The American Civil War was a war of missed opportunities. Many wars have the same type of situations but the Civil War seems to have more missed opportunities than most. As a result of them the war lasted for four long years with almost 750,000 killed and untold numbers of wounded and maimed soldiers. It was said that every town in the South had at least one amputee with many towns in the North sharing this dubious distinction.
There are many reasons for the missed opportunities. At the start of the war both armies were no better than armed mobs. The antebellum U.S. Army was tiny with about 16,000 officers and men. Some of the higher-ranking officers had served in the Mexican War but almost none in command positions. Robert E. Lee was a staff officer. James Longstreet was a lieutenant. Ulysses Grant was a quartermaster.
Not only were the men untrained but so were the majority of the officers. Regimental, brigade and division commanders were often local dignitaries and politicians. Joshua Chamberlain was a college professor. Stonewall Jackson, although an army officer, was also a college professor. George McClellan was a railroad executive. Grant was a clerk in his brother’s leather goods store. Leonidas Polk was an Episcopal bishop.
These were the men who were expected to lead mass armies in combat. It took at least a year for the commanders to learn how to command. The First Battle of Manassas was a hash for both sides and it was only by dint of leadership and some luck that the Confederate Army won the battle.
Grant’s first victory at Belmont, Missouri was only a victory because the newspapers said that it was. His soldiers were cut off and forced to retreat to their river transport with Grant being chased on one of the boats himself.
The campaign in western Virginia almost ended the career of Robert E. Lee before it began. His forces lost a number of battles and he was eventually relieved of command and assigned to coastal defense.
Once the officers and men were adequately trained, the question of tactics came into play. While weaponry had progressed apace, tactics had not. In the early war years both sides were prone to use Napoleonic tactics with units advancing in wide formations and stopping to fire massed volleys at close range. Casualties were often horrendous once the troops learned to shoot.
As rifles and the men who fired them became more accurate, soldiers on both sides began to use fortifications to defend themselves. Both sides would entrench at the merest opportunity using a combination of earth and timber. They could then carry on continuous rifle fire behind some protection. By the end of the war the siegeworks at Petersburg became the rule not the exception.
Lets look at some of the missed opportunities.
Confederate General Braxton Bragg and his Army of Tennessee missed more than a few chances to destroy his opposition. At Chattanooga, he wasted his best opportunity to destroy the Army of the Cumberland. He also missed opportunities at McLemore’s Cove, Cassville, Peachtree Creek and Spring Hill.
George McClellan should have destroyed the Army of Northern Virginia at Antietam but refused to commit his reserves because he had over-estimated Lee’s numbers. George Meade allowed Lee to escape back into Virginia after Gettysburg with only cavalry pursuit. And at Fredericksburg, Lee never counterattacked after all of Ambrose Burnside’s assault were repulsed.
As the war went on both sides spent their men’s lives in frontal assaults at Gettysburg, Spotsylvania and at a number of battles during the Petersburg campaign. Using 18th century tactics against 19th century guaranteed high casualty lists.