Why Civil War Battles Were Fought That Way

This being the anniversary of Fort Sumter, I thought it useful to blog a bit about a topic near to the heart of The Sword.

Chickamauga Hero
The Battle of Chickamauga – Civil War Trust

The nature of battles – the typical maneuvers used and paths to victory – changed very little from the time of Alexander to the time of Napoleon. Some have gone so far as to say that if you put Alexander the Great in a time machine and gave him a command in 1800, he would have – after a short period of adjusting to the sound of gunpowder weapons – known exactly what to do.

But a mere 100 years after the time of Napoleon, war was vastly different, and the tactics that worked for thousands of years were no longer operative. The Trench warfare of World War One meant that the entirety of the Franco-German border became a giant line of siege works that extended through Belgium to the sea. The development of heavy artillery, rapid-fire weapons, smokeless powder, and mass-produced rifled-small arms mean the old battle tactics simply could not work. Alexander, skilled besieger though he was, would have been out of his depth at the Somme.

This transition was about half-way underway at the time of the American Civil War in the 1860’s. We see the early versions – breech-loading rifled cannon, Gatling Guns – of the weapons that bled Europe white fifty years later. But we also see the same old Napoleonic infantry tactics, centered around moving and marching in a line. And we still see  in the uniforms – Blue and Grey – that pastiche of Napoleonic pageantry. One of the sillier trends in military dress of that era were Zouave regiments, with uniforms of short jackets, fezzes, baggy pantaloons and calf-length spats. It was a fashion imported from the French in North Africa, and numerous regiments North and South were uniformed thus. It’s hard to imagine Americans fighting battles in such accoutrements, but thousands did.

“The Brierwood Pipe” by Winslow Homer. 5th New York Zouave Regiment.

The modern habit is to regard the odd things about the past as a lack of enlightenment, a failure to come to grips with the truths we have since learned. How absurd, we assume, for these men to march together in tight formations, wearing such colorful outfits. Were they trying to get shot?

And to be fair, the old tactics were losing their effectiveness. One of the things we see regularly in Napoleonic battles – massed cavalry charges – almost never happened in the American Civil War. From the time of Alexander through the time of Napoleon the speed and power of the horse made it an effective means of moving a warrior to a weak point in an enemy army. When effective range of firearms did not extend beyond 50 yards, cavalry could charge infantry and win. But by the 1860’s, improvements to standard infantry firearms made this practice completely untenable, and the use of cavalry as a combat arm was declining. The Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War of 1853-1856 was the death-knell for that sort of thing.

What were the changes to the infantry weapons? They were twofold:

  1. The Percussion Lock. Say it with me: Lock, Stock, and Barrel. The three parts of a gun are the lock, where the trigger is pulled and the powder ignited, the stock, the part you hold with your hands and that, in long guns, goes to your shoulder, and the barrel, where the explosion of the powder sends the bullet to its target. In the Revolutionary War/Napoleonic days, weapons were largely flintlocks. The trigger sent the hammer with a piece of flint against a steel plate, which created a spark that ignited the powder. They were an improvement over older matchlocks and wheel-locks, but they still misfired – i.e. the powder didn’t go off – about 30% of the time. With a Percussion Lock, the hammer strikes a small copper or brass cap containing fulminate of mercury or some other explosive substance. This cap is put on a small metal nipple underneath the hammer. Percussion locks reduced the rate of misfires to about 10%, and they were much more robust in bad weather.

    flint vs. percussion
    Above: A Flintlock Below: A Percussion Lock
  2. Rifling Becoming Standard. Rifling is the practice of carving grooves in the inside of a gun barrel. These grooves are curved, so as the bullet travels down the gun barrell, it is made to spin. This spin, like the spiral on a thrown football, makes the bullet go farther and more reliably get to where it’s intended. Rifling doubles if not triples the effective range of a gun. Now, rifling wasn’t a new technology in the 1860’s – but until mass industrialization it had been time-consuming and expensive. By the Civil War, almost all infantry muskets were rifled.

Consequently, the musket of the 1860’s was more accurate, more reliable, and had a greater range than those of the 1810’s. This not only stopped cavalry charges, it made infantry charges less effective. Strong defensive positions became all but unnassailable. One needs only look at the Battles of Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, Vicksburg, and Chickamauga to see the ease with which even an inferior force in a strong position could hold off a superior enemy. By the time we get to the Siege of Petersburg in 1864-65, we see elongated siege works that almost perfectly predict the trench warfare of WWI fifty years later.

Trenches at Petersburg.

So yes, improvements in technology meant that the way of fighting in massed formations that had been used since time immemorial no longer held the same effectiveness. So why were they still used? It’s tempting to say, “because they were too blind and too hidebound to realize what had changed”. And that might explain some of it. But there were other reasons why, despite the changes, the Union and Confederate Armies still fought in the grand old way. To wit:

  1. Rifled or not, Percussion or not, they were still muskets. Which is to say, they were still muzzle-loaders, that had to be loaded and fired through an elaborate series of steps, with ramrods like cannon.

    What this meant was that you had to be standing to load your weapon. You could theoretically fire it prone, but since they were so heavy most didn’t, especially since you would just have to stand up to load it again anyway. So while you were loading a gun, it made sense to have a fellow nearby firing his. Hence, mass formations still served a tactical purpose. It was common practice after firing one or two volleys to be ordered to “fire at will” so just this sort of cover-fire could be achieved.

    Breach-loading weapons, and even repeating weapons, such as the Spencer and Henry rifles existed, but they were like rifled muskets in the Napoleon’s time: rare and expensive. A mere year after Appomatox, the Prussians had perfected their breech-loading bolt-action Dreyse “Needle-Gun” to knock the snot out of the Austrians, who were still using muskets. Prussian troops were able to fire prone with a rate of fire 5 times that of the Austrians. But it had taken 25 years of fine-tuning to get the Dreyse ready for prime time. Muzzle-loading weapons demanded muzzle-loading tactics.

  2. And they were still using blackpowder. The use of cordite, or smokeless powder, as an explosive in firearms was still a generation off. Civil War weapons, like those of almost every firearm since the 9th century, used that classic mix of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter (potassium nitrate), known as blackpowder or gunpowder. Gunpowder is nowhere near as explosive as cordite, and gives off a great deal more smoke when ignited. Consequently, Civil War Battlefields, like those of their predecessors, were covered in smoke. So even though yes, their muskets had better accuracy and range, the reduced visibility of older battlefields were still there. You can’t hit what you can’t see.

    This explains the uniforms. They weren’t just peacocking plumage; they provided what is perhaps the most useful information on a smoke-covered battlefield – who is a friend, and who is a foe. And while it might seem like an advantage to dress wrong to fool the enemy, you’re just as likely to fool your friends and get shot by them by mistake. In the early days of the Civil War, the lack of uniform standards among locally-raised regiments resulted in numerous friendly-fire incidents.

As a consequence, while the massed infantry formations proved largely useless against strong defensive positions, they still worked well enough in the open field. And the technology had not yet allowed for the next phase of infantry tactics. And as World War One demonstrated, even when the tech was there, learning to use it would be yet another step.

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