Crucible of Blood - Part One

Crucible of Blood - The American Civil War And the Evolution of Modern Military Technology

Part One of a Series

By William R. Trotter

"The instructors in our military academies continue to emphasize the campaigns of Bonaparte and Frederick the Great. While these are surely worthy of scrutiny, the subject young officers really should be focusing on is the American Civil War. It is the only conflict I know of from which the student of war can learn everything: grand strategy, operational strategy, and tactics. If our officers had truly studied Grant's campaigns around Spotsylvania, a great many of the costliest blunders in the Great War could have been avoided!"

- Field Marshall von Hindenberg

The Seeds of Carnage

It did not take long, during the opening weeks of the Great War, for the civilian leaders and the supreme commanders on both sides to be stunned and delivered into a state of confusion by the casualty figures, and by the rapid confounding of all the careful operational planning designed to insure a relatively quick, decisive victory. When the war-of-maneuver embodied in the Schlieffen Plan collapsed in the face of magazine rifles, rapid fire field artillery (most notably the "French .75", which could deluge an attacking formation with almost the same volume of lead as the rain of bullets thrown out by a defending regiment armed with Lee-Enfields). And at this stage of the war, Tommy's marksmanship was notably superior to Fritz's. Add to this the sudden, stark force-multiplier of hastily constructed field fortifications, and you can easily grasp why the 90-day campaign envisioned by the German General Staff froze into trench warfare, from the sea to the Swiss Alps, and mutated into a ghastly, intractable war of attrition which no one had foreseen, for which no contingency plans existed, and for which no workable solution would be found for four blood-soaked years. The best military minds on both sides could conceive of nothing more imaginative than the repeated application of brute force from ever-larger numbers of heavy guns, followed by frontal assaults, which resulted in appalling casualties and yielded in territorial gains that could be measured in yards rather than miles.

Chart depicting organization of a typical Civil War "army".

Yet the technological and tactical exigencies that created this grisly stalemate did not come out of the blue. There were prescient individual officers - usually, alas, of such junior grade that their papers and memoranda carried little or no weight with their reactionary superiors - who had been predicting this state of affairs for forty or more years, in paper after paper, study after study, they were, to a man, students of the American Civil War, and from the events and weapons of that conflict, they had formed accurate extrapolations about the nature of future wars, and offered both theories and practical solutions to the bloody stalemate they predicted if the lessons of the ACW were not heeded by the general staffs of Germany, France and Great Britain. However brave, experienced, and intelligent those high-ranking generals might have been, their doctrinal faith was based on outmoded assumptions that contemporary firepower turned upside-down; they were as shocked and nonplussed by the staggering casualties and rapid solidification of the war on the Western Front as anyone else; but they lacked the flexibility of mind, and the historical perspective required to deal with new realities through new tactics, and few of them had paid more than superficial attention to studies and analyses submitted by junior officers with a passion for studying the achievements of, say, Stonewall Jackson or William T. Sherman.

In point of fact (and with the singular grim exception of poison gas), every technological innovation that turned the Great War into such a stupefying bloodbath, had its origins in the fratricidal American conflict that raged from 1861 to 1865: long-range rifled muskets, machine guns, barbed wire, steam powered warships armed with rotating turrets and sheathed in protective armor, railroad-based logistics, rifled artillery of unprecedented accuracy and range, reliable instantaneous command-and-control via telegraph, economic warfare on a scale undreamed-of before that time, repeating rifles and carbines, the use of cavalry as mobile mounted infantry, the formal establishment of staffs, the dynamic cooperation (or lack of it) between civilian authority (the political agenda) and field commanders (the military arm that created favorable conditions for that political agenda), radically different infantry tactics necessitated by the deadliness of rifles, and the emergence of field fortifications as not just an occasional expedient but an essential adjunct to field operations; the widespread and increasingly sophisticated employment of propaganda; the inclusion of civilian morale and material prosperity as a valid target of "total war", the enforcement of mass conscription, the submarine… you name it, and one side or the other tried it out.

Yes, even airpower (although you have to stretch things a bit in this department). The Union side made considerable use of tethered balloons for reconnaissance purposes (with mixed but promising results), but plans existed for employing powered, maneuverable balloons as fleets of tactical bombers. Ironically, the most advanced and probably feasible designs were born in the tumultuous brain of one of the Union's most notoriously incompetent, corrupt, and shamelessly self-serving officers, General Benjamin F. Butler. A poltroon, a thief, and a hopelessly inept field commander (political power alone kept him active on the battlefield until 1864, when his abysmal failure to capture Ft. Fisher finally gave Grant a God-sent excuse to sack him in disgrace), Butler also had another side to his complex and mostly reprehensible nature: he was a visionary expert on military technology. After his death, a stack of notebooks was found, filled with notes and sketches for advanced and sometimes fantastic weapons (including several versions of a "death ray" and artillery shells filled with toxic and/or flammable substances, including phosphorous, which would burst into fierce flames upon contact with air!). Butler had also drawn up fairly advanced plans to convert hot-air balloons into bombers, by installing small electric motors to render them controllable, and by packing them with as many lightweight shrapnel-filled bomblets as they could carry, together with elite and specially trained sharpshooters armed with Spencer repeating rifles, whose mission it would be to pick off officers and gun crews. Both in terms of tying-up too much heavy industry and diverting resources, the scheme was prohibitively expensive (not to mention near-suicidal, given the vulnerability of the gas bags to a single spark!), but I have studied the sketches and there is no inherent reason why such a bomber fleet could not have been built; once built, it might well have been hugely useful in situations such as the siege of Petersburg. On the other hand, it might not have taken long for the Confederate to discover that one Cherokee Indian firing one flaming arrow could bring a "bombing balloon" down in a torrent of fire (and there were some exceedingly valiant Cherokee braves serving with Lee's army, although one can only speculate on their motives for doing so. Perhaps it was just a chance to kill white men and not be punished for it…)

It was not that the events, tactics, and innovations of the American conflict went unreported; skilled observers from all the major European armies traveled to America and attached themselves to various commands in various theaters of operations (even the armies of Turkey, Denmark, and Sardinia were represented!), and for the most part these men sent back detailed, precise, and often highly informed technical reports. But most of those documents were filed away in the lower depths of the entrenched military bueacracies that had the most urgent need of the information contained in them! On the levels of high command most European generals viewed the American fracas as a fumbling clash between masses of amateurs, and the few salient lessons that did percolate to the top were those that tended to confirm what the European generals already believed. Reports that were in conflict with established traditions and practices, were often dismissed as aberrations born of militarily immature minds fumbling for solutions to problems indigenous to a raw nation of rustics who just happened to be good mechanics. Some of the most crucial innovations (the submarine and the machine gun, for example) were barely mentioned in the reports reaching Europe.

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