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Nature Of American Civil War Essay, Research Paper

To what extent was the American Civil War, the first modern war?

The Great War witnessed a significant departure from the Napoleonic tactics and technology familiar to contemporary European military thinkers. Although the defining factor remains ambiguous, there is a tacit acceptance that the First World War epitomises the modern war. It was a conflict of mass armies waged with highly efficient weaponry, which, coupled with the absolute pursuit of victory, eroded the pseudo-chivilaric concepts which are widely associated with the Napoleonic era of warfare. Lying chronologically between the First World War and those of the renowned Corsican general though, there is a deal of historiographical contention as to which category the American Civil War of the 1860 s properly belongs to.

It is an indisputable verity that the industrial revolution had, as is implicit in the title, effected a great change in the developed world, in domestic and commercial fields at least. Advocates of th e case that the American Civil War was a pre-cursor to the conflict of 1914 (such as Farmer and Hagerman), base their arguments largely around the development of new technologies since the turn of the nineteenth century. Battlefield tactics during the Napoleonic era were largely necessitated by the inaccuracy (in ranges beyond 100 yards) of the ubiquitous smooth-bore musket. The inability of firepower alone to whittle down enemy formations resulted in the greater precedence given to the tactical offensive, which characterises Napoleonic conflict.

According to historians, such as Farmer, the introduction of the rifle-musket was the most significant technological development of the Civil War. The Union Springfield and Confederate Enfield rifles, could fire accurately up to 250 yards and, unlike their predecessors, were reliable even in inclement weather owing to the replacement of the tradi tional flint lock with a percussion hammer. By 1863 the new weapons were extensively used by both sides, substantiating Farmer s claim that the latter half of the conflict was more akin to a modern war. Cavalry, once the proud shock troops of war, were forced to dismount their steeds; which now served only to make them larger and more inviting targets to enemy infantry (although Griffiths refutes this, observing that cavalry were used to great effect as late as 1863 at the battle of Brandy station and that their failings elsewhere were merely the result of poor command). Officers, whose flamboyant style of dress made them susceptible to the attentions of enemy sharpshooters (Generals were 50% more likely to die than the average private), also felt a need to become more inconspicuous, donning the uniforms of normal soldiers. Infantry formations began to adapt too, as traditional deep regiment +al blocks were replaced with further spread, attack lines organised in waves. As in the First World War this new advancing structure was an attempt to avoid the concentration of fire which more traditionally arranged units faced, but was also nessecary to assault the protracted, entrenched positions of the enemy (which extended further than in Napoleonic conflicts partly owing to the greater strength lent to the defenders by improved firepower). Moreover, the gallant infantry charges which so defined the battles of the late eighteenth century, became unviable. Only 1% of casualties in the Civil War owed to the bayonet, whilst some 90% are attributed to bullets. Instead of charging enemy regiments, soldiers began to dig trenches, using grapeshot firing artillery to repel enemy frontal assaults; by 1864 almost all positions were entrenched. While this seems reminiscent of scenes of the Great War, even exponents of the modern war view such as Farmer concede that the machine gun and ordnance w eapons, which were primarily responsible for the stagnation seen in the Great War, were seldom or never used. Griffiths claims that most regiments which came under enemy s close range fire followed their natural instincts and settled down to fire back. , entrenchment then, seems to have been less a tactical innovation in response to new weaponry, as it was the immediate response of ill-led volunteer troops; an idea corroborated, to an extent, by Hagerman. While the Americans were more willing to be brutal to civilians, as soldiers they seem to have been (generally) psychologically less prepared to die than their European counterparts . In an age of individualism the citizen levies, even prior to the introduction of the Springfield, showed an unwillingness to risk their lives as mere cannon-fodder. Exponents of the modern war view such as Farmer concede that the machine gun and ordnance weapons, which were primarily responsible for the stagnation in the Great War, were either seldom, or never, used.

Despi te this, the Battle of Malvern Hill and Gettysburg seem to stand bloody testament to the weakness of the infantry charge. At Gettysburg, Pickett s Confederate soldiers outnumbered the defending Yankees almost three to one. Yet of the 12,000 soldiers who embarked, only 300 accompanied Lou Armstead as he was slaughtered on the enemies front line. Whether or not this rout of Confederate forces could have taken place were he faced with an enemy wielding muskets is debatable. Certainly his chances would have been statistically more favourable, with the opposition only having time to fire, averagely, two as opposed to seven rounds of fire into his advancing columns. Furthermore the sheer weight of this firepower, combined with the protracted nature of the battle line, meant that it was very difficult for leaders to retain control of their regiment (in other battles generals failed to press forward their victories, owing to the difficulty of rallying men so spread apart and without field radio ). However, Griffiths dismisses the notion that the impact of the new weapons was decisive, or that the Napoleonic tactics still employed by some generals were anachronistic. Instead he claims that the cause of the relative bloodiness and duration of the American Civil War (and both factors were comparable with the First World War), was mainly due to the inability of the generals to properly implement the European tactical doctrines. Even during the so-called Napoleonic era the difficulty of manoeuvring men between close formatio ns had been such a problem that the strategist Hardee had dedicated time to devising a resolution. According to Griffiths had Hardee s plans been put into practice, the Civil War generals would have been perfectly capable of pressing their advantages. Furthermore, Farmer accepts that battles were fought with numbers never exceeding 100,000 on either side at a single battle, much as in Napoleonic battles.

Another factor cited in evidence of the wars moderness is the scale of the conflict; which was made possible by the development of rail travel and telegraph. The considerable railway network developed in peace time, allowed troops to be quickly transported where they were needed and for supplies to be sent to maintain them. As no Napoleonic conflict had been fought upon such a scale a new form of military hierarchy was required to co-ordinate the efforts of the armies. Armies at the turn of the eighteenth century had generally had the individual commander at the head of command, while this was forced upon the armies by the inadequacies of communications, it was also suitable as campaigns were being fought with smaller numbers, in familiar (well mapped) territory with established communities providing sustenance for armies locally. The commanders in the Civil war had few of these luxuries and so there was a need to try and co-ordinate efforts. In the Union army the High Command formed a somewhat informal system with staff cohesively planning a grand strategy not dissimilar to the French staff system in conceptual terms alone. The Confederate forces also managed to fashion some semblance of modern command. Yet only the Union in the East successfully achieved in ?tegration between all the layers of bureaucracy, through high command, to bureaus and operation command and, crucially, command in the field. Communications grew so vital in the Civil War that it was the first conflict in which a specifically designated signal corps, with its own officers, was developed. Ostensibly, even Griffiths accepts that logistical improvements, ushered in by railways and telegraphs made the war far more akin to the First World War.

Before his death in 1831 the German theorist Karl von Clausewitz claimed wars would become increasingly emotive and thereby bloody. Indeed the First and Second World Wars were both fraught with emotion, evident in the rush to volunteer to fight against the common enemy. The preamble to the American Civil war was strikingly similar. In one of the most politicised nations in the world, caught up in a patriotic fervour, deluded by romanticised images of war and cajoled by women, scores of young men from both sides joined up. Unlike Napoleonic wars the Ci ?vil war was not perceived to be a battle between professional armies of governments over territory or some other such cause, which would not directly affect the people. Rather it was viewed in the North as a battle to uphold the Union against dissidents and in the South as a battle to retain their way of life (of which slavery was a part). The war saw a break with the tacit agreement amongst Napoleonic commanders that civilians should not be embroiled in war. Communications and even civilian communities were specifically targeted by soldiers in an attempt to absolutely obliterate the opposition. In 1864 Generals Sherman and Sheridan began a scorched earth policy, whereby they decimated the lands of civilians who supported the opposition; while it is unlikely that either general was seeking to kill civilians, they must have also appreciated that the deaths of some were inevitable. The notion that the war was more acrimonious than any Western European war is central to the argument of Catton that the Civil War was a modern war. However, Griffiths and Farmer both refute this idea. They note that atrocities were exceptional during the war and that there was fraternisation between civilians on both sides, few of whom suffered the raping and pillaging synonymous with more modern wars..

Ultimately it can be concluded that the American Civil War did witness a significant transition campaigning methods, largely precipitated by the new technologies of railways and telegraphs. Griffiths admits that without steam power it is unlikely that the War could have been fought as it was, particularly in the West. Moreover, the size of the theater created a need to develop large military institutions (including military hospitals), which, while still rudimentary compared to those of the Great War, had no parallel in the Napoleonic era. On the battlefield too there were steps away from traditional deep blocks of infantry and cavalry were rendered almost entirely useless in their previous capacity as sh ocktroops, degenerating instead into reconnaissance riders. The pre-emminent American tactician of the era, Denis Hart Mahan, began to espouse the virtue of active defence and the frontal assault became discredited. However, unlike the Great War these changes took place in the face of rifles alone, as opposed to machine guns and ordnance. Nor were the new tactics employed by all commanders and, although rare, cavalry could, at times, continue to serve in their previous role. This is possibly the result of the wars scale. It is almost inconceivable that conditions, not least geographically or climatically, would have been the same all over such a sprawling campaign map. Consequently, while Farmer splits the war in two, claiming that with the introduction of the Springfield in 1863 it moved towards becoming a modern war, it ought to be borne in mind that regional disparities must still have occurred and therefore in some areas the conflict, may have been more modern than others.

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