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1850-1877: The Civil War: Overview

1850-1877: The Civil War: Overview

The Modern War. In comparison to other nineteenth-century conflicts, the American Civil War was a modern war. This is not surprising for, as historian James McPherson states, every war is more modern than the previous one. Before 1861, wars, especially in Europe, were won by outmaneuvering enemy forces. Casualties were not excessive and efforts were made to respect private property and civilians. During the Civil War, however, enemy forces attacked each other in frontal assaults in which the victors suffered just as much as the losers. For the first time in American history, armies of more than one hundred thousand men fought in major battles ending in extremely high casualty rates. Confiscation of private property and uprooting civilians from their private residences also became common practice. In addition, innovations in weapons and military tactics forced Civil War commanders to revolutionize battlefield strategy; trench warfare, for example, moved the Civil War into a stalemate during the final campaign in Virginia.

The Traditional War. Although modern in many ways, Americas Civil War was also a traditional conflict that mirrored many of the battles, weapons, and military tactics of the Napoleonic Wars fought in Europe (1793-1815). Despite revolutionary changes in arms and combat strategy, aggressive infantry assaults across treacherous fields of fire accounted for more battlefield victories than modern weaponry. Similarly, mounted cavalrymen and fixed bayonets played a more prominent role than the new repeating rifles or experimental machine guns. In their attempt to resupply forces, quartermaster personnel continued to favor horse-drawn wagons over logistical innovations such as the steamboat and railroad. Finally, both governments still depended upon inexperienced state militiamen, not professional soldiers, to fill their manpower needs.

The Balance Sheet. When the war began, the North dominated the South in manpower and resources. The population of the North was 2.5 times larger than that of the South, 22,300,000 to 9,100,000 (3,500,000 of whom were slaves). Moreover, the Union outnumbered the Confederacy in white males ages eighteen to forty-five, the main age group to fight the war, by a margin of 4.2 to 1. The North outproduced the South in textiles, firearms, iron, coal, corn, wheat, draft animals, shipping tonnage, and railroad mileage. Overall the North had 90 percent of all U.S. industrial capacity and two-thirds of its railroad track. The only resource advantage for the South was its cotton production, which was 96 percent of the national output. Due to this lopsided edge in men and materials, many Union observers boldly predicted that the Southern rebellion would crumble after one battle.

Southern Advantages. Although the Union appeared superior on paper, Southern strategists were confident that the Confederacy would win. Many observers at home and abroad felt that the Union would not be able to conquer a region larger than all of western Europe. The military analyst for the London Times commented: Just as England during the revolution had to give up conquering the colonies so the North will have to give up conquering the South. Psychologically as well, the advantage clearly lay with the South, which defended land, homes, and families against Northern aggression. This fact strengthened Southern morale and was a strong motivation to fight. Southerners also argued that they held a superiority in martial qualities. As a rural people, many hunted and rode horses, in contrast to the Northern city dwellers and shopkeepers who did neither. In addition, more Southerners attended West Point and other military academies, fought in the Mexican War, and served in the Federal army. Southerners were also more likely to join or form a local militia unit as part of their community culture. The prevalence of these regional companies allowed the South to prepare for war long before the North mobilized in large numbers. When each Southern state seceded, local governments called up these militiamen, allowing the Confederacy to field sixty thousand troops before Lincolns call for seventy-five thousand ninety-day enlistments. Southern troops were more familiar with southern topography and were aided by a civilian population that actively spied on Union troop movements. These martial advantages, however, were not strong enough to repel the Northern onslaught, as Union commanders devised plans to protect their supply lines within enemy territory and deployed enough men to occupy more than five hundred thousand square miles of Southern land.

Union and Confederate Armies. Both sides had to raise armies from scratchthe federal army in 1860 numbered only sixteen thousand men, many of whom were located in small units scattered west of the Mississippi River. After four years of war, more than two million men fought for the Union and almost another million for the Confederacy. These figures represent half of the Northern male population of military age (eighteen to forty-five) and three-quarters of the comparable Southern white male population. During the first two years of the war, most of these soldiers were volunteers. Later, both sides implemented drafts to fill regimental ranks, and although these drafts produced few recruits they did spark additional volunteer enlistments. When war broke out neither side was prepared to enlist African Americans. The North eventually recruited 180,000 black men while the South refused to acknowledge this untapped manpower source until late in the war. Most Civil War soldiers were young; more than 40 percent fell into the eighteen to twenty-one age bracket. The majority were farmers or farm laborers. By the end of the war, approximately 618,000 would lose their lives, two out of three dying from diseases that festered in camps, hospitals, and prisons.

Organizing Regiments. The bulk of these volunteers were organized in state militia units. The units first organized by company (one hundred men) and usually drew recruits from a county, town, or city neighborhood. A company elected its own officers (a captain and two lieutenants), and ten companies formed a regiment. The colonel and majors of a regiment were appointed by the state governor. Each regiment was named for the state that organized it and were numbered sequentially following their completion, for example: the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry, First Louisiana Native Guard Infantry, Fifth Virginia Cavalry, and so on. Some regiments were organized by ethnicity such as Irish, German, Scandinavian, or African. Cavalry regiments mirrored infantry regimental organization while artillery units were arranged in batteries. Each battery was composed of four to six cannon along with ammunition wagons, 155 artillerymen, and seventy-two horses. The infantry comprised the major fighting component in both armies, accounting for 80 percent of all Civil War regiments. As the war progressed and combat, desertion, and disease took their tolls, and regimental combat strength decreased, with most units averaging five hundred men or less. Many times new recruits preferred to organize their own companies rather than fill the ranks of existing ones.

Discipline. For the most part, Civil War volunteers were not professional soldiers. As citizen soldiers, many lacked military discipline and displayed contempt toward officers. Early in the war, this unprofessional disregard for authority led to many battlefield disasters. This problem was particularly evident in Confederate regiments since rural individualism dominated Southern society. Unruly soldiers were known to threaten or physically assault officers, discard equipment on long marches, and leave the ranks to loot and pillage. Desertion was a major problem for both sides, and during the course of the war, Union forces had a total of 200,000 cases while Confederate armies had 104,000. While Northern authorities caught and returned 80,000 to their regiments, Southern officials were only able to locate and return 21,000.

Weapons. Although both sides utilized cavalry regiments and artillery firepower, infantry rifles accounted for 80 to 90 percent of all battlefield casualties. The greater reliance on infantry regiments was due to an innovation in nineteenth-century muskets. Before the Civil War, the primary infantry weapon was the smoothbore musket. The maximum range of this weapon was 250 yards, but its accuracy was closer to eighty yards. As the musket ball left the smooth barrel, it did not spin and, as historian James McPherson notes, might behave as erratically as a knuckleball in baseball. By cutting spi-raled grooves inside a musket barrel, a bullet would spin and provide better accuracy and range. Designed in 1849, the minié ball, a cone-shaped lead bullet named after its designer, French army Captain Claude Etienne MiniÉ, gave infantrymen greater accuracy and range in their firepower. When an American designer made a cheaper version of the minié ball that was less likely to malfunction, both Confederate and Union armies abandoned the old smoothbore muskets and embraced the new rifled muskets. The rifled musket was accurate up to four hundred yards and had a maximum range of one thousand yards.

Tactics. Though cavalry and artillery tactics changed following this wartime innovation, the longer range and greater accuracy of the new rifles did not force Civil War commanders to alter infantry operations drastically. Many West Point graduates on both sides clung to lessons learned at the academy which emphasized linear tactics (long lines of opposing infantrymen exchanging musket fire at close range). Military theoreticians also advocated close-order frontal assaults. Taken from the Napoleonic era, this offensive movement was designed to overrun enemy positions with overwhelming numbers. When fired from strong defensive positions such as a trench or breastwork, however, the new rifles cut down onrushing infantrymen long before they reached the fortifications. Infantry advances across open fields resulted in enormous casualties, as incurred by Union forces at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1862 and Confederate troops at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in 1863. By wars end, soldiers had mastered the art of firing a weapon from behind cover in a prone position while their commanders learned to save regimental strength by skillfully outmaneuvering their opponents and attacking the enemys flank.

Confederate Supply Shortages. In addition to raising an army, the ability to support and supply regiments also played a major role in the war. To function efficiently, armies require a dependable flow of food, weapons, clothing, ammunition, medical equipment and other war matériels. From the outset, food and clothing shortages plagued the Confederate army. A lack of railroad tracks, inflation, and inefficient government bureaucracy hindered quartermaster and commissary personnel from meeting supply demands. Southern soldiers often marched and fought on empty stomachs and many suffered from scurvy during the winter months. At one point, supplies were so low that Confederate general Robert E. Lee ordered daily rations reduced to four ounces of bacon, eighteen ounces of cornmeal, and a handful of rice or black-eyed peas. Southern industries suffered from inadequate raw materials, and this also affected the fighting ability of Southern soldiers. Throughout the war, many Southerners fought in ragged uniforms and marched in bare feet. Although he lacked food and clothing, the Confederate soldier was usually well stocked in weapons and ammunition. Ordinance Bureau chief Josiah Gorgas used crafty measures to recycle lead and iron to manufacture bullets and cannon balls. This Herculean effort to keep Confederate weapons loaded was not enough, however, to offset the weakened fighting ability of hungry and ragged soldiers.

Union Production and Supply. For most of the war Union soldiers were adequately supplied. Northern textile mills ran at full production capacity and kept Federal troops well stocked with overcoats, shoes, and uniforms. Since Northern farmers grew more crops and raised more livestock than their Southern counterparts, food shortages did not inhibit troop movements as Northern infantrymen feasted on pork, vegetables, coffee, and bread (known commonly as hardtack). With a strong logistic edge in supplies and men, the Union army kept most of the fighting contained within the Southern states and hampered Confederate efforts to resupply their own soldiers. Thus the Federal advantage in modern technology and production kept Northern soldiers in the field while supply shortages in the Confederate army compelled many Southerners to abandon the cause and return home.

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