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Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage

by Grady McWhiney and Perry D. Jamieson

Were Confederate soldiers culturally programmed to charge like screaming savages even though they knew they were committing suicidal acts of annihilation?

Grady McWhiney and Perry D. Jamieson clearly thought so, arguing in Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage that Southern officers and soldiers were infused with the aggressive blood of their Celtic ancestors, meaning they had a natural distaste for trench warfare. McWhiney and Jamieson insist that the South’s unthinking devotion to Celtic traditions partly explains their relentless need to attack on the battlefield. The authors found a striking cultural similarity between members of the Southern rank and file who charged and yelled in ways that resembled Celtic war practices and echoed their ancient cries.

The idea that the charge and Rebel Yell was imbedded in the Southern temperament is a bold, perhaps reckless, idea, and it created quite a buzz when the book was published in 1982. Critics were so consumed by the provocative claims over the impact of Celtic heritage on the Confederacy that little attention was paid to the book’s important contributions on Civil War tactics. The authors skillfully explain how military training at West Point indoctrinated in the abstract the principles of offense and how combat experiences in the Mexican War confirmed it at a practical level. What revolutionized the battlefield was the mass introduction of the rifled weapon in the 1850s. Until then, the smoothbore weapon usually gave way to concentrated attacks at the point of the bayonet, because of its limited range. That changed during the Civil War, as rifled weapons and improvements in artillery usually overwhelmed massed assaults. Attacking troops, according to this theory, simply could never get close enough to their human targets to use the bayonet.

McWhiney and Jamieson offer an invaluable explanation to why Civil War officers relied on linear formations with long battle lines and thick formations. Some have suggested that a deep reverence for outdated Napoleonic tactics contributed to the anachronistic and equally lethal way of fighting, but the authors demolish that notion, carefully explaining that Civil War officers used methods that were perfectly reasonable and in keeping with established military science orthodoxy. What is striking, however, is the slowness with which officers on both sides adjusted their thinking and tactics once they saw the devastating power of rifled weapons. The inability to adapt was more common on the Confederate side, according to the authors, who note that Southern officers took the tactical offensive 70 percent of the time in major battles, and continued to do so even when their human resources were depleted and defeat loomed. The assertion that Southern generals, because of their Celtic heritage, were more prone to attack than their Northern counterparts is a questionable one. Nevertheless, the authors raise important questions about the ways in which culture can influence how armies engage in organized mass killing.


Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here