Why did so many attacks in the CW fail?

Cycom

Sergeant
Joined
Feb 19, 2021
Location
Los Angeles, California
Why did so many attacks within battles or general offensives fail? More specifically, why did they fail to even occur?

I’m watching a documentary on YouTube about Chickamauga, and the multiple failures of various attacks to materialize (or if they do, the lateness throws a wrench the plan) really sticks out and makes me remember more than a few others. The doc explains how the three Confederate columns that were meant to cross the creek and strike at Rosecrans’ left flank were late and as a result ran into problems. One division dealing with the Fed’s Spencer rifles and got stuck there for hours. Another, due to miscommunication, didn’t press the attack and instead bivouacked for the night.

Being late in getting formed up and then attacking just seems to mess up the masterplan. Bragg had the opportunity to smash into Rosecrans’ army before he could escape to Chattanooga. Another thing that stood out was that prior to the main engagement, the lateness of the Rebels to exploit a big opening and possibly capture or decimate an entire Federal division was a major lost opportunity. Apologies that I cannot recall who was involved here…bad short term memory!

These are just a few examples of many. So why did these mishaps occur? Why were there so many instances of armies being late to the fray?

So far I am reasoning that some of the possibilities maybe the inherent difficulties of readying and deploying divisions/corps, especially in the context of primitive (for our time) communication technologies. Also, hesitancy and incompetence among more than a few generals, both North and South.

Your thoughts?
 

dlofting

First Sergeant
Joined
Aug 13, 2013
Location
Vancouver, BC, Canada
I think communications were a big reason that attacks failed or were late or didn't happen at all.

The northern part of the Chickamauga battlefield is densely wooded and relatively flat so that was an added complication to observation and communication.

Contrast that with Gettysburg which was much more open and had high points that were ideal for observation and signalling.

I think you have to look at each battle and battlefield separately and in detail to answer your question.
 

DaveBrt

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Mar 6, 2010
Location
Charlotte, NC
Why did so many attacks within battles or general offensives fail? More specifically, why did they fail to even occur?

I’m watching a documentary on YouTube about Chickamauga, and the multiple failures of various attacks to materialize (or if they do, the lateness throws a wrench the plan) really sticks out and makes me remember more than a few others. The doc explains how the three Confederate columns that were meant to cross the creek and strike at Rosecrans’ left flank were late and as a result ran into problems. One division dealing with the Fed’s Spencer rifles and got stuck there for hours. Another, due to miscommunication, didn’t press the attack and instead bivouacked for the night.

Being late in getting formed up and then attacking just seems to mess up the masterplan. Bragg had the opportunity to smash into Rosecrans’ army before he could escape to Chattanooga. Another thing that stood out was that prior to the main engagement, the lateness of the Rebels to exploit a big opening and possibly capture or decimate an entire Federal division was a major lost opportunity. Apologies that I cannot recall who was involved here…bad short term memory!

These are just a few examples of many. So why did these mishaps occur? Why were there so many instances of armies being late to the fray?

So far I am reasoning that some of the possibilities maybe the inherent difficulties of readying and deploying divisions/corps, especially in the context of primitive (for our time) communication technologies. Also, hesitancy and incompetence among more than a few generals, both North and South.

Your thoughts?
Poor maps, poor intelligence, difficult communications, too much smoke, poor execution of movement, etc.
 

Cycom

Sergeant
Joined
Feb 19, 2021
Location
Los Angeles, California
Execution of movement as in hesitancy on the part of the commanders?

As incompetent as Bragg was, I fail to believe that even he wouldn’t exploit an obvious opening, which is where the other stuff you mentioned comes into play.
 

jackt62

Captain
Joined
Jul 28, 2015
Location
New York City
Many attacks failed in the case of direct assaults against entrenched positions. The defender in those cases had a huge advantage. Franklin, Cold Harbor, Kennesaw Mt., and Fredericksburg are some of the most famous examples, but by 1864 both armies realized the superiority of digging in with hastily constructed or engineered field works.
 

Jantzen64

Corporal
Joined
Aug 10, 2019
I think you and @DaveBrt and @dlofting have it right on many fronts, Cycom. When we read about these battles, or play them in games, it's so easy to sit in our proverbial armchairs and expect units to perform exactly as directed when in fact the chaos, confusion and real world consequences of warfare make it more likely than not that plans will go awry. I remember Richard Berg's old Great Battles of the Civil War Series (as distinguished from the Great Campaigns of the Civil War series). You may recall them, the series beginning with Terrible Swift Sword? Berg was a master for including Random Events into the mechanics of the game to make the best laid plans go screwy. Everything ranging from bad maps to acoustic shadow to garbled orders to unit exhaustion to timidity/cowardice to petulance (Wood at Chickamauga or Longstreet at Gettysburg?) to questionable supply conditions (will those additional rounds come up before I attack?) to poor training or new leaders! Berg's First Blood Campaign even had one devoted to attacks by wasps, and IIRC, another one dealing with maneuver delays associated with having leaders/men dealing with . . . shall we say . . . .the effects of dirty water and too much green corn! That may be taking it a bit too far, but ultimately, with non-professional armies and many non-professional leaders (particularly at regimental or brigade level), compunded by the fog and friction of war, it was hard to drive positive, offensive action, esepcially given the comparative "safety" of the defensive. Or, a missed breakfast or lack of water may shorten troops stamina. Think of the loss of the 15th Alabama's canteen detail on July 2 at Gettysburg. Griffith in his works on ACW tactics talks about the criticality of constant, active and informed leadership in driving home attacks. From his perspective, the question is better framed as to why any attacks succeeded, as opposed to why did most fail/stall.
 

Cycom

Sergeant
Joined
Feb 19, 2021
Location
Los Angeles, California
I think you and @DaveBrt and @dlofting have it right on many fronts, Cycom. When we read about these battles, or play them in games, it's so easy to sit in our proverbial armchairs and expect units to perform exactly as directed when in fact the chaos, confusion and real world consequences of warfare make it more likely than not that plans will go awry. I remember Richard Berg's old Great Battles of the Civil War Series (as distinguished from the Great Campaigns of the Civil War series). You may recall them, the series beginning with Terrible Swift Sword? Berg was a master for including Random Events into the mechanics of the game to make the best laid plans go screwy. Everything ranging from bad maps to acoustic shadow to garbled orders to unit exhaustion to timidity/cowardice to petulance (Wood at Chickamauga or Longstreet at Gettysburg?) to questionable supply conditions (will those additional rounds come up before I attack?) to poor training or new leaders! Berg's First Blood Campaign even had one devoted to attacks by wasps, and IIRC, another one dealing with maneuver delays associated with having leaders/men dealing with . . . shall we say . . . .the effects of dirty water and too much green corn! That may be taking it a bit too far, but ultimately, with non-professional armies and many non-professional leaders (particularly at regimental or brigade level), compunded by the fog and friction of war, it was hard to drive positive, offensive action, esepcially given the comparative "safety" of the defensive. Or, a missed breakfast or lack of water may shorten troops stamina. Think of the loss of the 15th Alabama's canteen detail on July 2 at Gettysburg. Griffith in his works on ACW tactics talks about the criticality of constant, active and informed leadership in driving home attacks. From his perspective, the question is better framed as to why any attacks succeeded, as opposed to why did most fail/stall.
This makes sense. We’re so used to instant communication…battles were extremely chaotic 150 years ago with no means to instantly call in orders. Must have been hell to coordinate entire divisions much less entire armies.
 

wausaubob

Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
Many of them did succeed. Usually when there was a flanking position favoring the attackers, or the defender's line was over extended, or when the aggressor was able to use cavalry mobility to achieve either a flank position or a concentration at the point of attack.
The Confederates were usually the smaller army, and they were gradually losing their cavalry force, and thus after Chickamuaga the Confederates rarely succeed with attacks. But even they did achieve surprise, in some instances.
The breakthrough at Five Forks involved at US holding attack by the cavalry and the infantry exposing a break in the lines. That was followed by an attack the next morning all along the Petersburg lines, which was completely successful. A lot of that was impossible for the Confederates because they could not mass enough soldiers at any point, and the didn't have enough weight in their cavalry forces to use it against infantry.
 

MichaelWinicki

Private
Joined
Jul 23, 2020
Some great answers here!

One area of fault would be a subset of the "communication" thing.

An example I can think of is Burnside with Franklin's attack at Fredericksburg...

The attack instructions were rather "wishy-washy" and Franklin's attack was rather tepid at best.

Quite often we have seen attack instructions be murky at best. Sort of "Attack if you can... Aggressively if possibly... But hold back some reserves!"
 

Pat Answer

Sergeant Major
Forum Host
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Location
“...somewhere between NY and PA”
I'm not as convinced by the "weapons ahead of the tactics" argument. Single-shot black powder weapons, even though rifled, still meant that to mass fire, one had to mass men. Add the command and control issues and the shoulder-to-shoulder formation still made sense on the battlefield.* The command-and-control and communication issues mentioned in this thread were the key, I think. And Clausewitz noted that defense was the "stronger form of warfare" because attacks were simply that much harder to coordinate.



(*Paddy Griffith Battle Tactics of the Civil War, Brent Nosworthy The Bloody Crucible of Courage, and Earl Hess Civil War Infantry Tactics make the points much better than I can.)
 

Pat Answer

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Important to note that many Confederate attacks were initially successful but failed because they lacked sufficient reserves to press the assault and to hold ground. Shiloh, Perryville, Stones River, Atlanta, Cedar Creek are some that come to kind.
Good point.

Also highlights the fact that it would be a clairvoyant general indeed who would know exactly where an initial assault would break through along a line and position extra reserves accordingly. Many attacks tended to eat up local reserves just achieving an initial breakthrough.
 

Luke Freet

First Sergeant
Forum Host
Joined
Nov 8, 2018
Location
Palm Coast, Florida
Why did so many attacks within battles or general offensives fail? More specifically, why did they fail to even occur?

I’m watching a documentary on YouTube about Chickamauga, and the multiple failures of various attacks to materialize (or if they do, the lateness throws a wrench the plan) really sticks out and makes me remember more than a few others. The doc explains how the three Confederate columns that were meant to cross the creek and strike at Rosecrans’ left flank were late and as a result ran into problems. One division dealing with the Fed’s Spencer rifles and got stuck there for hours. Another, due to miscommunication, didn’t press the attack and instead bivouacked for the night.

Being late in getting formed up and then attacking just seems to mess up the masterplan. Bragg had the opportunity to smash into Rosecrans’ army before he could escape to Chattanooga. Another thing that stood out was that prior to the main engagement, the lateness of the Rebels to exploit a big opening and possibly capture or decimate an entire Federal division was a major lost opportunity. Apologies that I cannot recall who was involved here…bad short term memory!

These are just a few examples of many. So why did these mishaps occur? Why were there so many instances of armies being late to the fray?

So far I am reasoning that some of the possibilities maybe the inherent difficulties of readying and deploying divisions/corps, especially in the context of primitive (for our time) communication technologies. Also, hesitancy and incompetence among more than a few generals, both North and South.

Your thoughts?
Here's what needs to be kept in mind. This war is being fought on a massive scale, compared to what the US had experienced prior. Thus, you get a lot of citizen soldiers and officers, people with limited or no military experience or education getting commands at the company or regimental on up to Corps level. Looking at Stewart's Division, all three brigade commanders have no military education or experience. Patrick Cleburne's only prewar military experience was as a grunt in the British army. And the guys on top, while usually West Point graduates, aren't really prepared for the massive commands they are given.
Then you factor in the West Point training is primarily engineering, and only in the last year does one really get military education. Thus, the commanders are much more well versed in defensive aspects of conflict (entrenchments, fortifications, etc) than assault tactics and such.
Then there's the matter of terrain. Lee is helped in Virginia by the fact that Union numbers advantage is reduced due to the wooded and hilly terrain. Same deal in the case of Chickamauga, with heavy woods and hilly ground. In an age before radio communications and such, commanders have to control units on sight, which is difficult when the terrain results in you being unable to see much of it due to terrain. Communication between commanders is usually down by couriers, which can cause issues when the couriers get lost or killed on the way to delivering orders, as happened on the night of September 19th-20th when D. H. Hill was not informed of his need to attack at daylight until the morning, after a night of couriers and staff running around in a wild goose chase in the Georgia woodland.
All of these factors result in attacks usually failing. Of course, there are factors that can contribute to them succeeding; advantageous terrain for the attackers; poor leadership and positioning of the defending troops; poor training for the defending troops, compared to those on the attack; surprise; etc. This is how you get events like the rout of the 11th Corps at Chancellorsville.
 
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