Military Theory and the U.S. Civil War (Part 1)

Last week I played spectator to a couple interesting debates on a Civil War round table page on Facebook. An article was posted with the perpetually provocative subject of who the best generals were during the Civil War. In the same forum, the question was asked “who was the most responsible for the length of the Civil War?” You can imagine the passions stoked here. I’ve got my own opinions about both of these debates, but they point to a larger discussion that periodically surfaces among Civil War historians, and that is whether the military leaders of the North and South adhered to, or were guided by, contemporary military doctrines? This series of articles explores this question, and I think sets up an interesting context when one considers things like “who was most responsible” for how long the Civil War lasted.*

Colonel Burnsides brigade at Bull Run, First and Second Rhode Island, and Seventy-First New York Regiments, with their Artillery, Attacking the Rebel Batteries at Bull Run. Sketched on the spot by A. Waud
Colonel Burnsides brigade at Bull Run, First and Second Rhode Island, and Seventy-First New York Regiments, with their Artillery, Attacking the Rebel Batteries at Bull Run. Sketched on the spot by A. Waud

When war broke out in April 1861, both the Union and the new Confederate government were faced with daunting tasks in building up their small, standing armies. Despite the looming threat of conflict prior to Fort Sumter, precious little had been done to prepare the people of the North or South for the war to come. It is often stated that neither side was truly ready for war when hostilities broke out. The same could be said for the preparedness of American military officers. Many of the most renowned Union and Confederate leaders were the products of the nation’s only national military education institution, the U.S. Military Academy. War theory was taught and studied by military officers in the pre-Civil War period, but the translation of theory into practice was uneven between the North and the South. Institutional and political obstacles complicated any semblance of a unified strategy for the Union, where military leaders clung to long-understood principles of mass and movement. In the South, the nature of the conflict and the existence of natural interior lines of operation allowed for a more plausible employment of a unified military theory.

The war was going to be won quickly, most seemed to agree, as both sides brimmed with confidence. The reality, of course, was far more traumatizing than most dared imagine: four years of war at a cost of over 620,000 soldiers killed by combat, disease, or malnutrition. The Confederacy mounted fierce resistance that frustrated and horrified the North. Legions of historians have debated how and why the South ultimately lost, or perhaps more accurately, why it took the North so long to win. This is particularly interesting since many of the most celebrated names from the conflict started their careers at the same place, West Point, and studied the same professional curriculum. Yet, most would agree that the first two years of the war went poorly, if not outright humiliatingly, for Union forces. The Confederate army, led by larger-than-life generals such as Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and P.G.T. Beauregard, repelled the Yankees at nearly every significant battle. Popular sentiment in the North turned indignant as defeat after humiliating defeat flew in the face of the real and perceived advantages supposedly at the Union army’s disposal. What could explain these outcomes? In particular, how could the Union army appear to be so lacking in the execution of war while their Southern counterparts, with whom they had studied the “art and science of war,” were so successful? Did either the Union North, or the Confederate South, formulate and execute strategy and/or operations using a shared military theory framework?

From the 1950s – 1970s, Civil War historians largely accepted that the writings of Antoine Jomini had the most significant influence on the military leading up to and during the conflict. J. D. Hittle, David Donald, Joseph Dawson III, and others have

Carol Reardon's
Carol Reardon’s “With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other” questions just how influential Jomini’s writings were with Civil War generals.

little doubt as the importance of Jomini to the 19th century American officer. Recent works however, such as Carol Reardon’s With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other, questions just how significant Jomini’s influence actually was during this period in the United States. Her work, which focuses on the North, places Jomini in a backdrop of many other theorists and writers of the 19th century, directly questioning the near exclusive influence earlier writers accepted. Scholars such as Reardon, Hermann Harraway, and Archer Jones, challenge Jomini’s influence, and in some aspects question whether there was any real theoretical underpinnings at all used by Civil War military generals. In the South, the assumption of Jominian influence is even more prevalent. Scholars point to Jefferson Davis’ “Offensive-Defensive” strategy as firmly rooted in the writings of Antoine Jomini. This, too, has come under criticism of late.

As stated, in the decades prior to the South’s break with the Union, the United States had only a single national institution for military education, the Military Academy at West Point. The focus of the academy’s mission, however, was not to be solely, or even primarily, military thought and leadership. President Thomas Jefferson, in an attempt to overcome the objections of politicians suspicious of a professional military establishment, allowed that the new academy would primarily be a scientific institution.[1] More specifically, engineering was the most important course of instruction from the time of its first class in 1802 to the Civil War.[2] A review of the curriculum – which varied over the years – demonstrates that of the decades leading up to the war, only in the student’s final year of instruction was there taught specific military education. For instance, in 1840, first year students studied primarily mathematics and French, which was essential to later engineering studies. Second year students continued these subjects, and added drawing and English grammar to the course load. In the third year, natural philosophy, chemistry, and more drawing was the focus. Only in the final year did students take on courses in infantry tactics and artillery, along with the study of ethics, mineralogy, and the course for which West Point was most famous, engineering. This curriculum would remain largely unchanged for fifteen years, when cavalry was added by 1855. By 1859, “ordinance and gunnery” was also included.[3]

The writings of Antoine Jomini were often copied and quoted by professional soldier and armchair generals alike during the Civil War
The writings of Antoine Jomini were often copied and quoted by professional soldier and armchair generals alike during the Civil War

This training orientation of West Point emphasized scientific learning over education in the art of war.[4] For some time during the antebellum period, West Point was considered the premier school of mathematics in the nation. Its reputation was such that, by 1819, some complained that the school was useless in producing soldiers since it was primarily concerned with mathematics.[5] The focus on science and engineering endured for decades. However, starting in the 1830s, recent Academy graduate-turned professor Dennis Hart Mahan started infusing concepts of the art of war into the courses.

Mahan, a brilliant engineer and mathematician in his own right, found much to learn from Europe in regards to both engineering and warfare. It is here that we see the most significant link between the teachings of Jomini and the curriculum of West Point. Interestingly, Mahan, who spent four years studying in Europe — from 1826 – 1830 – seemed to purposefully exclude Carl von Clausewitz from his personal study. Mahan rather brought back with him Antoine Jomini’s theories, and in 1836 not only published an adaptation of Jomini’s principles, but also published in 1847 his own guide to warfare titled Advanced Guard, Outpost, and Detachment Service of Troops, with the Essential Principles of Strategy, and Grand Tactics for the Use of Officers of the Militia and Volunteers. This lengthy title was shortened by his students to simply “the Outpost.” There are, arguably, Jominian influences throughout the book. Chapter one deals with tactics, which is broken down between minor and grand tactics, in a similar vein as Jomini. “Minor, or elementary tactics; under which head may be placed all that refers to the drill, or other preparatory instruction of the troops, to give them expertness in the use of their weapons, and facility of movement.”[6] Grand tactics is the “Art of combining, disposing, and handling of troops on the field of battle.” Compare these to Jomini’s definitions: tactics “begins with the details, and ascends to combinations and generalization necessary for the formation and handling of a great army.” Grand tactics, says Jomini, is the “art of making good combinations preliminary to battles, as well as during their progress.”[7] In like manner, we see parallels between Mahan’s concept of strategy with Jomini’s. Both are concerned with bases of operation, objective points, and lines of operations. While Mahan was certainly scholar enough to extract lessons drawn from history on his own (both Mahan and Jomini were greatly influenced by the study of the Napoleonic Wars and wars of antiquity), there is much that suggests European influence in his works. Perhaps not exact copies, but the definitions certainly share fundamental notions. Eventually, The Art of War itself was introduced into the West Point curriculum in 1860.[8]

Civil War era Military Academy Cadets
Civil War era Military Academy Cadets

Scholars have debated the quality of the military education provided to officers graduating the academy by the time the Mexican-American War broke out in 1856. Samuel Watson, in his review of the historiography of the US Army prior to the Civil War, notes that most scholars acknowledge the engineering focus of the school, as well as “moribund” military expertise. Others dispute this characterization, and argued that the engineering mentality imbued West Point students with a cautious mindset that served them well.[9] General Winfield Scott, who would be the first general-in-chief when the Civil War broke out, apparently agreed with the latter interpretation. He heaped praise on West Point graduates, saying that without them the war would have likely dragged on with significantly greater cost.[10] Even so, Mahan revised his thoughts on military theory after the war concluded in 1848, ever ready to refine the instruction on the art of war.[11]

For better or for worse, Mahan’s instruction and mentorship, which lasted from 1830 until his death in 1871, arguably shaped many of the primary leaders of the armies of the Civil War. This notable group includes Jefferson Davis (class of 1828), Robert E. Lee (class of 1829), P.G.T. Beauregard (class of 1838), George B. McClellan (class of 1846), Ulysses S. Grant (class of 1843), William T. Sherman (class of 1840), and many more. It therefore seems reasonable, if Mahan was an admirer or disciple of Jomini, to see the Swiss theorist’s ideas in play throughout the conflict. As previously mentioned, much Civil War scholarship of the 20th century is based on this premise. David Donald declares unabashedly that the first years of the conflict “reads like little more than exegesis of Jomini’s theories.”[12] But as recent scholarship challenges this assumption, we need to look at Jomini’s definition of strategy. From there, we can better judge whether the decisions and actions of the national and military leadership for the Union and the Confederacy conformed to anything close to his theory.[13]

* It was McClellan.


[1] Stephen Ambrose, Duty, Honor, Country: A History of West Point (Baltimore: John’s Hopkins Press, 1966), 18.

[2] Ibid, 89.

[3] The West Point Official Registers detail student rosters, military and academic staff, and the “order of merit” of the students in each of the courses. West Point Official Registers for 1840, 1855, 1859,

[4] Stephen Ambrose, Duty, Honor, Country, 89.

[5] Ibid, 90.

[6] Dennis Hart Mahan, Advanced Guard, Outpost, and Detachment Service of Troops, with the Essential Principles of Strategy, and Grand Tactics for the Use of Officers of the Militia and Volunteers (New York, E. Craighead, 1847), 32.

[7] Antoine Jomini, The Art of War, trans. H. Mendell and W. P. Craighill (Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1879), 132, 378.

[8] David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era, 2d edition (New York: Vintage Books, 1966),

[9] Samuel Watson, “Continuity in Civil-Military Relations and Expertise: The U.S, Army during the Decade before the Civil War,” The Journal of Military History, Vol 75, Issue 1 (Jan 2011): 223-224.

[10] R. Earnest Dupuy, Men of West Point: The First 150 Years of the United States Military Academy (New York: William Sloane Associates, 1951), 19.

[11] Ibid, 20-21.

[12] David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered, 90.

[13] Jomini states that strategy embraces 13 points, the first eight of which are arguably more strategic than the final five, which are more operational: 1. the selection of the theater of war and the different “combinations” within it; 2. the determination of the decisive points in these combinations; the selection of a “fixed base” and zone of operations; the selection of the objective point (offensive or defensive); the strategic fronts and lines of defense; selection of the lines of operations leading to the objective point; the identification of the “best strategic line;” the eventual bases of operations and the strategic reserves. The final five points include “marches of armies” or maneuver; the relation of the maneuver to the selected depots; identification of strategic fortresses as a refuge; points for entrenched camps; and “diversions to be made, and the large detachments necessary.” Antoine Jomini, ibid, 137.


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