The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare

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Edward Hagerman. The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare: Ideas, Organization, and Field Command. Reprint. Indiana University Press, 1992.

In this important work on tactical and strategic military history, Edward Hagerman posits that the American Civil War marshaled in a new era in land warfare colored by the impacts of the Industrial Revolution. He argues that the complete command and control systems of armies was impacted by factors both occurring across the globe (i.e. technological developments in weaponry and transportation) and unique to America: its culture, geography, and history.

Hagerman is clear in setting two broad aims for the book. The first is to provide a new analysis of the “theory, doctrine, and practice of field fortification in the tactical evolution of trench warfare.” The second is to analyze the development of field transportation and supply and its impact of the movement and maneuvering of Civil War armies

Petersburg, Virginia. Dead Confederate soldiers in trenches of Fort Mahone

Hagerman organizes his study around several themes. The first addresses the ideas and education that informed the American military including the influence of theorists such as Jomini, Clausewitz, and at West Point, Dennis Hart Mahan. Secondly he looks at the organizational change, or lack thereof, in the Army of the Potomac including an explanation of the educational orientation of its leaders. Thirdly he explores the Army of Northern Virginia and the culture and traditions which informed men of the south who entered the military. Next he dives into the emergence of trench warfare and the strategic and tactical evolution that resulted from it. And importantly, he finishes with the evolution of total war and the strategy of exhaustion. 

Dennis Mahan

Dennis H. Mahan

This work should be of particular interest to military historians and even more so to those interested in the American Civil War and its impact on military logistics, the use of technology, weaponology, military tactical and strategic thought, and the concepts of modern warfare and its history.

There is an extensive notes section valuable to the serious student of military history. This is augmented by a “Works Cited” section including listings of primary sources. The introduction to the book provides an exceptional summary of many of the key factors that impacted the war.

Edward Hagerman brings to this study the credentials of academician. He was Associate Professor of History at York University in Toronto, Canada at the time of the book’s publication. He is also the recipient of the Moncado Prize of the Society of Military History.

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Lee's Failure to Entrench

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“Lee took longer to learn from his experience that the frontal assault contributed only to attrition without victory than any other field commander in the Civil War.”[i]

Lee

Edward Hagerman covers in detail the practices of the Federal and Confederate armies as it relates to entrenchment. McClellan and his successors employed it masterfully. Lee and his generals came to the practice slowly. Hagerman suggests that the reason may have been that, unlike McClellan, Lee lacked a peer group from the Corps of Engineers in the Army of Northern Virginia. [ii] Lee also graduated from West Point before Dennis Mahan (see post here) arrived to instruct cadets on the benefits and “how to” of entrenchment.

An example, despite having the time and equipment to entrench at Antietam (see photo below), Lee did not. According to Hagerman, “his failure to do so suggests that he may have identified with an extreme tendency in American tactical thought opposing all fortifications on the open field of battle, on the grounds that they made green volunteer troops overcautious and destroyed discipline and the will to fight.” [iii]

Burnside Bridge (below) taken from the Confederate viewpoint on the
west side of Antietam Creek looking east.

Burnside

Likewise at the Battle of Fredericksburg, where Lee assumed “a tactical defense where doctrine called for fortification of his front,” Lee again failed to entrench. “He had his troops construct only a few minor earthworks at scattered positions. This despite Antietam and despite the fact that the rifled musket, with its greatly increased range and accuracy, was now in general use in the eastern theater.” [iv]

 

Longstreet (above) finally broke the tactical pattern, not Lee.

“Although he occupied one of the strongest natural positions in the Confederate line, Longstreet ordered ditches, stone walls, and railroad cuts occupied and strengthened with rifle tranches and abatis. The Federal assaults against his positions on Marye’s Heights never got within a hundred yards of the stone wall. Behind the wall were four lines of infantry armed with rifled muskets, supported by sharpshooters in rifle trench, and entrenched artillery that directly covered and enfiladed the wall from the two terraces that rose behind it. Their fire cost the Union troops 3,500 dead to their own loses of 800 men.” [v]

Watching the battle with Longstreet, Lee (finally) ordered fatigue parties to entrench the heights as soon as the fighting stopped. [vi]

————
[i, ii] Edward Hagerman, The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare: Ideas, Organization, and Field Command (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 123.
[iii] Ibid., 116.
[iv, v, vi] Ibid., 122

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Mahan's Elementary Treatise

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Dennis MahanWOW! I am absolutely engrossed in Edward Hagerman’s The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare: Ideas, Organization, and Field Command. So much to say about Dennis Mahan (right) who I wrote about briefly here in my series on Jomini on the Nature of War (Part VII – Jomini’s Impact on Civil War Leadership). The National Park Service has a good bio on Mahan here.

I was very pleased to find online Mahan’s Elementary Treatise on Advance-Guard, Out-Post, and Detachment Service of Troops (1847) which Hagerman references in detail. This text was developed by Mahan for West Point and is considered the first tactics and strategy text created for the United States. I’ll add this to my primary sources links on Wig-Wags.

I can tell already that I’ll have many terms to add to the terms  page. More to come of the French connection.
 

Dennis Mahan Treastise

Jomini on the Nature of War – Part VII – Jomini's Impact on Civil War Leadership

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jomini-cropped.jpgThis post continues the series of “Jomini on the Nature of War.” Part I: Introduction is available here, Part II: The Burgeoning Military Theorist here, Part III: The Founder of Modern Strategy here, Part IV: The Basics here, Part V: Lines of Operation here, and Part VI – The Conduct of War here.

Returning to Baron Antoine de Jomini (right), I wanted to explore the extent to which his strategies influenced those who held leadership positions during the American Civil War. A modest survey of the literature revealed some disagreement. 

Historian James L. Morrison, Jr. in his article “Educating the Civil War Generals: West Point, 1833 - 1861,″ pointed out that exposure to Jomini came during “Professor Dennis H. Mahan’s [pictured below] course, Civil and Military Engineering and the Science of War which all First Classmen studied daily.”[i]

Dennis Mahan

Dennis H. Mahan
Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

But only nine hours were given to the study of the science of war and Morrison contends that this was entirely too brief an exposure to have had any lasting impact. That said, he acknowledges that some alumni of the military academy studied Jomini thoroughly including Beauregard, Lee, Halleck, and McClellan.

“…The same cannot be said for the great majority of their colleagues who had neither the opportunity nor the inclination to continue their strategic studies after graduation. Probably Sherman was more representative of the typical graduate when he denied that Jomini had affected his thoughts or actions in the war.” [ii]

 I’ll discuss some additional viewpoints in the next post.

A word on Dennis H. Mahan. A military theorist in his own right, Mahan was instrumental in developing the engineering-focused curriculum at West Point. Some may recall that he was the father of naval strategist Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan. The elder’s obituary, which appeared on September 17, 1871 in New York Times here, reveals that Professor Mahan committed suicide by jumping in the Hudson River from the deck of the steamboat Mary Powell in such a way that he was hit by the wheel. He was apparently despondant about being forced to retire. A sad end to a remarkable career. Professor Mahan’s memoir is available online here.

Powell Photo
Mary Powell, Queen of the Hudson

[i, ii] James L. Morrison, Jr., “Educating the Civil War Generals: West Point, 1833 – 1861,” Military Affairs, Vol. 38, No. 3. (Oct., 1974), pp. 109.

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