Thursday, June 11, 2015

Hess: "CIVIL WAR INFANTRY TACTICS: Training, Combat, and Small-Unit Effectiveness"

[Civil War Infantry Tactics: Training, Combat, and Small-Unit Effectiveness by Earl J. Hess (Louisiana State University Press, 2015). Cloth, illustrations, photos, diagrams, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:264/321. ISBN:978-0-8071-5937-8 $45]

The ubiquity of piecemeal attacks is one of the most common criticisms leveled at Civil War commanders by the armchair observers of today but the fact that they endured throughout the war should surprise few. While officers of both sides became extremely proficient at handling regiments and brigades on the battlefield, the vastly more difficult task of coordinating and controlling divisional and especially corps level attacks and maneuvers repeatedly confounded both sides (with many notable exceptions, of course). Given the devolution of so many grand attack plans into mere aggregations of uncoordinated mini-battles, victory or defeat was often a factor of small unit effectiveness, a subject few writers and scholars have studied at length. Even the large body of ever more detailed Civil War battle studies typically fail to appreciate and note the full range of formations and maneuvers that underpinned every aspect of the fighting. Far more than an incremental contribution to the literature, Earl Hess's Civil War Infantry Tactics: Training, Combat, and Small-Unit Effectiveness is an original treatment of the complex inner workings of Union and Confederate regiments in battle.

The first two chapters of Civil War Infantry Tactics contextualize the development and evolution of linear tactics and theory during the two centuries preceding the Civil War, on both European and North American landscapes. The influence of European military thought (especially French) on 19th century American armies is well known and Hess traces the transmission of this military patrimony (with revisions) into the primary Civil War training manuals, those authored by Winfield Scott, William J. Hardee, and Silas Casey. An interesting question to consider is whether the Scott and Casey manuals, which their discussions of division and corp evolutions of the line, conferred any kind of advantage to Union commanders over their Confederate counterparts, whose primary training tool (Hardee's) did not move beyond small unit tactical schooling. Hess doesn't seem to believe so. He does praise the Army of the Cumberland for its superior professionalism and the Army of the Potomac for its advanced state of corps level articulation by the late war period, but the author persuasively opines that the latter's effectiveness was less a factor of training and more a function of skills gained through the experience of being on the operational offensive far more than its primary opponent. Sustained contact with the enemy also fostered in the Army of the Potomac a more urgent atmosphere of creative tactical problem solving.

The book's section on training clearly demonstrates the necessity of constant drilling, for green soldiers and grizzled veterans alike. Only thoroughly drilled soldiers led by experienced officers confident in their mastery of the tactical manual could take advantage of the full range of prescribed small unit formations and maneuvers. As Hess demonstrates through numerous examples, possession of the entire skill set made a huge practical difference on the battlefield. Unit effectiveness is often described in the book as a function of articulation, a rarely used term in the Civil War literature defined as "the facility with which commanders and men are able to make complicated formations and maneuvers,..." (pg. 243), and articulation in its highest achievements could only be reached by units blending experience with continuous military education.

Hess's detailed descriptions of regimental formations and maneuvers comprise the heart of the book. Simply moving forward involved a complex set of orders and the book discusses at some length rates of advance, the use of guides to establish proper direction, the ways (formally and informally) physical obstacles were passed, changes of front, oblique movement, and skirmishing. For tactical flexibility, many different formations were available to small unit commanders and the book covers the deployments of lines, columns, squares, and echelon formations as well as the passage of lines, the last a frequent source of disruption. Front changes in the form of refusing flanks, moving by the flank, and wheeling are also meticulously described. All of these sections and subsections are characterized by clearly explained definitions supported by line diagrams and numerous real world examples. Hess generally does a fine job of making the complex understandable (there's also a helpful glossary of terms at the rear of the book) but occasionally some confusion remains regarding specific points which might have been dispelled by using more dynamic line diagrams, ones tracing the progression of the more intricate maneuvers in multiple stages.

Given that columns accompanied lines on every Civil War battlefield it's appropriate that Hess devotes an entire chapter (plus many other sections within others) to their use. Simple columns, double columns, mixtures of lines and columns, and columns in the contexts of maneuver, waiting, and assault are addressed at length. The most controversial aspect of columns among contemporaries was their tactical employment on the attack. Many high ranking Civil War generals insisted on the situational deployment of assault columns (especially when attacking fortified positions) but Hess, using five case studies to evaluate the utility of attack columns, finds no substantiation of their superiority to multiple lines and much evidence of their leading to higher casualties and disorganization. One point regarding columns that the author might have made more explicit to readers is the interchangeability of the terms "double column" and "column of/by divisions" [the latter to be differentiated from the "division column," which was a regimental formation that, according to Hess, was rarely if ever used during the war].

As broad and deep as Hess's study is it's certainly also true that some related but obscure topics are unexplored. For instance, the book does not cover specialized units. Though there's some evidence for it, it remains a source of controversy whether most self-styled "sharpshooter" battalions and regiments in either army received truly unique training in skirmishing and open order line formations. Unusual tactical innovations, such as the skirmish line maneuvers detailed in Fred Ray's history of the sharpshooter battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia1, are similarly beyond the scope of Hess's study.

To obtain some idea of how often regimental commanders used multiple formations and maneuvers during a given battle and their relative frequency of use, Hess examined 50 case studies. How useful the specific numbers are is open to debate given the limited sample size (and the author recognizes this) but the chapter does demonstrate the battlefield versatility of well trained Civil War regiments handled by experienced officers. Most Civil War regiments were not armed mobs and operated at a far higher proficiency than many historians and contemporary European critics have allowed. Hess rightly cautions readers against embarking on misguided quests to explain why Civil War battles failed to be tactically decisive [or failed to match the (often falsely) presumed decisive character of earlier eras], but his study can be viewed as a fairly strong endorsement of the view that small unit competence and cohesion were major factors underlying the general battlefield indestructibility of Union and Confederate armies.

One chapter is devoted to higher evolutions of the line, specifically examining the formations and maneuvers of select corps at the latter half Civil War battles of Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, Fort Stedman, Five Forks, and Petersburg (April 2). According to the author, the complex mixture of lines and columns employed by the Army of the Potomac in the sample is demonstrative evidence of the army's superior level of large formation articulation mentioned earlier in this review. Of course, as Hess notes, these examples must be tempered by the general recognition that corps level coordination was generally poor on both sides throughout the war, a situation that made the exploitation of local successes earned by regiments and brigades routinely difficult.

The last section looks at proposed changes to tactical doctrine in the post war period, largely through the lens of three Civil War veterans who put forth new manuals to replace Casey's. While those of William Morris and Lew Wallace were deemed insufficiently different enough to warrant wholesale adoption, Emory Upton's system simplifying maneuvers and introducing more flexibility in line formations was approved. However, none of these innovations truly broke from the linear system, which remained a part of American military doctrine until the widespread availability of magazine fed rifles made the squad system practical. In briefly tracing developments between 1865 and the present, the main takeaway should be that, contrary to what some scholars and most of the general public believes2, the linear system was far from obsolete by the 1860s. It was instead an effective and highly practical means of addressing the tactical scale problems of the mid-nineteenth century battlefield.

Groundbreaking is a badly overused word in the marketing language of new Civil War releases but it's a truly appropriate descriptor of Earl Hess's Civil War Infantry Tactics. The first scholarly and fully realized analysis and study of regimental formations and maneuvers to appear in the literature, the book offers a powerful argument that the heretofore neglected topic of small unit tactics should be regarded as a foundational element of our understanding of the Civil War battlefield.

1 - Shock Troops of the Confederacy: The Sharpshooter Battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia by Fred Ray (CFS Press, 2006).
2 - According to Hess, much of this can be traced to the popular belief (a false one, by his estimation) that the rifled musket was a revolutionary battle tool that inflicted mass casualties at long range, rendered the cavalry charge obsolete, and reasserted the primacy of the defensive. Only briefly re-summarized in Civil War Infantry Tactics, his views on the subject are rendered fully in The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth (University Press of Kansas, 2008).

More CWBA reviews of LSUP titles:
* The Enigmatic South: Toward Civil War and Its Legacies
* Corps Commanders in Blue: Union Major Generals in the Civil War
* Gateway to the Confederacy: New Perspectives on the Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns, 1862-1863
* Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln
* Greyhound Commander: Confederate General John G. Walker's History of the Civil War West of the Mississippi
* Knights of the Golden Circle: Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War
* Milliken's Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory
* Battle of Stones River: The Forgotten Conflict Between the Confederate Army of Tennessee and the Union Army of the Cumberland
* Granbury's Texas Brigade: Diehard Western Confederates
* The Last Battle of the Civil War: United States Versus Lee, 1861-1883
* Confederate Guerrilla: Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia
* Lincoln and Citizens' Rights in Civil War Missouri: Balancing Freedom and Security
* War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914
* Isham G. Harris of Tennessee: Confederate Governor and United States Senator
* Executing Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Carolina Community 1861-1865
* Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the American Civil War
* Homegrown Yankees: Tennessee's Union Cavalry in the Civil War
* John Bankhead Magruder: A Military Reappraisal
* A Wisconsin Yankee in the Confederate Bayou Country: The Civil War Reminiscences of a Union General
* Bleeding Borders: Race, Gender, and Violence in Pre-Civil War Kansas
* Jefferson Davis and the Civil War Era
* Where Men Only Dare to Go Or the Story of a Boy Company, C.S.A.
* Encyclopedia of Civil War Shipwrecks
* Walker’s Texas Division, C.S.A.: Greyhounds of the Trans-Mississippi
* The Confederate Cherokees: John Drew's Regiment of Mounted Rifles
* A Crisis In Confederate Command: Edmund Kirby Smith, Richard Taylor, And The Army Of The Trans-Mississippi
* The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock


  1. I'm about halfway thru it and so far I agree wholeheartedly. It's an excellent book that really explains how the drill and tactics of the day worked, and should be required reading not only for armchair generals but for anyone who wants a better understanding of the nuts and bolts of battle. Like you, however, I think he gives remarkably short shrift to skirmishing and the petite guerre, especially after saying the soldiers of the CW brought it to its highest level ever. Also would like to have seen more on how the tactics evolved during the war, but perhaps there's another book in that. As you know I had some major reservations about his book on the rifle musket, but I like this one much better.

    1. Fred,
      I would like to see a book on skirmishing. I should probably also read Casey one of these days! I'm with you on finding this book more satisfying than the rifle study.



  2. I just reviewed this for Civil War News. It is a marvelous original work, and I won't repeat everything written by Drew or commented on by Fred above.

    The only real weakness, in my opinion, was the ridiculously small reproduction size of the absolutely critical drawings and illustrations to illustrate what Dr. Hess was discussing. This was the publisher's decision--and it was a bad one. It makes it much more difficult to quickly and fully grasp what he is describing in words--especially for readers less acquainted with the area.

    1. I meant to discuss this subject but it slipped out somewhere. Size issues aside, I was also hoping for a more creative alternative to reproducing the old training diagrams and following a similar model for the originals.



Blogger ID not required, but if you choose not to create one please sign your post with your name (no promotional information, please). Otherwise, your comment and/or link may be deleted.