Civil War Battle Tactics: Grit and Luck

Battle at the WildernessMany historians have suggested that the casualty levels in American Civil War were a clear indicator of how the technology had surpassed the tactics. To some extent, this is true: the employment of the rifled musket, repeating rifles, accurate long-range artillery, and many other weapons, often produced devastating results.

Often overlooked, however, is just how difficult it was for a tactical order to be carried out effectively by any size of unit during the Civil War. In many instances, a bloodbath was more the result of miscommunication and lack of discipline than it was of Spencer repeating carbines or 20-pound Parrot rifled artillery.

Perhaps the greatest problem facing both Confederate and Union commanders was inexperience and willfulness among subordinate officers. On the second day of the battle of Gettysburg, Dan Sickles, a politician by trade, advanced his corps forward against specific orders to remain where he was. Now completed exposed, his troops were badly mauled during the subsequent Confederate attack. Sickles himself was wounded and had his leg amputated.

Another Civil War battle tactics challenge was maintaining effective command control. In an age with no radio communications, orders from the field commander were passed to his subordinates orally by aides: often young lieutenants with little or no combat experience. These same young men would be attempting to inform the general in command of the situation on portions of the battlefield he could not see from his vantage point. Confusion and disaster were seemingly inevitable.

At the battle of Chickamauga, William Rosecrans’ Union Army of the Cumberland was holding its own against Braxton Braggs’ Confederate Army of Tennessee. The fighting was vicious and ragged, with most units struggling to form coherent battle formations. Both commanders were busy moving brigades and divisions all over the field to support weak points in their lines.

Finally, either through a miscommunication or misunderstanding, Rosecrans moved yet another unit to plug an imagined gap, but created one instead. Ten thousand Confederates commanded by James Longstreet immediately took advantage of the blunder, and the day ultimately went to the Southerners.

Yet a third problem facing Civil War tacticians was the undisciplined nature of most enlisted men. The majority of these citizen soldiers received only cursory training before entering the fight, and it was very much a roll of the dice to see how they would react to their first taste of combat.

Occasionally, though, the grit and determination of these men would overcome all obstacles. At Missionary Ridge outside Chattanooga, Tennessee, Ulysses S. Grant and George Thomas were making plans to attack Bragg’s entrenched Confederates on the high ground, when the Union troops spontaneously launched an assault without orders. The Rebels were unprepared for the ferocity of this charge, and their positions were overrun.

Sometimes, then, the best Civil War battle tactics were none at all.

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