Civil War Tactics: Infantry

This entry is part 4 of 21 in the series A Soldier's Life

Civil War TacticsThe American Civil War began with the assumption by both sides that after just a few battles the war would end with either the Confederacy collapsing or achieving their independence. No one could have envisioned a war that lasted four years and took more than 620,000 lives.

At the start of the war both armies were manned for the most part by untrained militia. Early battles were simply clashes between armed mobs. It was by pure luck that the Confederates actually won the First Battle of Manassas or Bull Run. Neither side was capable of overwhelming the other side.

After the initial phase of the war, the Union government appointed Major General George B. McClellan as commander of the Military Division of the Potomac, the main Union force responsible for the defense of Washington. After the consolidation of a number of Union military units, McClellan became the commander of the Army of the Potomac, the main Union Army in the Eastern Theater.

McClellan may have been timid on the battlefield but he was a genius when it came to logistics and training. He oversaw the training and equipping of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan’s army grew from 50,000 men in July 1861 to 168,000 by November and was considered by far the most colossal military unit the world had seen in modern historical times.

He created defenses for Washington that were almost impregnable, consisting of 48 forts and strong points, with 480 guns manned by 7,200 artillerists. Unfortunately, he was afraid to send his precious force into battle against the Confederates.

The tactics of early Civil War armies included maneuvering infantry units by brigades in wide battle lines. Both sides attempted to overwhelm their opponents with massed musket fire in the open field with little use of fortifications and emplacements. The most common deployment was a long “line of battle,” 2 ranks deep. More massed was the “column,” varying from 1 to 10 or more companies wide and from 8 to 20 or more ranks deep. Less compact than column or line was “open-order” deployment: a strung-out, irregular single line.

Early Civil War commanders rarely understood the effect of rifled musket fire on offensive infantry assaults. After devastating casualties at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Shiloh, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, both sides began to adapt to the new effects of firepower against infantry. Both the artillery and the cavalry were quicker to adapt their tactics to devastating firepower of new weaponry.

As the troops and their commanders became more experienced fortifications came into greater use by both sides. Most troops would quickly build light fortifications each night as a defensive measure. The Confederate defensive emplacements at Vicksburg, Port Hudson and Corinth, Mississippi were much more permanent and prevented quick assaults against these important Southern cities.

Sieges and the assault of fortified positions are probably the most complex and demanding of military operations. The foremost authority on these matters in the civil war was considered to be the French engineer, the Marquis de Vauban, who designed many European fortification systems, and organized many successful sieges of the seventeenth century. The Confederate earthworks of Port Hudson, and their use of artillery lunettes show his influence, and corresponding attacks on such systems would have benefited from his theories.

At both Vicksburg and Port Hudson, the Union forces initially attempted to rush the defensive fortifications. All of their attempts failed miserably with serious casualties. At both locations the Union attackers settled into methodical sieges.

The Siege of Vicksburg lasted from May 18, 1863 until July 4th when Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton surrendered his entire garrison of 29,495 men after 3,202 had been killed or wounded. In addition to his surrendered men, Pemberton turned over to Grant 172 cannons and 50,000 rifles. The loss of Vicksburg was a massive blow for the Confederacy.

The Siege of Port Hudson was similar to Vicksburg’s siege. It lasted from May 22 to July 9, 1863. After a number of unsuccessful and costly frontal assaults the Union attackers settled into a siege that lasted from June 15th to July 9th when the Confederate garrison of 6,500 surrendered after a loss of 1,000 killed or wounded. The Union attackers lost 5,000 killed or wounded plus an additional 5,000 men who died of disease. The surrender gave the Union complete control of the Mississippi River and its major tributaries, severing communications and trade between the eastern and western states of the Confederacy.

Corinth, Mississippi, an important rail junction in northern Mississippi, was the scene of two battles. The first engagement was called the Siege of Corinth and lasted from April 29 to May 30, 1862 but the Confederates under Lt. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard withdrew before Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck’s massive 120,000 strong army could engage his 65,000-man force. Made cautious by the staggering losses at Shiloh, Halleck embarked on a tedious campaign of offensive entrenchment, fortifying after each advance, sometimes only advancing a mile or two each day.

The second engagement at Corinth took place on October 3–4, 1862. Confederate forces under Generals Sterling Price and Earl Van Dorn, numbering about 22,000, attacked Union forces emplaced in rifle pits dug by the Confederate Army in the Spring. The Union forces, numbering about 23,000, were commanded Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans.

The Union forces were able to repulse a number of frontal assaults against their fixed defenses. Rosecrans’s army lost 2,520 (355 killed, 1,841 wounded, and 324 missing) at Corinth; Van Dorn’s losses were 4,233 (473 killed, 1,997 wounded, and 1,763 captured or missing).




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