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The Siege of Vicksburg
Special Order 191: Ruse of War
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Burning of New York
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Sherman's March
Was the Civil War Modern?
Movement around Pope's Army
Timothy Webster, Pinkerton Man and Spy
Third Day at Gettysburg
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Michael Collie Articles
Was the Civil War Modern?
Movement around Pope's Army
Was the Civil War Modern? – No.
by Michael Collie


After the Second World War, many American Civil War historians came to argue that the Civil War was the first modern/total war. As summarized by Mark Grimsley, in The American Civil War: a Handbook of Literature and Research this theme includes a number of contentions. Troops armed with breech-loading infantry arms and artillery, primitive machine guns, and ironclad ships, early balloons, and trench warfare in the Civil War are cited as evidence. The use of railroads, steam ships and riverboats, and telegraph are said to have affected strategy. New mass armies of volunteers and emphasis on industrial capacity influenced battles and campaigns. The status of civilians as legitimate targets of armies and strategy may be the most significant aspect making the American Civil War the first modern and total of the new period of war, so the argument goes.[1]

Although a common theme in American Civil War historiography, recent scholarship has begun to question this interpretation. The idea of modern war is an imprecise term. Any war is modern for its own time. The reference to “modern war” is more reasonably meant to distinguish twentieth-century industrial-age war from previous periods. The question should be at what point was truly “modern” industrial war achieved as opposed to simply partial development. The term “Total War” is properly and clearly a twentieth-century term and phenomena that is not applicable to campaign conditions prior to 1900.[2]

This is truly no mere semantic exercise when actual military practice and economic and social conditions are objectively considered. Not only does such an appraisal have importance for the status of the American Civil War in military history but also for analysis of the war itself. Many writers have pronounced one commander as superior over another based on a perceived greater or lesser adaptation to so called “modern” principles as opposed to traditional ones.[3] Should it prove that the Civil War was in fact a traditional or at best a transitional war, not modern or total, first or not; then such evaluations and in fact any analysis based on the Modern/Total war thesis are largely invalidated. Much beyond a mere difference in terminology, to establish the context of the war in terms of military history would seem to be a prerequisite for any sound treatment of the war itself either in part or in whole.[4]

According to the Modern/Total war thesis, the American Civil War represents an important milestone in Military History. What is more, the American Civil War exhibited marked differences with previous wars making it subject to new principles and conditions as opposed to warfare as practiced in previous periods.[5] An alternative interpretation finds that new conditions were realized with the Napoleonic wars and any basic change occurred well before the American Civil War.[6] Another view is that real Modern/Total war conditions can not be found prior to 1900.[7]

One interpretation is that the Wars of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars represent a major change in warfare because of the rise in mass armies and modern nationalism as a political force. This interpretation sees the American Civil War as a continuation of a trend already established. The Civil War advanced the trend through progress in technology and economy. However, it took further advances in the decades after the Civil War to complete the full change from pre-modern to Modern/Total war. This places the American Civil War in the context of a transition between two established periods of warfare.[8]

Two important points made by Modern/Total war historians are that development of the rifled musket in the mid-1800’s and increased reliance on hasty field entrenchments made by Civil War troops set a new tone in warfare.[9] Other points are that new steam powered trains and ships created logistical changes resulting in larger armies and organizational adaptations.[10] Indeed, the effects of the rifled musket represent probably the most powerful and common argument to support the Modern/Total war theme. The much longer range of the new rifled musket in the hands of trained soldiers is said to have created wholly new battlefield conditions making frontal attacks by large bodies of troops in close formations almost suicidal. According to this interpretation, the mere use of the new weapon made the Civil War modern. However, evidence that there was any corresponding change in tactics or other aspects of organization and strategy seems lacking and largely conflicts with the Modern/Total war thesis.[11] Many of the other points frequently cited by Modern/Total war proponents seem to be made in ignorance of history outside the United States. The reliance on entrenchments is compared to the trench warfare of World War One to establish the modern context of the Civil War. However, this is done with out reference to the use of field entrenchments in other wars like the Thirty-Years War and the Italian Wars of the 16th century.[12] It also seems to be made in ignorance of the fact that German, British and French doctrine prior to World War One rejected substantial reliance on entrenchments.[13]

The Civil war is frequently cited as the first use of railroads in war. Here again we find ignorance or at least careless scholarship when writers fail to recognize several important applications of rail transport in actual military operations that predate the campaigns of 1861-65.[14] Some writers modify this claim as the “first important” or “first significant” use of railroads. This raises the prospect that Civil War railroads exhibited some substantial and qualitative advance in logistical application. Yet, its apparent that the real leap in logistical rail application came after the Civil War during the Franco-Prussian War, and again in the First World War, where both the scale and precision of operations made quantum leaps forward.[15] Here again we can only find that the applications of railroads in the Civil War represented an incremental transition and not a legitimate milestone.

Another critical element in the Modern/Total war theme is that violence against civilians, industry, and agriculture was first raised to the level of a Modern/Total war. This seems as perhaps the most careless point and most difficult to accept; yet among the most common and apparently sincere. A broad and objective history of war has clearly established that violence against civilians, industry, and agriculture has been a frequent and profound aspect of warfare since the earliest of times. Further, that during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries in Europe the scale and brutality of war on civilians was at least as great and often more systematic than that found in the Civil War. Thus, it’s difficult to see how a serious argument is made that violence against civilians ranks the Civil War as a watershed, first Modern/Total war event.[16]

In the following analysis we will discuss several of the major points cited by Modern/Total war writers as evidence supporting the Modern war thesis.

By the 1600’s weapons, tactics and organization had been established on modern lines that continued with modifications well into the 1900’s.[17] The watershed of modern military doctrine was nearer 1600 than 1850. While the Crimean War showed some of the trends of the 1900’s, its character was far closer to the black powder art of war of the Napoleonic era. Battles were manageable by a commander who could control the whole battlefield. Combat had not changed much from earlier times. The American Civil War shared this same dual feature of old style battles laced with a few improved weapons and first generation machines. Through the 1860’s, warfare continued with the tactics, weapons, troops, training, and equipment that had been used fifty years earlier at Waterloo.[18] Gunners from Napoleon’s Imperial Guard would have been quite comfortable handling the artillery at the battle of Solerfino or Gettysburg. One of les grognards of the Guard would have handled the Springfield or Enfield rifled muskets as easily as Billie Yank or Johnny Reb. In contrast Union or Confederate infantry men would have found the Mausers, Maxims, trench mortar and rapid fire 75’s a novel mixture of deadly instruments.[19]

In the Franco-Prussian war it was the firepower of the new artillery that was most effective rifles were only secondary in effectiveness. Both Prussian and French guns were the decisive element in many combats.[20] The experience in the Prussian-Austrian war of 1866 taught commanders that close formations were still needed to control and maintain the momentum of an attack. Allowing columns to mingle with open formations was recognized as a serious mistake because the columns either became disrupted or lost the impetus to continue forward. Following the war Prussian tactical doctrine was again based on the close column formation. In the same period the French army also continued with the battalion column as the basic tactical formation. In spite of the effectiveness of new weapons, commanders could not accept the need for a tactical system where junior officers would become the critical combat actors. Not until the Hutier tactics of 1917 were the facts accepted.[21] The success of these new tactics, where open formations were combined with fire and movement at the lowest tactical level, required changes far beyond weapons technology. Commanders and their armies were simply not capable of these changes consistently and on a large scale without basic social and institutional development. What may appear to historians to be a subtle modification in fact required substantial and fundamental changes in doctrine and training of company officers and general staffs.[22]


From the American Revolution to the Mexican war, frontal attacks against prepared defenders were bloody affairs. This was largely true independent of the weapon, whether flintlock musket or percussion rifle.[1] Tactics in the civil war were largely unchanged from the pattern for the preceding fifty years. While volunteer soldiers would often go to ground or break into small groups when trying to advance, the basic formation remained close files with lines close behind. There was simply no other way for the captain or colonel to control his troops in action.[2] By the mid 1800’s Rifled weapons for both infantry and artillery were well developed. Breech-loading artillery had also seen major improvements. Yet, the practical range and tactics remained largely unchanged since targets could not be engaged beyond the limits of the line-of-sight. Dupuy recognized the continuous use of linear tactics throughout the 19th century in Europe and the United States. Even at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, the linear tactics of Gustavas Adolphus were still in vogue, for commanders still had no other way to exercise control. Thus despite a truly revolutionary change in weapons effects, the resulting changes in tactics were evolutionary and could not have been otherwise.[3]

American Civil War armies proved to be smaller, while the trend was for larger armies; had fewer guns, while the trend was for more guns; and campaigns less intense than the Napoleonic wars while the general trend toward modern wars was for greater numbers etc. The American Civil War was neither the first modern war nor tactically more modern than earlier European wars. [4] (see table 1 & graph 1 & graph 2)

The armies fighting in Mexico, 1846, the Crimea, 1854, and Italy, 1859, were more like those fighting under Fredrick II or Napoleon than twentieth century armies. No revolution in tactics had occurred before 1860.[5] In fact, many so-called innovations in the civil war had really started in Europe some years earlier. The Civil War was less modern than transitional.[6] Modern writers tend to view the war from the modern perspective and therefore recognize the modern fringe elements while missing the pre-modern core values of the men and institutions that lived and fought the war. Soldiers of that day often found the idea of seeking cover and concealment shameful. Before men can fight a modern war they must accept the modern concept of war being killing without honor, war not to defeat the enemy field forces but to destroy the political foundation of the opposing army. The end of reconstruction showed that the old south’s political structure remained largely intact with slightly modified economic structure.[7] In both weapons and institutions, the U.S. army did not achieve modern character until after 1900. The year 1903 had come before the army had the rudiments of a general staff and had adopted the modern magazine Springfield rifle patterned after the Mauser. In Cuba during the Spanish American war the American artillery were armed with obsolete black powder pieces.[8]

The most direct defense of the Modern/total war thesis is found in On the Road to Total War edited by Stig Forster and Jorg Nagler in 1997. While a number of contributors support the Modern/total war thesis several contributions strongly refute it. This volume includes a revised printing of Mark Neely’s, "Was the Civil War a Total War?", which serves as the opening for the volume. James McPherson, in “From Limited War to Total War in America,” is one of the writers supporting the Modern/total war thesis. McPherson’s defense engages in questionable analysis by blurring the distinction of civilian and soldier deaths when citing the scale of conflict and numbers of soldiers lost and the size of armies. He carefully avoids comparison with the Thirty Years war where 3-4 million Germans were killed over and above any military losses.[9] McPherson finally equivocates by saying, “the kind of war the civil war became merits the label of total war.” This is not the question. The thesis as stated by Walters and Williams et al. is that the Civil War was the first Modern Total War. We may accept that by this equivocation McPherson concedes that this thesis is wrong.[10]

Earl Hess’s essay, "Tactics, Trenches, and Men in the Civil War", states that tactical formations remained unchanged in the Civil War; the battle line was the same standard two ranks standing shoulder to shoulder.[11] New tactics became possible only when men were armed with breech loading magazine rifles. He concludes that it is “inaccurate to term civil war the first modern war. It was essentially an old-fashioned war.”[12] Michael Fellman in “At the Nihilist edge: Reflection on Guerilla Warfare during the American Civil War” states that as a test of modern war, civil war violence did not approach that of the Thirty Years War. He agrees with the comparison that the 3 to 4 million civilians killed of the twenty million population of Germany are on a completely different scale as seen in the Civil War.[13]He further cites the example of a Union raid on Missouri in 1863 that provoked such an outcry that the practice of indiscriminate raiding was never repeated.[14]

The offering by Richard Current, “From Civil War to World Power: Perceptions and Realities”, states the United States had not industrialized to modern level by the civil war.[15] He further states hat the civil war actually delayed progress toward modern economic development.[16] The essay by Engerman and Gallman in "The Civil War Economy: a Modern View", shows that the mobilization of wartime economy was greater in the Confederacy than in the “modernized” Union. The northern economy was not stretched by the war effort but that the war economy was easily absorbed into the prewar business cycle.[17]

A recent and significant source confirms the traditional tactical experience in the civil war. Brent Nosworthy in The Bloody Crucible of Courage makes several points confirming the old tactical nature of civil war battles. He states that the trajectory of the rifled musket made it impractical in combat to adjust sights for ranges beyond 2-300 yards.[18] The effect of the new weapon was limited since little effort was made to train soldiers to aim the rifled musket. Thus, fire was exchanged at generally closer ranges than the proving ground range of 600 yards.[19] Nosworthy’s study also confirmed Paddy Griffith’s estimate in Battle Tactics of the Civil War of 141 yards for average civil war volleys.[20] He demonstrates that average range for engagements was slightly greater than earlier wars but much less than claimed by some writers.[21]

Nosworthy finds that a number of battles showed the tendency for dense column attacks in the pattern of the Napoleonic wars.[22] He shows that a majority of the tactical methods used during the civil war “fell squarely” within existing military practice.[23] He admits that many civil war authors mistakenly attributed a number of “first in kind” developments to the civil war that had already been introduced in Europe.[24] He shows why following the civil war it was “not unnatural” for European tacticians to conclude that variations were minor.[25]

Ultimately, Nosworthy concludes that civil war engagements were fought at ranges not much greater than previous wars and the rifled musket had much less effect on tactics than is often claimed.[26] He also states that mortar boats, telegraph, ironclad and torpedoes were all used in the Crimean War.[27] He concludes that until about 1866 when the Prussian army changed their system making the company the basic tactical unit, no general trend away from linear tactics can be found.[28]

American Civil war tactics of the 1864 campaign in Virginia are often held up as examples of the tactical revolution in the Civil War. An examination of tactics as portrayed in the Official Records, Arthur Wagner’s Organization and Tactics, and the West Point Atlas of American wars, Vol. 1, conflicts with that assessment. Some historians claim that the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia in 1864 are examples of new tactics because troops sometimes broke up into small groups to take advantage of cover. The tactical accounts actually show that major attacks were made in large dense columns reminiscent of the Napoleonic Wars and not in smaller less dense formations seen in modern infiltration tactics as claimed by some writers. Wagner makes clear in his account in Organization and Tactics that Hancock’s 2nd Corps attack at Spotsylvania, May 12, 1864, was made in a large dense column comprising troops of his entire corps. (figs. 1 & 2)

This attack arrayed some 20,000 men in close columns deployed over about 800x200 yards. This makes for 25 men per yard of frontage. Upton’s division in this battle is often cited as an example of innovative tactics. His force comprised some 4600 men over 600x450 yards with density of about 8 men per yard of frontage. This formation while being less dense was still clearly based on the close column formation typical of the linear tactics era. (figs. 3 & 4 and figs. 5 & 6)

In comparison with the attack of d’Erlon’s Corps at Waterloo, June 18, 1815, the French disposed about 13,000 men over about 650x90 yards or about 20 men per yard of front. Clearly, the Spotsylvania attack was of very similar density and formation as the Waterloo attack. Rather than being an innovation, Hancock’s attack was a repetition of the French tactics used to make up for the quality of troops by using very dense formations. Other examples of the French tactical formations show generally much less front density than the attack at Spotsylvania. The French attack by Morand’s Division at the battle of Borodino against the Great Redoubt, September 15, 1812, was made with a density of 36 men per yard of frontage. However, this was made by a much smaller force of about 3200 men deployed over about 1200x75 yards. (figs. 7 & 8, figs. 9 & 10 and figs. 11 & 12)

The Spotsylvania attack as depicted in the Westpoint Atlas shows a formation with a density of 45 men per yard of front. Wright’s attack on the same day disposed some 16,000 men over about 350x25 yards or about 48 men per yard of frontage. Couch’s attack at Fredericksburg at 11am, December 13, 1862, arrayed about 14,000 men over an 500x400 yard area making a 28 man per yard of frontage density. The general tactical trend is for Civil War formations at Spotsylvania to be larger and denser than those of the Napoleonic Wars. This clearly conflicts with the portrayal by some writers for new and innovative Civil War tactics.

A comparison with the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 confirms no great tactical innovation of the mid-19th century. The Prussian Guard attack at the Battle of St. Privat, September 15, 1870, disposed 6000 men over 1600x200 yards or a tactical density of 4 men per yard of front. Again, we find that American Civil War battles show greater density than European battles occurring only five years later. The claimed trend toward innovative new tactics is not confirmed. (figs. 13 & 14 and figs. 15 & 16)

Further comparison with the French and Prussian drill regulations of the 1880’s and 1890’s shows that the basic tactical formation continued to be the close battalion column. These formations were reminiscent of the French tactical formations of the Napoleonic wars as described by David Chandler in The Campaigns of Napoleon.[29] (figs. 17 & 18)

During the Boer war, the British army continued its use of the close battalion column as a basic formation. At the battle of Biddulphsberg, May 29, 1900, the Guards Brigade was disposed in three battalion columns over 800x400 yards. This force was stopped and pinned down by fire from about 100 Boers at a range of 1000 yards. The brigades 1800 men were deployed on a front with about 2 men per yard.[30] In August 1914 during the German advance through France the German attack at Blied, August 22, 1914, by the 53rd Brigade of 6800 men was disposed over 3500x200 yards with 2 men per yard of front.[31] The battalion column continued as the basic tactical formation on both sides well into the war. The commander’s basic tactical problem continued to be discipline and control. The close column was the sensible choice made to meet that need. figs. 19 & 20

Jay Luvaas in The Military Legacy of the Civil War, characterizes the civil war, in part:

It was a war of improvisation…the enormous distances involved posed new problems in logistics and increased the importance of river transportation. Railroads, used here for the first time to transport troops in war, became vital supply arteries… New weapons also were introduced or used on a large scale for the first time in war… It was, in short, a total war, the first great war fought with the tools and weapons of the Industrial Revolution.[32]

In spite of Luvaas’ claim of innovation and new tactics, in his own review of post-civil war commentary by professional European officers he could find little to confirm his claims. In fact, he generally claimed that Europeans had missed the evidence of tactical revolution because they were prejudiced against the non-professional led citizen armies.[33] He generally found that few professional European officers “thought that the American campaigns offered new lessons” in strategy or tactics.[34] Many of the commentaries reviewed by Luvaas concluded that the Civil War was in no way a war offering any great new lessons or insights and it was not “heralded as the dawn of a new day in warfare.”[35] Many Europeans actually disapproved of the Civil War troops, their leaders, and much of the clumsy practice of both Union and Confederate armies. To the extent that European observers recognized any positive lessons from the Civil War, these were largely to confirm that the general principles and practice in strategy and tactics then existing among major European armies were essentially correct and required little modification.[36] In spite of the fact that the available observations of contemporary witnesses saw nothing new in tactics of the Civil War, modern war proponents like Luvaas argue that new weapons and tactics made the Civil War a modern total war.

Edward Hagerman took up Luvaas’ argument in The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare. Hagerman’s major conclusions include the following:
The American Civil War ushered in a new era in land warfare. In this war, mass armies first experienced the widespread impact of industrial technology.

Early modern warfare was transformed most conspicuously by the technology of the industrial revolution. The rifled musket, the weapon that first challenged traditional tactical forms made its full impact felt for the first time during the civil war.

Offensive tactics largely in response to the rifled musket, developed in two directions: on the one hand, the extension of the skirmish order was reminiscent of the extended order of Guibert and the French Revolutionary armies; on the other hand there was the novel deveoplement of assaults by rushes, with the spade accompanying the rifle. The classical line and column of Empire and Restoration doctrine faded. As the rifled musket forced the Civil War soldier to dig in on the offense as well as the defense, scenes of trench warfare anticipated World War I.[37]

Both Luvaas and Hagerman base much of the claim for a modern war interpretation on the use of new infantry small arms and especially the rifled musket. Hagerman also claims new breech loading rifles were part of the transformation in tactics. Yet while some 1,700,000 rifled muskets were issued to civil war soldiers only about 77,000 Spencers, 90,000 Sharps and 10,000 Henry rifles and carbines were carried by these armies.[38]

Only about one in ten of all civil war small arms were breechloaders and many of these became available only in the last two years of the war. More significantly, about 40% of these weapons were carbines capable of ranges of not more than 200-300 yards. Thus, the claim that these weapons may have contributed to the impulse toward new tactics based on extended rifle ranges seems unlikely.

By the 1860’s European armies still made war with weapons, tactics, troops, and equipment largely unchanged since Waterloo.[39] Very few generals had begun to recognize that major change might be needed to deal with the potentialities of the next generation of weapons and tactics.[40] European experience through the 1860’s confirmed that the principles and doctrines of warfare had not changed since Wellington, Blucher, and Napoleon. Clausewitz’s work was a formulation of the traditional principles and rules rather than a blueprint for tactical revolution.[41]

The Prussian Needle Gun did not conform to the typical claim of longer ranged accuracy creating the need for new tactics. It was a close range weapon with its main advantage being rate of fire not range.[42] Major tactical change was pushed forward more by rate of fire technology than range improvement, though together with smokeless powder all three had the decisive effect.[43] In the Italian Campaign of 1859, French tactics were essentially the same as at Waterloo.[44] Their focus on the little colonial wars of this period obscured the importance of large unit, division, and brigade, tactics and strategy.[45] In short, neither Europeans nor Americans recognized a revolution in tactics because none had occurred.

When we look at the effect of the rifled musket on total civil war casualties the thesis of new tactics based on a deadlier basic infantry weapon is not confirmed. A common statement in many civil war histories is that there was a revolution in tactics in the civil war because of the effect of the rifled musket, attacks suffering very heavy losses and being nearly suicidal because of the new weapon.

When we examine the total battle casualties suffered in the civil war in comparison with the Napoleonic Wars this is not confirmed. In the civil war, of the largest 49 battles the average total force on both sides was 70,430 suffering 11,600 casualties at a per cent rate of about 16%.(data from Livermore, Numbers and Losses and Rothenburg, The Art of War in the Age of Napoleon) In the Napoleonic Wars, for the 49 battles between 1800 and 1815, the average total force on both sides was 121,920 suffering 23,792 casualties at a rate of about 20%. This is clearly the opposite of the expected finding based on the idea of the effect of a deadlier rifled musket. When we examine only civil war battles where both sides totaled more than 100 thousand we find only an increase to 17.5% as the average loss rate. The difference then is not really accounted for by the Napoleonic Wars having more and larger battles and lasting some 15 or more years. The largest four civil war battles averaged 121,978 total force on both sides and suffered about 33,300 casualties at a rate of about 27.4%. (Stones River, Gettysburg, Chickamauga and Spotsylvania) Here then, we begin to see something more in line with our expectation if the rifled musket had the effect stated. However, a similar comparison with the four battles of the Napoleonic Wars having the greatest per cent losses tends to correct this view. These four battles of the Napoleonic Wars being Waterloo, Borodino, Austerlitz and Eylau, showing per cent losses of 34%, 32, 31, 31, respectively. Again, we find that even a selection of civil war battles having the largest forces and the greatest per cent casualties do not show greater losses as is suggested as the effect of the rifled musket. The largest and most deadly civil war battles do not show greater losses than Napoleonic War battles. This information does not support the notion of a revolution in tactics resulting from much higher losses from the rifled musket. Civil War battles simply did not show greater losses than experienced in the Napoleonic Wars. The causative factor claimed for the revolution in tactics simply did not exist. Thus no revolution could have occurred and, in fact, there was not significant change in tactics resulting from the civil war battle experience.

Among the most telling evidence, showing no tactical revolution in the civil war is the following:

During the 1880’s the German Army had all but abandoned open order tactics. The belief that the increased casualties that resulted from dense formations were a fair price to pay for the guarantee that troops would remain under the direct supervision of their officer became widespread. The fear of losing control of troops in battle reinforced an entrenched belief in the moral value of the bayonet charge. The battles of the second half of the nineteenth century provided numerous examples of close formations attacking with the bayonet prevailing over rifle-firing skirmish lines.[46] (italics added)

The controlling factor was, in the end, command and control. Prior to the development and general adoption of modern communication equipment, the bugle call, the range of a company commander’s voice, and speed of the courier’s mount determined tactical formations. This is the reason that the best modern doctrine of Germany, France and Britain in 1914 still called for the company column as the basic tactical formation, much the same formation as used against Napoleon.[47]

Some Civil war historians insist that the new tactics of the war simply went unrecognized by the narrow minded Europeans. Then why was the American army even more backward by the turn of the century? The year 1900 had come and gone before the American Army had begun to adopt real modern reforms. In Cuba, American gunners still served old black powder pieces. A modern magazine rifle comparable to the Mauser and a new general staff organization were not adopted until 1903.[48]


Hasty entrenchments were not a special development of the Civil War. The wars of the 16th century saw many applications and developments in field works. Hasty field works affected the tactics of a number of important battles. Delbruck concluded, “From that time on (16th century), until the end of the ancient regime, field fortifications played their role, often a decisive one.” He cites the battle of Cerignola in 1503 as being the “The first truly modern battle” in part because the Spaniards had thrown up hasty entrenchment’s.[1] He cites the example from the Huguenot wars of the 15th century where the general practice was to entrench the armies each night. He recounts the record of Gustavas Adolphus in the Thirty Years War who fortified every camp where he stayed more than one night.[2] He also shows that by 1700 modern linear tactics were common to major European armies.[3] Delbruck concluded that the trench warfare that developed in 1914-1915 was an important and new event in warfare.[4] Dupuy states that the practice of hasty entrenchments in the 1688-97 war of the Augsburg league was common place.[5] He does not remark on any special advance in the use of entrenchments in the civil war.

Machiavelli cited the usual practice of securing flanks by use of ditches and entrenchments to prevent being surrounded during the Italian wars of the 16th century.[6]

An example of field works significantly effecting operations well before the 1850’s can be taken from Wellington’s 1810-11 campaign in Portugal. Well-placed and constructed field works contributed to the defense of Wellington’s base at Lisbon. The Lines of Torres Vedras included a series of redoubts and entrenchments running some 28 miles from Lisbon between the Tagus River and the Atlantic Ocean. The lines were supported by Wellington’s field force. The French under Marshal Andre Massena were surprised by these works and found their strength daunting. After standing before the lines for five months Massena withdrew, the presence of the lines effectively defeated Massena’s strategy of forcing a British evacuation of Portugal.[7]

The Civil war is not alone in claiming to foreshadow “modern trench warfare.” Royle in Crimea: The Great Crimean War writes “Life in the forward trenches was showing all the signs of conforming to modern industrialized warfare.”[8]

In the Crimean war at the siege of Sevastopol, the final attack against the Malakoff redoubt was the first time an attack had been coordinated by synchronized watches after a short bombardment. The attack took the defenders by surprise, many taking their mid-day meal.[9]


The earliest introduction of what would finally, after considerable refinement, become the modern doctrine occurred in the Boer War of 1899-1902 and not in the battles of 1850-1870.[1] The rate of fire of infantry small arms decisively influenced the development of the new tactics in the 20th century. British experience in the Boer War demonstrates this point. British and Boer infantry were armed with modern bolt action rifles. It’s true that British infantry were formed in close battalion columns and thus easy targets. This does not explain the far superior volume of fire developed by the Boers since their forces were much smaller. How did such a small force defeat larger professional troops fighting in their preferred formation? This was largely because even a small force of Boers was able to put out a volume of fire the British could not equal – why? Two reasons, first while British troops were limited to volley fire, Boer marksmen fired independently. Second, the Boers carried their cartridges in clips, a five round clip could be inserted quickly by a push of the thumb. The magazine of the British rifles had to be loaded one cartridge at a time and the soldiers carried their bullets lose in ammunition pouches. While a British soldier could fire five rounds as fast as a Boer, the Boer could fire fifty rounds faster than the British soldier could fire twenty because of the speed at which he could reload. The superiority of the quick firing Mausers made a decisive difference on the battlefield. It was the volume of fire that made the old tactics ineffective.[2]

A British officer recounted the soldier’s experience while campaigning against the Boers.

The infantry soldier sees nothing except the men on either side of him and the enemy in front. He hears the crackle of the enemy’s fire somewhere – he does not know where – and he hears the whit! whit! of the bullets, and every now and then he knows vaguely some one near him is hit – he feels the smell of the powder and the hot oily smell of his rifle. He fires the range given, and at the given direction, and every now and then hears ‘Advance!’ He stands up and goes on and wonders why he is not hit as he stands up. And that is all.[3]

It’s clear that in the 1890’s the experience of European and American soldiers fighting in close formations had changed little since the early 1800’s.

According to The Times History “the British soldier was well disciplined but ill-trained.” Though often regarded as the best of European professional infantry, their training in close order tactics with an emphasis on steady discipline above all, made them ill suited to modern tactics and slow to adapt. Against the Boers they showed the tendency to be poor shots, “careless of cover, slow to comprehend what was taking place or to grasp the whereabouts of the enemy, always getting surprised or lost, helpless without their officers.”[4] Such a description is not compatible with the claim of “a revolution in tactics.” Infantry trained to close order formations simply did not have the skills required by modern soldiers.

The British artillery establishment had only completed the change to breech loading guns by 1899. It was only the impractability of large muzzle loading guns in casemates that forced the change.[5] British artillery tactics against the Boers was hide-bound and thoughtless. They frequently brought their guns into action in regular lines of six guns, and with drill book spacing. Prominent exposed positions were like a magnet to British batteries where they were frequently cut down before getting in to action. In contrast the few Boer guns where cleverly dispersed and conceled.[6] Boer gunners dug concealed gun pits two hundred yards forward of the low hills and had dug alternative pits to which his guns could move the moment their positions were discovered.[7]

At Magersfontein, Stormberg and Colenso infantry commanders launched some of the finest troops in the world into hopeless frontal assaults against carefully prepared positions in formations not much different from those of the Imperial Guard at Waterloo.[8] The 1890’s doctrine of the British general staff: A formal and properly conducted assault by fully trained regulars must inevitably prevail against volunteers or conscripts. To train first class infantry to entrench, would encourage a defensive-minded mentality, which would sap their morale.[9] Again we see that “modern” commanders did not welcome the idea of entrenchments as an advance in tactics. At the battle of Magersfontein “the Highlanders advanced as densely packed as possible in quarter-column to ensure cohesion and direction, the regiments in column with the left guides carrying ropes to preserve perfect alignment”[10] At the battle of Modder River November 28, 1899 the Guards Brigade and the 9th Brigade “both were nailed down in the veld by the fire from the Boer’s invisible Mausers.”[11] Here, at last, we begin to see what was suggested by civil war writers but not realized until the 1890’s.

In 1914 none of the “modern” European armies had understood nor tried to adjust their tactics and doctrine to the realties of new weapons and massive forces.[12] French theory of war up to 1914 largely continued from the strategic and tactical principles that governed operations of Napoleon and his marshals. Napoleon’s principle that morale was pre-eminent in strategy and tactics remained dominant in the French high command right up to 1914.[13] During the 1914 advance through France, the German Army used tactical formations little changed since Napoleon and virtually unchanged since Moltke. On August 22, 1914 the German 53rd Brigade with the 124th and 127th regiments of six battalions, totaling about 6800 men, attacked Bleid on a front of about 3500 yards, front of 2 men per yard, over open country, enemy not entrenched. An attack in close formation and consistent with the linear tactics of the preceding century.[14]

Dupuy in The Encyclopedia of Military History delivers the decisive evidence on the evolution of tactics from traditional linear to modern infiltration tactics. He explains the British experience in South Africa and why it took a modern force of some 500,000 men two years to subdue a force of volunteer farmers that never exceeded a total field force of 40,000 men.

The experience of some 85 years of formal and little wars in Europe and around the world went into the discard, and an entire new system of tactics and techniques had to be evolved on the battlefield.[15]

Therefore, it is clear that there had been no revolution in tactics prior to 1900. In fact, the real change in tactics was just beginning at the opening of the twentieth century and it would take from 1900 to about 1917 for the first features of infiltration tactics to take root.


After changes in weaponry and the so-called tactical revolution, advances in transportation and communication are next in importance in the modern/total war thesis. In fact, numerous technological firsts really pre-dated the Civil War. The earliest known military rail movement occurred in 1846 when the Russians moved a corps of 14,500 men with horses and transport 200 miles from Hradisch to Cracow, Poland, in two days by rail.[1] In 1848 the Austrians were able to move a corps of 12,000 men with horses, guns etc. 156 miles to Cracow.[2] In 1850, the Austrians moved by rail some 75,000 men from Hungary and Vienna to Bohemia, which helped to bring a Prussian capitulation at Olmutz.[3] In the Crimea the British laid down a railroad line between Balaklava and the heights of Sevastopol which could be used to bring up siege equipment and remove the wounded.[4] In the spring of 1855, the Turks brought workman from the ends of the Ottoman Empire to construct a railway from Balaklava to the plain before Sevastopol.[5] When the Russians completed the line from Balaklava to Kadikoi, steam-powered trains were then used for ferrying supplies and carrying out the wounded. Paris was connected directly to Marseilles by rail to enable the rapid transit of troops to the Crimea.[6]

(see Strategic Rail table 3)

Count Cavcour launched the Italian program of railway construction for Piedmont long before the 1859 campaign against the Austrians. In Europe as a whole the pattern of military railway development was well underway before 1860.[7] In June 1859, the first extensive rail troop movements brought French and Austrian troops to the battlefield of Solferino.[8] The Italian campaign of 1859 saw the French and Hapsburg Empires, using railways, move troops into Italy within a fortnight, while it would have taken sixty days to march over the same distance.[9] Operations in Italy in 1859 saw the French move 227,649 men and 36,357 horses from deep in France into the theater of Peidmont.[10] Railways further had a decisive effect when France’s ability to muster 200,000 troops on the Rhine within a few days, versus the Prussian time of a few weeks, kept the Prussians out of the 1859 Italian war.[11]

Other civil war “firsts” are shown by Royle to have been used in the Crimea. These include field hospitals, the electric telegraph, and improved semaphore signaling. The Crimean War set Americans the example of how railroads could be used to transfer wounded and move supplies.[12]

Van Creveld’s analysis is that the Prussian logistics and ammunition supply movements in the campaign of 1870 can not be regarded as modern.[13] These early developments in military railroads were overshadowed by the scale of 20th century movements. By 1914, the scale of military rail operations became enormous. As described by Tuchman, “one army corps alone – out of the total of 40 in the German forces – required a total of 170 railway cars for officers, 965 for infantry, 2,960 for cavalry, 1,915 for artillery and supply wagons, 6,010 in all, grouped in 140 trains and an equal number again for their supplies.”[14]

The first extensive photographic coverage of war was by Roger Fenton, one of the founders of the Photographic Society of London. He was commissioned to take photographs of the Crimean War. He fitted out his own photo-darkroom wagon that housed his equipment, plates, chemicals, and rations. He arrived at Balaklava in March 1855. Many of his photos were taken under fire. He made some 300 negatives during his five months covering the war. Many of his images were exhibited in London and Paris and printed in The Illustrated London News. Although several of his frames are reveling, many were sanitized because he believed the public would not tolerate the grim images of war. Another Englishman, James Robertson, photographed the fall of Sevastopol in 1855. Later he accompanied the British force sent to put down the Bengal-Sepoy Mutiny in 1857. In 1858, he photographed the ruins of the siege of Lucknow. Felice Beato photographed the fall of Tientsin, China, in August 1860 at the end of the Opium Wars. His photos were made just hours after the fighting had ended and showed corpses and wreckage in the aftermath of the siege.[15]


The Encyclopedia of Military History shows that from the Assyrian era in 700 BC, terror against civilians formed part of a calculated practice of warfare.[1] The Greeks believed that ravaging grain fields, orchards and vineyards was a serious and well established aspect of warfare even by the fifth century BC.[2] During the Peloponnesian Wars, 431-403 BC destruction of crops, fields and store houses was common.[3] The next century saw the practice developed to a regular system. As stated by Victor Davis Hanson, “the key then, was to invade right at the beginning of harvest to burn the barley and wheat to deny the enemy the dividends of an entire year’s work and investment, to use the produce to feed the very agents of its destruction.”[4] In the medieval period, Mongols advanced through northeastern Europe in 1241, leaving town after town sacked and burned.[5] In 1242 the Mongols withdrew from Europe sacking the kingdoms of Serbia and Bulgaria as they passed through southern Europe into Asia.[6]

The Thirty Years' War was fought between 1618 and 1648, mainly in and around Germany. It ultimately involved most of the major European continental powers. Although it was originally a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics, the rivalry between the Hapsburg dynasty and other powers was also a central motive. The issue of imperial authority in Germany fed by the increasing France-Hapsburg rivalry was shown by the fact that Catholic France supported the Protestant side. The loss of life among civilians and economic destruction had not been seen in Europe in some 400 years. David Kaiser cites Gunther Franz in stating that the Thirty Years War “probably reduced Germany’s population by between 30 and 50 per cent.” While Geoffery Parker, in Thirty Years War, disagrees and argues for a more conservative figure of 15-20 percent, It’s clear that the losses were still very large.[7]

Applying the lowest figure of 15 percent to the population of Germany in 1600 of about 20 million, at least 3 million civilians must have been lost. The 10 million Confederates would have lost at least 1.5 million to equal this level of civilian violence. In contrast McPherson estimates perhaps 50,000 civilian losses, only 1 in 30 by comparison with the German losses. Adjusted to an annual figure, the 100,000 civilians lost in Germany each year dwarf the 12,500 annual rate in McPherson’s estimate (1 to 8 annual ratio). This general picture of severe violence against civilians is highlighted with specific examples. In 1635 Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus tried to force Austrian General Wallenstein into Bavaria by devastating its northern region.[8] When French General Tilly sacked Magdeburg, May 20 1631, “only about 5,000 of 30,000 inhabitants survived the holocaust.”[9] Later that same year the smaller town of Kaiser-lauten saw 3700 of its 4200 inhabitants slaughtered. In Cromwell’s campaign to subdue Ireland, he systematically plundered and terrorized the people to destroy their will to resist English occupation. In 1649 at Drogheda 2800 civilians were killed and later at Wexford 1500 more.[10]

Following the Battle of Culloden in 1746, English troops systematically ravaged the highlands. Crops and houses were destroyed throughout the highlands. Innocent men, women, and children were killed or driven off their lands in the hunt for Jacobite rebels.[11]

During the Thirty Years War, civilian violence was calculated to do more than simply terrorize enemy populations. It also served the purpose of weakening the enemy’s war industry and thus his fighting capacity. The German city of Suhl is an example of this history. By the early 1600’s Suhl was know as one of the most important arms centers in Europe. In his 1634 campaign, French General Tilly destroyed the city both as an act of terror but also to weaken enemy armies.[12]

Delbruck cites examples from the 16th century Italian Wars for violence that was both extreme and systematic. He states “in a city taken by storm everything was permitted, and all women were sacrificed to them (the victors).” The most extreme case occurred when the burghers and peasants were ”systematically tortured.”[13] He continues into the 17th and 18th centuries and finds that “as a new and frightful means of warfare there appeared the systematic laying waste of an entire border area.” (Palatinate 1689) He cites Prince Eugene who wrote in 1704 “entire Bavaria… must be totally destroyed and laid waste to deny the opportunity” to the enemy to make war.[14]

Gustavus Adolphus and Marlborough “brutally and efficiently ravaged” Bavaria and waged a style of warfare which savaged and devastated civilians in the 17th and 18th centuries. Marlborough razed Bavaria in 1704, “his soldiers mercilessly put” the region “to the torch, leveling entire towns and villages, and destroying crops, herds, and orchards.”[15]

When the Civil War experience is directly examined, we find little evidence to support the Modern war/Total war claim. An example is the burning of Columbia, South Carolina. While many writers claim that Sherman was the arch-type modern civil war commander, and frequently cite his operations as examples of modern war, the example of Columbia conflicts with this claim. Marion Brunson Lucas in the authoritative Sherman and the Burning of Columbia shows that about one-third of the city and most of the business district was burned. Only a few homes and residential areas were damaged. McPherson finds that this account “deflates the wholesale rapine mythology.”[16] Thus, two authorities classify one of the most obvious cases of Union military violence against a civil target, Columbia, as not an example of unrestricted total war.

The period of the French revolution saw resurgence in violence against civilians. In the Rhineland campaign of 1795, two French armies plundered the area.[17] During the 1796 campaign in Lombardy, Italian princes, towns, and a large swath of the province were victims of systematic plundering made to support French armies.[18]

Evidence of the limits on Civil War civilian violence are found in selections from Official Records volumes 32, 38, 39, 43 & 44 comprising the major records of the Campaigns of Meridian, Miss., Atlanta, Altoona, Shenandoah Valley 1864, and Sherman’s March to Savannah. These comprise the major campaigns of 1864-65 where large Union armies occupied substantial sections of core Confederate states. If large-scale violence and destruction occurred against civilians and private property, evidence should be found in these volumes. We find 36 references to orders or reports for troop actions towards southern civilians. Although this is not a scientific or comprehensive sample, it is helpful in gauging the systematic use of violence. Twenty-five cases refer to destruction of property for military purpose but caution against general pillaging. Eighteen specifically reference civilians. Most of these orders caution against misconduct toward civilians. Seven indicate some abuse of civilians or civilian property. Only four appear to suggest real violence or atrocities.

One major argument that the war was modern and total comes from the orders by Union army commanders for destruction of property. These same orders show intent to limit destruction and violence. The clear pattern from this sample is not systematic violence against civilians. Most striking is the limitation to destroy only material that may aid rebel forces. These are regular efforts made by any army to destroy the enemy’s war materials. Those orders suggesting real violence against civilians do so as admonishments to stop the behavior. So, even where we have some evidence that atrocities actually occurred, its clear the behavior was not part of a concerted policy.[19]

Comparing the record of violence against civilians in 1864 in Georgia and South Carolina with the 1914 German invasion of Belgium yields striking contrasts. The “severe and inexorable reprisals” reported by General Von Kluck in August 1914 by the German army had not been seen in living memory. Atrocities included “shooting individuals and the burning of homes.” On August 19, the occupying Germans shot 150 civilians in Aershot and later 664 at Dinant. This violence against civilians was “not spontaneous” but was “prepared ahead of time, was designed to save time and men by cowing the Belgians quickly.” German reprisals were “expressly outlawed by the Hague Convention” and “shocked the world of 1914 which had believed in human progress.” On August 6, 1914, a German zeppelin was sent from Cologne to bomb Brussels. “The thirteen bombs it dropped, the nine civilians it killed, inaugurated a twentieth-century practice.” Tuchman wrote. (emphasis added)[20] These “events in Belgium were a product of the German theory of terror.” The high command had decided that the “civilian population must not be exempted but forced by severe measures to compel leaders to make peace.” This in spite of the experience of the Franco-Prussian war that “proved the corollary of the theory of terror, that it deepens antagonism, stimulates resistance and ends by lengthening the war.” The high command also took note that, “Through some peculiar failure of the system, the greater the terror, the more terror seemed to be necessary.”[21] So too, it proved in 1914, German reprisals caused “a change in sentiment that was to prevent any negotiated settlement and keep the fighting going until total victory. What wrought the change was what happened to Belgium (in 1914).”[22] The record of a like experience of atrocities in the Civil War is largely absent.


Union conscription shows that the war was not modern. The draft was only useful in encouraging men to volunteer. Of the total forces raised only one in ten were actually drafted. The political commutations and substitutes belie Union conscription as a limited measure and not characteristic of a total war. McPherson demonstrates that Union conscription was a political device and not a full call-out to mobilize the full manpower of the North as would have been the case in a total war.[1] In contrast, the French levee en masse of the Napoleonic wars was far more extensive. The French commonly employed the practice of calling “future” classes. Napoleon called up the class of 1814 a year early to help oppose the Russian offensive of 1813.[2]

United States Civil War mobilization falls between twentieth-century total wars and the Franco-Prussian war. When the numbers are separated for union and confederate we find that the union raised a force of 1.6 from its total population of 22.3 million while the south recruited about 1.0 from its 5.5 million white population for 7.2 percent and 18 percent, respectively. We can say that forces raised in the south were comparable to twentieth-century wars while the union war effort clearly did not approach these levels. Further comparison with the Franco-Prussian war should point out that the entire war lasted but 9 months. For this length of time union and confederate numbers would be 576,000 and 351,000 and 2.6 and 6.4 percent, respectively. Again, we find these levels are far below twentieth-century wars. The major European powers each mobilized 15% or more of their population 1914-1918. In World War II mobilization ranged from 10 to 15 percent.[3]

(see table 2)

The large economic changes and population growth in Europe in the fifty years before the First World War decisively altered the means of warfare. The requisite social conditions for modern war existed only after 1900. “Massive expansion of European population and economy from 1871 to 1914 set the stage for the first truly ‘modern war’ in 1914 in contrast to the pre-modern 1870 carnage.”[4] By the 1680’s and 1690’s developments in France showed clearly that economics and politics now were major influences in making war and strategy.[5] By the time of the Napoleonic wars, economic social and political events have as much impact on strategy and tactics as did new drills and weapons.[6]

The wars of Fredrick II and Napoleon demonstrated the early changes occurring in the transition from pre-modern to modern warfare. Fernand Braudel, the French economic and social historian, in his Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century, recognizes a number of distinctions in the progress of western warfare. He finds, in part, that the “Strategy of men like Frederick II and Napoleon… no longer concerned with taking towns but with destroying enemy forces.”[7] This he finds to have been a break in centuries of warfare in the 18th century[8] Here he appears to suggest a watershed. He also recognizes nascent industries producing “Artillery and firearms quite transformed inter-state warfare, economic life and the capitalist organization of arms production” from 1500-1750.[9] He further states “this shows the huge scale of war expenditure, even when there was no war.” As early as 1588 in Venice modern war industries had effect on market and state economy.[10] Even the earliest pre-modern market economies strongly influenced the strategies European commanders. Before 1700, we find France and England using trade policies to attack their opponent’s economy. In the War of the Augsburg League, 1689-1697, the English embargoed all French wine or merchandise from entering their country, directly or indirectly, and expressly to impact the French economy and the war’s outcome.[11]

Already during the Napoleonic wars, we see that transportation and supply operations controlled the strategic options of commanders. Many Campaigns from Spain to the Rhine, Italy, the Elbe and into Russia ultimately turned on the logistics as much or perhaps even more than the élan of Napoleon’s Guard or the genius of his strategy.[12]

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography
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© 2023 Michael Collie

Published online: 11/29/2017.

Written by Michael Collie. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Michael Collie at:

About the Author:
A student of military history and the American Civil War for some 50 years, I find that the process of researching and writing short essays provides greater enjoyment and deeper understanding of history. The main areas of interest are strategy, logistics, and the confederate high command. In military history, my strongest interest is in the horse and musket era, about 1700-1900. Trained as a topographic drafter and photogrammetric tech, he was formerly a cartographer and surveyor, and had worked for a public mapping agency in California.

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