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The American Civil War And The Origins Of Modern Warfare

April 2024
4min read

Ideas, Organization, and Field Command

Yale University Press; 239 pages.

Indiana University Press; 366 pages.

The first modern war or the last old-fashioned war? That question engages two historians seeking to define the Civil War, and their answers are as different as their books. Edward Hagerman, from the perspective of York University in Toronto, states his case unhesitatingly in his title— The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare . Paddy Griffith, a Briton, reaches exactly the opposite conclusion in Battle Tactics of the Civil War .

British military writers have long displayed a fascination with America’s Civil War. G. F. R. Henderson produced a widely read biography of Stonewall Jackson, and J. F. C. Fuller studied Grant’s generalship. B. H. Liddell Hart named William Tecumseh Sherman the first modern “man of war.” Paddy Griffith, a lecturer in war studies at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, carries on this transatlantic tradition, but with a result more controversial than that of his predecessors.

Griffith acknowledges that a good deal about the Civil War looked forward instead of backward—the use of railroads and steamships, the industrial mobilization, innovations such as ironclad warships and the telegraph. He notes the indecisive outcome of many Civil War battles, as attacking armies repeatedly failed to overwhelm defending armies, which supposedly marks “the dividing line between the warfare of the past and that of the present, the moment at which Napoleonic conditions ceased to apply and First World War conditions took over.” He sees a falsity about this picture, however. Looking closely “with new eyes,” he concludes that the Civil War was in reality “the last Napoleonic War.”

There is no question that Americans went to war in 1861 with Napoleon on their minds. The South’s first hero, Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, came to be called the Napoleon in Gray. Northerners christened their first hero, Gen. George B. McClellan, the Young Napoleon. Drill manuals for both armies were distillations of the French system of training, and betterread officers pondered Bonaparte’s maxims. The war’s most widely used artillery piece was the 12-pounder Napoleon (named, however, for the emperor’s nephew, Napoleon III). And the latest in infantry arms—Springfield and Enfield rifles—owed their adoption to an innovation by Capt. Claude Etienne Minié of the French army. These rifles attract Griffith’s particular attention; they are critical to his theory about the Civil War.

Springfields and Enfields were weapons for a new age thanks to their rifling—the spiral grooves cut inside their barrels. Captain Minié’s contribution was the bullet he perfected for these rifles. It was cylindrical, and on firing the rim of its hollow base splayed outward to fit snugly into the rifling grooves, which then imparted a spin to the bullet as it left the barrel. The new rifles were muzzle-loaders, like the old smoothbores, but their advantage in range and accuracy was substantial.

These rifles, military historians argue (Edward Hagerman among them), ushered in modern war, giving the defending army a decisive advantage over an attacker who advanced his troops en masse, elbow to elbow in the approved Napoleonic style. Field fortifications soon dominated battlefields, and the trench warfare of 1864–65 resulted in a stalemate prophetic of the Western front in World War I. Paddy Griffith complains that these are “airy generalizations.” Civil War battles, he says, were actually decided at very close range—smoothbore range—rather than at long range; the average soldier was singularly inaccurate in his firing; and it was faulty execution of tactics and poor leadership, not the rifled musket, that accounts for the indecisive outcome of much of the fighting. Tactically, the Civil War was quite oldfashioned.

Griffith bases this conclusion on what he calls “tactical snippets’—descriptions by participants of the gritty details of combat. Certainly he is right to point to battles where the new rifles made little difference, such as the 1864 struggle between Grant and Lee in the Wilderness, where in the tangled undergrowth nothing could be seen twenty yards in any direction. Surely blame deservedly falls on generals such as Ambrose Burnside, who squandered the Federal Army of the Potomac at Fredericksburg in 1862, and John Bell Hood, who ground the Confederate Army of Tennessee to pieces at Franklin and Nashville in 1864.

His tactical snippeting is too limited, however, and this leads him to underestimate both the major effect of the rifled musket and the murderous firepower of rifle-armed Yankees and Rebels fighting from behind earthworks. “Earthworks could not confer any special mystical advantages upon the American soldier,” he writes, ”… or bring out latent skills in marksmanship which he had not previously possessed.” Hard evidence argues otherwise. Simple common sense told a man in a secure defensive position to make every shot count, or else he would lose the very position protecting him. In defense against an attack over open ground it was not the longer range of the Springfields and Enfields that counted so much as their greatly improved accuracy.

What was new, or “modern,” was the instant slaughter these rifles inflicted. In the Sunken Road at Antietam, Confederates rested their rifles on a breastwork of fence rails and efficiently tore apart one charging Federal line after another. “The entire front line, with few exceptions, went down in the consuming blast,” said a Rebel officer of one attack. At Fredericksburg no Yankee in repeated charges got within a hundred yards of the Rebel line securely posted behind a stone wall, and most got nowhere near that close. In Pickett’s famous charge at Gettysburg, the Federal infantry opened fire at two hundred yards and rapidly wrecked the assault. The fact is that Civil War combat changed radically between 1861 and 1865, and while Napoleon might well have been at home on the Bull Run battlefield, four years later he would have found nothing at all familiar in the trenchlock at Petersburg.

It is just this evolutionary character of change in the Civil War that interests Edward Hagerman. He works on a much larger canvas than Griffith and reaches broader conclusions in describing the war’s modernity. For this book Hagerman has drawn heavily on his articles in scholarly journals, and the reading is never easy. Neither is his constant focus on logistics and command organization and institutional structures. Yet what he has to say here is important, and a necessary (if dry) corrective to the “airy generalizations” Paddy Griffith lets himself fall prey to.

It was the strategies and tactics and logistical innovations begun by Grant in the Western theater in 1863 and brought to perfection by Sherman in 1864 and 1865 in Georgia and the Carolinas that form what Hagerman calls the “historical roots of modern warfare.” These two generals, more than any other, he writes, “exploited diversion, dispersion, and surprise to pursue successfully a modern total-war strategy of exhaustion against the enemy’s resources, communications, and will.” Napoleon might not have immediately recognized these changes, but that most forward-looking of commanders would most certainly have approved of them.

—Stephen W. Sears

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