History 269 The Civil War and Reconstruction
Military Strategy and Tactics

Military operations during the Civil War, much the same as in most wars, involved planning strategy, preparation (organizing men and supplies, training men), directing logistical operations, and ultimately battle tactics once the enemy was engaged in combat.  Civil War generals were responsible for the movement and deployment of troops, artillery, and logistical support. Strategic decisions--when and where to deploy troops and for what objectives--were made by commanding generals under the direction of presidents Lincoln and Davis (both of whom were hands-on commander-in-chiefs).

Tactical decisions in combat situations, were made by the commanding general in the field.  While his staff assisted with administrative paperwork, in combat they functioned essentially as clerks who did little in the way of sifting intelligence or planning operations.  Decisions were usually transmitted to subordinates either by direct exchange or by courier.  Occasionally signal flags were used to send instructions.  When the battle lines were fairly static, e.g., in siege operations, the telegraph was used to communicate tactical decisions.

Conspicuous bravery was a vital attribute of any good leader.  Soldiers looked to their commanders for both direction and inspiration.  Moreover, commanding officers were attractive targets for enemy sharpshooters.  It is not surprising, therefore, that the casualty rate for commanding officers was much higher than than that of enlisted men (8 percent of Union generals and 18 percent of their Confederate counterparts were killed or mortally wounded in action; by contrast, only about 7 percent of enlisted men were killed or mortally wounded in action).


Although any commander might be called upon to intervene directly on the firing line, army, corps, and division commanders tended to lead from behind the battle line, and their duties were mainly supervisory.  Army commanders principally decided the broad questions: whether to attack or defend, where the army's main efforts should be made, and when to retreat (or pursue). In effect, they made most of their key choices before and after an engagement rather than during it. Once battle was actually joined their ability to influence the outcome diminished considerably. They might choose to wait it out or they might choose, temporarily and informally, to exercise the function of a subordinate leader. Corps commanders chiefly directed main attacks or supervised the defense of large, usually well-defined sectors. It was their function to carry out the broad (or occasionally quite specific) wishes of the army commander. They coordinated all the elements of their corps (typically infantry divisions and artillery battalions) in order to maximize its offensive or defensive strength. Once battle was actually joined, they influenced the outcome by sending additional troops into the fight, sometimes by preserving a reserve force (usually a division) and committing it at the appropriate moment, sometimes by requesting additional supports from adjacent corps or from the army commander.  Division commanders essentially had the same functions as corps commanders, but on a smaller scale. When attacking, however, their emphasis was less on "feeding" a fight than husbanding the striking power of their divisions as much as possible. The idea was to strike one hard blow rather than a series of lesser ones.

Brigade and Regiment Commanders were expected to control the actual combat, lead the attack, and destroy the enemy.  (Brigades ordinarily were led by a brigadier general and regiments were commanded by a colonel.)  Brigade commanders principally conducted the actual business of attacking or defending. They accompanied the attacking force in person or stayed on the firing line with the defense. If they had five regiments at their disposal, they typically placed three abreast of one another with the other two in immediate support. Their job was basically to maximize the fighting power of their brigades by ensuring that these regiments had unobstructed fields of fire and did not overlap. During an attack it often became necessary to expand, contract, or otherwise modify the brigade frontage to conform with the vagaries of terrain, the movements of adjacent friendly brigades, and/or the behavior of enemy forces. It was the brigade commander's responsibility to shift his regiments as needed while preserving, as far as possible, the unified striking power of the brigade.  Regiment commanders were chiefly responsible for making their men do as the brigade commanders wished, and their independent authority on the battlefield was quite limited. For example, if defending they might order a limited counterattack, but they usually could not order a retreat without approval from higher authority. Assisted by company commanders, they directly supervised the soldiers, giving specific, highly concrete commands: move this way or that, hold your ground, fire by volley, forward, and so on. Commanders at this level were expected to lead by personal example and to display as well as demand strict adherence to duty.

Infantry, Cavalry and Artillery

Civil War armies basically had three kinds of combat troops: infantry, cavalry and artillery. Infantrymen fought on foot, each with his own weapon. Cavalrymen were trained to fight on horseback or dismounted, also with their own individual weapons. Artillerists fought with cannon.  [See Glossary for definitions of military terms.]

Infantry were by far the most numerous part of a Civil War army and were chiefly responsible for seizing and holding ground. The basic Civil War tactic was to put a lot of men next to one another in a line and have them move and shoot together. By present-day standards the notion of placing troops shoulder-to-shoulder seems insane, but it still made good sense in the mid-19th century.  There were two reasons for this: First, it allowed soldiers to concentrate the fire of what were still rather limited weapons. Second, it was almost the only way to move troops effectively under fire. Most Civil War infantrymen used muzzle-loading muskets capable of being loaded and fired a maximum of about three times a minute.  Individually, therefore, a soldier was nothing. He could affect the battlefield only by combining his fire with that of other infantrymen. Although spreading out made them less vulnerable, infantrymen very quickly lost the ability to combine their fire effectively if they did so. Even more critically, their officers rapidly lost the ability to control them.

For most purposes, the smallest tactical unit on a Civil War battlefield was the regiment. Although theoretically composed of about 1,000 officers and men, in reality the average Civil War regiment went into battle with about 300-600 men. Whatever its size, however, all members of the regiment had to be able to understand and carry out the orders of their colonel and subordinate officers, who generally could communicate only through voice command.  Since in the din and confusion of battle only a few soldiers could actually hear any given command, most got the message chiefly by conforming to the movements of the men immediately around them. Maintaining "touch of elbows" (the prescribed close interval) was indispensable for this crude but vital system to work. In addition, infantrymen were trained to "follow the flag" so the unit and national colors were always conspicuously placed in the front and center of each regiment.  Thus, when in doubt as to what maneuver the regiment was trying to carry out, soldiers could look to see the direction in which the colors were moving. That is one major reason why the post of color bearer was habitually given to the bravest men in the unit. It was not just an honor; it was insurance that the colors would always move in the direction desired by the colonel.

En route to a battle area, regiments typically moved in a column formation, four men abreast. There was a simple maneuver whereby regiments could very rapidly change from column to line once in the battle area; i.e., from a formation designed for ease of movement to a formation designed to maximize firepower. Regiments normally moved and fought in line of battle--a close-order formation actually composed of two lines, front and rear.  Attacking units rarely "charged" in the sense of running full-tilt toward the enemy; such a maneuver would promptly destroy the formation as faster men outstripped slower ones and everyone spread out. Instead a regiment using orthodox tactics would typically step off on an attack moving at a "quick time" rate of 110 steps per minute (at which rate it would cover about 85 yards per minute). Once under serious fire the rate of advance might be increased to a so-called "double-quick time" of 165 steps per minute (about 150 yards per minute).  Only when the regiment was within a few dozen yards of the defending line would the regiment be ordered to advance at a "run" (a very rapid pace but still not a sprint). Thus a regiment might easily take about ten minutes to "charge" 1,000 yards, even if it did not pause for re-alignment or execute any further maneuvers en route. In theory an attacking unit would not stop until it reached the enemy line, if then.  The idea was to force back the defenders through the size, momentum, and shock effect of the attacking column. (Fixed bayonets were considered indispensable for maximizing the desired shock effect).  In reality, however, the firepower of the defense eventually led most Civil War regiments to stop and return the fire, often at ranges of less than 100 yards. And very often the "charge" would turn into a stand-up fire fight at murderously short range, until one side or the other gave way.

Artillery was second in importance to infantry on most Civil War battlefields. Not yet the "killing arm" it would become during World War One, when 70 percent of all casualties would be inflicted by shellfire, artillery nevertheless played an important role, particularly on the defense. Cannon fire could break up an infantry attack or dissuade enemy infantry from attacking in the first place. Its mere presence could also reassure friendly infantry and so exert a moral effect that might be as important as its physical effect on the enemy.

The basic artillery unit was the battery, a group of between four and six fieldpieces commanded by a captain. Early in the war, batteries tended to be attached to infantry brigades. But over time it was found that they worked best when massed together, and both the Union and Confederate armies presently reorganized their artillery to facilitate this. Eventually both sides maintained extensive concentrations of artillery at corps-level or higher. Coordinating the fire of twenty or thirty guns on a single target was not unusual, and occasionally (as in the bombardment that preceded Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg) concentrations of well over hundred guns might be achieved. [See Artillery for more details.]

"Whoever saw a dead cavalryman?" was a common joke among Civil War soldiers, a pointed allusion to the fact that the battlefield role played by the mounted arm was often negligible. For example, at the Battle of Antietam--the single bloodiest day of the entire war--the Union cavalry suffered exactly 5 men killed and 23 wounded. This was in sharp contrast to the role played by cavalry during the Napoleonic era, when a well-timed cavalry charge could exploit an infantry breakthrough, overrun the enemy's retreating foot soldiers, and convert a temporary advantage into a complete battlefield triumph.  Why the failure to use cavalry to better tactical advantage? The best single explanation might be the fact that for much of the war there was simply not enough of it to achieve significant results. Whereas cavalry had comprised 20 to 25 percent of Napoleonic armies, in Civil War armies it generally averaged 8 to 10 percent or even less.  The paucity of cavalry may be explained, in turn, by its much greater expense compared with infantry. A single horse might easily cost ten times the monthly pay of a Civil War private and necessitated the purchase of saddles, bridles, stirrups, and other gear as well as specialized clothing and equipment for the rider. Moreover, horses required about 26 pounds of feed and forage per day, many times the requirement of an infantryman. One might add to this the continual need for remounts to replace worn-out horses and the fact that it took far more training to make an effective cavalryman than an effective infantryman, as well as the widespread belief that the heavily-wooded terrain of America would limit opportunities to use cavalry on the battlefield.

All in all, it is perhaps no wonder that Civil War armies were late in creating really powerful mounted arms. Instead, cavalry tended to be used mainly for scouting and raiding, duties that took place away from the battlefields. During major engagements their mission was principally to screen the flanks or to control the rear areas. By 1863, however, the North was beginning to create cavalry forces sufficiently numerous and well-armed to play a significant role on the battlefield. At Gettysburg, for example, Union cavalrymen armed with rapid-fire, breach-loading carbines were able to hold a Confederate infantry division at bay for several hours. At Cedar Creek in 1864 a massed cavalry charge late in the day completed the ruin of the Confederate army, and during the Appomattox Campaign in 1865 Federal cavalry played a decisive role in bringing Lee's retreating army to bay and forcing its surrender.

Attacking v. Defending

Basic tactics can be divided into offense and defense.  When defending, Civil War commanders often looked for positions with as many of the following characteristics as possible.  First, the position obviously had to be ground from which they could keep the enemy from getting at whatever it was they were ordered to defend.  Second, it should be elevated enough so as to provide good observation and good fields of fire; they wanted to see as far as possible and sometimes (though not always) to shoot as far as possible. The highest ground was not necessarily the best, however, for it often afforded an attacker defilade (areas of ground which the defenders' weapons could not reach). For that reason leaders seldom placed their troops at the very top of a ridge or hill (the "geographical crest"). Instead they placed them a bit forward of the geographical crest at a point from which they had the best field of fire (the "military crest). Alternatively, they might even choose to place their troops behind the crest. This concealed the size and exact deployment of the defenders from the enemy and offered protection from long-range fire. It also meant that an attacker, upon reaching the crest, would be silhouetted against the sky and susceptible to a sudden, potentially quite destructive fire at close range.  Third, the ground adjacent to the chosen position should present a potential attacker with obstacles. Streams and ravines made good obstacles because they required an attacker to halt temporarily while trying to cross them. Fences and boulder fields could also slow an attacker. Dense woodlands could do this too, but they offered concealment for potential attackers and were therefore less desirable. In addition to its other virtues, elevated ground was prized because attackers moving uphill had to exert themselves more and got tired faster. Obstacles were especially critical at the end of a unit's position--the flank--if there were no other units beyond to protect it. That is why commanders "anchored" their flanks, whenever possible, on hills or the banks of large streams.  Fourth, a good position had to offer ease of access for reinforcements to arrive and, if necessary, for the defenders to retreat.  Fifth, a source of drinkable water (the more the better) had to be immediately behind the position if possible. This was especially important for cavalry and artillery units, which had horses to think about as well as men.

When attacking, the concerns of Civil War commanders were different.  First, they looked for weaknesses in the enemy's position, especially "unanchored" flanks. If there were no obvious weaknesses they looked for a key point in the enemy's position (often a piece of elevated ground whose loss would undermine the rest of the enemy's defensive line).  Second, they searched for ways to get close to the enemy position without being observed. Using woodlands and ridgelines to screen their movements was a common tactic.  Third, they looked for open, elevated ground on which they could deploy artillery to "soften up" the point to be attacked.  Fourth, once the attack was underway they tried, when possible, to find areas of defilade in which their troops could gain relief from exposure to enemy fire. Obviously it was almost never possible to find defilade that offered protection all the way to the enemy line, but leaders could often find some point en route where they could pause briefly to "dress" their lines. 

Making the best use of terrain was an art that almost always involved trade-offs among these various factors--and also required consideration of the number of troops available. Even a very strong position was vulnerable if there were not enough troops to defend it. A common error among Civil War generals, for example, was to stretch their line too thin in order to hold an otherwise desirable piece of ground.

The Bloody Crucible of Combat

Finally, it should be emphasized that combat operations during the Civil War were not nearly so clearly organized as we have outlined here on paper.  Battles were dynamic, fluid, and often chaotic, filled with mass confusion, deafening noise and blinding smoke.  They were also frightening for the men engaged in intense combat, ghastly horrors impossible for us to even imagine.  Two chilling glimpses are provided by Joshua L. Chamberlain in his recollections from Gettysburg and the Wilderness cited below:

"The two lines met and broke and mingled in the shock.  The crush of musketry gave way to cuts and thrusts, grapplings and wrestlings.  The edge of the conflict swayed to and fro, with wild whirlpools and eddies.  At times I saw around me more of the enemy than of my own men; gaps opening, swallowing, closing again with sharp convulsive energy; squads of stalwart men who had cut their way through us, disappearing as if translated.  All around, strange mingled roar--shouts of defiance, rally, and desperation; and underneath, murmured entreaty and stifled moans; gasping prayers, snatches of Sabbath song, whispers of loved names; everywhere men torn and broken, staggering, creeping, quivering on the earth, and dead faces with strangely fixed eyes staring into the sky.  Things which cannot be told--nor dreamed." [Gettysburg]

"Thousands upon thousands... plunged straightway into hell-like horrors; the murderous maze where desperate instinct replaced impossible tactics; men mowing each other down almost at hand-reach, invisible each to each other till the flaming muzzles cut lurid windows through the matted brush and bramble walls, and underneath the darkened woods low-lying cannon and bursting shells set the earth itself on fire, and wrapped in winding sheets of flame unnumbered, thick-strewn bodies of dead and dying, never to be found or known on earth again.  Then the rushing, forced flank movements, known and overmatched by the ever-alert enemy; followed by reckless front attacks, where highest valor was deepest loss...." [the Wilderness]


[Main Menu]