US Civil War to First World War: Learning the Lessons – Part 2

Here is the second part of the recent Day School at the Centre for War Studies that examined the links between the American Civil War and the First  World War.

‘A Veritable Rain of Bullets’: Firepower in the American Civil War and the First World War (Dr Spencer Jones, University of Birmingham)

Spencer Jones delivered a paper entitled ‘A veritable rain of bullets,’ addressing the issue of firepower in the US Civil War and drawing comparisons with the Great War. He took the title from an account of the battle of Fredricksburg—a battery came under ‘a veritable hail of bullets’ from Confederate infantry at ranges between 150-250 yards, but suffered only 15 wounded and 4 fatal casualties from 148 men who went into action. At 14%, it was not an insignificant casualty list, but it does not accord with the losses that ‘a rain of bullets’ would cause in the twentieth century.

The US Civil War was not tactically innovative; both sides used Napoleonic linear tactics almost by default, although the formations were beginning to change—lines were no longer shoulder-to-shoulder, and volley fire was less common. Troops still engaged in firefights at ranges between 50 and 200 yards. Units that pressed through this fire to deliver an assault often succeeded. Unlike in the Great War, rifle fire was not enough to prevent or wipe out an assault. Artillery fire was a different matter; heavy smoothbore cannon firing canister at close range were enormously destructive and halted assaults, sometimes by literally turning whole files of attackers into red mist.

The fire of the Civil War came from an interesting mix of weaponry. It was the last breach-loading war, and infantry carried everything from shotguns and muskets, to rifled muskets, to Spencer and Henry repeaters. The first battlefield snipers appeared, able to fire at ranges up to 1000 yards, with the first primitive scope sights appearing. Both sides tested Gatling guns but made little use of them. The artillery had both smoothbore and rifled guns, of varying ranges and calibre. Some interesting and freakish guns were employed, like the Whitworth breech-loader that fired hexagonal shells up to five miles, or the enormous fifteen inch smoothbores the Union used at sea or in coastal forts! Apart from such novelties, which were used in fairly small numbers, the artillery remained recognizably Napoleonic, with guns firing canister, solid shot or fused gunpowder shells.

All of this added up to a war that was close-ranged and rather crude. The fire was neither rapid nor particularly modern, but it was still vicious for participants, sometimes remarkably so. The casualty rates were broadly comparable with Napoleonic battles and Crimean engagements, but some Union and Confederate units took horrendous losses. There were killing grounds on certain battlefields, as a result either of huge numbers of attackers advancing on a defender with massive firepower, or a unit caught in enfilade fire. The troops were aware of the lethality of enfilade, but they didn’t plan to use it systematically.

Discussing the lessons that the British and Americans learned from the war, Dr Jones noted that while the British Army had a grudging respect for the Union army by 1865, the war had little tactical impact in the UK. European armies expected to fight with professional or conscript armies in largely built-up areas, rather than with citizen armies in rural areas. A debate during and after the war over the value of a small number of aimed shots compared to a large volume of less accurate fire was settled differently on either side of the Atlantic; the Americans, looking to the frontier experience, preferred fewer more accurate shots. During the war, it was common for poor shots to work as reloading teams, passing multiple weapons to the best shots in their unit, and repeaters were valued more for a rapid second shot if the first missed than for a large volume of fire.

The British army, however, decided some time later to bypass the question by opting for both large volumes of fire and high accuracy! In the US, however, some lessons of the war persisted through to 1917 at least. ‘Blackjack’ Pershing arrived in Europe with a genuine belief in the rifle skills of his troops, although their severe shortage of artillery might have had something to do with this.

This tour d’horizon of firepower highlighted a number of interesting points. Despite the eager desire of many US historians to make the claim, the US Civil War was not modern, at least as far as infantry tactics are concerned. The first seeds of change may have been apparent in slightly dispersed lines, killing fields and battlefield snipers, but there were still many elements of tactics which dated back to Napoleon. On a historiographical note, it was interesting to find that both wars in question have suffered from the publication of polemical and widely-read works. The Great War still exists under the shadow of ‘Lions led by Donkeys’, and the US Civil War has a similar long shadow cast by a book from the 1970s called Attack and Die, which seems to have planted the idea that Civil War battlefields were somehow far more lethal than those of just a few years earlier.

‘Ditches to Trenches: Field Fortifications from Petersburg to the Somme’ (Dr Bob Bushaway, University of Birmingham) 

Bob Bushaway gave the final presentation of the day, entitled ‘Field Fortifications: From Ditches to Trenches.’ Although both wars saw troops digging in, and troops tended to dig gradually deeper as the wars went on, the use of earthworks was very different in each war. There is a superficial similarity between ditches and trenches, but they were very different. There was no barbed wire used during the US Civil War, and there are no bays or zigzags in the ditches. This didn’t make the defenders any less able to shoot down attacking infantry, but it did turn their position into one of the killing fields that Spencer Jones spoke about if an attack lapped the trench and some attackers got in and fired down its length, as happened at the sunken road at Antietam. This demonstrates that, just as awareness of the lethality of enfilade fire did not lead commanders to seek to use it, neither did that awareness cause them to take any special measures to avoid it. There were no specialist trench weapons in 1861-5, no gas, no aerial reconnaissance, no notion of defence in-depth, and no notion of a tour of duty—once troops were in a ditch there were there until killed or until the war of movement resumed.

In 1861, there was no notion of earthworks outside of siege warfare; field fortifications were for besiegers. But men tend to go to ground in the face of modern fire, and the war saw a move from natural cover and ground cover to the strengthening of natural features and then to extensive earthworks.

He noted that despite Lee’s efforts for battlefield victories, the war turned on sieges: Vicksburg, Atlanta, Petersburg, and Charleston. The works used in sieges resemble the trenches of the First World War somewhat more than the battlefield earthworks did; at Petersburg, the works contained both bomb-proofs and redoubts built for both defence and counterattack. Owing to the lack of high explosive shells, earthworks were almost impossible to destroy, and sand-forts became nearly impregnable. Destroying an enemy’s works meant relying on mining, which itself presented serious dangers to the attacker. The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery lost 80% of its strength in the crater at Petersburg.

The use of earthworks in the two wars was markedly different, although the two experiences were not entirely dissimilar. In both wars, trench warfare was never intended to be anything other than temporary. Generals don’t like their men sitting in trenches, and in both wars sought to fight forward to restore initiative and independent action in a war of manoeuvre.

The talk was illustrated with a number of photographs taken on location on battlefields in Virginia by contemporaries and by Bob Bushaway himself rather more recently. His photos of the Wilderness battlefield, and the still clearly visible trenches that were dug there, were most interesting, as were those of the defensive works at Petersburg, and helped to illustrate the reality of 1865-era works to those more familiar with those of the later war.

By Andrew Duncan, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

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