Chapter 9


This Site:

Civil War

Civil War Overview

Civil War 1861

Civil War 1862

Civil War 1863

Civil War 1864

Civil War 1865

Civil War Battles

Confederate Generals

Union Generals

Confederate History

Robert E. Lee

Civil War Medicine

Lincoln Assassination


Site Search

Civil War Links


Civil War Art

Revolutionary War

Mexican War

Republic of Texas


Winslow Homer

Thomas Nast

Mathew Brady

Western Art

Civil War Gifts

Robert E. Lee Portrait

Up | Preface | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16 | Chapter 17 | Chapter 18 | Chapter 19 | Chapter 20 | Chapter 21 | Chapter 22 | Chapter 23 | Chapter 24 | Chapter 25 | Chapter 26 | Appendix A | Appendix B



Formerly Major-General commanding Twenty-Third Army Corps


APRIL 1861--NOVEMBER 1863  



 High quality of first volunteers--Discipline milder than that of the regulars--Reasons for the difference--Practical efficiency of the men--Necessity for sifting the officers--Analysis of their defects--What is military aptitude?--Diminution of number in ascending scale--Effect of age--Of former life and occupation--Embarrassments of a new business--Quick progress of the right class of young men--Political appointments--Professional men--Political leaders naturally prominent in a civil war--"Cutting and trying"--Dishonest methods--An excellent army at the end of a year--The regulars in 1861--Entrance examinations for West Point--The curriculum there--Drill and experience--Its limitations--Problems peculiar to the vast increase of the army--Ultra-conservatism--Attitude toward the Lincoln administration--"Point de zele"--Lack of initiative--Civil work of army engineers--What is military art?--Opinions of experts--Military history--European armies in the Crimean War--True generalship--Anomaly of a double army organization.

 The work of sifting the material for an army which went on through the winter of 1861-62, naturally suggests an analysis of the classes of men who composed both parts of the military force of the nation,--the volunteers and the regulars. I need add nothing to what I have already said of the unexampled excellence of the rank and file in the regiments raised by the first volunteering. Later in the war, when "bounty jumping" and substitution for conscripts came into play, the character of the material, especially that recruited in the great cities and seaports, was much lower. I think, however, that the volunteers were always better men, man for man, than the average of those recruited for the regular army. The rigidity of discipline did not differ so much between good volunteer regiments and regulars, as the mode of enforcing it. There were plenty of volunteer regiments that could not be excelled in drill, in the performance of camp duty, or in the finish and exactness of all the forms of parades and of routine. But it was generally brought about by much milder methods of discipline. A captain of volunteers was usually followed by his neighbors and relatives. The patriotic zeal of the men of the company as well as their self-respect made them easily amenable to military rule so far as it tended to fit them better to do the noble work they had volunteered for, and on which their hearts were as fully set as the hearts of their colonels or generals. In the regular army, officers and men belonged to different castes, and a practically impassable barrier was between them. Most of the men who had enlisted in the long years of domestic peace were, for one cause or another, outcasts, to whom life had been a failure and who followed the recruiting sergeant as a last desperate resource when every other door to a livelihood was shut. [Footnote: Since inducements to enlist have been increased by offering the chance to win a commission, I believe the quality of the rank and file of the regulars has been much improved, and as a natural consequence the officers have found it easy to enforce discipline by less arbitrary methods.] The war made some change in this, but the habits and methods of the officers had been formed before that time and under the old surroundings. The rule was arbitrary, despotic, often tyrannical, and it was notorious that the official bearing and the language used toward the regular soldiers was out of the question in a volunteer organization. Exceptions could be found in both parts of the service, but there could be no doubt as to the custom and the rule. To know how to command volunteers was explicitly recognized by our leading generals as a quality not found in many regular officers, and worth noting when found. A volunteer regiment might have a "free and easy" look to the eye of a regular drill sergeant, but in every essential for good conduct and ready manoeuvre on the field of battle, or for heroic efforts in the crisis of a desperate engagement, it could not be excelled if its officers had been reasonably competent and faithful. There was inevitable loss of time in the organization and instruction of a new army of volunteers; but after the first year in the field, in every quality which tends to give victory in battle to a popular cause, the volunteer regiment was, in my judgment, unquestionably superior. It is necessary to say this, because there has been a fashion of speaking of regular regiments or brigades in the civil war as though they were capable of accomplishing more in proportion to their numbers or on some occasion of peculiar peril than the volunteers. I did not find it so.

The material in the line, then, was as good as could be; the weakness was in the officers, and it was here that the sifting was necessary. Most of these officers had themselves enlisted as privates, and their patriotic zeal was not to be questioned. They had been chosen to be lieutenants, captains, and even colonels by their men because of faith in their ability to lead, or to recognize their influence in raising the troops. Yet a considerable part of them proved incompetent to command. The disqualifications were various. Some lacked physical strength and stamina. Some had or quickly developed intemperate habits. Some lacked the education and intelligence needful for official responsibility. Some were too indolent to apply themselves to the work of disciplining themselves or their men. Fitness for command is a very general term, yet it implies a set of qualities which intelligent people easily understand and attach to the phrase. Self-command is proverbially one of the chief. Courage and presence of mind are indispensable. Ability to decide and firmness to stick to a decision are necessary. Intelligence enough to understand the duties demanded of him and to instruct his subordinates in theirs is another requisite. But beside all these, there is a constitution of body and mind for which we can find no better name than military aptitude. For lack of it many estimable, intelligent, and brave men failed as officers. Again, not every good captain made a good colonel, and not every good brigade commander was fit for a division or a larger command. There was a constantly widening test of capacity, and a rapid thinning of the numbers found fit for great responsibilities until the command of great armies was reached, when two or three names are all that we can enumerate as having been proven during the four years of our civil strife to be fully equal to the task.

Besides the indications of unfitness for the subordinate commands which I have mentioned, another classification may be made. In an agricultural community (and the greater part of our population was and is agricultural), a middle-aged farmer who had been thrifty in business and had been a country magistrate or a representative in the legislature, would be the natural leader in his town or county, and if his patriotism prompted him to set the example of enlisting, he would probably be chosen to a company office, and perhaps to a field office in the regiment. Absolutely ignorant of tactics, he would find that his habits of mind and body were too fixed, and that he could not learn the new business into which he had plunged. He would be abashed at the very thought of standing before a company and shouting the word of command. The tactical lessons conned in his tent would vanish in a sort of stage-fright when he tried to practise them in public. Some would overcome the difficulty by perseverance, others would give it up in despair and resign, still others would hold on from pride or shame, until some pressure from above or below would force them to retire. Some men of this stamp had personal fighting qualities which kept them in the service in spite of their tactical ignorance, like brave old Wolford of Kentucky, of whom it used to be jocosely said, that the command by which he rallied his cavalry regiment was "Huddle on the Hill, boys!"

A man wholly without business training would always be in embarrassment, though his other qualifications for military life were good. Even a company has a good deal of administrative business to do. Accounts are to be kept, rations, clothing, arms, accoutrements, and ammunition are to be receipted and accounted for. Returns of various kinds are to be made, applications for furlough, musters, rolls, and the like make a good deal of clerical work, and though most of it may fall on the first sergeant, the captain and commissioned officers must know how it should be done and when it is well done, or they are sure to get into trouble. It was a very rare thing for a man of middle age to make a good company officer. A good many who tried it at the beginning had to be eliminated from the service in one way or another. In a less degree the same was found to hold true of the regimental field officers. Some men retain flexibility of mind and body longer than others, and could more easily adapt themselves to new circumstances and a new occupation. Of course such would succeed best. But it is also true that in the larger and broader commands solidity of judgment and weight of character were more essential than in the company, and the experience of older men was a more valuable quality. Such reasons will account for the fact that youth seemed to be an almost essential requisite for a company officer, whilst it was not so in the same degree in the higher positions.

It was astonishing to see the rapidity with which well-educated and earnest young men progressed as officers. They were alert in both mind and body. They quickly grasped the principles of their new profession, and with very little instruction made themselves masters of tactics and of administrative routine. Add to this, bravery of the highest type and a burning zeal in the cause they were fighting for, and a campaign or two made them the peers of any officers of their grade in our own or any other army.

Another class which cannot be omitted and which is yet very hard to define accurately, is that of the "political appointments."

Of the learned professions, the lawyers were of course most strongly represented among officers of the line. The medical men were so greatly needed in their own professional department that it was hard to find a sufficient number of suitable age and proper skill to supply the regiments with surgeons and the hospitals with a proper staff. The clergy were non-combatants by profession, and a few only were found in other than chaplain's duty. Civil engineers, railroad contractors, architects, and manufacturers were well represented and were valuable men. Scarce any single qualification was more useful in organizing the army than that of using and handling considerable bodies of men such as mechanics and railway employees.

The profession of the law is in our country so closely allied to political activity that the lawyers who put on the uniform were most likely to be classed among political appointments. The term was first applied to men like Banks, Butler, Baker, Logan, and Blair, most of whom left seats in Congress to serve in the army. If they had not done so, it would have been easy for critics to say that the prominent politicians took care to keep their own bodies out of harm's way. Most of them won hard-earned and well-deserved fame as able soldiers before the war was over. In an armed struggle which grew out of a great political contest, it was inevitable that eager political partisans should be among the most active in the new volunteer organizations. They called meetings, addressed the people to rouse their enthusiasm, urged enlistments, and often set the example by enrolling their own names first. It must be kept constantly in mind that we had no militia organization that bore any appreciable proportion to the greatness of the country's need, and that at any rate the policy of relying upon volunteering at the beginning was adopted by the government. It was a foregone conclusion that popular leaders of all grades must largely officer the new troops. Such men might be national leaders or leaders of country neighborhoods; but big or little, they were the necessity of the time. It was the application of the old Yankee story, "If the Lord _will_ have a church in Paxton, he must take _sech as ther' be_ for deacons."

I have, in a former chapter, given my opinion that the government made a mistake in following General Scott's advice to keep its regular army intact and forbid its officers from joining volunteer regiments; but good or bad, that advice was followed at the beginning, and the only possible thing to do next was to let popular selection and natural leadership of any sort determine the company organizations. The governors of States generally followed a similar rule in the choice of field officers, and selected the general officers from those in the state militia, or from former officers of the army retired to civil life. In one sense, therefore, the whole organization of the volunteer force might be said to be political, though we heard more of "political generals" than we did of political captains or lieutenants. When the organization of the United States Volunteers took the place of the state contingents which formed the "three months' service," the appointments by the President were usually selections from those acting already under state appointment. The National Government was more conservative than the Confederacy in this respect. Our service was always full of colonels doing duty as brigadiers and brigadiers doing duty as major-generals, whilst the Southern army usually had a brigadier for every brigade and a major-general for every division, with lieutenant-generals and generals for the highest commands. If some rigid method had been adopted for mustering out all officers whom the government, after a fair trial, was unwilling to trust with the command appropriate to their grade, there would have been little to complain of; but an evil which grew very great was that men in high rank were kept upon the roster after it was proven that they were incompetent, and when no army commander would willingly receive them as his subordinates. Nominal commands at the rear or of a merely administrative kind were multiplied, and still many passed no small part of the war "waiting orders." As the total number of general officers was limited by law, it followed, of course, that promotion had to be withheld from many who had won it by service in the field. This evil, however, was not peculiar to the class of appointments from civil life. The faults in the first appointments were such as were almost necessarily connected with the sudden creation of a vast army. The failure to provide for a thorough test and sifting of the material was a governmental error. It was palliated by the necessity of conciliating influential men, and of avoiding antagonisms when the fate of the nation trembled in the balance; but this was a political motive, and the evil was probably endured in spite of its well-known tendency to weaken the military service.

A few months' campaigning in the field got us rid of most of the "town-meeting style" of conducting military affairs in the army itself, though nothing could cure the practice on the part of unscrupulous men of seeking reputation with the general public by dishonest means. The newspapers were used to give fictitious credit to some and to injure others. If the regular correspondents of the press had been excluded from the camps, there would no doubt have been surreptitious correspondence which would have found its way into print through private and roundabout channels. But this again was not a vice peculiar to officers appointed from civil life. It should be always remembered that honorable conduct and devoted patriotism was the rule, and self-seeking vanity and ambition the exception; yet a few exceptions would be enough to disturb the comfort of a large command. To sum up, the only fair way to estimate the volunteer army is by its work and its fitness for work after the formative period was passed, and when the inevitable mistakes and the necessary faults of its first organization had been measurably cured. My settled judgment is that it took the field in the spring of 1862 as well fitted for its work as any army in the world, its superior excellences in the most essential points fully balancing the defects which were incident to its composition.

This opinion is not the offspring of partiality toward the volunteer army on the part of one himself a volunteer. It was shared by the most active officers in the field who came from the regular service. In their testimony given in various ways during the war, in their Official Records, and in their practical conduct in the field which showed best of all where their reliance was placed, these officers showed their full faith in and admiration for the volunteer regiments. Such an opinion was called out by the Committee on the Conduct of the War in its examination of General Gibbon in regard to the Gettysburg campaign, and his judgment may fairly be taken as that of the better class of the regular officers. He declared of some of these regiments in his division, that they were as well disciplined as any men he ever wished to see; that their officers had shown practical military talent; that a young captain from civil life, whom he instanced, was worthy to be made a general. He named regiments of volunteers which he said were among the finest regiments that ever fought on any field, and in which every officer was appointed from civil life. [Footnote: Report of Committee on Conduct of the War, vol. iv. pp. 444-446.] He added the criticism which I have above made, that no proper method of getting rid of incompetent officers and of securing the promotion of the meritorious had been adopted; but this in no way diminishes the force of his testimony that every kind of military ability was abundantly found in our volunteer forces and needed only recognition and encouragement. It would be easy to multiply evidence on this subject. General Grant is a witness whose opinion alone may be treated as conclusive. In his Personal Memoirs [Footnote: Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, vol. i. p. 573.] he explicitly and unqualifiedly says that at the close of the Vicksburg campaign his troops fulfilled every requirement of an army, and his volunteer officers were equal to any duty, some of them being in his judgment competent to command an independent army in the field. Sherman fully shared this opinion. [Footnote: Letter to Halleck, Official Records, vol. xxxix. pt. iii. p. 413.]

In trying to form a just estimate of the officers of the regular army in 1861, we have to consider not only their education, but the character of their military life and experience up to that time. It is, on the whole, a salutary popular notion that "professionals" in any department of work are more likely to succeed than amateurs. At the beginning of the Civil War our only professional soldiers were the officers of our little regular army, nearly all of whom were graduates of the West Point Military Academy. Since the Mexican War of 1848, petty conflicts with Indians on the frontier had been their only warlike experience. The army was hardly larger than a single division, and its posts along the front of the advancing wave of civilization from the mouth of the Rio Grande to the Canada border were so numerous that it was a rare thing to see more than two or three companies of soldiers together. To most of the officers their parade of the battalion of cadets at West Point was the largest military assemblage they had ever seen. Promotion had been so slow that the field officers were generally superannuated, and very few who had a rank higher than that of captain at the close of 1860 did any active field work on either side during the Civil War. The total number of captains and lieutenants of the line would hardly have furnished colonels for the volunteer regiments of the single State of New York as they were finally mustered into the National service during the war; and they would have fallen far short of it when their own numbers were divided by the rebellion itself.

Our available professional soldiers, then, were captains and subalterns whose experience was confined to company duty at frontier posts hundreds of miles from civilization, except in the case of the engineers, the staff corps, and some of the artillery in sea-coast forts. With the same exceptions, the opportunities for enlarging their theoretic knowledge had been small. It was before the days of post libraries, and books of any sort were a rarity at the garrisons. In the first year of the war, I expressed to General Gordon Granger my surprise at finding how little most line officers had added to the theoretic reading they got at the academy. "What could you expect," he said in his sweeping way, "of men who have had to spend their lives at a two-company post, where there was nothing to do when off duty but play draw-poker and drink whiskey at the sutler's shop?" This was, of course, meant to be picturesquely extravagant, but it hit the nail on the head, after all. Some of the officers of the old regime did not conceal their contempt for books. It was a stock story in the army that when the Utah expedition was fitting out in 1856, General Henry Hunt, chief of artillery of the army of the Potomac, then a young artillery officer, applied to General Twiggs, from whose command part of the expedition was making up, for leave to take a little box of military books. "No, sir," was the peremptory response; "no room in the train for such nonsense." Hunt retired chop-fallen; but soon after another officer came in, with "General, our mess has a keg of very nice whiskey we don't want to lose; won't you direct the quartermaster to let it go in the wagons?" "Oh yes, sir. Oh yes, anything in reason!" If not true, the story is good enough to be true, as its currency attests; but whether true or no, the "fable teaches" that post-graduate study in the old army was done under difficulties.

The course of study at West Point had narrower limitations than most people think, and it would be easy to be unfair by demanding too much of the graduates of that military college. The course of study was of four years, but the law forbade any entrance examinations on subjects outside of the usual work done in the rural common schools. The biographies of Grant, of Sherman, of Sheridan, of Ormsby Mitchell, and of others show that they in fact had little or no other preparatory education than that of the common country school. [Footnote: Grant, in his Personal Memoirs (vol. i. p. 24), says of the school in his early Ohio home, that the highest branches taught there were "the three R's,--Reading, 'Riting, and 'Rithmetic. I never saw," he says, "an algebra or other mathematical work higher than the arithmetic, in Georgetown, until after I was appointed to West Point. I then bought a work on algebra in Cincinnati, but having no teacher it was Greek to me."] The course of study and amount of education given must necessarily be limited, therefore, to what boys of average ability and such preparation could accomplish in the four years. They were no further advanced, on entering, than they would have to be to enter any ordinary fitting school for one of our first-class colleges, or the high schools in the graded systems of public schools in our cities. Three years of study would put them abreast of students entering college elsewhere, and four years would carry them about as far as the end of the Freshman year in Yale, Harvard, or Princeton. The corps of professors and teachers at West Point has always deservedly ranked high as instructors, but there is no "royal road" to knowledge, and it cannot be claimed that three or four years at the Military Academy would count for more, as general education, than the same period spent in any other good school. A very few men of high standing in the classes supplemented their education by obtaining appointments as temporary instructors in the academy after graduating, but most of them left their books behind them and began at once the subaltern's life at the distant frontier post.

If we analyze the course of study they pursued, we find that it covered two years' work in mathematics, one in physics and chemistry, and one in construction of fortifications. This was the scientific part, and was the heaviest part of the curriculum. Then, besides a little English, mental philosophy, moral philosophy, and elementary law, there were two years' study of the French and one of Spanish. This was the only linguistic study, and began with the simplest elements. At the close of the war there was no instruction in strategy or grand tactics, in military history, or in what is called the Art of War. The little book by Mahan on Out-post Duty was the only text-book in Theory, outside the engineering proper. At an earlier day they had used Jomini's introduction to his "Grandes Operations Militaires," and I am unable to say when its use was dropped. It is not my wish to criticise the course of study; on the other hand, I doubt if it could be much improved for boys who had only the preparation required by the law. But since we are trying to estimate its completeness as professional education fitting men to command armies in the field, it is absolutely necessary to note the fact that it did not pretend to include the military art in that sense. Its scientific side was in the line of engineering and that only. Its prize-men became engineers, and success at the academy was gauged by the student's approach to that coveted result.

That the French which was learned was not enough to open easily to the young lieutenant the military literature which was then found most abundantly in that language, would seem to be indicated by the following incident. In my first campaign I was talking with a regular officer doing staff duty though belonging in the line, and the conversation turned on his West Point studies. The little work of Jomini's mentioned above being casually referred to as having been in his course, I asked him if he had continued his reading into the History of the Seven Years' War of Frederick the Great, to which it was the introduction. He said no, and added frankly that he had not read even the Introduction in the French, which he had found unpleasantly hard reading, but in the English translation published under the title of the Art of War. This officer was a thoroughly estimable, modest, and intelligent man, and seemed in no way inferior to other line officers of his age and grade. It would of course be true that some men would build industriously upon the foundation laid at the academy, and perfect themselves in those things of which they had only acquired the elements; but the surroundings of frontier life at a post were so unfavorable that I believe few in fact did so. The officers of the engineer corps and the ordnance were specifically devoted to scientific careers, and could go steadily forward to expertness in their specialties. Those who were permanently attached to the staff corps or to bureaus at Washington had also opportunity to enlarge their professional knowledge by study if they were so inclined. But all these were exceptionally situated, and do not help us answer the question What kind and amount of military education was implied in the fact that a man had graduated at West Point and been sent to serve in the line? I have purposely omitted for the present to consider the physical training and the practical instruction in tactics by means of drill, because the question is in terms one of science, not of practice; that will come later. The conclusion is that the intellectual education at the Military Academy was essentially the same, as far as it went, as that of any polytechnic school, the peculiarly military part of it being in the line of engineering. In actual warfare, the laying out and construction of regular forts or the conduct of a regular siege is committed to professional engineers. For field work with an army, therefore, the mental furnishing of the West Point man was not superior to that of any other liberally educated man. In some of our volunteer regiments we had whole companies of private soldiers who would not have shunned a competitive examination with West Point classes on the studies of the Military Academy, excepting the technical engineering of fortifications. [Footnote: It must not be forgotten that my criticisms are strictly confined to the condition of military education in our Civil War period. Since that time some excellent work has been done in post-graduate schools for the different arms of the service, and field manoeuvres have been practised on a scale never known in our army prior to 1861. A good beginning has also been made, both here and in England, toward giving the young soldier a military library of English books.]  Let us look now at the physical and practical training of the cadet. The whole period of his student life at West Point had more or less of this. He was taken as a raw recruit would be, taught the school of the soldier in marching, in the manual of arms, and in personal carriage. He passed on to the drill of the squad, the platoon, the company. The tactics of the battalion came last, and the cadet might become a corporal, sergeant, lieutenant, or captain in the corps if he showed aptitude for drill and tactics. It is noticeable, however, that Grant and Sheridan remained privates during their whole cadetship, and Sherman, though once he became sergeant, was put back in the ranks. The fair conclusion is that this part of the cadet discipline is not very closely connected with generalship, though it is important as preparation for the ready handling of a company or a battalion. Sherman tells us, in his Memoirs, that he studied evolutions of the line out of the books, as a new subject, when he was in camp in front of Washington, after the first battle of Bull Run. [Footnote: Memoirs, vol. i. p. 220.] The tactical education of the cadet stopped at the evolutions of the battalion, and for nearly all of them it was, even in that respect, the education of the soldier in the ranks and not of the officer, since a very small proportion became officers in the cadet corps.

This practical drill was, of course, the same as that which was used in organized militia regiments, and the famous Ellsworth Zouaves of Chicago, the New York Seventh Regiment, with a number of other militia regiments in different States, were sufficient proof that this training could be made as exact outside of the cadet corps as in it. It certainly was enough for the practical handling of the company and the regiment under the simplified tactics which not only prevailed during the war itself, but, with Upton's Manual as a basis, has been authoritatively adopted as an improvement upon the older and more complicated methods. It must not be forgotten that although our militia system had fallen into scandalous neglect, the voluntary efforts of citizen soldiers had kept many good independent companies organized everywhere, as well as full regiments in most of the older States; so that there were in fact more well-drilled regiments in the militia than there were in the little regular army. It was the small ratio all these, of both classes, bore to the demands of the gigantic war that was upon us, which made the problem so troublesome. The officers of the organized militia regiments, before the end of the three months' service, did what I have said it was desirable that those of the regular regiments should have done,--they scattered from their original commands and were active in organizing the new volunteer regiments. General De Trobriand, who went out as Colonel of the Fifty-fifth New York, says that the New York Seventh Regiment furnished three hundred officers to volunteer regiments. [Footnote: De Trobriand, Four Years with Potomac Army, p. 64.] In a similar way, though not to the same extent, the other organized and disciplined militia, in both Eastern and Western States, furnished the skeletons of numerous new regiments.

The really distinguishing feature in the experience of the regular officers of the line was their life in garrison at their posts, and their active work in guarding the frontier. Here they had become familiar with duty of the limited kind which such posts would afford. This in time became a second nature to them, and to the extent it reached, was, as other men's employments are, their business. They necessarily had to learn pretty thoroughly the army regulations, with the methods and forms of making returns and conducting business with the adjutant-general's office, with the ordnance office, the quartermaster's and subsistence departments, etc. In this ready knowledge of the army organization and its methods their advantage over the new volunteer officers was more marked, as it seemed to me, than in any and all other things. The routine of army business and the routine of drill had to be learned by every army officer. The regular officer of some years' standing already knew, as a matter of course, what a new volunteer officer must spend some time in learning. There is something of value also in the habit of mind formed in actual service, even if the service is in subaltern grades and on a petty scale. Familiarity with danger and with the expectation of danger is acquired, both by the Indian wars of the frontier and by the hunting and field sports which fill more or less of the leisure of garrison life.

But there were some drawbacks upon the value of the preparation for war which these officers possessed. There was a marked conservatism as to military methods and arms, and an almost slavish reverence for things which were sanctioned by European authority, especially that of the second French Empire. American invention was never more fruitful than when applied to military weapons. Repeating and magazine small arms, breach-loading cannon, and Gatling guns with other repeating artillery, were brought out or improved with wonderful variety of form and of demonstrable excellence. The regular army influence was generally against such innovations. Not once, but frequently, regular army officers argued to me that the old smooth-bore musket with "buck and ball" cartridge was the best weapon our troops could desire. We went through the war with a muzzle-loading musket, the utmost that any commander could do being to secure repeating rifles for two or three infantry regiments in a whole army. Even to the end the "regular" chiefs of artillery insisted that the Napoleon gun, a light smooth-bore twelve-pounder cannon, was our best field-piece, and at a time when a great campaign had reduced our forces so that a reduction of artillery was advisable, I received an order to send to the rear my three-inch rifled ordnance guns and retain my Napoleons. The order was issued by a regular officer of much experience, but I procured its suspension in my own command by a direct appeal to the army commander. There was no more doubt then than there is to-day of the superiority of rifled guns, either for long-range practice with shells or in close work with canister. They were so much lighter that we could jump them across a rough country where the teams could hardly move a Napoleon. We could subdue our adversaries' fire with them, when their smooth-bores could not reach us. Yet we were ordered to throw away our advantages and reduce ourselves to our enemy's condition upon the obstinate prejudice of a worthy man who had had all flexibility drilled out of him by routine. Models of automatic rapid-fire and repeating field-pieces were familiar objects "at the rear," but I saw none of them in action in any army in which I served. The conservatism of the old army must be held responsible for this.

The question of zeal and devotion to the cause for which we fought cannot be ignored in such a war as ours was. It is notorious that comparatively few of the regular officers were political friends of Mr. Lincoln's administration at the beginning. Of those who did not "go with the South" but remained true to the National flag, some were full of earnest patriotism, like the young officers whom I have mentioned as volunteering to assist the governors of States in organizing their contingents and as seeking places in volunteer regiments. There were others who meant to do their duty, but began with little hopefulness or zeal. There were still others who did not hesitate to predict defeat and to avow that it was only for professional honor or advancement that they continued to serve under the National flag. These last were confessedly soldiers of fortune. The war was an education for all who were in it, and many a man began with reluctance and half-heartedness who was abundantly radical before the conflict was over. There was, however, a considerable class who practised on Talleyrand's diplomatic motto, "point de zele," and limited their efforts to the strict requirement of duty. Such men would see disaster occur for lack of a little spontaneity on their part, and yet be able to show that they literally obeyed every order received. I was once ordered to support with my command a movement to be made by another. It was an important juncture in a campaign. Wondering at delay, I rode forward and found the general officer I was to support. I told him I was ordered to support him in doing what we both saw was needing to be done; but he had no explicit orders to begin the movement. I said that my orders to support him were sufficient to authorize his action, and it was plain that it would be unfortunate if the thing were not done at once. He answered cynically, "If you had been in the army as long as I have, you would be content to do the things that are ordered, without hunting up others." The English regulars, also, have a saying, "Volunteering brings bad luck."

There was altogether too much of this spirit in the army, and one who can read between the lines will see it in the history of many a campaign. It did not necessarily mean wavering loyalty. It was sometimes the mental indecision or timidity which shrinks from responsibility. It was sometimes also the result of education in an army on the peace establishment, where any spontaneity was snubbed as an impertinence or tyrannically crushed as a breach of discipline. I would not be understood to make more of these things than is necessary to a just estimate of the situation, but it seems to me an entirely fair conclusion that with us in 1861 as with the first French republic, the infusion of the patriotic enthusiasm of a volunteer organization was a necessity, and that this fully made up for lack of instruction at the start. This hasty analysis of what the actual preparation for war was in the case of the average line officer of the regular army will show, to some extent, the basis of my judgment that there was nothing in it which a new volunteer officer, having what I have called military aptitude, should not learn in his first campaign.

How far the officers of the engineers and of the staff corps applied themselves to general military study, would depend upon their taste and their leisure. Their opportunities for doing so were much better than those of line officers, but there was also a tendency to immerse themselves in the studies of their special department of work. Very eminent officers of engineers have told me since the war that the pressure of their special professional work was such that they had found no time to read even the more noteworthy publications concerning the history of our own great struggle. The surveys of the great lakes and the coast, the engineering problems of our great rivers, etc., have both formerly and in recent years absorbed their time and their strength. The ordnance and the staff corps, also, had abundant special duties. Still it may reasonably be assumed that officers of the classes mentioned have usually made themselves somewhat familiar with the best writings on military art. If we had in the country in 1861 a class of men who could be called educated soldiers in the scientific sense, we certainly should find them in the several corps just referred to.

Here, however, we have to meet the question What is military art as applied to the problem of winning battles or campaigns? We are obliged to answer that outside of the business administration and supply of an army, and apart from the technical knowledge of engineering and the construction of fire-arms and ammunition, it consists in the tactical handling of bodies of men in accordance with very few and very simple principles of strategy. The literature of the subject is found in the history of wars analyzed by competent men like Napoleon, Jomini, the Archduke Charles, Sir William Napier, Clausewitz, Moltke, Hamley, and others; but it may be broadly said that the principles of this criticism and analysis may be so briefly stated as to be printed on the back of a visiting-card. [Footnote: Prince Hohenlohe-Ingelfingen, in his admirable "Letters on Strategy," states them in five brief primary axioms. Letters on Strategy, vol. i. pp. 9, 10.] To trace the campaigns of great soldiers under the guidance of such a critic as Jomini is full of interest to any intelligent person, and there is nothing in the subject of the slightest difficulty of comprehension if full and authentic topographical maps are before the reader. To make much instructive use of military history in this way demands a good deal of voluminous reading and the command of charts and maps extensive enough to allow the presentation of the face of a country on a large scale. With these advantages all wars, both ancient and modern, are full of instructive examples of the application of the simple principles of strategy under innumerable varying circumstances and situations; and this union of simple theory in ever-changing practical application is what constitutes the theoretic knowledge of the general as distinguished from the tactical and administrative duties of the subordinate. [Footnote: Jomini expresses it thus: "J'en couclus que l'histoire militaire raisonnee de plusieurs campagnes, seront la meilleure Ecole pour apprendre et par consequent pour enseigner la grande guerre: _la science des generaux._" Grandes Operations Militaires, vol. i. p. 7.] It was the very simplicity of the principles that made many successful generals question whether there was any art in the matter, except to use courage and natural sagacity in the actual situation in which the commander found himself and the enemy. Marshal Saxe asserted in his "Reveries" that down to his time there had been no formulation of principles, and that if any had been recognized as such in the minds of commanders of armies, they had not made it known. [Footnote: Jomini, in the work already cited, quotes Marshal Saxe thus: "Que toutes les sciences avaient des principes, mais que la guerre seule n'en avait point encore; si ces principes ont existe dans la tete de quelques generaux, nulle part ils n'ont ete indiques ou developpes." The same idea has been put quite as trenchantly by one of the most recent writers of the English Army, Colonel J. F. Maurice, R. A. Professor in the Farnborough Staff College. In the able article on "War" in the last edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, he says, "it must be emphatically asserted that there does not exist, and never except by pedants of whom the most careful students of war are more impatient than other soldiers, has there ever been supposed to exist, an 'art of war' which was something other than the methodic study of military history."]

It was precisely in this department of military history "raisonnee" that frontier garrison life shut the young army officer out from the opportunities of profiting by his leisure. The valuable books were all foreign publications in costly form with folio atlases, and were neither easy to procure nor easily carried about with the limited means and the rigid economy of transportation which marked army life in the far West. That this was true even in the artillery is indicated by General Gibbon before the Committee on the Conduct of the War when questioned in reference to the relative amount of artillery used at Gettysburg as compared with great European battles; that distinguished officer having himself been in the artillery when the Civil War began. [Footnote: "Question. You have studied the history of battles a great deal: Now, in the battles of Napoleon, had they at any time half as many artillery engaged as there were at Gettysburg? Answer. I am not sufficiently conversant with military history to tell you that. I think it very doubtful whether more guns were ever used in any one battle before. I do not believe Napoleon ever had a worse artillery fire." Testimony of General John Gibbon, Committee on Conduct of the War, vol. iv. p. 444. At Gettysburg the whole number of cannon employed was about two hundred. Compare this with Leipzig, for instance, the "battle of the giants," where _two thousand_ were employed! Thiers says, "de Leipzig a Schoenfeld au nord, de Schoenfeld a Probstheyda a l'est, de Probstheyda a Connewitz au sud, une cannonade de deux mille bouches a feu termina cette bataille dit des geants, et jusqu'ici la plus grande, certainement, de tous les siecles." Thiers, Consulat et l'Empire, vol. xvi. p. 607.]

If then the officers of the regular army, as a body, were not in fact deeply read in what, as we have seen, Jomini calls "the science of generals," their advantage over equally well-educated civilians is reduced to a practical knowledge of the duties of the company and the petty post, and in comparison with the officers of well-drilled militia companies it amounted to little more than a better knowledge of the army regulations and the administrative processes. It is no reproach to them that this was so, for it resulted from the operation of law in the course of education at the Military Academy and the insignificant size of our army in times of peace. It had been the peculiar blessing of our country that a great standing army was unnecessary, and it would be foolish to regret that our little army could not have the experience with great bodies of troops and the advantages of theoretical instruction which are part of the life of officers in the immense establishments of Continental Europe. My only purpose is to make an approximately true balance sheet of the actual advantages of the two parts of our National army in 1861. Whilst on the subject, however, I will go a little further and say that prior to our Civil War, the history of European conflicts proves that there also the theoretic preparation of military men had not, up to that time, saved them from the necessity of learning both generalship and army administration in the terrible school of experience, during their first year in the field when a new war broke out after a long interval of peace.

The first volume of Kinglake's "Crimean War" appeared in 1863, and I immediately and eagerly devoured it for the purpose of learning the lesson it could teach. It was one of the memorable sensations of a lifetime, to find that the regular armies of England, of France, and of Russia had had to learn their lesson anew when they faced each other on the shore of the Euxine, and that, whether in matters of transportation, of subsistence, of the hospital, of grand tactics, or of generalship, they had no advantage over our army of volunteers fresh from their peaceful pursuits. The photographic fidelity to detail on the part of the historian, and his apparent unconsciousness of the sweeping conclusions to be drawn from his pictures, made the lesson all the more telling. I drew a long breath of relief, and nothing which happened to me in the whole war so encouraged me to hopeful confidence in the outcome of it, as the evidence I saw that our blunders at the beginning had been no greater than those of old standing armies, and that our capacity to learn was at least as quick as theirs. Their experience, like ours, showed that the personal qualities of a commanding officer counted for much more than his theoretic equipment, and that a bold heart, a cool head, and practical common-sense were of much more importance than anything taught at school. With these, a brief experience would enable an intelligent man to fill nearly any subordinate position with fair success; without them any responsibility of a warlike kind would prove too heavy for him. The supreme qualification of a general-in-chief is the power to estimate truly and grasp clearly the situation on a field of operations too large to be seen by the physical eye at once, [Footnote: Wellington said the great task of his military life was "trying to make out what was behind the hill."] and the undaunted temper of will which enables him to execute with persistent vigor the plan which his intellect approves. To act upon uncertainties as if they were sure, and to do it in the midst of carnage and death when immeasurable results hang upon it,--this is the supreme presence of mind which marks a great commander, and which is among the rarest gifts even of men who are physically brave. The problem itself is usually simple. It is the confusing and overwhelming situation under which it must be solved that causes timidity or dismay. It is the thought of the fearful consequences of the action that begets a nervous state of hesitation and mental timidity in most men, and paralyzes the will. No education will ensure this greatest and most essential quality. It is born in a man, not communicated. With it his acquired knowledge will be doubly useful, but without it an illiterate slave-trader like Forrest may far outshine him as a soldier. Nor does success as a subordinate give any certain assurance of fitness for supreme command. Napoleon's marshals generally failed when trusted with an independent command, as Hooker did with us; and I do not doubt that many men, like McClellan, who failed as generals-in-chief, would have made brave and good subordinates. The test of quality is different in kind, and, as I have said, the only proof of its possession is in the actual trial. It is safe to say that a timid subordinate will not be a good commander, but it cannot be affirmed that a bold one will, though there are more chances in his favor.

The education of peril is so powerful in bringing out the qualities that can master it, and for any one who has true military courage the acquirement of skill in the more mechanical part of his duty in war is so rapid, that my experience has led me to reckon low, in the comparison, the value of the knowledge a soldier gains in times of peace. I say "in the comparison." Tactics are essential to the handling of large bodies of men, and must be learned. But the zealous young soldier with aptitude for his work will learn this part of his duty so fast that a single campaign will find him abreast of any. At the beginning of a great war and in the organization of a great army, the knowledge of routine and of details undoubtedly saves time and saves cost both of treasure and of life. I am therefore far from arguing that the knowledge which was found in the regular army should not be made the most of. I have already said that it should have been scattered through the whole volunteer organization. So I also say that it was quite right to look for the higher qualities for command in those who had the technical information and skill. But I reckon patriotic zeal and devotion so high that I have no hesitation in adding, that our army as a whole would have been improved if the distinction between regular and volunteer had been abolished, and, after the first beginnings, a freer competition for even the highest commands had been open to all. To keep up the regular army organization was practically to say that a captaincy in it was equivalent to a brigade command in the volunteers, and to be a brigadier in it was a reward which regular officers looked forward to as a result of the successful conduct of a great campaign as general-in-chief of an army. The actual command in war was thus ridiculously belittled in the official scale in comparison with grades of a petty peace establishment, and the climax of absurdity was reached when, at the close of hostilities, men who had worthily commanded divisions and corps found themselves reduced to subordinate places in regiments, whilst others who had vegetated without important activity in the great struggle were outranking them by virtue of seniority in the little army which had existed before the Rebellion!



site stats


Site Copyright 2003-2018 Son of the South. For Questions or comments about this collection,


privacy policy

Are you Scared and Confused? Read My Snake Story, a story of hope and encouragement, to help you face your fears.