Weapons, Tactics, and Strategies Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

During the Civil War, 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 hot-air balloons. The Civil War was also the first war 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.

Long considered a watershed in American history, the Civil War 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, which was passing through the Industrial Revolution, put to large-scale military use new scientific discoveries and modern technological advances.

During the Civil War, 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 hot-air balloons. The Civil War was also the first war 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.

Political Considerations

The Civil War was rooted in the political paradoxes of the Revolutionary War of 1775–1783, which had been a civil war as well as a war for independence. The American Revolution created the world’s leading democracy, which was also a slave-based republic. Founders, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, established a union of states in which white liberty and black slavery coexisted. In the decades following the Revolution, Northern states instituted programs of emancipation, whereas Southern states, spurred by the productivity of the cotton gin and the demands of European textile factories for raw cotton, promoted the expansion of slavery.

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 Great 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 Founders of the United States, but the South’s material and military weaknesses forced Confederate president Jefferson Davis to reduce the rights of the seceded states in order to expand the power of his central government. For example, he forced through the Confederate Congress laws that resulted in the continent’s first military draft, the impressment of goods and labor, and the suspension of certain civil and economic liberties—all to help secure the new republic.

Northern Actions

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 “Copperheads”—Northerners who sympathized with Southern secession. Following the instructions of Republican politicians, some state militia arrested draft dodgers and dissenting newspaper editors. Particularly troublesome to many was the brutal suppression of the 1863 Irish-immigrant riots against the draft in New York City. Because the wealthy could buy substitutes, many less advantaged Irish felt that the federal government was failing to live up to its egalitarian ideals.

President Abraham Lincoln did try to engage an important group of Americans in the war effort when, in March, 1863, he signed an act of Congress creating the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The Academy’s charter required its members, whenever called upon by government agencies, to investigate and report on any subject of science or technology. During its first year and a half the NAS had committees studying such important military matters as magnetic deviation on iron ships, the protection of iron vessels from corrosion, the preparation of accurate wind and current charts, and the development of efficient steam engines. Although the NAS did much to encourage the invention and production of weapons that amplified the abilities of Northern armies to inflict damage on Southern soldiers, it failed to improve significantly medical techniques and facilities, with the result that disease killed twice as many Union soldiers as Confederate weapons did.

The Balance of Power

The Civil War began with the fall of Fort Sumter in April, 1861. At this time, the Union possessed overwhelming superiority in both manpower and material resources needed to conduct war in an industrial age. Although neither the South nor the North had made any special preparations for a prolonged war, Northerners had many advantages over Southerners, which politicians tried to turn into the means of victory. The North, exclusive of the border and far western states, surpassed the South in population, with 18.5 million Northerners to 5.5 million Southern whites (there were also 3.5 million black slaves).

The disproportion in industrial strength was even greater: the North had more than 100,000 factories with more than one million workers, whereas the South had approximately 20,600 factories with only 111,000 workers. Northern industrial output was valued at $1.5 billion; Southern output was valued at $155 million. Because the Civil War would be the first modern war, iron and steel would become the basic material for the production of munitions, railroads, bridges, and other equipment and structures. The total output of pig iron in the United States in 1860 was about 860,000 tons, of which the South produced only 26,000 tons, or 3 percent. Pennsylvania alone manufactured 560,000 tons of iron, which helps to explain Southern raids into this state. In 1860 there were 30,500 miles of railroad track in the United States, 72 percent of which lay in the North.

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 out-produced 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 Proclamation, which became effective January 1, 1863, actually freed no slaves but declared that only slaves in rebellious states would be freed. After the war, emancipation reshaped American race relations, but during the war Lincoln’s political actions resulted in increased federal power over civilians and the military.

The significance of the Civil War on 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 technology, in the form of new rifles and other weapons, actually made little difference on small-scale Civil War battlefields. Others questioned the notion of the Civil War as the first total war, claiming that military leaders rarely destroyed civilian lives and property in any systematic way. These interpretations and reinterpretations of a war that has been so extensively studied and so charged with moral, religious, and political meaning are likely to continue.

Military Goals and Achievements

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 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.

The photographic outfit of Mathew Brady, who was the leading photographer of the Civil War. (National Archives)

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 Antietam in September of 1862, Union leaders shifted to a defensive strategy in the East, accepting a temporary stalemate in Virginia, but became more aggressive in the West. By 1863 the Union had achieved control of the Mississippi River, effectively dividing the Confederacy. Confederate general Robert E. Lee then embarked on an invasion of the North by crossing into Pennsylvania. After its defeat at Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863), however, the rebel army had to return to Virginia. The Union achieved a second major military goal in 1863 with its occupation of East Tennessee. In early 1864 Ulysses S. Grant was promoted to general-in-chief of the Union forces, and he embarked on a war of attrition to subdue Lee’s army. General William T. Sherman, Grant’s replacement in the West, was able to capture Atlanta in the summer of 1864 and then march through Georgia to the sea, effectively splitting the Confederacy into still smaller pieces. By April 9, 1865, the war was over.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

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 muskets. In 1860 American arsenals held more than 500,000 small arms, and when the war started, 135,000 of these were confiscated by the South. Only 10,000 of these guns, however, were modern rifles. The two great government armories were at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and Springfield, Massachusetts. The North and South exchanged control of Harpers Ferry numerous times during the conflict, and so its production of weapons was hampered, whereas the Springfield armory was able to produce about two million rifles during the four years of the war. These Springfield rifles, single-shot muzzle-loaders, became the most widely used weapon of the U.S. Army.

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 across the Northern blockade handicapped the South’s attempts to acquire arms for its troops. Only 50,000 arms had reached the South from Europe by August of 1862. The situation improved later in the war, and by the war’s end the South’s Ordnance Bureau had imported some 330,000 arms, mostly Enfield rifles, through the blockade.

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 musket, and although it resembled the muskets of earlier wars, it actually incorporated several modifications that transformed its performance. Smoothbore muskets had a killing range of about 50 yards, whereas rifled muskets could kill at 500 yards. Most of these rifles were muzzle-loaders, but a French officer, Claude-Étienne Minié, had devised a bullet with a hollowed base that allowed it to expand when fired, forming a tight fit as it left the barrel. This Minié ball, so named despite its cylindrical shape, vastly increased the range and accuracy of the new rifled muskets. The Minié ball and rifled musket were responsible for over 80 percent of battlefield casualties during the Civil War.

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 weapons became available only late in the war. Repeating rifles, used mainly by the cavalry, were also developed. Percussion caps, which were reliable in all kinds of weather, improved the rate of fire and added to the range and accuracy of the rifles. These improved weapons had the effect of extending the killing zone in front of a line of soldiers.

Just as small arms were at a transitional stage at the beginning of the war, so, too, was artillery. Cannon were both smoothbore and rifled, with rifled cannon barrels becoming more widely adopted. During the four years of the conflict, nearly one-half of the Union cannon, but only one-third of Confederate cannon, were rifled. Rifled barrels gave projectiles greater distance, velocity, and accuracy. Cannon were muzzle-loaded with various projectiles, including solid shot and explosive shells such as canisters. These canisters, which killed more men than all other artillery rounds combined, were metallic cylinders packed with musket balls, nails, or metal scraps that, when explosively propelled from cannon, scattered their lethal pellets over a wide area.

At the start of the war, the U.S. Army had about 4,200 cannon, most of which were heavy pieces in coastal fortifications; only 167 were field artillery. The Union army used 7,892 cannon 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.


If hit in the head or chest by bullets or shrapnel, infantry soldiers often died. The Minié ball shattered bones, shredded tendons, and mangled major organs beyond repair. Arm and leg wounds frequently required amputation. Soldiers wounded but not killed on the battlefield frequently succumbed to infections in camp hospitals. On the Northern side, the total medical casualties recorded from May 1, 1861, to June 30, 1866, were 6,454,834. Of this number, at least 195,627 died. If the 425,274 cases due to battle wounds and injuries (and the subsequent 38,115 deaths) are subtracted from the total medical casualties, the remainder, constituting the diseases, numbered 6,029,560 cases, and 157,512 deaths. Southern casualties exhibited a similar pattern, but Confederate medical data are so incomplete and disordered that it is impossible to be specific.

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 mines, and a Confederate captain invented a machine gun. The first use of land mines in war took place during a delaying action that the Confederate army fought near Williamsburg, Virginia, on May 5, 1862. To cover his withdrawal to Richmond, General Gabriel J. Rains ordered 10-inch shells to be buried in the road, with strings attached to the fuses. Union cavalry set off these buried shells, causing casualties and panic.

A breech-loading machine gun, invented by Confederate captain R. S. Williams, was first used at the Battle of Seven Pines, or Fair Oaks (May 31-June 1, 1862). This unwieldy weapon, weighing 275 pounds, with an ammunition box of 600 pounds, was pulled by one horse and operated by three men. Operators turned a crank that fed bullets from a hopper into the breech, and the gun fired these at the rate of twenty to forty per minute, with a range of 2,000 yards. When, in October of 1863, the Confederates brought six of these machine guns into action at the Battle of Blue Springs, Tennessee, the torrent of bullets caused mass confusion in the opposing Union army. However, the Williams machine guns were prone to malfunction and saw little action in the remainder of the war. The same was true of a similar machine gun invented in 1862 by Richard Gatling of Indiana. The multibarreled Gatling gun could fire 250 shots a minute, but its unreliability meant that it was only minimally used by the North.

Naval Weapons

A new weapon that did have significant use in the Civil War was the ironclad warship. The ironclad’s advent came at a time of rapid naval transition—from sail to steam, side-wheel to screw propeller, and thick wood sides to iron armor. The first Confederate ironclad, the CSS Virginia, quickly proved its effectiveness. This experimental craft was built from the scuttled USS Merrimack, which was raised, armored with two layers of thick iron plates, armed with six 9-inch guns, and fitted with a heavy cast-iron prow for ramming. The renamed Virginia was designed to break the Union blockade at Hampton Roads, Virginia, and on March 8, 1862, it sent four large Union warships to the bottom of the channel without sustaining any damage.

Union spies had alerted Northern officials to the construction of the CSS Virginia, and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles engaged Captain John Ericsson, a brilliant engineer, to construct an ironclad in response to this Southern threat. The USS Monitor, which was less than one-third the size of the Virginia, had a distinctive revolving turret containing two 11-inch guns. On March 9, 1862, it confronted the Virginia in one of the most famous naval battles in history. For three hours each ship fired at the other, neither able to inflict any serious damage on the other. The Virginia had shown that wooden ships were helpless when attacked by an ironclad, and now the Monitor had shown that an ironclad could neutralize another ironclad. Ironclads clearly represented the future of naval warfare, consequently dooming wooden navies. Within a week of the battle, Welles ordered six new ironclads, called “monitors” after their prototype. Many others followed, to be used on western rivers and to support the blockade of Southern ports.

The USS St. Louis, the first Eads class ironclad in the Union Navy. In October, 1862, it was renamed the Baron de Kalb in honor of the German officer who fought on the American side in the Revolutionary War. (National Archives)

Less successful than the ironclads was the submarine. Because Southern ports were desperate to break the blockade, private citizens contributed to financing the CSS H. L. Hunley, a nine-man underwater vessel designed to approach blockaders undetected and to sink them with explosives. On February 17, 1864, the Hunley was able to attach an explosive charge to the USS Housatonic by means of a long wooden spar. The explosion sent this 1,800-ton, 23-gun corvette to the bottom of the sea just outside the entrance to Charleston Harbor. However, the Hunley also sank, drowning its crew. Naval mines, which were used by both North and South, proved to be more effective than submarines in sinking enemy ships.

The Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley was powered by eight men working a handcrank and had a maximum speed of about four knots. (U. S. Naval Historical Society)


Uniforms, as well as weapons, evolved over the course of the Civil War. In the early months of the conflict, individual states provided uniforms, which led to a motley of styles and colors. For example, some Union soldiers wore uniforms patterned after those of the Zouaves, French colonial soldiers in Algeria: baggy red breeches and brief blue coats with yellow sashes. Some Union regiments were initially attired in gray, and some Confederate soldiers wore blue, leading to tragic confusion on early battlefields. The Confederate government soon adopted cadet gray as the official color for its uniforms, but it was never able to clothe its soldiers consistently. Confederate officers were expected to provide their own uniforms, and these often did not conform to the standards set by the War Department in 1861. Coats were of many different cuts and materials, but after the first year of the war, they were generally a shade of gray. Not until 1862 were Union soldiers consistently uniformed in blue. As with weapons, the North had an advantage over the South, because their uniforms were made by the newly invented sewing machine, which had helped create a highly developed Northern clothing industry. Northern textile mills were converted to war production, and the factories of Lowell and Lawrence, Massachusetts, were soon turning out thousands of pairs of blue trousers and dark blue fatigue jackets.

Underneath their uniforms many Union volunteers wore body armor to protect themselves against enemy bullets. At least three New England firms manufactured and aggressively marketed the “soldier’s bullet-proof vest.” This vest, containing large pockets into which steel plates were inserted, weighed 3.5 pounds. In some regiments more than half the soldiers used these steel-plated vests, but, as the war progressed, enthusiasm for this uncomfortable body armor waned, especially when enemy sharpshooters chose to aim at soldiers’ heads instead of their chests. These bulletproof vests were far less common among Confederate soldiers because steel was in short supply in the South.

Military Organization

Because many officers of both the Union and Confederate armies had been trained at West Point, both armies were similar in military organization. The regiment, which initially had about 1,000 men, was the basic unit. It was led by a colonel, with a lieutenant colonel as second and a major as third in command. A regiment was divided into 10 companies, each officered by a captain and 2 lieutenants. There were three kinds of regiments: infantry, artillery, and cavalry. Infantry regiments were the nucleus of both the Union and Confederate armies. Artillery regiments were of two basic kinds: heavy artillery positioned in fortifications and light or field artillery attached to mobile armies. Cavalry regiments were organized in the same way as infantry, but the South expected its cavalrymen to provide their own horses, whereas the Union supplied its troops with horses. During the Civil War the Union raised 2,047 regiments: 1,696 infantry, 272 cavalry, and 78 artillery. The numbers of regiments in the Confederacy is unknown because of the loss of relevant records, but rough estimates range from 750 to 1,000.

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 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.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

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.

At the start of the Civil War, the military doctrines of both North and South were guided by French military ideas about the organization and use of large numbers of soldiers. For Napoleon, a military campaign was an orderly sequence of informed decisions leading to a clear objective. American soldiers of both Northern and Southern armies entered the Civil War prepared to fight a version of war more than fifty years old. However, technological progress modifies military doctrines, even though conservative leaders often fight a new war with the techniques of an old one. Some Civil War officers were aware of the disjunction between old doctrines and new realities. For example, they realized the folly of lines of troops advancing into areas enfiladed by highly accurate small-arms and artillery fire. Some officers believed that the only way to conserve their troops during such an assault was to disperse them, even though this meant surrendering strict control of troop movements. This tactic generated controversy, since tight formations caused heavy casualties, but dispersed formations led to dangerously purposeless actions.

Like military doctrine, strategy has evolved in meaning over time. Initially strategy meant the military leader’s art of war, but by the Civil War its sense had become generalized to mean the science of war, or the use of reason to achieve national goals by military means. For example, the overall grand strategy of the Union was to reconquer and reoccupy all original U.S. territory and to restore federal authority throughout. The grand strategy of the Confederacy was to defend its political independence and territorial integrity.

Union Strategy

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 Winfield Scott presented an offensive plan to bring the rebels to accept these terms with as little bloodshed as possible. He proposed economically strangling the Confederacy by blockading its ocean and river ports and gaining military control of the border states. Several newspapers contemptuously called this the Anaconda Plan, because it would take an interminably long time for the strangulation to become effective. Meanwhile, public opinion was clamoring for an immediate invasion to crush the rebellion.

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 Gettysburg, Lee’s army survived and the Confederacy continued to resist. Thus, by 1864, Union strategists realized that it was inadequate to conquer territory and cripple armies. They had to destroy the capacity of the Southern people to wage war. Sherman’s march of conquest and destruction through Georgia and South Carolina in 1864 contributed significantly to weakening the will of Southerners to continue to fight. To many, the Civil War had become, by 1865, a total war, and this fact finally led to the Confederacy’s capitulation.

Confederate Strategy

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.

On the other hand, 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. Lee was also successful in persuading Confederate leaders to modify the “dispersed defensive” strategy into an “offensive-defensive” strategy. This meant that, although the national strategy remained the protection of the Confederacy, this goal could sometimes best be achieved by attacking the enemy in Confederate territory or by attacking the enemy’s territory itself. Lee thus sought to break the Union’s will to reunite the country by defeating its armies. However, in the end Lee’s army could not withstand the unremitting pressure of the large, well-armed, and amply supplied Union armies.


The strategies of North and South were implemented by various tactics. In military terminology, tactics is the management of soldiers on a battlefield. The tactical systems of the Civil War were modifications of deployments in eighteenth century battles. Under the traditional system, soldiers in several long lines advanced toward enemy positions while exchanging controlled volleys. This continued until either the offensive or defensive lines broke down. Although military leaders on both sides continued to use this old tactic, the long range and high accuracy of such new weapons as rifled muskets and cannon, and, later, rapid-fire breechloaders, made its use extremely costly for the attackers. As the war evolved, some commanders developed new tactics that allowed infantry formations to be flexible, even to the point of granting individual soldiers free-handed initiative to achieve their mission.

Improved weapons also brought about the end of the classic cavalry charge, because Minié bullets and raking artillery fire easily downed horses and cavalrymen long before they could reach enemy positions. In the latter part of the war military leaders used cavalry strictly for reconnaissance and the capture of critical road junctions. Because of the failures of traditional assault tactics, both Union and Confederate leaders used, during the campaigns of 1864 and 1865, a new technique that came to be called trench warfare, in which defensive lines were protected by forts with artillery, pits with riflemen, and elaborate breastworks of logs and dirt piles.

The Civil War was also the first American conflict in which the tactic of the rapid movement of men and matériel by railroad played a major role. However, during the initial phases of the war, railroads were used to transport supplies, not troops. By the summer of 1862, when thousands of Union troops were transported to Washington by rail to prevent Lee’s army from capturing the capital, the advantages of train over foot and horse transport became obvious. The South, too, quickly realized the military significance of railroads, and Southern raiders destroyed Northern tracks, bridges, and locomotives. These tactics led to the creation of a special corps in the Union army to repair torn-up tracks and destroyed bridges. This corps used standardized, interchangeable parts and made a science of track and bridge reconstruction. This construction corps was also a destruction corps, because its men developed new ways of destroying enemy rails and bridges. For example, they both bent and twisted heated rails to render them irreparable and useless. The armored railroad car was yet another contribution to military transport technology that made its first appearance during the Civil War. These bulletproof cars were used to patrol important railroads, protecting key supply and troop-transport lines for Union armies.

One of the many technological advances of the Civil War was the use of railroads to move troops and heavy armaments, such as this thirteen-inch mortar, rapidly over great distances. (National Archives)

Naval Battles

Finally, naval tactics, like land tactics, experienced radical changes during the Civil War. Before the war, naval tactics had involved the effective detection of enemy ships and the countermeasures to neutralize or destroy them. Guns were a fleet’s decisive weapons, and a tightly spaced line of ships was its most advantageous formation. The tactical aim was to bring the maximum amount of firepower to bear on the enemy. The Battle of Hampton Roads changed all this. In terms of strategy, the mission of the Monitor was to protect the Union warships that had not yet been destroyed by the Virginia. Because the Monitor did this, the battle was a strategic victory for the North. From a tactical viewpoint, both the Monitor and the Virginia left the battle in almost the same condition as they entered it, with the Monitor a bit more damaged than the Virginia. As for how the battle affected the strategic situation in Virginia, the battle was also a draw, because the Union still controlled Hampton Roads while the Confederates held the rivers.

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 Run (1861) would have been familiar in its weapons and tactics to a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), whereas the trench warfare around Petersburg (1864–1865) and Richmond (1865) was a harbinger of World War I. Furthermore, Sherman’s march through Georgia was an early intimation of the German Blitzkrieg of World War II. The North’s emphasis on outproducing rather than outfighting the South also had a profound influence on future strategic and tactical military thinking. Thus, in its weapons, strategies, and tactics, the Civil War may have begun with an eye to the past, but it ended as a portent of the future.

Categories: History