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America’s Civil War featured heavy rifle fire and entrenched combatants while the cavalry and artillery played subordinate roles.

Battle was the defining characteristic of the American Civil War. Some authorities count as many as 10,000 battles fought between 1861 and 1865. It is easy to reckon between 200 and 300 named battles familiar to a general reader. Such a number, compressed into four years of warfare, speaks of a quite remarkable intensity compared, say, to the experience of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington’s army in Spain and Portugal from 1808 to 1814, when one major battle a year was nearer the norm. Civil War armies appear to have fought all the time, with very brief respites. It was not uncommon for individuals to have taken part in dozens of battles.

It is this frequency of battle, and the carnage it engendered, that makes the Civil War distinctive. But the very nature of battle in this war also sets it apart, as, for the first time, modern armies entrenched themselves, relied on heavy rifle fire, and generally eschewed the use of both artillery and cavalry in their major clashes.

There was no gradual intensification of the Civil War. Americans fought each other as if imbued with deadly mutual hatred from the outset. First Bull Run was as hard fought as Second Bull Run a year later, which was as hard fought as Gettysburg. It is difficult to define why this should have been so. Americans in 1860 did not hate each other as Spanish workers and the Spanish middle class hated each other before 1936. Though identifiable sections existed in the United States before 1860, “sections” referred to geographical areas of the country; the cotton-growing South was one and the industrializing North was another.

But the sections were not homogeneous. There were notable internal divisions. In the South the most important division was between the large landowning regions and those of subsistence farming, the latter being the one from which the Confederate army was to draw most of its recruits. Particular sections were the low country of the Carolinas, where the first large concentrations of black slaves were established, and which became in consequence hotbeds of Confederate patriotism; and Tidewater Virginia, homeland of that state’s political class.

Virginia was socially the most distinct of the colonies and, later, of the states, because it was deliberately set up in emulation of the English landed counties by its mid-17th-century governor, Sir William Berkeley. Berkeley recruited the younger, landless, sons of English landowning families, which bequeathed all to the eldest, with the promise that in the New World they would be able to become landed gentlemen themselves.

He succeeded, perhaps better than he had hoped. As early as 1660, every seat on the ruling Council of Virginia was held by members of five interrelated families, and as late as 1775 every council member was descended from one of the councillors of 1660. Since Berkeley had endowed many of the settlers he attracted with large grants of land, the families were not only politically powerful but rich. They remained so and their names were to become celebrated in American history: the Madisons, the Washingtons, the Lees. They supplied the young United States with many of its Founding Fathers and the Confederacy with many of its leaders.

The strength and extent of the Virginia oligarchy helps to explain the speed and completeness with which the Confederacy was established. The old families, who were also large plantation holders and slave owners, felt the most threatened of all Southerners by the rise of anti-slavers to political power in the North and in Washington during the 1850s, and, by their legal and social dominance, they easily carried the majority of the population with them in 1861. The swiftness with which the Confederacy took off and the attraction that the Confederate idea exerted in the border states, which were not cotton-growing, greatly divided opinion in the North.

This social difference between regions was also to present the Union with its principal military problem, which was how to achieve victory in the conflict. Many Northerners persuaded themselves that the idea of secession was so repugnant to many Southerners that if the right overtures were made to the people below the Mason-Dixon Line, the errant population could be brought back into the fold without fighting, the prospect of which was abhorrent to many in the North. While it was true that there were important areas in the secessionist states, notably western Virginia and eastern Tennessee, which were at the outset hostile to the Confederacy and remained so, their people lacked the means to alter opinion in the larger South or to influence the rebel government in Richmond. The Confederate leaders were quite as prepared to coerce antisecessionists as the Union was to suppress rebellion within its own territory. Thus from the beginning it became obvious that the conflict between North and South was destined to be a struggle for minds. Indeed, though the truth was not perceived until much later in the war, and then only by a few professional Northern soldiers of brutal imagination, the Southern mind was the only profitable target in the Confederacy. Just as all the rich material objectives in the North—the Atlantic seaboard cities, the industries of New England—lay at too great a distance from the Confederacy’s northern border to be attacked, so the South was not materially vulnerable to the North, though for a different reason. The Confederacy had no great industries or financial centers for Northern armies to march against.

Its only store of wealth, the cotton crop, the North had devalued by imposing a blockade. As a result there was nothing for the North to ruin—except the South’s stock of fighting men.

This lack of spoils explains the relentless recurrence of battles between the two armies, and the determination of the war’s generals to fight for victory on the battlefield.

At the beginning of the war, a belief arose in both armies and both governments that the war could, indeed should, be won by a single great victory. This belief owed its origins to the prevalence of the Napoleonic legacy. Napoleon’s rise to imperial dominance was attributed to his ability to win battles, which he did with dispiriting regularity. His great victories were taught to the West Point cadet. Professors extolled the virtue of seeking victory by blows of crushing force, like those Napoleon delivered at Marengo and Austerlitz. President Abraham Lincoln, as well as Jefferson Davis, the new Confederate president, both hoped for an American Austerlitz to end the conflict in a single day of overwhelming violence.

In the first seasons of campaign, the hope was futile, for neither side yet possessed trained soldiers or weapons in sufficient quantity to inflict decisive blows. Even as they grew stronger, decisive victory continued to prove elusive. Victories there were, as at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, but though they were sometimes spectacular, they did not destroy the enemy. The reasons for that seemed obscure at the time and remain so.

One reason was that the Confederates possessed commanders, notably Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson but also their supremo, Robert E. Lee, who were unfailingly daring and attacked even in the teeth of apparently overwhelming odds, achieving an impact that time and again carried the day.

Another was that neither side fielded enough cavalry to perform the battle-winning role it had traditionally played in Europe. In the great European campaigns, heavy cavalry broke up large formations of infantry and then pursued the fugitives to destruction. However, America did not possess either a cavalry tradition or the sort of soldiers who might have established one. The battles of the Civil War were almost exclusively infantry struggles, in which casualties were inflicted by rifle fire at ranges from 50 to 100 yards or more, but because of the efficiency of the Springfield and Enfield rifles, they were very costly to combatants.

The casualty figures pose what is perhaps the supreme mystery of the war: Why did the common soldier of both sides bear the loss of comrades in such large numbers and the fear of the battlefield experience and yet return again and again to the fray as if unmoved by the effect?

Eighteenth-century armies recognized a mass reaction to extreme fear, called by the French panique-terreur. Extreme terror does not seem to have afflicted Americans who fought in the Civil War. That may have been because since it was a civil war, the soldiers surrendered to each other, their English-speaking fellow inhabitants of the same landmass, with relative ease. (This was not the case, however, with black Union soldiers, who, following massacres at Fort Pillow and the Petersburg Crater, were understandably unwilling to entrust their lives to Confederates and fought fiercely to avoid capture.)

The nature of the terrain in the theaters of war helps to explain why battles occurred as often as they did. In the two great corridors of conflict—one formed in the east by the Appalachian chain and the Atlantic; the other in what is loosely called the “west” formed again by the Appalachians and the Mississippi—the topographic barriers forced the armies, once set in motion, into frontal contact with each other, as long as they could be supplied, which was assured by ease of access to river lines of communication, supplemented by the railroads. Neither side lacked men. Numbers compressed by geography ensured that as long as there was the will to fight—and that will held up throughout the war—battles would take place. Indeed, one of the most consistently surprising factors of the war was the readiness of both sides to expose themselves to the risks of combat and to return to the fight even after suffering heavy losses.

The armies’ readiness for battle is all the more extraordinary given their almost total lack of experience in warfare. Both sides had to learn as they went along, leaders and led alike. Memory of America’s wars of the past, and written accounts of wars in Europe, particularly those of Napoleon, supplied the uninformed with almost their only notion of what a battle should be like. The nature of battle was scarcely understood, hence the belief, which persisted long after the first encounters, that one great engagement would settle the issue. Perhaps the first reality that had to be grasped was the necessity of massing firepower.

Their past American experience did not assist, for Europeans had identified from King George’s War and the French and Indian Wars a style of fighting they called “American” or “Indian” war, in which armies did not form ordered masses as they did on the open battlefields of the Old World, but skirmished behind tree cover and sought to take the enemy by surprise. “American” warfare was individualistic, not ordered, and fighting in such conditions typically took the form of ambush or surprise attack, as at the battle of the Monongahela in 1755, where a small French army with numerous Indian allies had overwhelmed the Redcoats of Gen. Edward Braddock’s army in the preliminaries to what would become known as the French and Indian War.

The armies of 1861, recognizing that “American” warfare would not win this conflict, had to learn, by reference to the available drill books, how to organize themselves for Old World fighting.

It had taken European armies long years of trial and error to learn that the fire of muskets was effective only if those who carried them stood shoulder to shoulder and fired in unison.

While knowing that such tactics were correct, the American soldiers of 1861 had to teach themselves to do likewise, since the requirement defies nature. Instinct drives men who are fired upon to seek cover, either by lying down or by finding shelter behind a natural obstacle, the antithesis of battle-winning procedure. Many inexperienced Civil War regiments did indeed give way to instinct at the first onset of battle, running away or breaking formation at the first exposure to fire.

The obsessive repetition of drill movements, taught from books by officers or sergeants who were themselves only a page ahead of their pupils, was thus exactly the correct way of preparing the innocents of 1861 for battle. The drill books, almost always translations from the French or rewritten versions of French originals, decreed that the regiment of 10 companies should form most of them into a line of two ranks; three had been earlier ordered, but the armies soon abandoned that practice because of the danger bullets fired by the third rank posed to the men in front. Even so, the front rank was regularly singed and deafened by the rifles of the second. Live firing practice was a rare event. Many soldiers did not fire their weapons for the first time until they met the enemy.

There was, however, a great deal of practice in the 17 separate movements necessary to load and level the rifle, extracting the paper cartridge from the pouch, tearing it with the teeth, pouring the powder down the barrel, spilling the bullet after the powder, crumpling the paper into a wad, ramming home with the ramrod, placing the percussion cap on the nipple, and bringing the gun’s butt to the shoulder. Speed and dexterity in loading did not, however, exhaust the requirements of the drillmaster. It was also necessary to mass the effect of discharge by training the soldiers to stand shoulder to shoulder and perform the drill movements simultaneously; otherwise the impact of the volley was diminished. Moreover, if the lines mistimed loading and aiming, accidents would occur.

Regiments advanced to contact in columns, their officers hoping to successfully deploy column into line at optimum range from the enemy, perhaps one or two hundred yards. Then the regimental skirmishers would move to the front and flank to bring individual fire against the enemy’s front. Changing formation or direction on the battlefield was an invitation to disorder, but it was essential if the regiment was to damage the enemy, and even inexperienced troops could achieve this if they had been sufficiently exercised in foot drill. However, what followed was rarely as prescribed in the drill book, which expected the battalion line to deliver a succession of volleys until the enemy drew back or the line charged, with or without fixed bayonets.

In practice, once a regiment had delivered its first volley, firing tended to become individual. A bayonet charge was rare. Proof of that, Civil War observers believed, was the very low proportion of bayonet wounds displayed among the wounded brought to the hospital. The low incidence of such wounds has been noted in many conflicts at different times and places but is not proof that the bayonet was not used; it may have been that bayonet wounds were so often fatal that the victims died on the spot, and were not collected for treatment. Nevertheless, it does seem that the bayonet was rarely used in Civil War battles. The charge of the 20th Maine at Little Round Top, after it had exhausted its ammunition, was an exception to the rule that Civil War battles were largely fought with the rifle.

The likely infrequency of bayonet use can be ascribed to the confidence the soldier had in his firearm. The Springfield and Enfield rifles represented a great technological advance over the smoothbore musket. They were more accurate, carried to a greater range, and, being ignited by a percussion cap, rarely missed fire. Firing was still a complicated and time-consuming business, leading to eccentric results when a novice rifleman would ram home the contents of several cartridges but forget to place the percussion cap on the nipple.

With such a fearsome weapon in his hands, the soldier was naturally tempted, once the firefight began, to stand and deliver shot after shot, even if they fell short, rather than take the risk of closing the distance with a charge during which he could not reload—hence the descriptions of regiments standing opposite each other for long periods during which they fired off all the ammunition in their pouches. But the armies of the Civil War soon became accustomed to rifle firefights and adept in the rifle’s uses. General Robert E. Lee certainly esteemed the rifle more than the artillery piece as a battle-winner, and he did not notably employ artillery to decisive effect in any of his battles. That may have been because his great skill as a commander was in the rapid maneuver of infantry units in the face of and in direct contact with the enemy; infantry was easier to maneuver than artillery. Indeed, there was no outstanding artillery general on either side.

Prolonged firing could result in one side overcoming the other and advancing to occupy its ground. Generals should have replaced or stiffened a shaken or beaten regiment with reserves drawn from the rear, and they often did. Moving reinforcements or reserves to the front at a critical moment often determined the outcome of Civil War battles. As has been often observed, outcomes were not usually influenced by the intervention of cavalry or even by the effect of artillery.

Cavalry simply did not play a decisive, or even a particularly noticeable, role between 1861 and 1865. Cavalry conducted many daring and successful raids into enemy territory, spreading alarm, destroying materiel, and capturing valuable supplies. But horsemen almost never charged infantry or artillery on the battlefield, and during the great battles of the war, they suffered negligible casualties.

A number of reasons explain the ineffectiveness of Civil War cavalry. Much of the terrain was not suited to cavalry, which required wide, uncluttered spaces in which to gather and deploy. There was no cavalry tradition in the prewar American army, no group of leaders committed to the use of cavalry, and no pool of skilled horsemen to enlist. Cavalry was expensive to maintain and difficult to train. The result was that neither side formed large bodies of cavalry.

The diminished role of artillery is more difficult to explain. During the Napoleonic Wars, artillery had dominated battlefields and been widely regarded as the decisive arm. Napoleon’s Grand Battery of 100 guns at Waterloo had given Wellington severe concern. In the United States in 1861, the Union and Confederate armies suffered from a shortage of field artillery, which was only slowly repaired. By midwar, however, both armies fielded guns in European proportions, about four cannons per thousand men, quite enough to have decided battles if properly used. Yet such was rarely the case.

At Malvern Hill, outside Richmond in 1862, the Union artillery inflicted very heavy casualties, as the Confederate artillery did at Fredericksburg. The reason in both cases seems to have been that the terrain suited the gunners. At Malvern Hill there were wide and long fields of fire; at Fredericksburg, the Confederate guns occupied commanding positions overlooking open ground. In such settings, the guns could do their worst.

More often, however, trees or broken ground obscured the field of fire, and very often ranks of friendly troops got in the way. That could have been avoided had the guns been pushed right forward and maneuvered as horse artillery during fluid moments of the battle.

However, commanders on both sides were reluctant to risk having their valuable guns captured by placing them in exposed positions, and there was also a general shortage of horse artillery. Much debated is the question whether infantry, armed with the new rifles, and so able to engage targets as far distant as 300 yards, could thus defend themselves against enemy artillery by targeting the batteries with aimed fire. Artillery usually fired at infantry at ranges of 1,000 yards, closer if it was using canister, case shot containing packed musket balls, which was very destructive against massed formations of infantry. Experts conclude that infantry fire rarely forced artillery to retire from its positions and that artillery rarely suffered heavy casualties from rifle fire.

Digging entrenchments heavily moderated the effect of fire, whether from rifles or cannons. Soldiers began digging trenches early in the war and it became general practice as the war progressed. That was a departure from the habits of the dynastic armies of the 18th century and the Napoleonic Wars. In those wars, once battle was joined, leaders protected their troops from un – due casualties by relying on returning fire, using artillery, or unleashing cavalry to drive the enemy away. Soldiers rarely dug in.

There were exceptions, however. Entrenchment was known even as early as the War of the Spanish Succession. The French partially entrenched their positions at the Battle of Ramillies in 1706. In general, however, it is true that 18th-century armies did not dig except during sieges.

European practice was a strong influence on Civil War armies, so much so that, despite West Point’s emphasis on teaching engineering and fortification, most Civil War commanders began without any thought of setting their soldiers to dig, feeling they ought to win by the practice of maneuver. As the Civil War progressed, however, and casualties rose—30 percent killed and wounded became the normal casualty list in infantry regiments in large battles—soldiers began to dig anyway, whether their generals encouraged them to do so or not.

They dug to protect themselves if ordered to hold a position in defense. They dug when the enemy’s fire began to tell during an advance to contact.

After 1863 digging was done on all battlefields. On those where the defender had warning of impending action, battlefield entrenchments became elaborate. Some of the complex lines that sprang up around Petersburg in 1864 were begun as “hasty” entrenchments against Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s constant efforts to outflank the Confederates to the south and west.

The practice of entrenchment, apparently a soldier’s exercise rather than one imposed from above, at least at the outset, helps us to answer the most obvious question about Civil War battle, which is this: How did the ordinary mortals in blue and gray sustain the fear and horror that close-order fighting engendered? Frightened men run away or, if they cannot, hide themselves or fling themselves flat. Civil War soldiers of both sides did all those things and also offered themselves as prisoners, hence the surprisingly large number of prisoners taken by both sides during the war. But many Civil War soldiers also did not run away or take cover or freeze or cry “surrender” but stood their ground, fired, reloaded, and fired again, often for minute after minute until they overcame the men opposite. What held them to their soldierly duty?

There are a number of factors that explain steadfastness in all wars, including the example of valiant leaders, the coercion of junior leaders, courage fortified by alcohol, and the undesirable consequences of cowardice.

Coercion does not seem to have played a significant role in the Civil War. Americans are not accustomed to threatening their fellows or being threatened. It is not the American way. Although there are instances of Civil War soldiers turning their weapons upon comrades who showed cowardice in the face of the enemy, they are not commonly found in the records.

There are, by contrast, many instances of soldiers writing home about the admiration they felt for their officers, of how they drew inspiration from their courage. Sometimes they wrote of the contrary also, as when an officer was found hiding in a hollow tree at Shiloh or another was observed applying cosmetic marks of battle to himself at a safe distance from the enemy.

Dutch courage was common; most soldiers and officers alike greatly appreciated a swig from a canteen full of whiskey before a fight, and few disapproved of the practice. The exception was that generals who became drunk during battle were usually removed from command. It was also often remarked that flight was too dangerous when in close proximity to the enemy and that it was safer to stay and attempt to return fire. Moreover (and this underlay the whole Civil War experience of combat), men did not run because they were motivated by what historian James McPherson characterizes as “cause and comrades.”

Men on both sides had gone to war because they believed passionately in their reasons for doing so: to preserve or restore the American nation, if they were Unionists; to defend states’ rights and the Southern way of life if they were Confederates. In both cases, their standing in the eyes of their brothers in arms meant a great deal to them—indeed, at the time probably more than anything else. Both armies had intensely masculine identities: to be thought manly was the overriding value and to be thought a coward the supreme devaluation.

In 19th-century America, religion was a powerful motivation of many, both in peace and war. In many ways the Civil War was as much a religious war as a political one, since abolitionists held their beliefs with religious fervor while Southern rustics, who may not have been able to articulate any coherent political view, identified their Southernness with their membership in their Baptist and Methodist meetinghouses and took their beliefs with them into the ranks.

Ultimately, Civil War battles came to be characterized by heavy rifle fire, by the absence of artillery, and by the prevalence of earthworks. Fire between the lines could continue for long periods without movement by one side or the other, in the hope that volume of fire would eventually persuade the enemy to retire. Hence the phenomenon of large-scale exchanges at medium range resulting in very few casualties.

Heavy casualties, of course, were also a feature of Civil War battles but were usually explained by troops finding themselves confined by local terrain features in a position from which it was difficult to escape and within which it was difficult to maneuver. Such was the case at Antietam, and on parts of the field at Gettysburg. Woodland, so frequently present, also contributed to heavy casualties, since troops came upon each other by surprise in poor visibility and then found it difficult to disengage because of the density of vegetation.

The nature of battle in the Civil War has been much debated and historians hold strong and differing views. It cannot be disputed, however, that Civil War battle was very largely battle by rifle, with cavalry playing almost no part in the clash of major armies, and artillery generally fulfilling a subordinate role.

Even so, firepower was not the main cause of death. The Union’s total of 364,000 fatalities includes 140,000 battle deaths, the Confederacy’s total of 258,000 includes 94,000 battle deaths. Most of the remainder were victims of disease, then still the greatest killer of soldiers, as would remain the case through World War I.


Excerpted from The American Civil War by John Keegan. Copyright © 2009 by John Keegan. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

Originally published in the Autumn 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here