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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.)

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