units and above was nearly always reserved to former professional soldiers from the old Army, most being graduates of West Point. At Gettysburg only one officer commanding a division or above was a non-academy graduate, Robert Rodes, who was a graduate of VMI. The quality of these officers varied greatly, as some of the old regulars failed miserably in combat and some of the volunteers such as John Gordon were remarkably successful as leaders of troops in combat. .

As in the North militia and home guard units remained to free up these units. However, the South was always wrestling with the intense independence of every state government, each of which often held back units from service with the field armies in order to ensure their own states’ defense. The withholding of troops and manpower by the states hindered Confederate war efforts, even though “the draft had been “eminently successful” in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, but less so in Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.[11]

draft riots

New York Draft Riots

The Changing Character of the Armies and Society

Gettysburg was the last battle where the original volunteer armies predominated as nature of both armies was changed by the war. Initially both sides sought to fight the war with volunteers but the increasingly costly battles which consumed vast numbers of men necessitated conscription and the creation of draft laws and bureaus.

The in April 1862 Confederate Congress passed the Conscription Act of 1862 which stated that “all persons residing in the Confederate States, between the ages of 18 and 35 years, and rightfully subject to military duty, shall be held to be in the military service of the Confederate States, and that a plain and simple method be adopted for their prompt enrollment and organization.” [12] The act was highly controversial and often resisted and the Congress issued a large number of class exemptions. Despite the exemptions “many Southerners resisted the draft or assisted evasion by others” [13] The main purpose of the conscription act was “to stimulate volunteering rather than by its actual use” [14] and while it did help increase the number of soldiers in Confederate service by the end of 1862 it was decidedly unpopular among soldiers, chafing at an exemption for “owners or overseers of twenty or more slaves” [15] who referred to the war as a “rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.” [16]


Richmond Bread Riot

Some governors who espoused state’s rights viewpoints “utilized their state forces to challenge Richmond’s centralized authority, hindering efficient manpower mobilization.” [17] Some, most notably Georgia’s governor Joseph Brown “denounced the draft as “a most dangerous usurpation by Congress of the rights of the States…at war with all principles for which Georgia entered the revolution.” [18] Brown and a number of other governors, including Zebulun Vance of North Carolina fought the law in the courts but when overruled resisted it through the many exemption loopholes, especially that of civil servants. Governor Brown “insisted that militia officers were included in this category, and proceeded to appoint hundreds of new officers.” [19] Due to the problems with the act and the abuses by the governors, Jefferson Davis lobbied Congress to pass the Conscription Act of 1864 which “severely limited the number of draft exemption categories and expanded military age limits from eighteen to forty-five and seventeen to fifty. The most significant feature of the new act, however, was the vast prerogatives it gave to the President and War Department to control the South’s labor pool.” [20] Despite the problems eventually “mobilized 75 to 80 percent of its available draft age military population.” [21]

The Congress of the United States authorized conscription in 1863 as the Union Army had reached an impasse as in terms of the vast number of men motivated to serve “for patriotic reasons or peer group pressure were already in the army” while “War weariness and the grim realities of army life discouraged further volunteering” and “the booming war economy had shrunk the number of unemployed men to the vanishing point.” [22] Like the Confederate legislation it was also tremendously unpopular and ridden with exemptions and abuses. The Federal draft was conducted by lottery in each congressional district with each district being assigned a quota to meet by the War Department. Under one third of the men drafted actually were inducted into the army, “more than one-fifth (161,000 of 776,000) “failed to report” and about 300,000 “were exempted for physical or mental disability or because they convinced the inducting officer that they were the sole means of support for a widow, an orphan sibling, a motherless child, or an indigent parent.” [23]

The Union draft law provoked great resentment, more from the way that it was administered than its purpose as “which brought the naked power of military government into play on the home front and went much against the national grain.[24] Open clashes and violence erupted in several cities and President Lincoln was forced to use Union Soldiers, recently victorious at Gettysburg to end the rioting and violence taking place in New York where protestors involved in a three day riot, many of whom were Irish immigrants urged on by Democratic Tammany Hall politicians, “soon degenerated into violence for its own sake” [25] wrecking the draft office, seizing the Second Avenue armory, attacking police, soldiers and blacks on the streets and soon “the mob had undisputed control of the city.” [26] The veteran troops quickly and violently put down the insurrection and “poured volleys into the ranks of protestors with the same deadly effect they had produced against the rebels at Gettysburg two weeks earlier.” [27]


The Rise of Positional Warfare

As the opposing sides prepared, organized and adapted for war, the Union and Confederate armies in the field evolved in terms of their tactical, organizational and operational methods during the war. The realities of the deadliness of the rifled muskets and other advances in firepower which “made the defensive the stronger form of war” [28] brought about a renewal of interest and use of field fortifications, which had been taught to so many at West Point and the state military schools through the work of Mahan, Halleck and their students.

McClellan made extensive use of them on the Peninsula in 1861 and 1862 as did Lee outside of Richmond in 1862 where his troops derisively nicknamed him “the King of Spades.” However after the Seven Days Lee only made sporadic use of them instead following a strategy of the offense which culminated in the defeat at Gettysburg. [29] After Gettysburg, Lee made much more use of field fortifications, especially during the Wilderness campaign and the battles around Richmond culminating in the defense of Petersburg “where both sides became so extensively entrenched that siege warfare set in and lasted for nearly ten months.” [30]

The developments in field works and firepower gave the advantage to the defense, an advantage that made the massed frontal attack by infantry or massed cavalry charge obsolete as a tactic and disastrous to those commanders that attempted it. “On every occasion, a frontal assault delivered against an unshaken enemy led to costly failure. Nevertheless, neither side learnt this lesson.” [31] The examples of Burnside at Fredericksburg, Lee at Malvern Hill and Pickett’s Charge or Grant at Vicksburg and Cold Harbor demonstrated the futility of such tactics.

This was especially the case when opposing armies made the frontal attacks which were at the heart of Jominian offensive tactics.  Early in the war commanders including Grant at Shiloh and Lee at Antietam failed to dig in, but over time both the Union and Confederate armies learned to dig hasty field works as a matter of course.[32] At Gettysburg the well placed and constructed field fortifications and abattis constructed by XII Corps on Culp’s Hill would prove impregnable to the assaults of Ewell’s Second Corps on the night of July 2nd and morning of July 3rd.

Both sides also learned to use maneuver in combination with positional warfare to force the enemy to battle. In the West, Grant, Sherman and Rosecrans all did this successfully, particularly Stone’s River, during the Vicksburg Campaign, and the campaigns in middle Tennessee.[33] During the 1864-65 campaign around Richmond and Sherman’s campaigns in Georgia and the Carolinas the use of field fortifications and entrenchments became common. Of particular note is how Sherman’s forces routinely entrenched while on the offensive [34] where “the mobility of his campaign was due, not only to his skill in maneuvering his men, but also in his ability to manouvere their entrenchments with them.” [35]

Sherman’s opponent Confederate General Joseph Johnston made skillful use of entrenchments on the defensive and his attention to detail and training his men to fight well defensively was a hallmark of his campaign against Sherman, as had Lee against Grant. They were not without their critics. General John Bell Hood who was “the most uncompromising advocate of the orthodox view that weakened moral and made troops cautious” [36] was a stern critic of Johnston, who had relieved him following the fall of Atlanta. Hood’s tactics were costly and produced ghastly numbers of casualties.

The changing nature of how the war was being fought was demonstrated by General Joe Wheeler who commanded Johnston’s cavalry in Georgia and the Carolinas toward the end of the war. Wheel and his troopers made significant use of entrenchments, something not seen before by an arm traditionally known for its dependency on maneuver. He habitually fought his troops dismounted and at Atlanta fought from behind successive lines of barricades. Wheeler successfully integrated his cavalry with the infantry at the Battle of Bentonville North Carolina, constructing a line of breastworks 1200 yards long. Hagerman notes that “it is fitting to the changing nature of warfare that some of the most vivid description of trench warfare is found in Wheeler’s report of cavalry action as fighting came to an end at Bentonville.” [37]

The Corps of Engineers in both armies were changed by the war. Prior to the war the Corps of Engineers was primarily responsible for building coastal fortifications, civil projects and outposts in the west. Both remained small by 1864 the Federal Corps of Engineers numbered only eighty-six officers, split between civil and topographical engineers. The Confederates grew their Corps of Engineers more than the Union during the war and by 1865 the Confederates had “13 regular officers, 115 provisional officers, and 188 officers assigned to engineer troops.” [38] It should be noted the paucity West Point trained engineers of all types in the Confederate Army. Though many senior officers including Lee were trained as engineers they were not serving as such, and Lee’s Engineering Staff Officer at Gettysburg was but a Captain.

During the war both sides created Engineer or Pioneer units from scratch. The Union efforts to form permanent units began under McClellan beginning in 1861 as such units specialized units had not existed in the old army. The Union Army Corps of Engineers initially had a difficult time adapting to war. The dispersion of the Corps among the line and its civil duties were impediments to responding to the needs of war.  There was a hesitancy and resistance to creating engineering units by Congress, despite the pleas of McClellan and Lincoln for specialized engineering units.[39]

By the middle of the war organized units of Pioneers and Engineers were enhancing both offensive and defensive operations. Meade had three battalions of Engineers available to him at Gettysburg, the 15th New York, the 50th New York and the United States Engineer Battalion, but these were not on the battlefield being at Beaver Creek Dam on July 1st before being ordered to the defenses of Washington. [40]

The Confederate army began the war with only thirteen Corps of Engineers officers and Congress never acceded to Secretary of War James Seddon’s pleas “failed to provide the Confederate army with the pioneer troops that Seddon had requested” [41] and it was not until March 1863 that the Confederate Congress authorized the formation of “one company of engineer troops, to consist of one hundred men” [42] from in each division.

When they were established most of the newly organized engineer units had few very few West Point trained Corps of Engineers officers. Most Union Engineer Units were primarily staffed and commanded by officers detailed from the line or who had come from civilian life. The effect was a “decline in the antebellum definition of professionalism embodied in the Corps of Engineers” [43] which prior to the war were considered the elite branch of the Army. While this opened up new ideas, the Corps of Engineers remained resistant to change. In the years following the war as the Corps of Engineers retained its privileged status and the West Point curriculum remained mostly the same as it had during the ante-bellum period.

Strategy and operational level adapted to the new reality of war. Attrition and exhaustion became as important in relation to both positional and maneuver warfare. In 1864 in the East the “ascendancy of positional warfare” allowed Lee to hold out as Grant attempted to fight and maneuver him out of Richmond.[44] Lee was fighting on interior lines at this point and the campaign demonstrated that “an army fighting on interior lines, even under nearly overwhelming conditions of deprivation and against vastly superior numbers, could sustain a prolonged existence by use of field fortification and defensive maneuver.” [45]

Despite the increasing power of positional warfare in relation to fortifications in the East and around Atlanta, maneuver was not ignored. Sherman’s campaign in Georgia and the Carolinas demonstrated how an army could exploit “diversion, dispersion, and surprise to successfully pursue a modern total-war strategy of exhaustion against the enemy’s resources, communications and will.[46] Sherman used maneuver to force his opponents out of their prepared positions and did not hesitate to target the key infrastructure and infrastructure needed by the Confederate armies. The same was true in Virginia where in 1864 General Phillip Sheridan laid waste to the Shenandoah Valley, the breadbasket of the Army of Northern Virginia.


Logistics, Transportation and Signals

While the advances in weaponry, technology turned the adoption of field fortifications and the tactical defense even during offensive operations changed the way that the armies conducted the war; other advances were occurring. These took place in logistics, transportation, signals and communications.

In a country as vast as the United States logistics was a major concern of both armies. The ante-bellum Army developed its logistic doctrine from Napoleonic examples. That doctrine had to be modified in light of the American reality of a less developed continent with far greater distances involved in the movement of troops. “While the North’s logistical mobilization expanded, the South’s peaked in early 1863 and then declined. Fundamental interlocking problems beset logistics. The Confederacy had few preexisting industries to expand and lacked sufficient raw materials upon which to build an industrial base.” [47]

The Confederacy “did not have the material resources to fight a mass industrial war” [48] and the actions of its leaders from Jefferson Davis down did not help their cause. “The South needed a careful weighing of assets and liabilities, the setting of strict priorities, and centralized direction in order to use its resources efficiently. But Confederate leaders allowed events to control planning, resulting in uncoordinated, tardy, and incompetent centralization of the logistical effort.” [49]

The issue was not limited to industry but also agriculture, which in a region as rich as the Confederacy should not have been a problem. However, it was a major issue that became ever more serious throughout the war, not only for the Confederate armies in the field but for the population as a whole. While the South managed to maintain effective armies until the end of 1864, it “failed to preserve the population’s well-being.” [50] By the spring of 1863 five major cities experienced bread riots, the most serious being in Richmond; where Jefferson Davis had to personally give an ultimatum to rioters ordering them to disperse or have the militia open fire. [51] Many blamed merchants in general and the press labeled most businesses as speculators and extortionists. However as a result of the great privations at home and the need for a scapegoat, the specter of anti-Semitism rose in the Confederacy. Many, including some influential newspapers and government officials “focused on the Jews as the worst “extortioners” [52] blaming them for many if not most of the Confederacy’s economic woes.

During the war, both armies learned to adapt their logistical support services to the reality of war, however, the South for a number of reasons especially poor infrastructure and the lack of standardized rail systems, and the inability of the government in Richmond, the various states and the private sector to work together helped doom the Confederacy. The South did not lack food supplies, it was a rich agricultural region, but however its ability to provide sustenance for its people and its armies was hindered due to woeful infrastructure and various self-inflicted political and economic reasons. Several major issues affected the South’s ability to feed its people and its armies.

Among these were “the deficiencies of the Confederate rail system” which deteriorated throughout the war and was made worse by the lack of cooperation of Confederate railroad owners. The South “did not have a railroad network that tied its scant industrial base together or readily permitted long distance movements.” [53] This would hamper Confederate attempts to move and supply its armies as well as sustain its economy throughout the war. The Confederacy never nationalized its railroads, and “no centralized planning or organization developed, and field commanders, supply agencies, and civilian shippers competed for use of Southern rolling stock.” [54] Southern policy towards the use of its railroads was muddled at best and the demands of the war and by 1863, “the excessive wear of wartime rail movement was chewing up southern rail lines[55] which resulted in the “South barely keeping a few lines operating by cannibalizing less important lines and could not replace its rolling stock.” [56] The combination of the lack of a strong industrial base to produce the iron to make replacement rails and the similar lack of producing facilities to manufacture locomotives and rolling stock, combined with the “unsure policies of the Confederate government and military” [57] ran the already feeble Southern railway system into the ground.

The Confederacy also faced a basic unwillingness of many producers of food, textiles and other necessities to cooperate with the Confederate government which often could not even find ways for its own agencies to cooperate with each other. “The government gave no overall direction to the supply bureaus, which often bid against each other for materials and labor.” [58] This was a pervasive problem, and not helped by the efforts of some parts of the Confederate government to nationalize various parts of their economy in direct competition with the private sector. This contrasted starkly with the Union whose “quartermaster and commissary heads contracted out their needs for weapons, horses and clothes by bid on the open market, rather than by appropriating existing industries for government use.” [59]

The confederate policies meant that many citizens and businesses found ways to not submit to government edicts. There was a basic “unwillingness of farmers to sell goods and produce at government rates” [60] and the greed of hoarders and war profiteers who through “hoarding, black marketing and simple withdraw from the market[61] crippled Southern war efforts and by “1862 much of the Confederate economy had become unmanageable.” [62] When Davis attempted to use the religious faith of the people to bolster more and “called for a day of fasting and prayer in March 1863, one man wrote that the president asked for “fasting in the midst of famine.” [63]

Where possible each side used railroads and maritime forces to move troops and supplies. The Confederacy, as has been noted was lacking in both, and was at a severe disadvantage. The Union however enjoyed a great advantage in modern rail networks, as well as ocean and river based maritime power. By late 1863 the Army of the Potomac, as well as forces in the West demonstrated “the close integration of operational planning and that of the general in chief and supply bureaus. In this one area, the development of a mature and modern staff was evident.” [64]

Once the armies were away from railheads or the ports from where they drew supplies both armies, like their Napoleonic cousins relied on wagons to transport essential food, supplies and ammunition when on campaign. In both armies commanders and their logisticians experimented with the number of wagons per regiment and how army commanders, modified that number at various points during the war based on their situation. At the beginning of the war the Napoleonic standards by which both armies based the number of wagons, 12 wagons per 1000 men to support the troops on campaign were found to be insufficient as it “placed too much emphasis on foraging for American conditions” [65] and throughout the war standards for what the armies needed would be debated and commanders in different theaters of the war often set their own standards based on their needs and the availability of wagons and livestock to draw them.


As the war went on the Federal army experimented with the use of the “flying column” as a response to the dependency on wagons in order to increase their mobility. The flying column was an idea drawn from the French by Major General Montgomery Meigs, the Union Quartermaster General. The idea was simple; in order to reduce dependency on wagons the army itself would be reorganized at the lowest level, the infantry squad.

“The soldier in a flying column carried eight days’ compressed rations, including desiccated vegetables on his back. He carried a blanket but no overcoat. The men were divided into squads of eight, one of whom was to carry a covered cooking kettle, another a large mess tin, another an axe, another a pick, and one a shovel. One man in each company carried the hospital knapsack. Each man carried his share of a shelter tent. The cavalry were pickets and grain for their horses.” [66]

After Gettysburg and the unsuccessful pursuit of Lee’s army, Halleck and Rufus Ingalls the Army of the Potomac’s chief quartermaster made provision and set standards “to convert the army into a flying column that would be self-sufficient for eight- and twelve- day periods away from the base of supply.” [67] In contrast the Confederacy lacked in wagons and livestock to support the field operations of the army on campaign. Wagons, especially those suited for military operations were in short supply and any time the opportunity presented Confederate commanders ensured the capture of Union wagons. This turned out to be a major problem during the Gettysburg campaign, when Stuart during his ride around the Army of the Potomac “succumbed to temptation of capturing a beautifully equipped and heavily laden Union supply train near Rockville, Maryland, at the cost of exhausting his cavalry and wasting precious time.” [68] In most cases Stuart’s action would have been commendable, and he certainly felt that such should have been the case here as well, but the cost to his operations and Lee’s need for his cavalry were such that it was a mistake of disastrous consequences.

The basic load of food and ammunition carried by each soldier in order to increase strategic maneuverability was adjusted to meet the operational need. Both armies, but more often the Confederate army frequently had to live off the land. The success and failure of forage operations and the requirements for people and animals in each theater of operations had a large impact on each army. By early 1863 the Army of Northern Virginia was “greatly deficient in all areas of supply….there were extreme shortages of footwear, clothing, draft animals, and wagons.” [69] When the Army of Northern Virginia advanced into Pennsylvania they found it to be “a land of plenty” while “quartermaster and commissary details, acting under official instructions, filled wagons and supplies with foodstuffs.” [70]

While the Federal army never lacked in provisions or supplies the Confederate armies were almost always in short supply, even in regard to adequate food supplies needed to maintain an adequate caloric intake on the march were almost impossible to achieve, but were so critical that they were barely adequate when the army was encamped. In fact one of the reasons which Lee based his invasion of Pennsylvania was to alleviate his desperate supply situation. One regimental commander in Pickett’s division recalled that Lee told him that “the movement was a necessity; that our provisions and supplies of every kind were nearly exhausted in Virginia, and we had to go into Pennsylvania for supplies.” [71]

The size of the armies and the distances involved on the battlefield made command and control difficult.  As such communications became more important and each army experimented with new signals organizations that used both old and new communication technologies. At the beginning of the war both sides made extensive use of visual signals and couriers, but rapidly began to rely on the telegraph for rapid communications.

The organizational tension was particularly evident in the rivalry between the U.S. Army Signal Corps and the Military Telegraph Service.  The Signal Corps focused on wireless communications. It preferred the Beardslee wireless telegraphs which had the limitations of such early wireless technology. The Union Army command favored the traditional wire bound networks operated by the Military Telegraph due to better reliability and security and eventually the Military Telegraph Service and its Morse trained operators were given “jurisdiction for all field telegraph” services at the urging of President Lincoln in November 1863. [72]Though the Army rejected the Beardslee equipment some commanders requested it for their operations.[73] As each Army became more dependent on the telegraph, each feared that their signals could be compromised through wiretapping and made efforts to encode their transmissions.

While the various forms of telegraphic communication were important in keeping higher headquarters in contact with armies in the field, battlefield communication could be difficult. Commanders on both sides relied on messengers to relay orders to subordinate commanders as well as pass information to senior commanders. On the battlefield this took time, and since the messengers were subject to the same dangers as ordinary soldiers messages might not reach the intended commanders. It took approximately an hour for a message to travel from an army commander to a corps commander, 30 minutes from a corps commander to a division commander, 20 from division to brigade, 15 from brigade to regiment and 5 minutes from regiment to company. [74]

Written orders generally provided better clarity if detailed enough but if they were passed orally, as was Lee’s preferred method they could easily be miscommunicated by messengers, or misunderstood or even ignored by commanders. This was a major source of Lee’s consternation during the Gettysburg campaign. A major problem for Lee during the campaign was that his orders, be they written or oral were frequently vague and discretionary, something that we will discuss in detail later, but Lieutenant General Richard Ewell spoke for many Confederate subordinate commanders on the evening of June 30th when he asked his division commanders in frustration “Why can’t a commanding General have someone on his staff who can write an intelligent order?” [75]

The Union Signal Corps also pioneered the use and development with a “modern system of semaphores with a telegraphic alphabet…” as well as “a cipher disk…that allowed the Union Signal Corps to change the code hourly if need be.” [76] The one disadvantage to this form of visual communication was that it could be limited due to weather conditions or the smoke of battle. While semaphore was used with a good deal of success by the Union, and Meade would make good use of it at Gettysburg, it was not used by the Confederate army.

Likewise Meade “set a precedent in command procedures” during the Gettysburg campaign, where “for perhaps the first time in military history the commanding general of a large army was kept in communication during active operations with his corps and division commanders.” Likewise Meade “set a precedent in command procedures when he brought signal officers to the conference table for consultation on the plan of battle” [77] and for the first time Signal Corps officers were assigned directly to each corps, when Meade ordered that two Signal Corps officers be “detached for service with each corps.” [78]

The troops of the Union Signal Corps were also a vital link in the transmission of military intelligence gathered by Colonel George Sharpe’s Bureau of Military Information, whose network of scouts during the Gettysburg campaign were “supported by Signal Corps detachments which could establish chains of flag stations from Harpers Ferry to “South Mountain, Monterey, Greencastle…up to Parnell’s Knob, in the Cumberland Valley.” [79] This link helped provide Meade with much better intelligence regarding the movement of Lee’s army throughout the campaign.

Regardless of the means of transmitting orders the fact was that at Gettysburg the element of friction entered the communication process. Wireless could suffer from encryption problems, semaphore from visibility issues on a smoke covered battlefield, written orders could be delayed, lost or misunderstood and verbal orders were frequently misunderstood or understood in the manner that best fit the situation of the recipient.

The developments in tactics, maneuver, defense and logistics and how those were developed over the course of the war brought about a form of warfare that remained dominant of decades. In studying the campaigns, developments and tensions between the competing theories of Jomini and Mahan in the Civil War a student can begin to recognize them in future wars fought by the US Army including World War Two.

Russell Weigley picks up this theme in his books The American Way of War and Eisenhower’s Lieutenants. Weigley discusses Lee’s use of Napoleonic strategy and Grant’s corresponding strategy of annihilation as well as Sherman’s campaign against Johnston, Sheridan’s devastation of the Shenandoah Valley to impose its aims on the Confederacy, [80] lessons which influenced American strategic doctrine over the next century. “Because it worked so well, achieving total submission, American soldiers thereafter tended to generalize the United States strategy of the Civil War into the appropriate strategy for all major, full scale wars.” [81]

The Timeless Art of Strategy and Statecraft

It is important for planners and commanders at the operational level to see the importance the developments of the Civil War on how we campaign today. While the technology and tactics of the war are now antiquated, the ideas are not and still pervade much of American military thought. Joint Publication 1: Doctrine for the Armed Forces notes that: “The two fundamental strategies in the use of military force are strategy of annihilation and strategy of erosion” both of which were at the heart of Union strategy after 1863.

One example of how the Civil War provides examples of and prefigures how the United States conducts joint operations is the example is that of how Grant and Sherman working together with Flag Officer Samuel Foote and Admiral David Dixon Porter on the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers. The joint operations of the Army and Navy at Island Number Ten, Fort Donaldson and Fort Henry and in particular during the Vicksburg campaign, still influence modern American thinking in terms of Joint Operations and are mentioned in a number of Joint Publications.

The understanding of war that came out of the Civil War, where for the first time the United States waged a modern war where what we now refer to as the DIME was practiced. The precedents in the use of the diplomatic, informational, military and economic elements of national power are reflected various Joint and Service doctrinal publications including Joint Publication 1 which notes that: “As a nation, the US wages war employing all instruments of national power—diplomatic, informational, military, and economic.” [82]

MCDP 1 Warfighting which discusses the maneuver and attrition warfare continuum.[83] It is important for students of operational art to be able recognize the these developments and principles in what we do today, to see the logical development of each of these elements in modern war and to find new ways to apply them within the scope of the technologies we now use that those that will be available in the coming years.

The important things that we learn from studying the various campaigns of the Civil War and the Gettysburg campaign are timeless. If we only focus on the military aspects of the great battles we can miss the really important lessons. The battles and leadership lessons that we learn from them are important, especially in how we understand and practice the concept of Mission Command. However it is the often arcane but important subjects such as transportation, logistics, communications and signals, fortifications, as well as the diplomatic, economic and informational aspects of the war that are often more important.

At the end of his discussion of the Corps of Engineers and the Army following the war, he notes “that change in war requires time for digestion before lessons are converted-if they are converted-into theory and doctrine.” [84] Such is true in every war and we too will need to reflect on the lessons of the wars that we have been engaged in Iraq, Afghanistan and other lesser known theaters of the War on Terror.

We typically do not do this well. After the Civil War American military theory stagnated, very few took of the mantle of Mahan and Halleck. One who did was John Bigelow, who commanded a battery at the Plum Run during the climactic hour of the second day at Gettysburg. Bigelow attempted to interpret the American experience of the Civil War in light of Jominian maneuver, but no matter how he tried he tried the “American experience on which Bigelow relied for examples tended to undercut confidence that such maneuver could suffice to achieve the object of war….” [85] This sent many American soldiers back to the tradition of Grant as the United States became a world power in the early twentieth century who believed “that the superior weight of military force that America could bring to bear against almost any rival would be their only sure military reliance.” [86]

When the United States entered ground combat operations in the First World War, General John Pershing’s strategy revisited some of the worst mistakes of the Civil War, as well as the bloody lessons learned by the Europeans during the first three years of that war.

Such an observation can be made about the wars that the United States has waged in the Middle East over the past decade as well as our experience in Vietnam where Irregular Warfare has predominated. We need to ask if the lessons of previous insurgencies have been digested, even going back to the lessons of the Union Army operating in the hostile lands of the conquered Confederacy.[87] Likewise it is fair game for us to examine how our military adjusts to developments in weaponry, technology and tactics today in relation to past examples. Such studies must include regular and irregular warfare. Thus when we look at the Civil War, it is important to use those lessons to better understand the timeless aspects of military history, theory, doctrinal development, logistics, communications and experiential learning in war.

History is our guide to war, warfare, diplomacy and statecraft. The American Civil War and the Gettysburg Campaign are part of a historical continuum that we are a part. As Colin Gray noted; “the most important features of statecraft and strategy do not change.” [88]

History serves as our guide in such an understanding, but we must also be aware of the human context of war and how individual and group psychology, sociology as well as political, philosophic and religious ideology cannot be ignored when we examine military history in context. The human actors are still the most important part of the war, because while the characteristics of war may change, and as Gray notes; the challenges that modern leaders face are “identical in nature” to what leaders in previous eras have faced. [89]


[1] Ibid. Weigley, American Strategy from Its Beginnings through the First World War. In Makers of Modern Strategy, from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age p.419

[2] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.146

[3] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.146

[4] Fuller, J.F.C. Decisive Battles of the U.S.A. 1776-1918 University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln 2007 copyright 1942 The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals p.182

[5] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.12

[6] Ibid. Weigley, American Strategy from Its Beginnings through the First World War. In Makers of Modern Strategy, from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age p.419

[7] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lighteningp.143

[8] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lighteningp.143

[9] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lighteningp.143

[10] Thomas, Emory The Confederate Nation 1861-1865 Harper Perennial, New York and London 1979 p.74

[11] Gallagher, Gary W. The Confederate War: How Popular Will, Nationalism and Military Strategy Could not Stave Off Defeat Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London 1999 p.34

[12] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.152

[13] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.152

[14] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p. 432

[15] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.154

[16] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.431

[17] Millet, Allan R. and Maslowski, Peter, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States The Free Press a Division of Macmillan Inc. New York, 1984 p.166

[18] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.433

[19] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.431

[20] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.261

[21] Ibid. Gallagher The Confederate War p.28

[22] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.600

[23] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.601

[24] Ibid. Foote , The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.635

[25] Ibid. Foote , The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.636

[26] Ibid. Foote , The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.637

[27] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.610

[28] Ibid. Fuller The Conduct of War p.105

[29] The most notable use of them between the Peninsula campaign and the Wilderness was at Fredericksburg by Longstreet’s Corps. Many wonder why Lee failed to entrench at Antietam.

[30] Ibid. Fuller The Conduct of War p.104

[31] Ibid. Fuller The Conduct of War p.104

[32] Fuller, J.F.C. Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN 1957.  Fuller comments “Thus over a year of bitter fighting was necessary to open the eyes of both sides to the fact that the trench was a byproduct of the rifle bullet, and like so many by-products, as valuable as the product itself.” (p.269) He calls it “astonishing that Lee, an engineering officer, made no use of entrenchments at the battle of Antietam.” (pp.269-270)

[33] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare pp. 198-21

[34] Ibid. p.295 Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare Hagerman comments on how Sherman’s troops outside Atlanta began to entrench both the front and rear of their positions.

[35] Ibid. Fuller The Conduct of War p.105

[36] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.297

[37] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare pp.297-298

[38] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.238

[39] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.238

[40] Petruzzi, J. David and Stanley, Steven The Gettysburg Campaign in Numbers and Losses: Synopses, Orders of Battle, Strengths, Casualties and Maps, June 9 – July 1, 1863 Savas Beatie LLC, El Dorado Hills CA 2012 p.100

[41] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p. 238

[42] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p. 238

[43] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare 238

[44] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.272

[45] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.274

[46] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.293.  Additionally B.H. Liddell-Hart in comparing the campaigns of Grant and Sherman makes an important note that Sherman’s strategy is more “suited to the psychology of a democracy…” and “ he who pays the piper calls the tune, and that strategists might be better paid in kind if they attuned their strategy, so far as rightly possible, to the popular ear.” Liddell-Hart, B.H. Strategy Faber and Faber Ltd, London 1954 and 1967, Signet Edition, The New American Library, New York 1974 p.132

[47] Ibid. Millet and Maslowski For the Common Defense p.216

[48] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.135

[49] Ibid. Millet and Maslowski For the Common Defense pp.216-217

[50] Ibid. Millet and Maslowski For the Common Defense p.218

[51] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.617-618

[52] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.441

[53] Ibid. Millet and Maslowski For the Common Defense p.156

[54] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.211

[55] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.319

[56] Ibid. Millet and Maslowski For the Common Defense p.216

[57] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.323

[58] Ibid. Millet and Maslowski For the Common Defense p.217

[59] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.322

[60] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.320

[61] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.322

[62] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.442

[63] Ibid. Millet and Maslowski For the Common Defense p.219

[64] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.79

[65] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.44

[66] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.71

[67] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.76

[68] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.198

[69] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.126

[70] Wert, Jeffry D. A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee’s Triumph 1862-1863 Simon and Schuster, New York and London 2011 p.229

[71] Ibid. West A Glorious Army p.230

[72] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.87

[73] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.87

[74] Cole, Phillip M. Command and Communication Friction in the Gettysburg Campaign Colecraft Industries, Ortanna PA 2006 p.80

[75] Trudeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.140

[76] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare pp.43-44

[77] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.87

[78] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.123

[79] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.42

[80] Ibid. Weigley The American Way of War pp.145-146.

[81] Weigley, Russell  F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign in France and Germany 1944-1945. Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN 1981 p.3

[82] ___________. JP1 Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Washington DC 2013 p.I-1

[83] ___________. MCDP-1 Warfighting. United States Marine Corps, Washington D.C. 1997. pp. 36-39

[84] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.239

[85] Ibid. Weigley, American Strategy from Its Beginnings through the First World War. In Makers of Modern Strategy, from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age p.440

[86] Ibid. Weigley, American Strategy from Its Beginnings through the First World War. In Makers of Modern Strategy, from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age p.440

[87] Ibid. Fuller. Fuller’s comments on the situation of the Northern Soldier are eerily similar to the wars that the United States has fought in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade: “Consequently, minor tactics were definitely against the Northern soldier, because his major tactics demanded the offensive; for without the offensive the South could not be brought to heel.  It was the problem which had faced the French in LaVendee and in the Peninsula of Spain, which faced Napoleon in Russia, and the British in South Africa during the Boer War of 1899-1902. Not only was the Northern soldier, through force of circumstances, compelled to fight in the enemy’s country, but he was compelled to devastate it as well as conquer it, in order to protect himself against the bands of irregular troops which were here, there and everywhere.” pp.247-248

[88] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.149

[89] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.149



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