Nerdy me: Good evening, folks. So, for those who don’t know (which is most of you), James is working on a report on how the American Civil War can be considered the first “modern” war. He’s going to put up what he has so far for anyone who wants to see, critique, comment, or make suggestions. The first five pages deal with everything from a brief history of conventions of European warfare to how the Civil War seemed to be a different kind of war and the effect of weapons upon the prosecution of battle. So, without further ado:
A study of the history of mankind invariably includes a study of warfare. As man has evolved through the millennia, the ways in which large scale conflict is waged has also evolved. From ancient biblical battlefields to modern urban combat, the prosecution and tools of war have changed in remarkable ways. Often, these changes are slow, building upon innovations throughout the centuries, such as the progression from tools of rock and wood to implements of bronze and iron. Now and then, however, progress accelerates. From the onset of the American Revolution onward, fighting that started with formal lines of soldiers facing off across an open field became intermixed with partisan tactics. World War I began with frontal assaults throwing themselves against entrenched positions and ended with tanks, machine guns, chemical weapons, and bombs dominating tactical and strategic thinking. Even the recent Iraq War began as a clash of conventional government forces but later devolved into asymmetric urban skirmishing.
As with many lessons, however, the adaptations and techniques gleaned from evolutions in warfare were forgotten by the time the next conflict started, much to the detriment of troops in the field. In spite of the way the character of war changes throughout every conflict, the lasting effect of these changes is either minimal, on a tactical level, or doesn’t last at all. Very few conflicts have an inexorable effect upon the way in which wars are prosecuted for years to come. One such historical turning point is the American Civil War. The Civil War, though beginning in a chivalric, Napoleonic style, evolved into a totally new kind of war, ushering in the tactics and strategy which would be a hallmark in modern warfare for years to come.
European Warfare – Killing, the Polite Way
If one thing could be said for the European style of warfare, it was highly organized. Men lined up in long walls, weapons at the ready, marching steadily toward one another in a slow, deliberate courtship with death. This way of fighting could trace its origins to the ancient Greek phalanx or Roman legion, and for centuries remained essentially unchanged, due in part to the lack of range and accuracy in early ranged weapons. Even when weapons such as muskets became available, opposing forces were required to close in on one another before their fire could be effective. Case in point, the famous order issued at the Battle of Bunker Hill to “[not] fire until [the Continentals] see the whites of their eyes” was not a test of mettle or a form of intimidation, but an ammunition saving precaution, hoping to make every shot count.
Turning back the clock to the early 15th century and the time of King Henry V’s campaign in France, the Battle of Agincourt provides a prime example of the European style of warfare, the relatively simple weapons involved notwithstanding. Before battle could even commence, heralds (essentially messengers travelling under a flag of truce) would approach the opposing force, issuing a challenge to the leader to enjoin their forces in battle. If rejected, the opposition would not press the issue and attack, though pursuit would continue and further pressure would be applied. Societal codes of honour dictated the terms on which fighting would occur, with both sides delaying until the respective commanders reached a point where they both felt they held advantage.
Upon agreeing to the time and location for battle, both sides were allowed to set their forces as they deemed fit, waiting for one side or another to instigate fighting with actions as simple as taunts. Occasionally, as was the case at Agincourt, taunts could take a more sinister form where, instead of “cocking-a-snook,” a true act of aggression instigated battle. Here, as the French observed their numerically outmatched foe, English archers proceeded to rain down volleys of arrows upon the French lines, inciting them to charge. French reluctance to consider archers a threat allowed the English to fluster their opponent, resulting in an ill-fated charge into a forest of sharpened spikes hidden within the English lines. In this way, Henry V and his “band of brothers” defeated a numerically superior French force in “honourable” combat, though somewhat unorthodox in its execution.
Post-battle conduct was also characteristic of the attitudes toward honour and chivalry which were prevalent in the time. After the first French charge, the English took prisoners. When dining, Henry V himself invited French noblemen to join him, treating them as equals in spite of their status as enemy combatants. Not all prisoners were treated so generously, however. French prisoners held behind English lines were executed and casualties housed in cottages were incinerated. This controversial decision was a pragmatic one, however, to prevent the prisoners from re-arming themselves and attacking the English from the rear. The more common practice would be to “parole” soldiers, releasing them under their word of honour that they would not take up arms again. Sometimes, however, the vagaries of war precluded such conduct, and this would remain the case four centuries later, though generally sans-atrocity.
European warfare came to its highest form under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 19th century. His focus on manoeuvring mass armies against one another and the intermeshing of tactical and operational goals provided the framework from which Clausewitz was able to compile his treatise On War, which would eventually supersede the works of Jomini as the dominant form of strategic thinking. Even during the Napoleonic Wars, however, European soldiers were presented with an alternative form of warfare. As Napoleon’s force of professional men of arms made their way through Russia, they encountered the burned remains of several important cities, including the old capital of Moscow. Cossacks fleeing from the numerically superior force adopted an approach resembling “total war,” devastating the countryside and keeping vital supplies out of the hands of their enemy. Even Clausewitz, as enlightened a thinker as he was, could not reconcile these acts with the rigid Napoleonic dictum placing non-military targets off limits. Within a century, however, no such restrictions would apply, even for Europeans.
The Civil War – Americans, Doing Things Their Own Way
When the American Civil War began, there was already a distinct difference between Union and Confederate forces and their European counterparts. America had no standing army at the time the war began, and the majority of participants were initially volunteers. Men on either side of the conflict lined up to participate in what was believed to be a short-lived conflict, thanks to their patriotic fervour or curiosity. Most of these men were either ill-trained or not trained at all, and when the First Battle of Bull Run began on 21 July, the results of using an army of volunteers showed.
In lieu of a full report on the battle, one can summarize many of the day’s events in one word: chaos. The random distribution of uniforms and inconsistent colours caused some individuals to fire upon their own men, lines to intermingle, and commanders to struggle to maintain cohesion. The Confederacy nevertheless carried the day and forced the Union forces to depart in a massively disorganized retreat called the “Great Skedaddle,” mingling with casual observers fleeing the fighting.
Initially, both the Confederate and Union forces formed up in organized lines facing one another in the field outside Manassas Junction in Napoleonic style, marching toward one another until their weapons came to bear. As Napoleon had done half a century earlier, Union General McDowell focused much of his effort on complicated manoeuvres designed to turn the Confederate flank. As it would turn out, these manoeuvres were far too complicated for his untrained soldiers to complete.
Combined casualties on either side approached 4,700. What many generals failed to realize about this battle, however, was that it served as a harbinger of what was to come. Between this battle and the Seven Days in mid 1862, generals such as the commander of Union forces George McClellan found themselves with devastation on a scale heretofore unheard of. McClellan was so shaken by the sheer number of men killed or wounded on either side that he sought an improbable goal, a Jominian “decisive victory” which would end the war in one swift attack. This was no longer a Jominian war, however.
Many commanders, from both sides of the war, earned their first taste of combat during the Mexican War in the late 1840s. In that conflict, the sum total of American casualties came out at approximately 16,000 out of a force which numbered at most 60,000. The Battle of Antietam alone passed that entire war’s casualty mark by 6,000. The casualty counts were unfathomable by most of those alive at the time. Perhaps they should not have been so surprising, however. First and foremost, it is important to consider the weapons of the time. In 1861, the US Army began issuing the Springfield Model 1861 while the Confederacy typically relied on the Pattern 1853 Enfield, both rifled muskets. Rifling did not become common practice for weapons until the 19th century, and as such, military commanders were still unaccustomed to the effects rifled muskets had on a battlefield. Rifled muskets imparted a spin on their projectile, and this was further enhanced by the characteristics of the Minié ball. This deadly combination saw limited use in the Crimean War, but it wasn’t until the American Civil War that armies took full advantage of them. The spin of the Minié ball stabilized it in flight, increasing the effective range of muskets from 50 to almost 400 yards. This in and of itself rendered frontal charges foolhardy, especially when an entrenched defender could wipe out an advancing enemy long before they could prepare for engagement, much less enter a melee.
Just as important is the development of artillery. Standard cannon shot and grape shot were complimented by canister shot, explosive shells, and shrapnel. These proved particularly devastating against long lines of men, especially at the Battle of Gettysburg. During Pickett’s charge on 3 July, 12,500 men advanced on the union lines atop Cemetery Ridge. Between musket and cannon fire, they suffered over 50% casualties. Shot and shell alike ripped through the soldiers with deadly efficiency, and though the gaps they created were swiftly filled, the numbers game was not in the Rebels’ favour. By the end of the war, soldiers on both sides saw the futility of now-outdated frontal assaults, especially over open ground, John Bell Hood excepted, of course.
 R. Ernest Dupuy, and Trevor Dupuy, The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History, (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 1993), 1.
 Dupuy, The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History, 782
 Dupuy, The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History, 1003
 Donald Stoker, The Grand Design – Strategy and the U.S. Civil War (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), 416.
 John Keegan, The Face of Battle – A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, & The Somme (New York, NY: Random House Inc., 1976), 82.
 Keegan, The Face of Battle, 94.
 Dupuy, The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History, 449
 Keegan, The Face of Battle, 86.
 John Keegan, A History of Warfare (London, Great Britain: Hutchinson, 1993), 221.
 Keegan, A History of Warfare, 6-9.
 James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1988), 308-321.
 Stoker, The Grand Design, 42.
 McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 342.
 McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 348.
 Dupuy, The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History, 953
 McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 348.
 Fitz John Porter, “The Battle of Malvern Hill,” Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, ed. Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel (New York, NY: The Century Co., 1888), 427.
 Stoker, The Grand Design, 65.
 K. Jack Bauer, The Mexican War – 1846-1848, (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1674), 397.
 McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 544.
Nerdy me: That’s all for now. As usual, James writes the report and then finds people to prove him right. Trust me, it works. Anyway, feel free to proofread or comment (I do hope you shall). Part two shall come forthwith…when it gets written. Only thing to be sure of, it’ll be done by Thursday. Well, it’d better be done by Thursday…