Earl Hess is one of our most prolific Civil War authors, and better yet he often tackles subjects that are all too obscure for many historians. While he does write the standard battle history occasionally, he also frequently delves into lesser-known topics such as field fortifications and weaponry. Hess has made quite an impact on the latter topic, entering the debate that has raged between Grady McWhiney and Perry Jamieson, Paddy Griffith, and Brent Nosworthy, to name a few. His earlier The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat continued the revisionist thesis that rate of delivery rather than range of delivery was the key factor producing change, and the rifle musket could be fired no quicker than the smoothbore and thus did not revolutionize warfare. Now Hess builds on that argument in a larger work that all Civil War military historians should read. Short of delving into actual contemporary manuals by Winfield Scott, William Hardee, or Silas Casey, there is relatively little to guide historians or buffs about the intricacies of tactics and movements on battlefields. Hess has done a wonderful job of boiling it down into a coherent presentation, and convincingly argues that the linear system used in the Civil War was perfect for the occasion, was not outdated by the emergence of the rifle, and actually worked well.
To make sure readers realize the context of his argument, Hess takes time to discuss previous tactical developments, both European and American. He firmly ties the linear arrangement of the Civil War to the older European systems, arguing that the Civil War was not the first modern war but was very much akin to that which had been done for centuries. On the other hand, Hess also provides more context by examining postwar developments when volume of fire did have an effect on tactics and produced open-order formations. This contextual approach only strengthens Hess’s argument that the Civil War was not the first modern war but in fact the last of the pre-modern conflicts. [End Page 91]
Hess’s book is not light reading by any means. Due to the necessary minutia, it is pretty dry, but then making tactics an engrossing topic is almost impossible. The use of battle vignettes and examples brightens the manuscript and offers tangible proof of what he is arguing. Essentially, Hess finds that most commanders fought in lines of battle but that columns were surprisingly often used on battlefields, particularly in maneuver but also sometimes as attack formations. Other uses of skirmish lines, squares, and mixtures of formations are also frequently discussed.
Hess is on firm footing with his thesis and exploration of tactics used during the Civil War. His argument is convincing, although he perhaps overplays the quantitative analysis because, as he notes, all movements and formations were not recorded, even in the Official Records, upon which he draws heavily. His attempt to quantify some aspects of tactical formations thus seems insufficient. One example is his statement that he encountered, presumably through a detailed examination of the Official Records, only three examples in the entire war of squares being used on the battlefield; this reviewer can think of three examples of squares being used just at Shiloh.
Despite these issues, not really drawbacks but more akin to uncontrollable limitations, Hess has provided a solid examination of Civil War tactics that will be extremely helpful to all students of the Civil War, whether professional, buff, or re-enactor.
TIMOTHY B. SMITH teaches history at the University of Tennessee at Martin. His most recent book is Shiloh: Conquer or Perish, and he is currently working on a book on Forts Henry and Donelson.