The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare

Professionals Discuss Logistics

The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare by Edward Hagerman. Photos, maps, illustrations, notes, index. 384 pp., 1988. Indiana University Press. $19.00

In The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare Edward Hagerman portrays the American Civil War as a link between the old and new ways of making war, arguing that modern land warfare had its origins in the 1860s.  He does this by examining Civil War armies from an “organizational perspective” (xvii) and discusses “how tactical and strategic ideas and organization evolved in response to mid-nineteenth-century American industrial technology, society, ideology, and geography, as well as to the tactical and strategic objectives of Civil War armies” (xviii).

Throughout the book, Hagerman touches on many topics, including the haphazard development of military staffs, the uses, both strategic and tactical, of the telegraph, the importance of railroads, the use of observation balloons, and the impact of vastness of North America with its relatively dispersed population. While Hagerman discusses the development of several technologies which augured the coming of modern war, the two primary developments he is concerned with are, firstly, the advances in field entrenchments, along with other changes which accompanied it; and secondly, the topic of field transportation.

Hagerman traces the development of field fortifications from their almost non-existence at First Manassas through there increasing use at Sharpsburg and Fredericksburg, to the use of offensive entrenchments at Chattanooga, and on to the final intricate systems at Petersburg. He primarily credits the increase in use of the rifled musket as the cause for the advent of entrenching. He also argues that entrenchments caused a change in the role of both cavalry and artillery, making horsemen a strategic rather than tactical force and converting artillery to a primarily defensive role. Some historians disagree with these conclusions, arguing that the rifled musket had much less effect than Hagerman states and that artillery did in fact maintain an importance offensive role. Hagerman also maintains that the prewar teachings of Dennis Hart Mahan, which advocated heavy entrenching, profoundly influenced Civil War generals, although he cannot adequately explain why so many of those same generals seemingly ignored their training and failed to entrench early in the war. The fact that fieldworks became more common as the war progressed may have been caused more by experience and common sense than by Mahan’s teaching (89).

It is commonly held that “amateurs discuss tactics, while the professionals discuss logistics.” This is certainly the case regarding the second major development that Hagerman is concerned, field transportation. He uses the discussion of this topic to address several related areas, including the relative usefulness of horses versus mules and failure of northern soldiers to accept a reduced standard of supply. The Union army became more and better organized, while the Confederates remained inefficient, magnifying their supply shortages.

Many military histories have been written that assume that the only factor in how fast troops moved was the personality of their commander. In contrast, Hagerman argues that difficulties with field transportation played an import, if not the most important, role in determining when and how far an army could move. Transportation problems made vigorous pursuit after a battle nearly impossible, an argument that challenges the common view that both George McClellan and George Meade bungled chances to pursue and destroy the Army of Northern Virginia after Sharpsburg and Gettysburg. Hagerman noted the irony of McClellan being dismissed for inactivity while leading his army on “one of the most impressive strategic movements of the war” (64). After years of war, Union transport and supply became efficient enough to allow William Sherman to carry out his raid through Georgia and the Carolinas. By the end of the war an efficient logistic system, modernized communications, and field fortifications had become more important than the traditional military virtues of self-sacrifice, bravery, and personal leadership.

Hagerman ends the book with the end of the war, without providing a useful summary of the lessons learned. In his explanation of the increased firepower and entrenchments that led to a tactical stalemate in Virginia the reader can see foreshadowing of the Western Front in the First World War. Perhaps in Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas an early demonstration of the possibilities for maneuver warfare that would lead to the German blitzkrieg tactics of the Second World War can also been seen. However, while Hagerman implies a connection, he never really makes an effective argument that the Civil War contributed to the way modern war is waged, leaving it to the reader to connect the dots for himself. Hagerman only makes one explicit association between the Civil War and modern military practice by asserting that Sherman influenced the writings of Basil Liddell Hart concerning maneuver and mobility. (293).

This work contains several minor errors such as, the misspelling of names, referring to Port Hudson as Fort Hudson, and confusingly referring to the Confederate Army of Tennessee as the Army of the Tennessee on occasion. It also would have benefited from the inclusion of maps and diagrams.  Somewhat more distressing is Hagerman’s use of the argument that Confederate tactics were influence by their Celtic character, an argument that he borrows from Grady McWhiney and Perry Jamieson. Hagerman stresses this point on several occasions, noting that Robert E. Lee was essentially an aggressive Celtic battle leader. Most historians have discounted McWhiney and Jamieson’s Celtic character theory, and readers of Hagerman would do well to gloss over his references to it (144).

Notwithstanding the minor errors mentioned, Hagerman has produced a useful work that delves into Civil War logistics in a way not done before. While this book is not for the beginner and assumes a previous knowledge of the subject, serious students of the Civil War will be well served by it.

Mike Gottert

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