The Magazine

Tactical Exercise

The Civil War was a contest between two sets of West Pointers.

Apr 19, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 29 • By BARTON SWAIM
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West Pointers
and the Civil War

Tactical Exercise

The Old Army
in War and Peace
by Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh
North Carolina, 304 pp., $30

If we mean to play at war as we play a game of chess—West Point tactics prevailing—we are sure to lose the game. They have every advantage. They can lose pawns ad infinitum—to the end of time—and never feel it.

So remarked Wade Hampton, a brigadier general in the Army of Northern Virginia, in the bloody summer of 1862. Hampton was one of the war’s few important leaders who hadn’t attended West Point, and perhaps for that reason he could see more clearly that unless the Confederate armies found an imaginative way to annihilate their enemies, the war would become a contest of endurance—a contest the South could not win. 

In this excellent new study Wayne Hsieh, an assistant professor at the U. S. Naval Academy, surveys what Hampton deprecated as “West Point tactics” from the end of the War of 1812 through the Civil War. His broad military-historical treatment allows him to make an intelligent answer to the question which every Civil War historian has to answer: Why did it grind on for so long?

On the face of it, the Union, with its vastly superior economy and functioning military bureaucracy, ought to have smashed the rebellion in a few weeks. There are, of course, many defensible explanations for why that didn’t happen. Hsieh, an excellent scholar with a refreshingly well-balanced approach to military history, takes a view roughly comparable to Hampton’s. His central argument is that both the Confederate and Federal armies were in large measure run by men trained at West Point, and that the half-century of strategic and tactical expertise passed down to these men gave the two sides an approximate equilibrium on the battlefield. What should have been little more than a sectional rebellion turned into a four-year fight to the death, he argues, because both sides possessed generals and officers with comparable levels of competence, almost identical training, and the professional ethos of the antebellum Army. The ranks of both sides remained more or less equal in cohesion and morale throughout most of the conflict, which finally ground to a halt when the South—rather like the United States itself a century later—could no longer sustain the sacrifice. 

Accordingly, Hsieh rejects explanations for the war’s unexpected length that depend too heavily on technological advances. A few influential scholars have, in recent decades, put forward the idea that the length and carnage of the war had primarily to do with technological advances in weaponry, chiefly the introduction of the rifle-musket in the 1840s and ’50s. “Rifled” muskets had grooves cut into the inside walls of their barrels, giving bullets a spin, and therefore greater accuracy, when fired. These scholars hold that the greater range afforded by the rifle-musket—300 yards and even beyond—coupled with both armies’ increasing reliance on entrenchments, tended to make it almost impossible for one to vanquish the other. Hsieh has no patience for this explanation: 

Taken as a whole, the outcomes of specific battles depended not so much on technology as on the characteristics of each army’s individual leaders, its organizational virtues and vices, the force of circumstance, and the fighting qualities of the line troops involved.

He doesn’t say this, but I can’t help believing that the tendency to attribute undue significance to the rifle-musket is closely related to the fact that the vast preponderance of academics have never actually shot a rifle. To say a rifle is “accurate” at 300 yards is only to say that the bullet goes where its barrel is pointed. The trick is pointing it in the right direction. Hitting an immobile target at 300 yards is sufficiently difficult for a trained shooter using a modern scope-mounted rifle—and that’s assuming the calm environment of an open field. A semi-trained recruit using a primitive rifle in the heat of battle, conscious that he may not live another day, has little chance of hitting a mobile target at a range greater than, I should guess, 75 or 100 yards. 

(A number of scholars reference Cadmus Wilcox’s 1859 manual, Rifles and Rifle Practice, which claimed rifle fire could be “destructive” of an enemy line at “1,000 or 1,200 yards.” Wilcox was a serious practitioner, and went on to be an effective Confederate general; but this is either a typographical error or pure rubbish. Nobody outside the ranks of modern special-ops snipers can hit anything at 1,000 yards.)

Hsieh begins his story with the War of 1812, a conflict in which Americans began to doubt the ideal of the “citizen-soldier”—the belief, as Hsieh writes, that in times of war “sturdy yeomen .  .  . would leave their plows, defeat overdrilled professionals with the flexible virtue of freemen, and return to their farms after the danger had passed”—and to take seriously the nation’s need for a professional standing army. In Detroit, in Queenston, Ontario, in Montreal, American forces were either thwarted or routed, and the nation’s regular army proved ludicrously incapable of defending its own capital in 1814.

Over the next 30 years, during which the United States fought no bona fide nation-state wars but rather a series of localized skirmishes with hostile Indians and the like, the antebellum Old Army achieved major improvements in two areas. First, it built an effective bureaucracy. Under the leadership of the better secretaries of war, principally John C. Calhoun, the War Department gradually gained the capacity to place well-equipped soldiers just about anywhere within the states and territories. Bold and brilliant generals can do little, as Hsieh explains, if their armies are poorly clothed and fed, and if they don’t arrive at the right place at the right time. Second, the Old Army learned tactics. After the humiliations of 1812-14, the government sent abroad two graduates of the fledgling military academy on the Hudson River, West Point, for the purpose of gleaning insights from the great European armies. Debates raged within American military circles over an array of issues: the proper use of shock tactics, the most effective marching pace, the value of cavalry, the advantages of standardized artillery, and so on.

It paid off handsomely. By 1846, when war broke out with Mexico, the U. S. military proved itself capable of destroying a nation-state army of comparable size on that army’s own soil. The Old Army conducted an amphibious assault, moved several thousand well-drilled troops and a siege train across South Texas and Mexico, and inflicted a string of decisive defeats on the Mexicans. Many of the victorious army’s most capable and distinguished soldiers would, a little over a decade later, lead Union and Confederate troops into battle—among them Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee. The Mexican War moved the nation further away from the citizen-soldier ideal. The Old Army’s ethos of professionalism would affect the course of the Civil War in highly consequential ways. Both armies’ generals and policymakers,
Hsieh argues, remained extremely reluctant to use guerrilla warfare or otherwise to dissolve the distinction between combatant and noncombatant.

Southern readers, of whom I am one, may bristle at this: The South Carolina State House, in which I work, still bears the scars of General Sherman’s cannonballs. But Hsieh’s point, which he supports amply by recourse to some fascinating primary documents, is entirely valid: The Confederacy never employed guerrilla warfare as a major part of its strategy, and the Union didn’t use irregular methods until its more conservative generals, notoriously George B. McClellan, proved incapable of destroying the Confederacy on the battlefield.

As with the two armies’ ethos, so with their competence on the battlefield—an equilibrium evident almost as soon as the fighting started. When the Confederates defeated the Union at First Manassas in the summer of 1861, they were too bloodied and disconcerted to deal the retreating army the kind of peremptory blow that might have brought the war to an early resolution. So it would go, as Hsieh’s detailed analysis shows time and again, until the Overland Campaign of 1864. 

Shock tactics were a constant challenge to both sides. Field commanders found it difficult to keep soldiers from firing prematurely. In an infantry charge, the vital thing is to hold fire until you can inflict maximum chaos; but charging soldiers found emotional release in pulling their triggers—a tactical problem illustrated poignantly at the Battle of Gaines’s Mill during the Seven Days Battles of June-July 1862. Two Confederate charges had failed because troops would fire too early, stop to reload, and be cut down by short-range rifle fire from the Union line. Seeing the problem, Brigadier General John Bell Hood talked the men of his old regiment, the Texas 4th Infantry, into holding their fire as they walked up the hill one more time.

“Steady,” Hood told his boys as they walked past corpses in gray uniforms, “I don’t want you to run.” They didn’t, and their momentum rattled the Union line. The Federals abandoned the hill and the battle turned. 

“We understood why General Hood wanted us to go to the enemy without firing,” recalled one of the Confederates after the war, “for in piles all around us were other Confederates, who stopped to load their guns, [and they] lay dead and dying.”

It’s easy to forget that, while Northern and Southern electorate-s reached the point of irreconcilability in 1861, their armies remained identical in almost everything but uniform. Just as Northerners and Southerners prayed to the same God (as Abraham Lincoln would say in his Second Inaugural), so their generals had read the same books, their officers had used the same tactical manuals, their recruits had suffered through the same drills.

“This rough equilibrium in competence continued throughout the war,” Hsieh concludes, and “made the annihilation of a Civil War field army in a set-piece battle—the great Napoleonic dream of Civil War commanders—a supremely difficult task.”

Barton Swaim is the author, most recently, of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere: 1802-1834.

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