*** American Civil War military matters

The American Civil War: Military Matters

Figure 1.--This was one of Winslow Homer's Civil War painings. It was reproduced in 'Harper's Weekly" with the caption, "Army of the Potomac: Sharpshooter on picket duty'. The Civil War has been called the firstr modern war. Actually it was more like the last Napoleonic war." Homer was a military correspondent durung the War and produced many drawings and oil paintings. 'The Sharpshooter' painting was actually painted in the field during 1863 and is considered to be one of his greatest works. As far as we know, this was one of the only two combat images he produced. Homer had upsetting feelings about The Sharpshooter. He wondered how a man could act in such a manner. He was a genteel New Englander but he saw terrible violence first hand during the War. Most New Englanders focus on his work showing the Maine Coast - boys in their sailboats and seascapes.

The Union adopted a comprehensive strategy first envisioned by an aged Winfield Scott. President Lincoln had little government or military experience, but wisely adopted Scott's sound strategic vision and pursued it rigorously despite military setbacks. The President had hoped that a rapid mobilization of men and resources would quickly end the succession crisis. He clearly did not fully appreciate the depth of feeling on the issue of slavery in the South. He would, however, pursue this strategy throughout the War and it would be the key to victory. The early Confederate victories lay in large measure to the fact that fear of a slave rebellion meant that the South was a more martial society than the North, but over time the power and vibrancy of free people won out over that of a slave-based economy. The Civil War has been described as the first modern war. And there were indeed some modern aspects. This included some advances in weaponry. And the railroads were first used in a major war during the Civil War. It was certainly not because of tactical innovation. In fact, one reason that the casualties were so high was that the generals failed to adjust tactics to the increasing lethality of modern warfare. Countless battles were fought, leaving a bloody trail east of the Mississippi River. The Western battles were of enormous strategic importance and fought over a huge swath of territory, but it was the battles in the East, especially the battles in the short distance between the Washington and Richmond that received the most attention -- the epic struggle between the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac that received the most attention and where the outcome of the War was settled. Military historians quite reasonably focus on military matters. And we of course, we also cover these issues, including strategy, tactics, weaponry, units, campaigns, and battles. Most wars in history were fought over territory or plunder. This was not the case of the Civil War. There were issues in the Civil War that transcend most wars and military matters. Issues that would powerfully affect both the outcome of the War and the course of history. Americans were not educated at the time like their modern counterparts, but they understood the key issues of union and freedom. And were prepared to fight the bloodiest war in American history for those issues. It was the final piece of the uncompleted piece of the Revolution to create a democratic republic and an economy based on free labor. Some 10 percent of the population was left out of that dynamic. And the great majority of the American people understood this as Lincoln so eloquently captured in the Gettysburg address. This and Lincoln's ability to hold the Union together through its bloodiest historical test would gain the military victory that has so powerfully impacted not only American history, but the whole course of world civilization.


The Union and Confederacy pursued very differentv strategies. The Union adopted a comprehnsive strategy first invisioned by an aged Winfield Scott. President Lincoln had little government or military experience, but wusely adopted Scott's sound strategic vision and pursued it rigirously despite molitary setbascks. The President had hoped that a rapid mobilization of men and resources would quickly end the succession crisis. He clearly did not fully appreciate the depth of feelingg on the issue of slavery in the South. But by the time of his inagural there was in reality nothing he could have done, even if he understood the South better, to prevent the War short of like President Bucanan accepting secession and division of the Union. His initial assessment proved to be an illusion because of the dermination of the South to seperate from the Union and early Confederate victories. Many able Federal military officers, notably Robert E. Lee of Virginia, resigned their commissions and joined the Confederate forces. Southern sympathizers in the Buchanan administration had taken steps to disperse Federal ground and naval forces. The Federal defeat at Bull Run (July 21, 1861) showed that the Southern rebellion would not be easily put down. The North began to relentlessly pursue its strategy. First, tighten the naval blockade to deny material support from abroad and disrupt the Southern economy. Second, split the Confederacy in two by seizing control of the Mississippi River, still a key economic lifeline. Third, use its supperior resources of men and material to drive into the South and destroy the Confederate armies, both in the East and West. Here the North achieved considerable success, except for the key Eastern campaign. The Confederate capital was only 100 miles south of Washington, but it would take 4 years of bloody fighting to finally take Richmond. President Davis unlike Lincoln has extensive government and military exprrience. Despite this he adopted a strategy that led to the Cionfederacy's ultimate demise. The letality of modern weaponry led to huge casualities. Rather than husband the Confederacy's limited resources and bleed the Union's invading armies to turn the Northern public against the War, Davis chose offensive-minded commanders like Gen. Lee and the Cinfederacy could not sustain the terrible losses or properly supply its armies.


The Civil War has been described as the first modern war. And there were indeed some modern aspects. This included some advances in weaponry. And the railroads were first ysed in a major war during the Civil War. It was certainly not because of tactical innovation. In fact, one reason that the casualtis were so high was that the generals failed to adjust tactics to the increasing letality of modern warfare. And this was not just at the initial battles of the War. This failure to understand the need for tactical innivation included the commanders at all levels, including top commandrs, most notably Lee at Gettysburg (Pikett's Charge) in 1863 and Grant at Cold Harbor in 1864. Thus the Civil War cannot be classified as the first modern war. In fact as one Civil War historian writes, it is more accurately described as the last Napoleonic' war 【Griffith】 This is primarily because the smooth-bore musket continued to be the primary infantry weapon. The Confederacy had no choice, it is all they had. The Union did have a choice. They could have adopted the Henry repating rifle. They did not primarily out of concern hat infantry soldiers would wastefully use amunition. Eventually, commanders had to adjust tactics, but only very late in the War. In the final campaign around Richmond, the campaign settle down into World War I like trench warfare. There were modern aspects such as industrial production, telegraphic communications, and advamced logistics using the railroads, but tactics for the most opart were little changed from the Napoleonic Era.


The Civil War has been described as the first modern war. This was in part because of advanced weapons that were inntroduced dufing the War, primsrily by the Federal Army. Until the Civil War, infantry battles wre fought with smoothbore muskets. The Civil War soldier was armed with smoothbore muskets, but rifeled muskets. This great increased the leathality (range and accuarcy) of the musket. The introduction of the Minnie ball futher incrweased lethality. These developed made massed infantry charges a very dangerous mattered, especiually against an entrenched enemy position. Both Federal and onfederate officers took some time to learn this and adjust tactics accordingly. The revolver with 5/6 shells was used in the War, but only issued to officers and calvalry troopers. Thus tge rifle was the most inportant infantry weapon. Federal calvalry units were eventually issued Henry repeating rifles which ended the advatatage that Confederate calavalry initially had. The Gattlin gun, a kind of early machine gun, was introduced, but not widely used. There were also major advances in artillery. Most Civil War artillery pieces were muzzle-loaders, but as will infantry weapons, we begin to see rifled artillery. And this increased letality (accuracy, range, and penetrating power). Rifeled artillery was highly effective in counter-battery fire because rifeled battery could attack a smooth bore battery while remaining out of range. Range was particvularly important, because it increased the time for which advancing infantry could be engaged and subjected to devestating fire. Many highly effective anti-infantry ordinance was developed.

Military Formations and Units

The great bulk of the Federal and Confederate armies were composed of regiments raised in the states. They were then assigned by the Federal and Confederate Governments to the major military formations. The two most important military formations in the Civil War were the Federal Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Most of the most famous battles of the War were fought by these two formations. The Army of Northern Virginia was commanded for most of its history by Gen. Robert E. Lee. At the hear of the AONV was Jackson's Corps which heped beginning at First Bull run gain one victory after another. This included Lee's most stunning victory at Chancellorsville, but failed at Gettysburg under a new commander. The Army of the Potomac (AOTP) had a series of commanders as President Lincoln struggled to find a competent commander. Gen. George McClellan played a major role in building the AOTP, but he was reluctant to use it. Lincoln once quiped, "If McClellan isn't going to use the Army, perhaps he will lend it to me. Civil War armies were composed of corps, usually 2-4 divisions or 10,000-30,000 men. At the heart of the AOFP was the famed Second Corps in which 40,000 of the 100,000 men who served were killed. 【Kreiser】 There were also Federal and Confederate formations in the West. There Federal armies under Granht and Sherman largely destroyed the Confederate formations during the first three years of the War. Small units operated in the West. And the Federal Government built a massive navy which played a critical role in the Federal Anaconda Plan.

Service Units

The great bulk of Civil War soldiers served in U.S. Army or state militia infantry brigades. There were, however, other formations. The U.S. Navy played a key role in the War as it implemeted the Anaconda Plan to cut off and sarve the Condederacy. THe Conferacy had an energetic navy, but lacked the resources available tio Federal naval commanders. There were also other services besides the infantry in both the Federal and Condereate armies. The two most important were the artillery and the calvalry. Artillery played a major role in the War. Both sides fielded skilled artillery units. Artillery depended more on industry than any other aspect of the army. As the War progressed, however, the industrial resources of the North made itself more anore strongly felt. Calvalry also played an important role as the Civil War until the final phase around Richmond was a war of movemnement. The Confederacy in the first 2 years of the war had the decided edge. As a more rural area than the North they had the best horses and most skilled riders. Commanders like JEB Stuart outperformned their Federal adversaries. This gradually changed as Federal Commanders like Sheridan developed his forces and Federal calvalry men gained skill and experience. Improved calvalry weapons also help shift the balance. The turning point was Gettysburg where Stuart's pursuit of needed supplies left Lee and the Army of Norther Virginia essentially blind. It was dismounted Federal calvalry that helped slow the Confederate advance on Gettsburg and prevented the seizure of Culp's Hill, the Keystone of the Federal position (July 1). Calvalry actions also included Farnworth's Chargw and Merritt's fight on South Calvalry Field (July 3). A major action occurred at Fairfield, Pennsylvania. It kept the Hgertown Road open for Lee's retreat and virtually destroyed the 6th U.S. Calvalry. 【Wittenberg】 After Gettyburg, the Federal Callvalry played an increasingly important role in the Federal victory.


The American Civil War has been called the first modern war because of the number of men involved, the sweeping movements, the use of trains and telegraphs, effective use of combined land-sea operations, and the increasing sophistication of the weaponery including rifled artillery, repeating weapons and iron-clad ships. The Federal forces using the Army of the Polomac made a great effort to drive on the Confederate capital at Richmond, but the superb tactics of Lee frustrated that effort through most of the War. A succession of vascilating or food hardy northern generals experiended devestaing defeats in the East, in the face of numerically weaker Confederate forces: Bull Run (1861), Seven Days (1862), Bull Run (1862), Fredericksburg (1862), Chancellorsville (1863). The one Federal success in the Eastern theater was at Antitem (1862). Federal forces under General McClellan managed to turn back Lee's first attempt to take the War to the North. Mclellan in fact was a disastrous commander turned back by Lee at the Seven Day's campaign and failing to take advantage of Lee's defeat at Antitem. McClellan while a poor commander did effectively build the Army of the Poltomac into an effective fighting force, but it was Grant who would put it to effective use. Federal forces in the West were more successful, due in part to the more effective leadership of Ulyses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. The public was agast at the scale of losses in such battles as Shiloh (1862). Finally with the fall of Vicksburg (1863) the Mississippi was secured and the Confederacy cut off from needed suplies west of the river. The Confederates were turned back at the largest battle of the War--Gettysburg (July 1863). At the same timde Vicksburg finally fell. Lincoln then turned the Army of the Potomac and the eastern camapign over to Grant who relentlessly took the War to Lee. Before after each battle during 1861-63 the Army of the Potomac would turn back or rest. Under Grant the Army moved south and continued moving south toward Richmond regardless of the battlefield outcome. Through a series of bitter battles in the Wilderness Campaign of 1864, Grant pressed south. Even after a costly defeat at Cold Harbor (1864), Grant pressed south. At this stage of the War, the South's only hope was that the Northern public would tire of the mounting losses. Lincoln was challenged in the 1864 election by one of his fired General's--George McClellan. Sentiment against the War was rising. There were draft riots in New York (1863). Lincoln for a time was despondent fearing that he would not be reelected. Then good news began to arrive. Lee retired to Richmond (June 1864). Grant neared Richhmond and began a seige around Petersburg. Sherman took Atlanta (September 1864) and comenced his "March to the Sea" across the heartland of the Confederacy. Lincoln won reelection, beating Mcclellan in a landslide (November 1864). Lee held out at Perersburg against overwealing odds. Finally the Confederate lines cracked (April 1865) and Union Calvary trapped Lee's remaining forces at Appomatox where he surrendered a few days later. Jefferson Davis fled Richmond, but was arrested by Federal Cavalry (May 1865).

The Soldiers

Many of the soldiers were volunteers. Casualties in Civil War battles, however, were so enormous that the draft had to be introduced for the first, but not last time in American history. Given the lethality of Civil War battle, one has to ask why the average soldier, often a youth, on both sides fought. A emense number of letters survive which help answer that question and many Civil War historians have accessed this resource. 【McPherson, Fields】 Many boys and youths served in both the Federal and Confederate Army. One author has suggested calling the American Civil War the Boys' War. Thousands of children were directly involved in the Civil War. Older boys served as soldiers. Many younger boys were also invoved, some boys as young as 11 years old. The younger boys generlly served as drummer or bugle boys. Commonly the drummer and bugle boys were 13-15 years of age. Both the Confederate and Union soldiers tried to look after the younger boys. In major engagements they were often sent to the rear when charges into fortifications were planned. In some cases they had to be forced to the rear crying. Such a scene is portrayed in the movie Glory. In addition, over 1 million boys of 17 or under served in the Federal Army alone. Beyond the use of very young boys as drummer boys and bugle boys, about 1 million boys 17 years of age and under fought with the Federal Army alone. Almost surely very large numbers of similarly aged boys fought with the Confederacy, although actual records are less available. Another major contribution was made by Black soldiers. The most famous Black unit was the 54th Massachusetts. While the Confederates were outraged by the Federal use of Blacks, by the end of the War they were considering the formation of their own Black units.


Griffith, Paddy. Battle Tactics of the Civil War (T.H.E. Crowood Press Ltd.: 2014), 230p

Kreiser, Lawrence A. Jr. Defeating Lee: A History of the Second Corps Army of the Potomac (2012), 416p.

McPherson, James. BookTV C-Span, October 12, 2002.

Wittenberg, Eric J. Gettysburg's Forgotton Cavalry Actions (2012), 224p.

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Created: 7:18 AM 8/29/2023
Last updated: 7:18 AM 8/29/2023