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Civil War - Pre-War Tactical Doctrine

The Napoleonic Wars and the Mexican War were the major influences on American military thinking at the beginning of the Civil War. The campaigns of Napoleon and Wellington provided ample lessons in battle strategy, weapons employment, and logistics, while American tactical doctrine reflected the lessons learned in Mexico (1846-48). However, these tactical lessons were misleading because in Mexico relatively small armies fought only seven pitched battles.

Because these battles were so small, almost all the tactical lessons learned during the war focused at the regimental, battery, and squadron levels. Future Civil War leaders had learned very little about brigade, division, and corps maneuver in Mexico, yet these units were the basic fighting elements of both armies in 1861-65.

The U.S. Army's experience in Mexico validated Napoleonic principles - particularly that of the offensive. In Mexico, tactics did not differ greatly from those of the early nineteenth century. Infantry marched in column and deployed into line to fight. Once deployed, an infantry regiment might send one or two companies forward as skirmishers, as security against surprise, or to soften the enemy’s line.

After identifying the enemy’s position, a regiment advanced in closely ordered lines to within 100 yards. There, it delivered a devastating volley, followed by a charge with bayonets. Both sides used this basic tactic in the first battles of the Civil War.

In Mexico, American armies employed artillery and cavalry in both offensive and defensive battle situations. In the offense, artillery moved as near to the enemy lines as possible - normally just outside musket range-in order to blow gaps in the enemy’s Iine that the infantry might exploit with a determined charge. In the defense, artillery blasted advancing enemy lines with canister and withdrew if the enemy attack got within musket range. Cavalry guarded the army’s flanks and rear but held itself ready to charge if enemy infantry became disorganized or began to withdraw.

These tactics worked perfectly well with the weapons technology of the Napoleonic and Mexican Wars. The infantry musket was accurate up to 100 yards but ineffective against even massed targets beyond that range. Rifles were specialized weapons with excellent accuracy and range but slow to load and therefore not usually issued to line troops. Smoothbore cannon had a range up to 1 mile with solid shot but were most effective against infantry when firing canister at ranges under 400 yards. Artillerists worked their guns without much fear of infantry muskets, which had a limited range. Cavalry continued to use sabers and lances as shock weapons.

American troops took the tactical offensive in most Mexican War battles with great success, and they suffered fairly light losses. Unfortunately, similar tactics proved to be obsolete in the Civil War because of a major technological innovation fielded in the 1850s - the rifle-musket. This new weapon greatly increased the infantry’s range and accuracy and loaded as fast as a musket. The U.S. Army adopted a version of the rifle-musket in 1855, and by the beginning of the Civil War, rifle-muskets were available in moderate numbers. It was the weapon of choice in both the Union and Confederate Armies during the war, and by 1862, large numbers of troops on both sides had rifle-muskets of good quality.

Official tactical doctrine prior to the beginning of the Civil War did not clearly recognize the potential of the new rifle-musket, Prior to 1855, the most influential tactical guide was General Winfield Scott's three-volume work, Infantry Tactics (1835), based on French tactical models of the Napoleonic Wars. It stressed close-order, linear formations in two or three ranks advancing at “quick time” of 110‘ steps (86 yards) per minute.

In 1855, to accompany the introduction of the new rifle-musket, Major William J. Hardee published a two-volume tactical manual, Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics. Hardee’s work contained few signifYcant revisions of Scott's manual. His major innovation was to increase the speed of the advance to a "double-quick time" of 165 steps (l51 yards) per minute. If, as suggested, Hardee introduced his manual as a response to the rifle-musket, then he failed to appreciate the weapon’s impact on combined arms tactics and the essential shift the rifle-musket made in favor of the defense. Hardee’s "Tactics" was the standard infantry manual used by both sides at the outbreak of war in 1861.

If Scott’s and Hardee’s works lagged behind technological innovations, at least the infantry had manuals to establish a doctrinal basis for training. Cavalry and artillery fell even further behimd in recognizing the potential tactical shift in favor of rifle-armed infantry.

The cavalry’s manual, published in 1841, was based on French sources that focused on close-order offensive tactics. It favored the traditional cavalry attack in two ranks of horsemen armed with sabers or lances. The manual took no notice of the rifle-musket's potential, nor did it give much attention to dismounted operations.

Similarly, the artillery had a basic drill book delineating individual crew actions, but it had no tactical manual. Like cavalrymen, artillerymen showed no concern for the potential tactical changes that the rifle-musket implied.

Regular Army infantry, cavalry, and artillery practiced and became proficient in the tactics that brought success in Mexico. As the first volunteers drilled and readied themselves for the battles of l861, officers and noncommissioned officers taught the lessons learned from the Napoleonic Wars and validated in Mexico, Thus, the two armies entered the Civil War with a good understanding of the tactics that had worked in the Mexican War but with little understanding of how the rifle-musket might upset their carefully practiced lessons.

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Page last modified: 04-09-2017 16:26:02 ZULU