Discussion Civil War Battlefield Fighting Strategy

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hcheetham

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I don't know if this has been discussed before but was wondering why in every great battle both sides lined up in straight lines opposite each other and prepared to shoot it out.why did they do this?they had to know there would be more chance of being killed fully exposed like this. seems like there would have been a better strategy then this for fighting head-on. always wondered why they did this, was it to show their courage or just to show the strength of their forces.
 

rpkennedy

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Those were the tactics that everyone had been taught. They were based upon the concept of mass fire with inaccurate weapons to maximize casualties. The problem is that as rifles became more common (definitely within the first year), those tactics had become outdated. Where the musket had an effective range of about 100 yards, the rifle could kill at something like 1000 yards. It really wasn't until spring 1864 in the Eastern theater when entrenchments became the norm but there were still a number of stand-up fights.

R
 

Dave Wilma

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And for the most part frontal assaults failed. The better results came out of maneuver operations. It should be noted that this trend became imprinted on American military thinking.
 
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rhp6033

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The trend dated back to the days when the bayonette ruled the battlefield. To make or repel a bayonette charge, a unit had to be in a tight formation so the defenders would be running into a field of sharp, pointy instruments. This also was effective against cavalry, as a horse will not knowingly throw themselves upon a bayonette (or lance). By the Revolutionalry War (and the Napoleanic era) this had changed somewhat with muskets becoming an equal factor in the equation (a charging unit would stop at 50 years, send a volley into the defenders, and then follow up with a bayonette charge).

During the Civil War both sides started out with the same sort of ideas, but about halfway through the war the bayonette was abandoned as a tactical weapon, used mostly as a last resort in hand-to-hand combat and as a tool.
 

phil1861

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Tactics on the field are governed by technology and geography and to a large sense the tactics of the past.

fire is massed as even at 300 yards, though still deadly, the accuracy is questionable for even a rifled musket. You can only mass the fire for a single load weapon by two ranks. If your enemy lines up by a cross roads, you match his front and attempt to gain his flank. The longer the line the more men you need to extend.

It isn't a question of valor, though for all soldiers in all time periods training and a sense of committment to the cause are a requisite nor a question of stupidity of leadership, though a tough lesson to learn are the changing of the tactics to adjust to the technology. When you have formations of double lines, lined up by regimental front in brigades and then in divisions you have to either by force of advance or the wearing out of the enemy confront him with fire and force. Artillery cannot take and hold territory by itself and cavalry is vulnerable when mounted and not used for brute force advancing beyond the shock factor - infantry is called queen of the battlefield for this very reason. The commander who could relieve his front line with reserves and take advantage of the enemy's confusion or sense when he is about to break wins the field or thier immediate front. Terrain and artillery give advantage but the enemy either has to be forced to retreat by flanking manouver or by brute force. If placed where you need to be and placed well with flanks covered, you have the question of giving battle or trying to outflank by other means.

In the end, the enemy's army has to be confronted if he is to be defeated and did he choose the ground by which he is accosted or did you, you deployed your forces and attempted to route him.
 
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AUG

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Mass formations had been in use since ancient times. The main reason for their use was to move large units of men, companies, regiments, brigades etc. around on the field in order. Those tactics evolved to what we have now, wars being fought with small squads and platoons, and firefights taking place here the there, do to rapid fire weapons and smaller unit tactics being produced. Back then, in the 1800s, those line and rank formation tactics were all they had, there was no other way to fight conventional warfare, other than digging in and fighting behind earthworks, which did happen very often.

Back then, battles were fought in a day or two, with huge armies fighting out a battle in a space of a few miles usually. You have to think of regiments and brigades being moved around like chess pieces, whole units of men had to be moved around on the battlefield and be able to engage the enemy, and formations were the way to do it.

Every battle was different and there was a lot more to them than "two sides lining up and shooting back and forth". I like to think of it this way: there are battles of attrition, where two sides fight over a certain amount of ground and both sides push each other back and forth, like the fight in the cornfield at Antietam. Then there are the battles where one side is on the defense, which usually means digging into earthworks and sitting in one spot, defending that ground and holding off the enemy's attacks, like Fredericksburg or Franklin.
 

AUG

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Those were the tactics that everyone had been taught. They were based upon the concept of mass fire with inaccurate weapons to maximize casualties. The problem is that as rifles became more common (definitely within the first year), those tactics had become outdated. Where the musket had an effective range of about 100 yards, the rifle could kill at something like 1000 yards. It really wasn't until spring 1864 in the Eastern theater when entrenchments became the norm but there were still a number of stand-up fights.

R
Actually, most combat seen in the ACW and casualty rates were about the same as in the Napoleonic Wars. Men fought at ranges of 100 to 300 meters or less, sometimes almost point blank range. Most soldiers could not fire rifles very accurately, whether it was do to the stress of battle or not being taught how to use them properly. The maximum range of most of those rifles is 1,000 yards, but in reality that is a difficult shot. Most soldiers couldn't even hit something at 300 yards. In the Napoleonic Wars, casualties were extremely high, even though the common soldier then was armed with a smoothbore and fired buck and ball.

Earthworks and entrenchments were the norm throughout the war. It was common for soldiers to dig breastworks wherever they stopped. Throughout the Vicksburg Campaign and at Port Hudson siege works were used just like those seen at Petersburg in 64-65. In many battles men dug in wherever they had to defend, that was a common practice, even early in the war.
 

Alaskazimm

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And even more simply they couldn't get the volume of fire needed unless they were massed. This is why the skirmishers always moved back to the main line when an attack was coming. They were spaced (most likely) as modern soldiers would be but the volume of lead would be insufficient to do much to slow the attack. So they were kind of caught between the rifles being more accurate at longer ranges without the rapidity to take full advantage.
 
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damYankee

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It went back to the day when muskets were considered nothing more then one shot bayonets and clubs. The other question then is, why did the armies of the Civil War use those tactics when their ancestors exposed the weakness of that tactic in the Revolutionary War, and again in the War of 1812 ?

Were those tactic used in the Mexican American War? I have not done much research into that war.
 

AUG

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It went back to the day when muskets were considered nothing more then one shot bayonets and clubs. The other question then is, why did the armies of the Civil War use those tactics when their ancestors exposed the weakness of that tactic in the Revolutionary War, and again in the War of 1812 ?

Were those tactic used in the Mexican American War? I have not done much research into that war.
Yes, most officers and generals of the era were generally all taught the same formation tactics used throughout the 1800s back at their military academy. Use of those tactics however changed a little over time, but those same line and rank tactics remained.

I think what many are missing here is that, yes, they were used to mass fire for inaccurate, single shot muskets, but the origin of military formations goes back to ancient times, back to the phalanx formations used during the Greco-Persian Wars and throughout the Roman Empire and so on. Those formations of course changed over time, but the main reason for their use was to move large bodies of men across the field in order and engage the enemy in order, while allowing all the men of the unit to fight effectively as a giant cohort or regiment. The weapons changed over time, but the reason for using those formations were to maneuver units around like chess pieces.
 
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damYankee

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AUG351, you are correct as to the origins and reasons for the formations and the logic, moving large formations of men into the proper positions.

During the American Revolutionary War, however, the advantage of skirmishers and guerrilla warfare used along with traditional warfare maneuvers was shown to be very successful. I have always wondered why the US Army and the CSA for the most part ignored the lessons of the American Revolution.

From what little I have read about the Mexican American War, it was our superior artillery and leadership that won the day, that and the fact that the Mexican leadership was at war with it self.

Don't get me wrong, I am not disagreeing with anything you posted, it just befuddles me that throughout history military leadership was so slow to adapt new tactics when they where so eager to develop and use new weapons? WWI is a perfect example, but our own Civil War set the stage for the slaughter that took place in that debacle.
 
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phil1861

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It has more to do with C&C (command and control). The phalanx was effective as it added a medium of control for the application of force, the Romans took this further with the cohort. The phalanx was the military innovation that it was as it allowed for protection for the first and second row of hoplites with shields, the second row armed with short spears, the third and forth row with longer spears, first row with the short sword, other rows for replacements. Moving as a monolith, it was an innovation over individual combat by forces unable to deal with the massed force.

C&C in a formation of regiments and brigades still comes down to who can manage their force appropriately. Discipline and movement, high ground, and numbers of men you can throw into the engagement molded how the war was fought. The Mexican American war was little different in how formations were used.

Once the Germans exhausted their push through Belgium and into France, the war became one of gaining limited advantage as there wasn't a flank for hundreds of miles. Massed artillery could be devastating but the bunkers were dug deeper. Commanders were left with brute force objective taking in hopes of forcing the retirement of a line of defenses. When you don't have a flank you can only hit the front.

Don't overestimate the usefulness of the Revolitionary minuteman and guerilla warfare in ending the war; it was regular formations that made more of a difference with the maintenance of the Continentals throughout.
 
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AUG

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AUG351, you are correct as to the origins and reasons for the formations and the logic, moving large formations of men into the proper positions.

During the American Revolutionary War, however, the advantage of skirmishers and guerrilla warfare used along with traditional warfare maneuvers was shown to be very successful. I have always wondered why the US Army and the CSA for the most part ignored the lessons of the American Revolution.

From what little I have read about the Mexican American War, it was our superior artillery and leadership that won the day, that and the fact that the Mexican leadership was at war with it self.

Don't get me wrong, I am not disagreeing with anything you posted, it just befuddles me that throughout history military leadership was so slow to adapt new tactics when they where so eager to develop and use new weapons? WWI is a perfect example, but our own Civil War set the stage for the slaughter that took place in that debacle.
Well, many Union and Confederate commanders were taught how to fight with conventional tactics and that's what they used and all they knew how to use. I couldn't see many commanders on either side suddenly switch to guerrilla warfare, since they were not trained how to do so and their soldiers were not trained how to either. However, you still had the guerrilla warfare taking place all throughout the border states and many cavalry commanders, especially Confederate cavalry commanders, like Mosby, Forrest, Morgan etc. employing guerrilla warfare and unconventional raiding tactics to good use.

As for the tactics used throughout WW1, I like to think of the situation in WW1 as a stalemate rather than suggesting that the tactics used were idiotic. The generals, just like in any war, were pressured to take the ground that they were assigned to take and frontal assaults against fortified positions were the only way to do it. You had revolutionary weapons, machine guns, accurate and faster loading artillery, bolt action rifles etc. and all that is dug into highly fortified positions. It was a giant stalemate, the commanders needed to take ground, but couldn't because the defenses were too strong and their divisions were cut to pieces on every attack. There was no other option for those generals if you think about it. The only option they had was to send more men into the meat grinder and try to take as much ground as they could. I think many Civil War generals were in the same situation. They knew no other tactics at the time and they used what they had. They were pressured to take ground, but the only way they could do it is to attack with risky consequences.
 
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rhp6033

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Remember also that in open ground, a unit armed with single-shot rifles can quickly get in a world of hurt if flanked by the opposition. In such cases, infantry operates more like ships on the open seas, with both sides striving to "cross the T" and deliver massive flanking fire upon the flank of the other side. This makes ease of unit movement and cohesion vital, and therefore more traditional close-order tactics important.

Once we get into the era of multi-shot weapons, it's not so important because one man on the flank can apply enough firepower (in theory) to give the rest of his unit time to respond.
 

phil1861

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Another aspect of this question of "why did they not learn ..." is an estimation of the basic unit of warfare throughout the ages.

In the Civil War the basic unit was the regiment, but since little can be done to hold ground or effect a difference can be accomplished by a single regiment they were combined into brigades. The brigade was the basic unit for conducting a battle on the field. With the numbers of soldiers rising to the tens of thousands, when it came to command and control the division and corps was what you moved around the map or placed in line of march and upon a field that extended for miles.

By WWI the basic unit became the division, again an increase in the numbers of troops involved and the land mass that was being contested, the basic organization unit became the battalion and though the regiment still existed, one was placed on the map and conducted operations as part of the division, even though the machine gun was equalized the defense the operations were still conducted by overwhelming power and force in infantry formations. Soldiers were organized into squads even in the Civil War, a corporal in command but little was done as a squad save for organization and troop care.

By WWII the company has become the primary means of making war on the field in a divisional area of operations and that more or less continues to today as the means of delivering fire has increased the usefulness of smaller and smaller formations.

What controlled tactics through each era was the means to take and hold territory and deliver fire. As weapons improved in rapidity and accuracy of fire the formations and organizational means of organization changed.
 

bankerpapaw

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You would have thought that after a battle where"new and improved" rifles were used, they would have changed their
tactics.
 
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damYankee

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Well, many Union and Confederate commanders were taught how to fight with conventional tactics and that's what they used and all they knew how to use. I couldn't see many commanders on either side suddenly switch to guerrilla warfare, since they were not trained how to do so and their soldiers were not trained how to either. However, you still had the guerrilla warfare taking place all throughout the border states and many cavalry commanders, especially Confederate cavalry commanders, like Mosby, Forrest, Morgan etc. employing guerrilla warfare and unconventional raiding tactics to good use.

As for the tactics used throughout WW1, I like to think of the situation in WW1 as a stalemate rather than suggesting that the tactics used were idiotic. The generals, just like in any war, were pressured to take the ground that they were assigned to take and frontal assaults against fortified positions were the only way to do it. You had revolutionary weapons, machine guns, accurate and faster loading artillery, bolt action rifles etc. and all that is dug into highly fortified positions. It was a giant stalemate, the commanders needed to take ground, but couldn't because the defenses were too strong and their divisions were cut to pieces on every attack. There was no other option for those generals if you think about it. The only option they had was to send more men into the meat grinder and try to take as much ground as they could. I think many Civil War generals were in the same situation. They knew no other tactics at the time and they used what they had. They were pressured to take ground, but the only way they could do it is to attack with risky consequences.
I agree with you on the Civil War part, as for WWI, there is little doubt the tactics used by the French and British lead to enormous losses, the slaughter done by the German machine guns crews is well recorded. The well known French Army Revolt of 1917 was a direct result of the inept and arrogant disregard for human life shown by the commanders who spent most of their nights partying in Paris while their minions were living in disgusting rat infested trenches by night and dying by the thousands by day is well documented and was the reason Pershing refused to submit to British and French commanders who desired to have the Americans placed under thier command.

The Civil War was the worst slaughter our nation ever experienced, it was child play compared to WWI where in one battle, the Battle of the Somme 60,000 casualties occurred in one day, and Haig and Joffre decided to toast the success with a bottle of 1840 brandy, the final toll of that one battle was over one million...idiotic is a understatement.
 

AUG

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I agree with you on the Civil War part, as for WWI, there is little doubt the tactics used by the French and British lead to enormous losses, the slaughter done by the German machine guns crews is well recorded. The well known French Army Revolt of 1917 was a direct result of the inept and arrogant disregard for human life shown by the commanders who spent most of their nights partying in Paris while their minions were living in disgusting rat infested trenches by night and dying by the thousands by day is well documented and was the reason Pershing refused to submit to British and French commanders who desired to have the Americans placed under thier command.

The Civil War was the worst slaughter our nation ever experienced, it was child play compared to WWI where in one battle, the Battle of the Somme 60,000 casualties occurred in one day, and Haig and Joffre decided to toast the success with a bottle of 1840 brandy, the final toll of that one battle was over one million...idiotic is a understatement.
I agree, but talking in terms of tactics, strategy, and the options those generals had, they didn't have that many to choose from. They were expected to take that ground and if they refused they could be court martialed and if they failed it could hurt their reputation. So, of course many of them would choose to throw their men forward, despite the consequences, as it was the only option they had and they didn't care about the thousands of men who's lives they were responsible for, but rather for their own reputation. They could choose which section of the enemy's lines to concentrate their attack on, what units attack where, how long to bombard the enemy line for, or when to attack, but no matter what, it was their responsibility to attack. You're right, they didn't respect the lives of their men, but instead chose to protect their own reputation and carry out the suborn attacks that lead to so many lives lost.
 
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