I stumbled across this while doing research for a paper. Soldiers often develop a dark humor as they cope with the exasperating extremes of a military campaign…from the intensity of combat, to the boredom in-between battles, and often in the face of perplexing leadership decisions.
This article was printed in the June 22, 1864 edition of The Soldier’s Journal, a Union-sympathetic newspaper, toward the end of the war. It demonstrates very well this dark humor, and the amazing resilience of the soldiers fighting the war. Below is a close up of the relevant portion. In case you can’t read it, here’s a transcript:
“The rank and file have a pretty good appreciation of the strategy of the campaign. They understand that it has been a series of splendid flank movements, and flanking became the current Joke with which to account for everything from a night march to the capture of a sheep or pig. A poor fellow, terribly wounded, yesterday, said he saw the shell coming,’but hadn’t time to flank it.’”
Bear in mind, this shell took the soldier’s arm off just the day before.
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.*
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
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. More specifically, engineering was the most important course of instruction from the time of its first class in 1802 to the Civil War. 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.
This training orientation of West Point emphasized scientific learning over education in the art of war. 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. 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.” 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.” 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.” 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.
* It was McClellan.
 Stephen Ambrose, Duty, Honor, Country: A History of West Point (Baltimore: John’s Hopkins Press, 1966), 18.
 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,
 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.
 Antoine Jomini, The Art of War, trans. H. Mendell and W. P. Craighill (Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1879), 132, 378.
 David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era, 2d edition (New York: Vintage Books, 1966),
 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.
 R. Earnest Dupuy, Men of West Point: The First 150 Years of the United States Military Academy (New York: William Sloane Associates, 1951), 19.
 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.
The first such organization of its kind in a modern military, the Bureau of Military Information sought to provide the commander of the Army of the Potomac with contemporary all-source intelligence. Despite its rapid maturation and success, it was abandoned after the war. For a comprehensive history of the evolution of the Union’s intelligence capabilities, read Edwin C. Fishell’s excellent The Secret War for the Union, The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War.
General Joseph Hooker:
Quickly after taking command of the Army of the Potomac in January 1863, General Hooker ordered the establishment of an organization to “organize and perfect a system for collecting information as speedily as possible.” The order was directed to General Marsena R. Patrick, the Provost Marshall.
As part of his duties as Provost Marshall, General Patrick was responsible for the disposition and interrogation of prisoners and defectors. Originally concerned specifically with the security of Washington, Hooker’s mandate to create a “secret service” was the first step toward creating an institutionalized intelligence service for the military.
General Hooker’s Chief of Staff. Butterfield’s vision and administrative skills were critical to establishing an efficient intelligence reporting system.
The first chief of the new military information bureau, Sharpe would oversee the coordinated intelligence operations of espionage, prisoner interrogations, cavalry reconnaissance, the Union Signal Corps, newspaper intelligence gathering, and balloon and signal tower surveillance. (See Fishell, The Secret War for the Union, p297)
John G. Babcock (pictured at top, in group photo)
While a private in the Union army, Babcock’s gift for cartography caught the attention of General McClellan. After a stint working for the infamous Alan Pinkerton, General Burnside offered Babcock Pinkerton’s job once the McClellan spy chief left with his former boss. Babcock accepted, and was hired as a civilian. He stayed on once the Bureau of Military Information was established. (See Fishell, The Secret War for the Union, pp 154, 257-258).
The talents of these leaders were instrumental in the creation of an efficient intelligence organ for the Union.The quality of the Bureau’s reporting was quickly evident. In this dispatch, dated June 7, 1863, sent to General Butterfield, then-Col Sharpe outlines Confederate force disposition, assessed intent, and enemy troop strength.
The above image is only the first page (full letter and transcript can be found by clicking the image, stored by the Library of Congress), but within it Sharpe provides an updated threat assessment of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart’s forces since the battle at Chancellorsville (which ended 6 May, 1863). “I estimated them then at 4700 men in the aggregate, for duty. We now estimate the same at 7500 men for duty.” Equally as impressive is how Hooker sought to qualify other intelligence in the same letter, rather than present sketchy information as more credible than could be vouched for (as was often the practice by many a general before). “We have considerable reason to believe that two brigades of cavalry have recently arrived from the direction of North Carolina not heretofore connected with General Stuarts command. We can of course give no estimate of their force; but it would not be safe to put them down at less than 1500 men to a brigade.” The Bureau began to make rapid strides in making American intelligence operations more professional, more analytical, and more reliable.
“Up to the present time no assault or attempt to seize the Government property here has been made, but there is decided evidence that the subject is in contemplation, and has been all day, by a large number of people living in the direction of Charlestown; and at sun-down this evening several companies of troops had assembled at Halltown, about three or four miles from here on the road to Charlestown, with the intention of seizing the Government property, and the last report is that the attack will be made to-night. I telegraphed this evening to General Scott that I had received information confirming his dispatch of this morning, and later to the Adjutant-General that I expected an attack to-night. I have taken steps which ought to insure my receiving early intelligence of the advance of any forces, and my determination is to destroy what I cannot defend, and if the forces sent against me are clearly overwhelming, my present intention is to retreat into Pennsylvania.”
First Lieutenant Roger Jones, Mounted Rifles, U.S. Army, reporting on the situation at Harper’s Ferry, 18 April, 1861.
Days after the fall of Fort Sumter, the vulnerable military outpost at Harper’s Ferry was on high alert. Lieutenant Jones had been growing increasingly pensive as reports arrived of groups of Southern troops arriving in the vicinity intent on seizing government property. His concerns were quite legitimate. The Union army at this point was still woefully undermanned for any significant combat operations (perhaps explaining why a First Lieutenant was commanding the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry). Additionally, the historic arsenal was surrounded by high ground: the Maryland Heights to the east, and the Loudon Heights to the south. Harper’s Ferry was, in the words of historian James M. McPherson, a “trap waiting to be sprung by any force” that could place artillery at those locations.[i]
Both the Union and the Confederacy would find defending Harper’s Ferry difficult. This photo was taken after Confederate forces found the position untenable as well.
Of course, much has been written about these earliest days of the war. What I want to draw attention to here are these words of Lieutenant Jones above: “I have taken steps which ought to insure my receiving early intelligence of the advance of any forces…” This statement demonstrates the reality of military intelligence operations during the Civil War era. For most of the conflict, intelligence operations were the responsibility of the commanding officer. There was no institutional support for such activities, and the successful use of intelligence rested almost exclusively on the skill and disposition of the officers in charge. If the officer had little ability or faith in intelligence (as demonstrated by many military leaders of the time), then his operations usually would benefit his forces little, or actually impede battlefield success.
It would appear the Lieutenant Jones’ home-spun intelligence network was effective in this case. Shortly after the above dispatch was sent to Washington, Jones became convinced that he could not defend Harper’s Ferry. “Immediately after finishing my dispatch of the night of the 18th instant,” he informed Winfield Scott, ”I received positive and reliable information that 2,500 or 3,000 State troops would reach Harpers Ferry in two hours…” He set out immediately to destroy some 15,000 arms within the arsenal in an attempt to deny their use by the rebels, then evacuated his command to Carlyle Barracks, Pennsylvania. But the next four years of combat would reveal just how inconstant Union and Confederate leaders would be in the effective direction of intelligence operations.
[i] James M. McPherson, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 106-110.
Quotes of Lt Jones taken from the official records of the Union and Confederate armies. / Series 1 – Volume 2.
In early April, 1861, the possibility of civil war was growing by the day. Seven southern states had already seceded, and tensions in Baltimore and Virginia were poised to make things even worse (the attack on Fort Sumter would commence on 12 April). Intelligence gathering was a lost art, and insurrection outside the gates of Washington was of utmost concern to the new president. Scarcely a month following his inauguration in March, a poorly written intelligence warning was sent to President Lincoln:
“Baltimore April 11. 1861 “Dear Friend I take this metod of informing you that you better prepair yourself for an asailing mob that is organizing in Baltimore as far as i can inform myself is about 12000 m. strong they intend to seize the capitol and yourself and as they say that they will tar & put cotton on your head and ride you and Gen Scot on a rail this secret organation is about 70000 m members in Maryland and Virginia and thay can be all brought to gether in five days, the person that rits this was a member and is bound by a strong oath which if they now ho i was i wold not be suffer to live but justis to you and my country make me do this”
There’s no record (that I am aware of) that Lincoln reacted to (or even read) this letter. Clearly, no such force attempted to seize Washington, but such intelligence certainly contributed to the mounting wariness of a possible attack. A week later (19 April), US soldiers did clash with a mob in Baltimore, but this was hardly an organized attempt to overthrow the government. Rather, southern-sympathizers were outraged that Union troops were passing through their city, and tensions ultimately exploded into a riot. Also of note, on 1 July, the Union army, by order of Winfield Scott, arrested Baltimore’s chief of police and the city’s police commissioners in order to “carry consternation into the ranks of our numerous enemies about you [General Nathaniel Banks].” This dramatic move was based on the recent discovery of supposed secret armories, and the suspect allegiance of certain key members of Baltimore’s civilian leadership.
Ascertaining the credibility of intelligence is always a tricky endeavor. However, making matters worse for Lincoln (and the forming Confederacy, for that matter), was that there was no institutional intelligence capability to help provide such guidance. Intelligence capabilities (and the skills needed to use them) were as lacking as the general military readiness of the North and the South – and probably more so. The consequences of this were many. Among them was a hyper-sensitivity to possible threats to Washington, as Lincoln and Scott demanded significant forces be always held back to protect the city, which at times frustrated generals who felt they had better use of the army. But such weakness in the Union’s intelligence apparatus arguably contributed to the early defeat of Union forces at Bull Run, as military leaders – scarcely more competent in intelligence operations – were largely left to their own devices and cunning to collect and assess intelligence.
While slavery and the oppression of blacks in the South are easily invoked themes tied to the US Civil War, Joseph T. Glatthaar’s Forged in Battle tells the inspiring and often times disturbing story of black soldiers who fought for the Union, providing insight into the plights of escaped Southern slaves and free blacks in the North. Glatthaar presents the story of the United States Colored Troops, the effort by the Federal government to leverage a willing pool of manpower for use in the increasingly costly war to reestablish Federal control over the South. By extensive use of primary sources such as letters, manuscripts, newspaper articles, autobiographical accounts, and government records, as well as an impressive amount of scholarly secondary works, Glatthaar presents a convincing analysis of the relationship between white officers and black soldiers throughout the war.
The social dynamics revealed in Forged in Battle are fascinating, and the motivations of white officers were quite varied and complex. In order to make the use of black soldiers palatable to a deeply racist North, President Lincoln allowed that white officers would almost exclusively command the USCT regiments. While acknowledging the various motivations for these white officers who volunteered to lead black troops, Glatthaar found that many were abolitionists committed specifically to the destruction of slavery and to “uplift the black race.” However, even the most dedicated of abolitionists harbored prejudices and racial biases. The attitudes of Northern whites toward blacks was not one of equality and brotherhood. While condemning the practice of slavery, the average Northerner did not look to have blacks as neighbors and citizens with equal rights. This racial bias carried over to many of the white officers.
In a similar fashion, while the black soldiers who volunteered were united in their intention to destroy slavery, personal motivations of Northern blacks differed from the escaped slaves of the Confederacy. Free blacks in the Union faced intense discrimination, and sought to improve the lives of their race by rallying to the defense of the country, while freed slaves fought for the freedom promised by the Federal government. Interestingly, both white officers and black soldiers often distinguished between free and formerly enslaved blacks.
The exemplary performance of black units in combat certainly began to change the perception in the North of the capabilities of the negroes, but such performance is all the more astonishing since, as Glaatthar observes, “In addition to Rebel soldiers, black commands were battling generations of racial prejudice.” The relationship between the soldiers and officers was complex, and this work admirably enhances the historiography of race relations during the Civil War.
 Joseph T. Glatthaar, Forged in Battle The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 40.
In the History.com post linked above, one item of particular interest to me here lurks behind this sentence: “On the evening of April 2, the Confederate government fled the city with the army right behind.“ But they did more than flee. In a move that was all at once understandable and tragic (from a historian’s perspective), the records of the Confederate Secret Service were burned due to fear of possible reprisals against Southern-sympathizers (spies). So to this day, a hole exists in our knowledge of the extent and efficiency of Confederate intelligence capabilities. This knowledge-gap helped develop what historian Edwin Fishel called a “mythology“ of Civil War intelligence, where beautiful southern maidens and daring spies stayed one step ahead of Union generals. Even today, many elements of this mythology linger on, propagated as they have been over the decades by popular historians and even some academics.