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SimpleSimon

The American Civil War in the abstract

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So i've been playing Empire Total War lately and it's kind of occurred to me that a major reason Game Labs felt the need to design an entire game around the ACW was because up until the Ultimate General games, there was really no way to directly apply the Total War ruleset to the American Civil War. Mods tried, but I always felt that modders had to alter Total War's gameplay design so fundamentally that it was hardly the same game anymore. Then it kind of hit me, the American Civil War lent itself to a manner of set-piece fighting and pitched battles that had more in common with the First World War than the Napoleonic Wars. This isn't a new idea, scholars have been throwing around the theory that the American Civil War was a proto-typical example of a Pre World War conflict that reflected the upcoming realities of the battlefield in the next century. However, this school of thought neglects to consider that there were a number of "Napoleonic" style campaigns during the ACW such as Sherman's Campaign and Shiloh.

If the only measure one was using to determine the nature of the American Civil War as a conflict was that there were trenches and sieges, this alone would not be a convincing analysis I think. Sieges were nothing new in 1860, even sieges uses trenches, heavy howitzers, and steam power were not new. Yet up until the 1860s had any siege in history been so geographically large? The trench lines that came to surround Richmond, Petersburg, and Vicksburg were indeed not new, but had they ever been so comprehensive and large up until that point in history? Armies weren't undermining individual Forts or even Cities now...but entire geographic regions, whole states, in a manner that would become the norm of 1916. The Army of the Potomac was something like 130,000 men by that point. The Ottoman Army that sacked Constantinople 300 years earlier had been half that size. 

Yet this was a conflict that was opened by campaigning in a very classic Napoleonic sense. Individual battles were fought out in huge set-piece fashion at first, but as the war went on individual battles increasingly became parts of a much larger campaign. Gettysburg was a classic example of what i'm getting at. As a Battle it was fought in the classic style of Austerlitz....yet it wasn't one battle but many fought over several days with an unclear delineation between its peripheral struggles (Stuart and Custard's running cavalry skirmishes) and the main event of Pickett's charge on the 3rd day of overall fighting. The highly continuous and informal nature of much of the overall highly formal Battle of Gettysburg is more characteristic of the kind of prolonged campaigning that would characterize Flanders or the Somme decades later.  

For a war that featured many attempts by Generals to create the circumstances of a Jenna or Austerlitz the Civil War has many examples...but by the end of the conflict the Siege of Petersburg looked way more like Verdun decades later. I guess what i'm getting at here is how one should view the evolution of fighting at war in the American Civil War. Was the American Civil War a proto-typical Napoleonic Campaign as many of its Generals seemed to practice? Was it in fact that proto-First World War that modern historians often try to describe it as? Perhaps neither of these descriptions are strictly true, and as a conflict positioned half way between the centuries it was simply the junction of many ideas that characterized what came before it and would come into the vogue after it. What do you think? 

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Posted (edited)

It would seem to be both. New technologies like the repeating rifle, rifled barrels, submarines, iron clad ships, recon by Hot Air balloon, and the gatling gun, existed beside muskets and sabres. I would say it was a transition period from the Napoleonic to the Modern.

 

 

Edited by z1812

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Posted (edited)

Right. Because not only were there lots of stuff that would come to prominence in the next century, but this was still a war where old school ideas like Cavalry and Line Infantry were still extremely useful even if the circumstances of their use were changing. Like it seems insane to imagine that Generals would still use Line Infantry and bayonet charges...but repeating rifles like the Henry and Sharps were actually very rare guns. Repeating rifles existed, but no one could produce them in the kinds of numbers necessary to kit out entire Brigades or Divisions with them. So the musket was still the weapon of choice for an Army. 

Some quick ballpark numbers...

Henry Rifle - 14,000 examples over a 6 year production run.

Sharps Rifle - At least 100,000+ examples but over a 30 year production run. 

Springfield 1861 - Over 1 million produced through a 12 year run. During the crucial war years though around 250,000 were made between 1861 and 1863. 

I've seen commentary indicating that even rifles as old as the Brown Bess were found frequently in Confederate stocks. Clearly flintlock rifles would not have been valued over newer rifles but the ACW was another case of a war that got so big so fast it completely eclipsed the available logistics for its time. Even if Generals on both sides of the conflict had been hidebound by traditional or out-of-date thinking...fact was Line Infantry were still the most important unit and battles were still thought of in terms of the Line and Bayonet. Certainly cracks in that system were starting to show however, but they were not as apparent as one might think. 

Edited by SimpleSimon

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I suppose the foreshadowing to the trenches of WW1 by the sieges in the civil war was by the amount of cannon and mortar that kept arriving to have any effect. Artillery field howitzer rate of fire was not on a comparable scale to the great war. The 20th century anti recoil and breach loading mechanisms played a major role leading to the stalemate of broadfront trenches in WW1. I'm sure if the Model 1862 cannons were modernized at the same rate as CW rifle technology it would have been different. (I play TW lately too, Napoleon and WCII)

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Yet crucially, nothing like the huge and clearly defined frontline between the Confederacy and the Union really existed in the way it would between France and Germany in 1915. Even late into the war the line separating the North and South appeared to be highly permeable, with the Savannah Campaign (ie: Sherman's March) closely resembling a Napoleonic March every bit as as much as Lee's success getting the Army of Northern Virginia as far into the Union as Pennsylvania the year before. This is easy to explain though, since the manpower of each side's forces was far, far less than what would be the norm of World Wars. The force-to-space density was still generally quite low and the US is a big country. Producing an overall situation that was a lot like the Eastern Front.

One thing I noticed, almost all of Napoleon's most well known battles were single-day affairs. Battle of the Pyramids was one day. Jena was one day. Battle of Borodino was one day. Battle of Austerlitz? One, single day. Gettysburg was three days. Battle of Fredericksburg? Four days. The Battle of Chancellorsville was almost a week long. Am I missing something? Were any of Napoleon's battles fought over such long periods? Have American historians been mislabeling individual "battles" when in fact they were all really more like campaigns? 

Edited by SimpleSimon

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Posted (edited)

I consider a key difference between the two conflicts to be the role of the horse. The ACW certainly had battles like Brandy Station, but nothing like the key role cavalry filled in the Napoleonic Wars. Without the mobile wing of an army, static, entrenched conflict is more likely- even more likely with the advances in weaponry between the two conflicts.

That’s a cart and horse problem.

Edited by benpark

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Early on the generals were trying to put into practice the concepts from their field manuals which were based on French ideas. But the terrain of rural America did not lend itself to parade ground tactics since it was too often very broken. This may be the reason cavalry was often relegated to recon and raids (where is was successful). There is a book named Battle Tactics of the Civil War by Paddy Griffith which does compare the Civil War with Napoleonic wars and WW1. Pretty sure there are others, but that's one I purchased years ago. Looks like part can be read via Google Books. 

Kevin

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How did the US Civil War also compare to some more contemporary conflicts like the Franco-Prussian War or Crimean War? My understanding is that both of those wars followed some similar precepts stuck between the 18th and 20th centuries to various degrees but haven't done much reading on either. The French seem to have been really convinced of the value of extensive fortification after the Franco-Prussian War before reversing this stance just before the Great War. This was a major reason why the Forts around Verdun were so intricate and thorough. Fort Vaux had a roof of steel reinforced concrete that was something like twelve meters thick and it was built in the 1880s. What were they thinking of proofing that Fort against??? The Death Star? 

Edited by SimpleSimon

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To compare the ACW with Napoleonic warfare is difficult... 

(i) People (probably including American officers of the time) misunderstand what Napoleonic warfare was.

(ii) The ACW was over & done with in four years. By Austerlitz, the Europeans had been fighting for thirteen years... and would fight for another ten years after that.

 

It might make more sense to compare the ACW with the War of the First Coalition... large conscript armies (at least for the French), lots of sieges, messy & often indecisive battles.

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One extremely interesting piece I found from 37mm's link

 Civil War armies kept few reserves, and Civil War combat featured little in the way of combined arms cooperation.  Unlike the Napoleonic Wars, and more like the 18th century, reserves were a rarity in the Civil War, and a commander had few options once a battle "developed" to maturity.  Civil War tactics were NOT Napoleonic, at least not in the sense of Napoleon I.

I had never considered this before but in hindsight it's absolutely correct. There were almost no battles during ACW I can think of where Armies on either side just retained a large uncommitted ready reserve of troops.

The author of that website also articulates a really interesting point that I think up until now I had only been grasping at. Why were the Civil War's battles so frequently indecisive? This is really valuable 37mm. 

Edited by SimpleSimon

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Posted (edited)

Well, McClelland had plenty of reserves in ‘62 battles, only he never realized it thanks, to Pinkerton, lol!

Edited by mjkerner

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On 4/17/2020 at 5:12 PM, SimpleSimon said:

Right. Because not only were there lots of stuff that would come to prominence in the next century, but this was still a war where old school ideas like Cavalry and Line Infantry were still extremely useful even if the circumstances of their use were changing. Like it seems insane to imagine that Generals would still use Line Infantry and bayonet charges...but repeating rifles like the Henry and Sharps were actually very rare guns. Repeating rifles existed, but no one could produce them in the kinds of numbers necessary to kit out entire Brigades or Divisions with them. So the musket was still the weapon of choice for an Army. 

Some quick ballpark numbers...

Henry Rifle - 14,000 examples over a 6 year production run.

Sharps Rifle - At least 100,000+ examples but over a 30 year production run. 

Springfield 1861 - Over 1 million produced through a 12 year run. During the crucial war years though around 250,000 were made between 1861 and 1863. 

I've seen commentary indicating that even rifles as old as the Brown Bess were found frequently in Confederate stocks. Clearly flintlock rifles would not have been valued over newer rifles but the ACW was another case of a war that got so big so fast it completely eclipsed the available logistics for its time. Even if Generals on both sides of the conflict had been hidebound by traditional or out-of-date thinking...fact was Line Infantry were still the most important unit and battles were still thought of in terms of the Line and Bayonet. Certainly cracks in that system were starting to show however, but they were not as apparent as one might think. 

As I understand it the "new weapons" , were available, for the most part only to the North, by virtue of their greater ability to develop and manufacture them.

Cavalry was transitioning from the shock charge to being used as quick transit to ferry troops to areas where they would dismount to fight as regular infantry. This signaled the eventual demise, during WW1, of cavalry as a direct combat unit to one one of transit and reconnaissance.  

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Posted (edited)
2 hours ago, Erwin said:

Insights as to why the lack of reserves?  

I'm still reading into it but likely? Totally insufficient manpower availability to meet the aggregate demand faced by both sides fighting a war spanning most of the geographic United States, with huge orders for manpower even out to California. Want reserves General? We all do. The most recent batches of conscripts were sent to fill out depleted regiments and brigades out fighting near Vicksburg and Kentucky. 

Edited by SimpleSimon

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It seems that a few well-trained guys can beat a large number of ill-trained/conscripts (so CM2 teaches us).   If both sides in ACW were dependent on conscripts then perhaps both sides descended into the sort of fighting where victory depended on attrition and therefore large numbers of conscript cannon fodder and there was no time to build up trained guys or maintain reserves(?).

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In 1866, Prussian troops armed with needle guns easily defeated an Austrian army equipped with muzzle-loading Lorenz rifles, weapons also used in the Civil War.  Instead of using a long thin line of men to blast away at an opposing long thin line of men at close range, the Prussians used small company columns that sent men forward into skirmish lines to gain fire superiority.  The skirmish line would take advantage of the terrain, and the men, who had had extensive target practice, would take careful note of the range to the enemy and adjust their sights accordingly.  The skirmish line was now the main effort, and the column existed primarily to lend support and to send troops forward to the skirmish line.

A really interesting observation and one i've been looking for. Crucially i've wanted to know where the "junction" was between the end of Line Infantry and the beginning of the modern day Infantry Rifleman. I would still be cautious about believing that this was a "hard" or distinct change so-to-speak. Like what most Officers probably saw was just a skirmishing fad that wouldn't last because you still needed extensively trained, professional soldiers with lots of experience in order to take advantage of their skills in marksmanship. Conscript Armies are not good shots, and with this in mind probably lots of Officers continued to believe obstinately that the Line and Bayonet may yet have their day. I wonder if they'd've been right too had the machine gun not shown up...

 

Edited by SimpleSimon

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The Gatling gun did not show up until June 1864. It seems it was used mostly in the trenches at Petersburg until the War ended in April. Again predictive of World War 1 tactics.

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One thing to keep in mind was that even as late as the Second World War, the Japanese could be ridiculously successful attacking with literally just rifles and bayonets in the jungles of Malaya and in the Philippines. While certainly not conducted exactly like a Napoleonic bayonet rush it really wasn't until Guadalcanal that these started to become guaranteed high-casualty events. Sure quite a bit could be explained by incompetent Allied leadership but like the inverse of the Japanese using dash and aggression to capitalize on that is equally skillful use of resources is it not? Crucially the thing that actually brought a conclusive end to that event was the increasingly widespread availability of automatics, be those machine guns, sub machine guns and whatnot. Repeating rifles by themselves could make a charge very risky...but didn't seem to extinguish it either.

The Gatling gun's issue was that it was such a demanding weapon. It needed a huge crew of ammunition porters, teams of men to push it around, and was hand cranked. It took Maxim's machine gun to make a truly automatic weapon that met the many demands of being portable enough, numerous enough, powerful enough, and efficient enough to make it widespread. 

Edited by SimpleSimon

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