Why did so many attacks in the CW fail?

Cycom

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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?
 

jackt62

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Seasoned commanders on both sides generally understood that a successful offense would work best by trying to turn the enemy's flank and/or rear, particularly in those cases where one or more of the enemy line was unattached or "in the air." Lee and Jackson were masters at this but the technique was often the go-to one for senior commanders. At 1st Mannasas, each side planned to turn the opponent's left; but McDowell beat Beauregard to the punch, and was still defeated due to undisciplined troops and Confederate reinforcements. Similar tactics played out at Stones River, where Bragg launched a massive wheeling movement against the Union flank, but still failed when it run out of steam. If a commander also had sufficient knowledge of terrain and enemy positions, was able to skillfully deploy artillery and perhaps cavalry, was dealing with a motivated and trained force, and had a good system for communicating and transmitting orders and instructions, then the recipe for a successful assault was at hand. But to bring all those factors into play was a tall order, and a breakdown in one or more of those elements was often the cause for a failed assault.
 

Belfoured

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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!"
And I would add that Burnside and Franklin appear to have been operating with disparate maps. A lot of "friction"/"fog of war" out there on December 13.
 

Cycom

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And I would add that Burnside and Franklin appear to have been operating with disparate maps. A lot of "friction"/"fog of war" out there on December 13.
Doesn’t Burnside receive proper blame for ordering one failed attack after another? Even with faulty maps and everything else, he ok’d massed charges that were each stopped. Figured he would have learned after a few failed.
 

jackt62

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Doesn’t Burnside receive proper blame for ordering one failed attack after another? Even with faulty maps and everything else, he ok’d massed charges that were each stopped. Figured he would have learned after a few failed.
The irony here is that the main thrust of the Burnside plan was to have been a classic attempt by Franklin's Grand Division to turn Jackson's position at Hamilton Crossing. The more famous assault against Longstreet at Mayre's Heights was intended as a diversionary movement by Sumner's Grand Division. But because of ambiguous orders and botched execution, Franklin's assault failed; Burnside persisted in mounting futile frontal assaults against Longstreet's Corps either due to stubborness, ignorance, fear of failure, or all of the above or something else.
 
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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.
But the success of that attack really had nothing to do with the specific circumstances of the particular attack. Rather it was the culmination of Grant's strategic campaign to continually stretch Lee's defense to the breaking point. Suppose the attack was a complete failure, what would have ensued. Another flanking attack, stretching Lee's defensive line even further, making each and every defense point weaker and weaker. Without some massive blunder on Grant's part there is literally nothing that Lee can do to stave off the inevitable end--total Confederate collapse. The question is simply how long does it take.
 
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Out dated Napoleonic tactics.
Almost. But you're on the right track.

The entire Western military world was convinced that following the epic defeat of Napoleon by Wellington at Waterloo that the French column had convincingly been shown to be inferior to the British line. If Napoleon the uncontested master of the column formation had been bested, then obviously the formation was inferior.

The CW was the first real war where both sides were playing from the same playbook. Line vs line. Almost every general especially every commanding general on either side was a graduate of West Point. They both could quote you chapter and verse from Hardee's textbook.

What nobody seemed to understand was that Waterloo did not prove that the line was the superior formation but that it was the best formation to receive and attack successfully. Essentially every battle of the CW was comparable to two guys in inflatable suits running into each other and bouncing off. Unless the attacker had overwhelming numerical superiority (say 10-1) the attack was a failure.

People bring up Chickamauga as an example of success. Elsewhere in this forum some have criticised lack of coordination. True or not the simple basic truth about the battle was that the Union general made a crucial, critical mistake and opened a hole in his defensive line that my aunt's girl scout troop of disable girls could have marched through successfully. On the other hand Lee/Jackson's famous flanking march at Chancellorsville unquestionably an act of military genius, failed because at the point of attack somewhere from half to a full hour was wasted transitioning from column into line. That delay ordained that the attack which could have been decisive was merely a tactical and temporary victory.
 

Saphroneth

Major
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Feb 18, 2017
My understanding of the reason why attacks tended to fail is as follows.

1) The attacker is the one with the larger psychological challenge to overcome, and the defender can just hold position and blaze away.
2) The attacker has no way to respond while he is advancing, and the urge to take cover and return fire just to be doing something is strong (plus it means taking cover, which is a short-term increase of safety but means the attack fails).
3) Civil War soldiers were generally not well drilled by the standards of regular infantry, so training that reluctance out of them was not always as complete as it was elsewhere.
4) Field works enhance the psychological factors in favour of the defence, plus mean that defenders take fewer casualties.

This means that for an attack to succeed, it generally needs some kind of supporting factor. This is either significant local numerical advantage, or artillery superiority, or flanking the enemy, or one of those X-factors which turn up all the time in the chaos of actual battles (like the enemy's nerve breaking unexpectedly, or a poorly-timed retreat, or muskets not working).


A related question is why attacks were launched that did not have those supporting factors, and the answer is complicated but I think comes down partly to incomplete information for the attackers and partly to the idea that aggression is a positive good.


In addition, there's the factor that fairly small attacks which were successful (such as focusing a brigade on a single enemy regiment, etc.) often led to the attackers needing to consolidate to avoid being flanked as they "drove into" the penetration of the enemy lines. If you've pushed half a mile into the enemy position with your brigade but the enemy brigades on either side of the penetration haven't moved, then you've suddenly encircled yourself!



You can think of an attack as like rolling some dice. If you've lined up a perfect attack, then any result on the dice will mean you succeed, but lining up a perfect attack takes a lot of time and effort and may not achieve much even if successful. It's not often you get the chance for such an "ideal" attack, and even if you've been able to line one up the enemy will probably notice the risk and retreat.
Riskier attacks which have smaller chances of success come up more often, and are easier to set up, but less likely to succeed. It's also more likely that the defenders will "let the attack happen" rather than retreating.


The attacks at Fredericksburg are an interesting example of this, because both Union attacks were failures but they're a different type of failure.
Franklin's attack in the south is a failure that was a "good odds" attack, or one worth taking. It saw multiple divisions attacking in concert and focusing on a small part of the enemy line, and it achieved significant local success while it ultimately broke down owing to coordination failures in using the reserves to support success; the casualties inflicted here are fairly even on both sides.
The Marye's Heights attacks in the north are a failure that was a "bad odds" attack. Each brigade attacked pretty much on its own against strongly defensible terrain, and that meant that the Confederates were never faced with the kind of force concentration that could make headway; the casualties here are incredibly lopsided, something like 6:1 or so.
 

NH Civil War Gal

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The Marye's Heights attacks in the north are a failure that was a "bad odds" attack. Each brigade attacked pretty much on its own against strongly defensible terrain, and that meant that the Confederates were never faced with the kind of force concentration that could make headway; the casualties here are incredibly lopsided, something like 6:1 or so.
Burnside really failed to read the writing on the wall there. Laying the pontoon boats was too easy - that should have been a clue. Longstreet lured him in to a very classic trap and Burnside was not the man for the job that day. There were a number of clues on that particular battle that a more experienced leader should have read before crossing that river.
 

wausaubob

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But the success of that attack really had nothing to do with the specific circumstances of the particular attack. Rather it was the culmination of Grant's strategic campaign to continually stretch Lee's defense to the breaking point. Suppose the attack was a complete failure, what would have ensued. Another flanking attack, stretching Lee's defensive line even further, making each and every defense point weaker and weaker. Without some massive blunder on Grant's part there is literally nothing that Lee can do to stave off the inevitable end--total Confederate collapse. The question is simply how long does it take.
The larger army, if it has better logistical support, can stretch the line of the smaller army. The results at Chattanooga were not that different than the results at Five Forks/Petersburg.
 

Saphroneth

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Burnside really failed to read the writing on the wall there. Laying the pontoon boats was too easy - that should have been a clue. Longstreet lured him in to a very classic trap and Burnside was not the man for the job that day. There were a number of clues on that particular battle that a more experienced leader should have read before crossing that river.
To be honest I don't think you can go from there - there was a major opportunity squandered when the Union didn't cross the river before Longstreet's advance troops got there, even if relying on the fords for supply, but the reason the Confederates defended at Fredericksburg is that they more or less had to. Any Confederate position south of Fredericksburg is liable to be outflanked to the east, and Burnside's army was so much larger than Lee's that they could fix-and-turn in open country, which means that Fredericksburg was the last place where the Confederates could stop the advance of the whole Union army at once.

The great worry of the Confederates is effectively a Union army in established supply south of the Rapidan/Rappahannock. At that point they can't really contain the Union force any more and can be compelled to fall back to Richmond by outflanking.


As for the specifics of the Fredericksburg battle, the Confederate position was strong but potentially brittle. The whole of Franklin's grand division could have been thrown into a single strong (sequenced) attack which could overwhelm the Confederate lines, and it'd still leave Burnside plenty of divisions to prevent the Confederates focusing all their attention on Franklin's division; the Confederate line is long enough that they don't have all that much in the way of reserves. I think Burnside's big error was simply that he wasn't used to the scale of his command and was used to thinking of a "division" as a powerful unt.
 

wausaubob

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My understanding of the reason why attacks tended to fail is as follows.

1) The attacker is the one with the larger psychological challenge to overcome, and the defender can just hold position and blaze away.
2) The attacker has no way to respond while he is advancing, and the urge to take cover and return fire just to be doing something is strong (plus it means taking cover, which is a short-term increase of safety but means the attack fails).
3) Civil War soldiers were generally not well drilled by the standards of regular infantry, so training that reluctance out of them was not always as complete as it was elsewhere.
4) Field works enhance the psychological factors in favour of the defence, plus mean that defenders take fewer casualties.

This means that for an attack to succeed, it generally needs some kind of supporting factor. This is either significant local numerical advantage, or artillery superiority, or flanking the enemy, or one of those X-factors which turn up all the time in the chaos of actual battles (like the enemy's nerve breaking unexpectedly, or a poorly-timed retreat, or muskets not working).


A related question is why attacks were launched that did not have those supporting factors, and the answer is complicated but I think comes down partly to incomplete information for the attackers and partly to the idea that aggression is a positive good.


In addition, there's the factor that fairly small attacks which were successful (such as focusing a brigade on a single enemy regiment, etc.) often led to the attackers needing to consolidate to avoid being flanked as they "drove into" the penetration of the enemy lines. If you've pushed half a mile into the enemy position with your brigade but the enemy brigades on either side of the penetration haven't moved, then you've suddenly encircled yourself!



You can think of an attack as like rolling some dice. If you've lined up a perfect attack, then any result on the dice will mean you succeed, but lining up a perfect attack takes a lot of time and effort and may not achieve much even if successful. It's not often you get the chance for such an "ideal" attack, and even if you've been able to line one up the enemy will probably notice the risk and retreat.
Riskier attacks which have smaller chances of success come up more often, and are easier to set up, but less likely to succeed. It's also more likely that the defenders will "let the attack happen" rather than retreating.


The attacks at Fredericksburg are an interesting example of this, because both Union attacks were failures but they're a different type of failure.
Franklin's attack in the south is a failure that was a "good odds" attack, or one worth taking. It saw multiple divisions attacking in concert and focusing on a small part of the enemy line, and it achieved significant local success while it ultimately broke down owing to coordination failures in using the reserves to support success; the casualties inflicted here are fairly even on both sides.
The Marye's Heights attacks in the north are a failure that was a "bad odds" attack. Each brigade attacked pretty much on its own against strongly defensible terrain, and that meant that the Confederates were never faced with the kind of force concentration that could make headway; the casualties here are incredibly lopsided, something like 6:1 or so.
The essential point being that there was a good deal of uncertainty in expectations, as some attacks did succeed. Both belligerents
were paying enormous sums to maintain there armies, so that created pressure on commanders. Both belligerents experienced high death rates due to disease, even when there was no fighting, which led some commanders to take risks the would not have taken in an age of vaccines and anti-biotics.
 
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NH Civil War Gal

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Why did so many attacks within battles or general offensives fail? More specifically, why did they fail to even occur?
I’m currently doing an in-depth reading on Culp’s Hill with one of my favorite generals, General Greene who doesn’t get enough love or recognition. Let’s look at why this succeeded because in a way, it shouldn’t. Greene was an accomplished engineer, a skillful tactician and to me, what is more than equal to the other qualities - he was resolute and his men had complete faith in him and that is a quality that can’t be measured and wins or loses more battles than can be counted.

Ewell was ordered by Lee to move against the Feds to aid Longstreet’s attack on the Feds left flank, which began at 3pm but Johnson’s Division didn’t advance against Culp’s Hill until near sunset. Hours after Ewell was expected by Lee to attack.

So why was Culp’s Hill attacked by only one division but Cemetery Hill was assigned three divisions to attack it?

I believe Ewell was two miles or more away and I don’t think there has ever been an adequate answer to this. Was a courier killed and orders lost? Who knows? Poor planning on Ewell? Who can say?

The point is, Greene had a certain amount of luck and survived there assaults and used his entrenchment VERY wisely. Meanwhile, he couldn’t possibly know about Ewell either not sending the right divisions or not even thinking much about Culp’s Hill. But those particular cards played into his hands. But it also took someone being Resolute against the odds to hold out and stand their ground to make this a win.

So my two cents on why some of this happened. I do think having veteran soldiers vs. conscripts with a leader who they totally believe in AND can see that he knows what he is doing AND can think on his feet is going to give the best odds in any situation.

Greene was considered a “Grim Old Warrior.” Both sides needed more of those.
 

bayonet

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But they didn’t really have other options. It was a transitory phase in warfare so they stuck with the tried and true.
yup and they got slaughtered for it. The Weapons were far more advanced then the tactics and thats a fact. Plus lame leadership or lack there of. Most Leaders having just read a book on tactics. Reminds of that commercial "Why no but I slept at a Holiday Inn last night". Same lame Military leadership as today, sadly nothing changes.
 

wausaubob

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To be honest I don't think you can go from there - there was a major opportunity squandered when the Union didn't cross the river before Longstreet's advance troops got there, even if relying on the fords for supply, but the reason the Confederates defended at Fredericksburg is that they more or less had to. Any Confederate position south of Fredericksburg is liable to be outflanked to the east, and Burnside's army was so much larger than Lee's that they could fix-and-turn in open country, which means that Fredericksburg was the last place where the Confederates could stop the advance of the whole Union army at once.

The great worry of the Confederates is effectively a Union army in established supply south of the Rapidan/Rappahannock. At that point they can't really contain the Union force any more and can be compelled to fall back to Richmond by outflanking.


As for the specifics of the Fredericksburg battle, the Confederate position was strong but potentially brittle. The whole of Franklin's grand division could have been thrown into a single strong (sequenced) attack which could overwhelm the Confederate lines, and it'd still leave Burnside plenty of divisions to prevent the Confederates focusing all their attention on Franklin's division; the Confederate line is long enough that they don't have all that much in the way of reserves. I think Burnside's big error was simply that he wasn't used to the scale of his command and was used to thinking of a "division" as a powerful unt.
I wonder if George Meade agreed with this analysis? Because he seems to have anticipated that Hooker had been nearly correct, but General Hooker did not have the nerve to keep going once the Chance. battle happened.
 

67th Tigers

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The Fredericksburg attack's failure I largely blame on Hunt, the artillery commander. He had managed to achieve a level of dominance of the artillery which was unheard of, and didn't really consider that the artillery had much business supporting the infantry. Hence, almost the whole of the artillery was miles from the main attack, and contributed nothing.

The division commanders had roughly one battery each. This was Napoleonic scaling. By the 1860's typically every brigade had a battery, and the division a reserve battery at least. For the attack at Marye's Heights only 30 Federal guns were actually engaged, and those were in penny-packets.

The rebels, for their part, placed their artillery well, and shattered the batteries that tried to advance to support the attack, and wrecked the attacking divisions.

Indeed, there had been a shift in artillery. The guns were becoming heavier, and longer ranged. This meant they had to be kept further back, but they were often not particularly effective at long ranges whereas at short to medium ranges artillery was very effective against infantry...
 

thomas aagaard

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Out dated Napoleonic tactics.
civil war armies did not use Napoleonic tactics.
For one thing they never used skirmishers to the same extent as was done by the late Napoleonic wars by all involved.
And they did not use close distance columns. (that was at the core of everyone's infantry tactically system... with the exception of the British)

They didn't do proper combined arms. They didn't trained cavalry for it... (and the terrain often made it impossible anyway)

The result is that tactically the civil war is closer to the 7 year war (as fought in europe), than the Napoleonic wars.
 

Saphroneth

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I wonder if George Meade agreed with this analysis? Because he seems to have anticipated that Hooker had been nearly correct, but General Hooker did not have the nerve to keep going once the Chance. battle happened.
The real problem with going through the Wilderness is simply that you have to be quick. Your supplies are limited and being slowed down is your greatest bane, and Lee was able to make it so that the Union would need to recover their morale (which takes time) before they had a chance of breaking open the route out to the southeast.
 

thomas aagaard

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The entire Western military world was convinced that following the epic defeat of Napoleon by Wellington at Waterloo that the French column had convincingly been shown to be inferior to the British line. If Napoleon the uncontested master of the column formation had been bested, then obviously the formation was inferior.

The CW was the first real war where both sides were playing from the same playbook. Line vs line. Almost every general especially every commanding general on either side was a graduate of West Point. They both could quote you chapter and verse from Hardee's textbook.
Waterloo did not prove that in any way.
If it had, you would see the French and everyone else changing its basic tactically system. And they did not. If anything the Napoleonic wars proved that slow moving lines was inferior... and you needed the mobility of the column.

By 1861 only two armies had made firepower their focus over the bayonet. The brits and Prussians.
Everyone else was using attack columns on the attack and some also on the defense.

The French 1845 system used by all civil war armies is at its core still the same system as the one used by French infantry at waterloo. And that is the case because the system worked just fine... (and why the Prussians, Austrians and Russians all copied it)

You move around in column and you attack in column. You only go into line for defense or if you judge that your attack will not work, then you go into line outside effective range of the defender and then move forward and take the firefight.
But this take discipline/skill and good officers.
And it need extensive use of skirmishers for it to work.

Very few civil war units had the discipline/skills and they never really used skirmishers to the needed extent.
(The same was an issue with the French post 1812 where their skill level result in many units not even being able to change into line in any organized way on the battlefield.)

The civil war battalions simply stayed in line... resulting in slow and indecisive movements on the battlefield.

By the mid 1850ties the Austrians had change to a focus on the line... then they lost in 1859 to French attack columns (their conclusion anyway) and reverted to the old bayonet centric tactics with attack columns covered by extensive skirmishers.
 

Saphroneth

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The entire Western military world was convinced that following the epic defeat of Napoleon by Wellington at Waterloo that the French column had convincingly been shown to be inferior to the British line. If Napoleon the uncontested master of the column formation had been bested, then obviously the formation was inferior.
The thing is, the line system was the one which everyone used before the Napoleonic Wars. If the column was obviously inferior to the line then the French would not have walked repeatedly all over Europe for a generation.


The benefit of the line in defence is that it has greater firepower than a column, but nobody had contested that; the benefit of the column in attack is that it has greater density of manpower and (crucially) greater speed than a line, plus it is easier to manoeuvre it.


Plus of course that the British use of the line was intrinsically linked to (1) very good discipline and a blast of short range musketry, (2) rifle fire to prevent the attacking skirmishers disordering the line and derange the efforts of attacking artillery coming along with the column, (3) remaining on the reverse slope out of artillery range so that long range artillery prep could not take place, and (4) the short range musketry blast being paired up with a rapid counterattack with the bayonet that proceded only a short distance.


It's not so simple as line-beats-column, and most armies used assault columns in the 1850s and 1860s. The British only didn't use the column on the attack as a matter of course because it was felt that they were well enough disciplined to not need the manoeuvre advantage of the line, while the reserve elements of a typical British line would be in column anyway to move faster to wherever they were needed. (The fact the British doctrine was intensely musketry focused also probably had something to do with it.)
 

CavRTO

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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?
Aside from from the major command commanders the majority of subordinate commanders had little to no military experience. Many were political appointees, many didn't know how to properly lead troops and clearly communicate the commanders intent. Poor communications, distances between units complicated proper coordination. I think one thing that was never in doubt was the troops willingness to fight.
 
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