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Perspective

Today is the hundred and forty fourth anniversary of the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. In the three bloody days of that battle, on the Union side alone, we had about as many casualties, killed and wounded as we've had in over four years in Iraq.

Posted by Rand Simberg at July 01, 2007 11:02 AM
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RS wrote:
> In the three bloody days of that battle, on
> the Union side alone, we had about as many
> casualties, killed and wounded as we've had in
> over four years in Iraq.

Yeah, it seems like the US Civil War involved the
confrontation of 18-th century tactics with 20th
century weaponry... mass advance tactics that
were evolved to close a force with an enemy to
engage them with swords and spears left something
to be desired when facing firearms with useful
accuracy at long range and at least the beginning
of the capabilty for sustained fire at a decent
rate. Not surprising the wars of the transitional
period were such "meat-grinders"...!

-dw

Posted by David Weinshenker at July 1, 2007 03:33 PM

If you look at the technology of the 19th century, they really didn't have much choice. They had a huge amount of firepower, but low mobility. For example, Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign, a series of battles and skirmishes that drove several Union armies out of the Shenadoah Valley (which now lies between West Virginia and Virginia) and arrived in time to help defend Richmond, Virginia (then the seat of the Confederacy) during the Seven Days Battles. His army is supposed to have marched roughly 650 miles in 48 days (and fought five significant battles before entering the Seven Days Battles), and that is among other things a notable example of a mobile army during the 19th Century. Cavalry could move considerably faster, but they weren't the prime strength of the army.

As far as I can tell, the two most notable changes for the 19th century in the mobility of armies (and their logistics) was the development of railroads and steam-powered (and sometimes armored) ships. I may be missing significant improvements in sailing technology.

The meatgrinder aspects of wars from the Napoleanic Wars through to the First World War are due to this problem of too much firepower and not enough mobility.

Posted by Karl Hallowell at July 1, 2007 09:09 PM

There is a fascinating argument that General Lee intended for Stuarts' cavalry to arrive at the rear of Union lines at the exact same moment Pickett's infantry reached the front.

Had that happened, the Union army would have been split in two and routed.

But it appears that George Custer with a tiny handful of cavalry charged headlong into the tip of Stuart's men riding in column and delayed the advance. By the time Custer's men were shoved aside, Stuart knew he could never reach the Union rear in time to meet Pickett's men and therefore to continue on would have sacrificed the cavalry as well as Pickett's division, in vain.

Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee executed the exact same strategy on previous occasions with Jackson's infantry serving as a flying column that would unexpectedly appear at exactly the wrong time and place for the Union generals, but alas, Jackson was dead.

= = =

Although am I a Northerner (Billy Yank -- born in Detroit & mostly raised in Chicago) I have always loved this passage by William Faulkner:

"For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when itís still not yet two oclock on the July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and itís all in the balance, it hasnít happened yetÖ."

Gives me chills, even now.

Posted by at July 2, 2007 08:28 AM

While I find Karl's point (firepower vs mobility) interesting, there is a much bigger factor than that at work behind the enormously inflated casualties of most of 19th (and early 20th) century warfare. Keep in mind that the firepower available to armies massively increased between 1815 (Waterloo) and the outbreak of the American Civil War (1861), but with the possible exception of Crimea (which 'doesn't count' for a whole variety of reasons beyond the purposes of this entry), there was very little combat experience to reveal the imbalances resulting from this. Actually there was considerable strategic mobility (railroads) by the time of the ACW, but this only made the situation worse as it allowed armies to freely reinforce and thus avoid the sort of operational collapses that made Napoleonic warfare so decisive. Tactical mobility was certainly no worse by 1860, though most of the generals on both sides of the ACW were a bit clumsy handling their troops on the battlefield proper until later in the war (which is when the real killing got started) due in part to their 'amateur' status.

Most of the linear tactics that developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were predicated upon the assumption that the 'final resolution' of any battle would be brought about not by fire, but by shock, i.e. an infantry or cavalry charge with bayonets or very short range volleys. This made (some) sense when the primary weapon in the hands of infantry was the muzzle-loading smoothbore (low rate of fire and a typical effective range of 100 meters or less), but as breechloading rifles (a much higher rate of fire and effective typically in the 400 meter range group) became more common, these tactics were often less useful.

Consider: infantry charging over open ground against an established defender would be exposed to 1, possibly 2 defensive volleys from that defender in 1800, but by 1860 this number could expected to be 5 or 6. Add to this that the rounds were more deadly (the so-called 'Minie round' had substantially increased the leathality of small arms), more accurate, and that infantry was still using the massed formations (vitally important for command/control purposes - no radio, no smokeless powder, and a very noisy and chaotic battlefield), and you can see how a 'perfect storm' for battlefield casualties were created.

To make matters worse, the veneration (nay...deification) of Napoleon led to a situation where all 'educated' generals slavishly imitated his tactics despite their inappropriateness for the changed circumstances. It is interesting to note that this problem continued until WWI, where only those generals with either experience in South Africa's Boer Wars, or who had studied the American Civil War 50 years earlier saw that their tactics weren't working.

Anyway...sorry about the long post...

Posted by Scott at July 2, 2007 09:02 AM

It is interesting to note that this problem continued until WWI, where only those generals with either experience in South Africa's Boer Wars, or who had studied the American Civil War 50 years earlier saw that their tactics weren't working.

Yes, anyone who knew what had happened at Cold Harbor could have foreseen what a disaster trench warfare would be, particularly with the advent of automatic weapons.

Posted by Rand Simberg at July 2, 2007 09:07 AM

Rand, or the trench warfare at Petersburg, Virginia which was a ten month long siege warfare that was the last real action before Lee's army surrendered. This had many of the elements that would be present in the First World War. Rapid fire weapons (gatlings guns, the first US machine guns, weren't yet deployed so I understand), but they had Spencer repeating rifles and of course, siege artillery. Also some of the tricks like underground mining.

Keep in mind that trench warfare has been present in the US before this. For example, the longest siege of the Revolutionary War was against loyalist-held fortifications at the town of Ninety Six, South Carolina.

Scott, you make an important point. In addition to the command and control sluggishness of the era, there's a long history of fairly high ranking leaders dying during battle that's unparalleled in modern wars. For example, at Gettysburg, at a glance I count at least three Union and three Confederate generals that died either during the battle or later due to injuries received there (there were more than 60 Union generals and 50 Confederate generals present). But this sort of turnover in the leadership no doubt contributed to C&C problems.

Posted by Karl Hallowell at July 2, 2007 12:30 PM

Actually if you want to see a real example of trench warfware pre-WWI, go look at the Crimean campaign of 1854. The so-called Charge of the Light Brigade was an example of what happens when you send unsupported troops against dug-in defenders.

Karl's point re: loss of General officers and C&C issues is an interesting one, but it cuts both ways. The ACW saw a truly horrific toll of senior officers (Col and above) compared to just about any conflict of the nineteenth century (far more than the twentieth century, when these officers were no longer anywhere near the front lines, thanks to better communications), but that actually helped the Union and hurt the Confederacy. The Union started the war with some truly awful senior officers (mostly political hacks) while the bulk of the decent professional officers went with the CSA. As the war went on, and many of these officers died, the Union tended to replace theirs with better (more proven) officers, while the CSA (far more politics-ridden, largely a result of their heavily 'federalized' political structure) saw a significant decline in the quality of its officer corps. Worse still, many of the CSA most senior commanders were clear victims of the Peter principle, and ended up being promoted far beyond their level of competence. The best example of this would be John Bell Hood, an outstanding division commander, adequate corps commander, and truly awful army commander. The Union had the same problem (Ambrose Burnside and Joseph E. Hooker come immediately to mind), but they tended to 'wash out' once their incompetence was revealed while those in the CSA were largely shielded by powerful political patrons.

Posted by Scott at July 2, 2007 12:55 PM

Don't forget the wonders of Braxton Bragg. Another truly awful commander who nonetheless had the ear of the President.

Posted by Lurking Observer at July 2, 2007 03:57 PM

Yes, Bragg was truly awful, and he was spared any serious consequences by his deep personal connections with Jefferson Davis. Of course Davis (who fancied himself a military expert) interfered in the running of the CSA's armies (notably in the West, in the East even he dared not trifle with the Grey Fox...) with decidedly negative results. Not only Bragg but Hood (possibly the worst army commander of the war for the CSA, even worse than Bragg) were creatures of Davis, while Joe Johnston (who did a fine job against impossible odds in holding off Sherman during the Atlanta campaign) lost his command due more than anything else running afoul of Davis.

I wonder if Harry Reid has ever studied a good history of civil-military relations during the ACW...it might do him (and the country) a world of good...

Posted by Scott at July 2, 2007 10:41 PM


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