Long considered a watershed in American history, the American Civil War (1861-1865) was also a turning point in the execution of warfare.
Long considered a watershed in American history, the American Civil War (1861-1865) was also a turning point in the execution of warfare. Although it did not begin as a radically new kind of war, this conflict developed into the first total modern war, in which farmers, artisans, and businessmen played as important a role as soldiers and sailors. It was the first time that a nation, having passed through the Industrial Revolution, put to large-scale military use new scientific discoveries and modern technological advances. Breech-loading rifles replaced smoothbore muskets, ironclads replaced wooden ships, and the telegraph replaced dispatch bearers. Military leaders made use of such new weapons as land and naval mines, machine guns, armored railroad cars, submarines, and aerial reconnaissance from anchored balloons. The American Civil War was the first conflict to be extensively photographed, the first to combine weapons technologies with mass production, and the first to transport large numbers of men and equipment over long distances via railroad.
The Civil War was rooted in the political paradoxes of the American Revolution
According to many scholars, the increasing political, economic, and cultural tensions between Northern and Southern states made violent conflict between these antagonistic civilizations inevitable. Others see the Civil War as a constitutional or moral struggle, pitting libertarians against abolitionists. Still others see the crisis in terms of technological history. The Northern business class, friendly toward the technology that had made it wealthy and powerful, was hostile toward a Southern plutocracy wedded to an outdated agricultural society that resisted industrialization.
Although the war was ultimately decided by both military and technological achievements as well as by industrial and agricultural production, the political context influencing these developments was also important. In terms of international politics, both the North and South had strong ties of economic interdependence with European countries. For example, both Britain and France relied on raw cotton from the South to keep their textile mills productive, but these countries also had extensive investments in Northern land and railroads. In terms of domestic politics, the North and South, though claiming to be equally dedicated to the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, had significant political differences that would influence military developments. The Confederate leaders may have seen themselves as the true heirs to the founding fathers of the United States, but the South’s material and military weaknesses forced
For Northerners, the relative unanimity that followed the outbreak of hostilities in 1861 quickly dissolved as leaders debated a series of controversial war measures, including conscription and emancipation. The military became enmeshed in politics when soldiers were required to capture and imprison influential
Confederate and Union Territories
The Civil War began with the attack on Fort
Confederate forces fire on Fort Sumter in 1861.
In sum, political decisions and developments affecting technology, industry, and the military helped shape the course of the Civil War and its resolution. Although the South was outmanned, outgunned, and outproduced by the North, a case can be made that the Confederacy’s initial success and ultimate failure owed much to such intangibles as moral and religious concerns and civilian and military morale. Some Southern sympathizers claimed that the South had waged this war in defense of an aristocratic republic, and only the overwhelming force of Northern numbers and arms had defeated it. Certain Northern sympathizers saw the war primarily as a moral crusade against slavery. Lincoln himself believed that he was using the men, matériel, and weapons at his disposal to save the Union. Even his Emancipation
The significance of the Civil War for the military has been a central concern to scholars. Some have emphasized the role of traditional weapons and techniques during most of the war, whereas others have located the center of this war’s modernity in its evolution into a total war. Both of these views came under criticism in the 1980’s, when some scholars argued that
The military goals of both the Confederacy and the Union can be simply stated. The South was fighting for independence, the North for restoration of the Union. The Confederacy was thus forced into a war whose ultimate goal was the defense of its own territory. Although it did occasionally expand the war into the enemy’s territory in the west and north, that was a matter of operational strategy rather than national policy. The North’s goals were different from those of the South and far more difficult to accomplish. In order to restore the Union, Lincoln had to destroy the Confederacy. To force a new country of several million people to cease to exist is a much more daunting task than to protect such a country from external attacks. At the start of the war, slavery’s abolition was not one of the North’s military goals. Both Lincoln and the Congress were explicit in asserting that they wanted to restore the Union without interfering with slavery.
Military aims guided military achievements. To preserve its independence, the Confederacy built an army but did not want to use it: It wanted only to be left alone. In contrast the North had to be aggressive. Unless Lincoln could compel the rebellious states to return to the Union, he would lose the war. The Union was initially successful in achieving some of its goals. With the aid of military force it was able to keep the border states of Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky in the Union, but because of the small number of Union sympathizers in the eleven seceded states, Northern armies eventually had to invade the Confederacy’s territory to destroy its armies and government.
Despite the North’s manpower and material advantages, the initial military achievements in the Civil War were primarily Southern. The Confederates won several early battles, helped by their excellent generals and the introduction of new weapons. After the Battle of
Despite its reputation as the first modern war, the Civil War was actually fought with both old and new weapons. During the war’s early years many soldiers were issued old flintlock or smoothbore
The battlefield at Gettysburg yields up carnage, 1863.
The Confederacy found weapons to be in short supply, particularly early in the war. In 1861 the weapons collected from citizens and confiscated from federal armories were insufficient to arm the increasing numbers of recruits. The South’s output of small arms measured in the hundreds rather than the thousands, hence the need for European purchases. However, lack of funds, competition from the North, and difficulty of shipping through the Northern
The North was in a much better position than the South to arm its troops. The federal government was able to acquire arms from several private armories, such as the Colt Arms Works at Hartford, Connecticut, in addition to the arsenal at Springfield. The North also possessed supplies of saltpeter for gunpowder, lead for cartridges, and copper for percussion caps. Furthermore, three cannon factories were located in the North: at South Boston, Massachusetts; West Point, New York; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The war created a demand for improved and efficient weapons, which were supplied by American inventors. The basic infantry weapon of both North and South was the rifled
The South produced about 600,000 rifles during the war; the North imported about 400,000 and manufactured another 1,700,000. Although a single-shot, breech-loading rifle had been developed at the Harpers Ferry armory just before the war, large numbers of these breech-loading
Just as small arms were at a transitional stage at the beginning of the war, so, too, was
At the start of the war, the U.S. Army had about 4,200 cannons, most of which were heavy pieces in coastal fortifications; only 167 were field artillery. The Union army used 7,892 cannons in the war, compared with more than four million small firearms. These data imply that the Civil War was basically an infantry war, in which artillery played a supporting role. Numbers can be deceiving, however; artillery, when properly used, was often highly effective. Union artillery was superior to its Confederate counterpart in terms of numbers, quality, maintenance, and skilled use.
Major Sites in the Civil War, 1861-1865
If hit in the head or chest by bullets or shrapnel, infantry soldiers often
Because of its weaknesses in small arms, artillery, and medical care, the South had greater incentives than the North to develop new weapons. For example, early in the war a Confederate general introduced land
A breech-loading machine
A new weapon that did have significant use in the Civil War was the
Union spies had alerted Northern officials to the construction of the CSS Virginia, and Secretary of the Navy Gideon
A new weapon during the Civil War was the ironclad gunboat, such as the CSS Virginia. The ironclad arrived at a time of a rapid naval transition from sail to steam and from thick wood sides to iron armor.
Less successful than the ironclads was the
Underneath their uniforms many Union volunteers wore body
Because many officers of both the Union and Confederate armies had been trained at West
Military regiments were organized into increasingly larger units: brigades, divisions, corps, and armies, each commanded by a brigadier or major general. Union armies were normally named after rivers in the area of their command (for example, the Army of the Potomac), whereas Confederate armies often took their names from a state or part of a state (for example, the Army of Northern Virginia). Although regimental organization and numbers varied from army to army, time to time, and place to place, overall structures tended to remain constant. As the war continued, however, both the North and the South failed to maintain the strengths of existing regiments in the face of attrition due to casualties, deaths, and desertions. States preferred to set up new regiments rather than re-man old ones. Thus, as the war proceeded, the number of regiments became a very unreliable guide to the actual strength of armies.
Throughout history, soldiers have performed according to their and their leaders’ understanding of the nature of war itself. This understanding, which is an important component of military doctrine, is concerned with the beliefs that drive soldiers to fight and the methods by which they actually fight. These doctrines are also related to the means by which leaders establish military standards and how, in battle, they determine the balance between offense and defense, individual and group action, and traditional and modern technologies. Theoretically, a nation’s founding principles help to shape its military doctrines, which, in turn, influence its military strategies and tactics. Practically, military doctrines determine how wars are fought.
Union troops retreat at the First Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas) in 1861.
Like military doctrine,
The Northern strategy of preserving the Union at first seemed to require a military strategy of limited war: first suppress the insurrection in the eleven seceded states, then arrest Confederate leaders, and finally put Unionists in control. On May 3, 1861, General-in-Chief
By 1862 Union military strategy had evolved, under pressure from public opinion and President Lincoln, to a policy of conquest of Confederate territory. This new plan succeeded in Tennessee and the lower Mississippi Valley but was stalemated by Lee’s victories in the East. Consequently, Northern military strategy changed yet again, in 1863, to a conviction that the Confederate armies would have to be destroyed. However, despite a significant Northern victory at
Richmond falls to Union troops in April, 1865; the war is effectively over.
Although the Confederacy’s national strategy of preserving its independence remained constant throughout the four years of the war, the military strategies devised to achieve this goal continually shifted. Initially Confederate leaders sparsely spread their troops around the circumference of their new country to repel potential invaders, but this tactic proved to be an unwise use of the South’s limited manpower. Another unwise military strategy was the political decision to move the Confederacy’s capital from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond, Virginia, about 100 miles from Washington, D.C. This move turned northern Virginia into one of the war’s principal battlegrounds. The concentration of Confederate forces in the East weakened the West, allowing Union forces to gain control of the Mississippi River and divide the Confederacy.
However, the Confederacy proved more adept than the Union expected at countering the Anaconda Plan; Southern blockade runners were successful in bringing much-needed military supplies from Europe.
The strategies of North and South were implemented by various tactics. In military terminology,
Improved weapons also brought about the end of the classical
Sherman’s troops pulling up railroad tracks in Atlanta, Georgia.
The Civil War was also the first American conflict in which the tactic of the rapid movement of men and matériel by
Like this battle between the Monitor and Virginia, the military doctrines, strategies, and tactics of the Civil War helped to change the nature of warfare throughout the world. The First Battle of Bull
The American Civil War has generated an immense and ongoing literature, with new books and articles are constantly appearing. An extensive introduction to the first hundred years of these writings is provided by the two-volume Civil War Books: A Critical Bibliography (1967-1969), edited by Allan Nevins, James I. Robertson, and Bell I. Wiley. A good way to keep up with new books and articles is through the bibliographies published annually by such periodicals as Civil War History.
Several multivolume histories of the Civil War provide excellent coverage of the conflict as well as a critical selection of primary and secondary sources. Alan Nevins’s eight-volume The Ordeal of the Union (1947-1971) is both scholarly and significant, with the final four volumes emphasizing the war itself, largely from a Northern social, political, and military perspective. A history that emphasizes the Southern point of view is
Official records of the Civil War were collected and published at the turn of the century by the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy, respectively, as The War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (1882-1900) and The War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies (1894-1922). These vast works of correspondence and official reports are excellent sources for scholars, but two primary sources that are accessible to general readers are Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (1885) and Memoirs of W. T. Sherman (1891). These memoirs emphasize the Union point of view. Jefferson Davis’s two-volume The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1881) provides a Confederate point of view. For Lee’s view of the war the best source is the classic biography by Douglas Southall Freeman, Robert E. Lee (1935-1942), but this work should be supplemented by such later assessments as Alan T. Nolan’s Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History (1991).
Beringer, Richard E., et al. Why the South Lost the Civil War. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986. Bruce, Robert V. Lincoln and the Tools of War. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1956. Connelly, Thomas L., and Archer Jones. The Politics of Command: Factions and Ideas in Confederate Strategy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983. Engle, Stephen. The American Civil War: The War in the West: 1861-July 1863. New York: Osprey, 2001. Gallagher, Gary W. The American Civil War: The War in the East, 1861-May 1863. New York: Osprey, 2001. Gallagher, Gary W., Robert Krick, and Stephen Engle. The American Civil War: This Mighty Scourge of War. New York: Osprey, 2003. Glatthaar, Joseph T. The American Civil War (4): The War in the West, 1863-1865. New York: Osprey, 2001. Hattaway, Herman, and Archer Jones. How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983. Jones, Archer. Civil War Command and Strategy: The Process of Victory and Defeat. New York: Free Press, 1992. Konstam, Angus. Seven Days Battles: Lee’s Defense of Richmond. New York: Osprey, 2004. Krick, Robert. The American Civil War: The War in the East, 1863-1865. New York: Osprey, 2001. McWhiney, Grady, and Perry D. Jamieson. Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1982. Smith, David. Sherman’s March to the Sea, 1864: Atlanta to Savannah. New York: Osprey, 2007. The Civil War. Documentary series. Public Broadcasting Service, 1990. Cold Mountain. Feature film. Miramax, 2003. Gettysburg. Feature film. Mayfair Turner, 1993. Glory. Feature film. Columbia Pictures, 1989. Gods and Generals. Feature film. Warner Bros., 2003. Gone with the Wind. Feature film. The Selznick Studio, 1939. Guns of the Civil War. Documentary. Monterey Home Video, 1993. North and South. TV miniseries. ABC, 1985-1994. The Outlaw Josey Wales. Feature film. Malpaso, 1976. The Red Badge of Courage. Feature film. MGM, 1951. Shenandoah. Feature film. Universal, 1965. Smithsonian’s Great Battles of the Civil War. Documentary series. Easton Press Video, 1992/1993.
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