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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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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.”

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