- Civil War Infantry Tactics: Training, Combat, and Small-Unit Effectiveness by Earl J. Hess
Earl J. Hess has produced the first scholarly work to examine meticulously the so-called minor tactics, or “the actual formations and maneuvers used by officers and men,” during the Civil War (xv). While this ostensibly technical topic may deter nonmilitary historians, the book imparts important conclusions that no Civil War historian should miss and will become required reading for all students of the early American military establishment. Hess’s evidence demands that we refrain from privileging the development of technology over its uses in practice and that we fully appreciate the fact that military professionalism could be and was imparted to citizen soldiers by the mid-nineteenth century. He also definitively confirms that [End Page 117] the Civil War continued the early American military tradition rather than presaged twentieth-century wars, which might help to put this enduring scholarly debate to rest.
Hess argues that because Civil War soldiers did not use the rifle musket to its effective range—the weapon’s only major advantage over the smoothbore—armies continued to employ the traditional, European-based, and best-suited system of tactics available: linear tactics, or shoulder-to-shoulder lines, columns, and maneuvers designed to orient units. This system, which in the American Civil War emphasized the regiment as primary tactical unit, was meant to enhance command and control of troops. Contrary to assumptions of previous scholars, the linear tactical system was neither silly nor outdated, nor were volunteer officers incapable of mastering it and successfully training their citizen soldiers. Drill manuals, which serve as Hess’s main primary source base, enabled the considerable tactical accomplishments of men who had never held a musket before 1861. The author also thoroughly mines reports from the Official Records to show how training played out in real combat, providing countless case studies that demonstrate common field obstacles and varying levels of command talent and execution.
Contextual chapters related to the period before and after the war bookend those on Civil War training and specific tactics, formations, and movements. Hess’s evidence leaves little room to debate that American tactics in the nineteenth century were highly derivative of those in Europe and that changes over time were fairly minor. Differences among the drill manuals of Winfield Scott (1835), William J. Hardee (1855), and Silas Casey (1862), with which Civil War officers were most familiar, had more to do with emphasis and simplification than substantial changes to content. Nevertheless, Hess demonstrates that Civil War officers effectively increased the rate of movement toward and in combat (Hardee’s pet objectives); deployed some of the most effective examples of skirmishing in Western military history; and successfully completed complicated maneuvers—such as the oblique movement—when needed, despite preferring the more basic. The length of the Civil War fostered significant improvement over time, though Hess finds that most armies continued to struggle with articulation at the division level and above. An exception appears to be the Army of the Potomac, whose high-level coordination improved, while its opponent, the Army of Northern Virginia, largely assumed the defensive in the last year of the war, relying mainly on small counterattacks.
The book concludes by bridging into the postwar and modern periods to explain how linear tactics in combat were eventually replaced by “devolution of command and control from the regiment down to platoons [End Page 118] and squads,” diversification of infantry weapons, and heavy artillery support (220). Even so, the old system is still used today to march, train, and review troops, while the modern infantry, aside from elite marksmen, continue to fire their shoulder weapons at very close ranges, much as they did in the Civil War.
In these claims military historians will recognize some major and some minor disputes with current literature. Much as he does in The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth (2008), Hess rebuts scholars who have credited the potential long range of the...