The Frenzied First Days of War: the Path to the Battle of Big Bethel

Tensions ran high in Virginia in the last week of May, 1861. After the heady rush of victory that electrified the South following

Fort Monroe, located at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War.
Fort Monroe, located at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War.

the surrender of Fort Sumter and the seizing of Harper’s Ferry, anticipation of the next clash with the North grew. It was no secret that new recruits were pouring into Washington, and on the 24th, Union forces swept unopposed into Alexandria. Was this how Union General Irvin McDowell would strike the Old Dominion? Or would General Patterson try to leap from Maryland in an attempt to crush General Johnston on the way to Richmond? Or would the Northerners, as then-Colonel John Magruder anxiously wondered, invade via the coast, using the still Northern-held Fort Monroe on the tip of Hampton, VA to stage operations?

On the same day the US Army raised the Federal flag over Alexandria, Magruder received an alarming message from a man “said to be reliable” who had just arrived at West Point, Virginia. Hampton, he said, had been overrun by some 2500 Union troops. Magruder’s next steps demonstrated a levelheadedness in regards to military intelligence that many lacked, both Northern and Southern, in these early days of war. First, he asked that two small craft be dispatched to Jamestown Island, which juts into the James River some 30 miles northwest of Newport News and Hampton, in order to establish communication between the mainland and the area supposedly under Union control. He then also requested that cavalry forces be sent to him at once. “No reliable information can be attained without them,” Magruder wrote.

John B. Magruder. A graduate of West Point, "Prince John" demonstrated a certain affinity for operational intelligence operations.
John B. Magruder. A graduate of West Point, “Prince John” demonstrated a certain affinity for operational intelligence operations.

Within hours of sending this dispatch, additional intelligence revealed that the “reliable” man was actually quite mistaken. In a dispatch that sounded much less frenzied than the first, Magruder relayed that less than half the number of Union troops (1000) had landed at Hampton, and then only briefly. In addition, a small scouting party had been dispatched to Newport News. Only one company of enemy cavalry was noted. Magruder’s quick correction revealed two things: first, his awareness of the need to rapidly convey intelligence up to leadership in Richmond, and second, that he wasn’t letting his ego interfere with the execution of this responsibility. This is in contrast to Lieutenant Colonel A.S. Taylor in Alexandria, who earlier that month took nearly 4 days to communicate the intelligence that prompted his rapid retreat from Alexandria.

The Union withdrawal would be short-lived, however. Days later on the 27th of May, Major General Benjamin Butler lead US troops back into Newport News. Two weeks later, North and South clashed in what would be dubbed the Battle at Big Bethel. Here too, as we will see, Magruder and his subordinate commanders would demonstrate quickly maturing operational and tactical intelligence capabilities that helped blunt Union advantages in troop strength and materiel.


One of the most frightening and humbling pictures I’ve ever taken (Thoughts on June 6)

The view at low tide, coming from the English Channel, of Utah Beach

I actually get choked up when I look at this picture and think on it. I took it at low tide, at Utah Beach, Normandy, France back in the early 2000s.

Some of you WWII historians might be able to correct me on some details, but the intent of the military planners of Operation OVERLORD was to hit the beaches at high tide. The Germans expected that, of course, so that’s why there were all the obstacles you see in the movies …the iron triangles and such, many of which were rigged with explosives. They were there to impede ingressing amphibious craft, which would find them difficult to detect when they were submerged under the water. So why would you want to hit the beach at high tide? Because otherwise your soldiers, marines, and sailors had this to look forward to: a long stretch of open, wet sand to cross on foot while the Nazis laid down withering machine gun fire, grenades, mines, etc from entrenched positions. Due to some delays, Allied Forces missed high tide, and had to hit the beaches at low tide.

So one day in late May, only a week or so removed from the anniversary date, I found myself in Normandy, France. I walked out at low tide, turned, and tried to imagine jumping off of my Higgins boat, and then racing toward the hardened defenses of Normandy. Take a look and imagine.

It was a humbling experience. God bless those men.

(Originally Posted on The Weathered Journal.)

“The heavens appeared to weep in sympathy…” Ancient and Medieval Naval Power

A few weeks ago, I published an article that looked at the logistical constraints faced by the Crusader armies and the Muslim Sultanate during the Third Crusade. It was while researching this that I became fascinated with the subject of ancient and medieval naval power. Lacking all but the most rudimentary navigation and communication capabilities, the navies of ancient and medieval kingdoms nevertheless were capable of incredible military feats and breathtaking displays of power and brutality.

Ancient Naval Power

Die Seeschlacht bei Salamis – 1868 (by Wilhelm von Kaulbach)

With naval forces of the ancient world largely littoral in nature, there were some similarities between naval strategy and tactics with those of ground forces. However, the unique requirements and capabilities of naval power were appreciated as well. Naval forces were far more expensive and required a certain level of specialized training to be effective. As with land warfare, coordination of efforts between large numbers of forces was critical, and that would seem to be even more so for naval vessels spread out across a wide sea.

Looking at the famous Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C., Greek city-states that did not normally fight together somehow worked well enough as a cohesive force to defeat the invading Persians and her allies. This indicates that there was likely a commonality in their training on which these forces based their tactics. In addition, although vessels could be positioned in the darkness of night, actually fighting appeared to be impossible outside of the day. Consider that Xerxes was eager to crush the remaining Greek forces, but had to wait upon reaching them because the day “was too far spent for them to begin the battle, since night already approached.”[1]

In The History of Herodotus, the historian provided a convincing description on why the Athenian Themistocles wanted to

The Greek Trireme dominated naval warfare for centuries in the central Mediterranean.
The Greek Trireme dominated naval warfare for centuries in the central Mediterranean.

confront the Persians close to Salamis.[2] The Greeks took advantage the narrow sea lanes formed by the straits at Salamis to draw the Persian forces into a choke point that deprived them effective use of their superior numbers.[3] For the Athenians, there was both a combat advantage to battling close to the island, as well as command and control consideration (fighting closer to the isthmus would potentially tempt some of the non-Athenian Greeks to flee so they could defend their home cities). Plus, there were additional considerations that needed to be addressed, such as access to land and allies for the crew if a vessel sank.[4]

Polybius’ description of fleet formations in The Histories some 200 years later during the First Punic War were also incredibly detailed, and indicated significant communication and training requirements.[5] He painted an impressive picture of the battle, from the “six-banked galleys” of the Roman commanders, to the increasing spacing between the following vessels to form a wedge. He included the number of vessels, how they were arrayed, and the effects of the nearby terrain and open ocean on tactics and strategy.

As one seeks to understand Carthaginian or Persian tactical decisions and strategic objectives, however, additional sources from those sides would be much more valuable. Not too many historians would likely ascribe Xerxes’ decision to face off with the Greek navy at Salamis to the prophecies of ancient oracles. So why then did he? If Herodotus’ writing somehow accurately captured the words of warning from Artemisia, did Xerxes truly believe his presence alone would carry his forces to victory? [6] The play The Persians, written by Aeschylus, has something to offer in aiding our understanding of the events that took place at Salamis (“how hateful is thy name!”). Like all primary sources, this play does provide the identification of men and women, their placement in relation to the events of the battle, and the types of weapons and the outcomes of battles.[7] But as when Polybius and Herodotus get into the minds of the enemy, with no clear idea of the sources used to do so, once should question the veracity.

The Eastern Mediterranean seemed to be uniquely shaped to encourage the development of naval warfare. The comparatively calm, land-encircled Mediterranean Sea, rich in natural harbors and clear sea lanes proved to be an ideal laboratory to develop naval warfare.[8]

Medieval Naval Power

Embarquement of King Philipp II of France for the Third Crusade (1190)
Embarquement of King Philipp II of France for the Third Crusade (1190)

Although naval capabilities, particularly in ship-design and navigation, had advanced significantly since the days of the Romans, naval warfare was still mostly littoral during this period, and usually directly associated with land warfare. Weather, that spoiler of the best laid plans of ground commanders, had an even greater impact on naval operations. The weather and tides in the Mediterranean Sea were somewhat predictable and more advantageous in some respects to European powers than to Arab and Muslim powers on the south coast.[9] Yet, with that said, weather could and did surprise medieval navies. The account King Richard’s conquest of Cyprus even begins with weather woes: “Richard’s ships had been dispersed by the uneven winds and were making for Cyprus.” As they did so, a number of ships were wrecked on the coastline because of this weather.[10]

The effects of prolonged voyages also had a negative effect on the forces being transported. One could imagine this being

Richard the Lionheart at sea
Richard the Lionheart at sea

particularly true for soldiers simply being ferried to an expected land war (as the Crusaders were) who were not experienced with sailing. When Richard landed at Cyprus, his forces were reduced because many of his troops “were exceedingly fatigued from the continual tossing of the sea.”[11] This degradation was not confined to just the soldiers, however. When Richard’s army pursed the fleeing Emperor of Cyprus, they were conscious of the fact that the horses had been “tossed about at sea for a month,” and therefore did not drive the beasts hard.[12]

In regards to actual sea combat, the accounts of medieval naval battles captured the brutality of this warfare. Writing of the Battle of Sluys in 1340, John Froissart observed “Combats at sea are more destructive and obstinate than upon land, for it is not possible to retreat or flee – every one must abide his fortune and exert his prowess and valour.”[13] And though Salimbene de Adam, in writing of the naval battle between Pison and Geona in 1147, did not make direct comparisons to land warfare, the particular manner of combat he describes makes it clear that combatants either fought or died: “[T]hey tied their ships together in the usual fashion of a naval battle. And there was such great slaughter on both sides at that place that the heavens appeared to weep in sympathy.” Even taking into account expected hyperbole, Frossart’s observation that one had nowhere to run away to during a naval battle makes the likelihood of excessive casualties, compared to land warfare, quite plausible.

[1] Herodotus, The History of Herodotus, Book 8, trans. George Rawlinson, chapter 70,

[2] Herodotus, Ibid, chapter 60.

[3] Herodotus, Ibid. 60.

[4] Herodotus, Ibid, chapter 49

[5] Polybius, The Histories, Vol 1, Trans W.R. Paton, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979)26.10-27*.html

[6] Herodotus, Ibid. 68.1-68.3

[7] Aeschylus, The Persians, trans. Robert Potter,, 390-432

[8] Stephen Morillo, Jeremy Black, and Paul Lococo, War in World History Society, Technology. And War from Ancient Times to the Present, vol. 1, To 1500 (New York: McGraw Hill, 2009) 78-79.

[9] Stephen Morillo, Jeremy Black, and Paul Lococo, War in World History Society, Technology. And War from Ancient Times to the Present, vol. 1, To 1500 (New York: McGraw Hill, 2009) 279.

[10] Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, ed. William Stubbs, Rolls Series, (London: Longmans, 1864) II, 9-29 (150-83), translated by James Brundage, The Crusades: A Documentary History, (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1962), 166-74

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] The Chronicles of Sir John Froissart, Chapter L, The naval engagement between the king of England and the French before Sluys, Ref:

The American Soldier Experience, from World War One to Vietnam

American Soldiers
Peter S. Kindsvatter explores the experiences of American soldiers from the First World War through Vietnam.

Book Review.

In American Soldiers – Ground Combat in the World Wars, Korea, & Vietnam (University Press of Kansas, 2003), Peter S. Kindsvatter examines war diaries and memoirs to help understand the wartime experiences of U.S. soldiers over the course of half a century. Of specific interest are the individual soldiers and small unit dynamics. To further his analysis, Kindsvatter also incorporates the analyses of other social scientists and psychologists. Interestingly, he also uses literary analysis as he discusses the depiction of the soldier’s experience by wartime novelists such as Ernest Hemmingway. This mix of sources, contends Kindsvatter, allows us to search for a “collective truth.”  Although an excellent book, I found the author’s relatively seamless inclusion of fictional accounts in the midst of primary sources – as when discussing white soldier attitudes toward working with their black counterparts – somewhat distracting and unconvincing.

Kindsvatter delves into the formative collective experiences of American soldiers, such as the reasons which prompted the decision to enlist (if voluntary) or to not desert (if drafted), experiences through basic training, and ultimately through combat. The author finds that, contrary to broad-brush understandings of the motivations of soldiers during each war (e.g. soldiers enlisting in the First World War were naïve and gung-ho, the soldiers in the Second World War were more grim but determined, while those in Vietnam were largely disillusioned and unwilling), soldiers entering each conflict were driven by a mix of motives. His discussion on the “soldierization process” – the “tear down” and “build up” that transformed the civilian into a soldier, establishes how citizens from a multitude of backgrounds were brought to a common capability prior to being deployed for war. Following this the bulk of American Soldiers details the experiences of the Army and Marines as they experienced the reality of combat – from dull drudgery to “life-or-death struggle…”

A vital dynamic that gets attention throughout the book is the soldier’s identification with his unit and the Army (or Marines). Basic training laid the foundation for identification as a warrior, but one that existed as part of a larger group. This group psychology was essential to developing loyalty, and “[s]uch loyalty to the group is the essence of fighting morale.” The relationship between soldiers, both horizontally with peers and vertically with leaders and subordinates, had a significant effect on performance and morale. Nowhere was this more evident than with the experiences of black soldiers. The American military was segregated until 1949, when the U.S. Marine Corps integrated, leading the way towards eventual full integration by the end of the Korean War (Kindsvatter points out that Executive Order 9981, signed by Harry Truman in 1948 and often credited with abolishing military segregation, only directed equal treatment of soldiers). Although the experiences of blacks and other minorities are brought up throughout the monograph, an entire chapter is devoted to analyzing race relations throughout these wars.


An American Way of War (Prior to the US Civil War)


“The modern practice of Europe, with respect to the employment of standing armies, has created such a mass of opinion in their favor, that even philosophers, and the advocates for liberty, have frequently confessed their use and necessity, in certain cases. But whoever seriously and Candidly estimates the power of discipline and the tendency of military habits, will be Constrained to Confess, that whatever may be the efficacy of a standing army in war, it cannot in peace be considered as friendly to the rights of human nature.” [1]

On 18 Jan 1790, Secretary of War Henry Knox submitted to President George Washington a plan for the establishment of American militia to safeguard the nation. Echoing Alexander Hamilton’s warnings of standing armies made almost three years prior, Knox reasoned that “an energetic national militia” was more in harmony with American ideals.[2] Standing armies (as evidenced by his words that began this article) represented a looming threat to national liberty. Three days after receiving Knox’s recommendation, Washington forwarded it to Congress for consideration, and thus codified a distinctive American suspicion of the military that would largely endure until the 20th Century.[3]

This mistrust of large, standing armies was only one factor that has helped shape what can arguably be called an American way of war. Another distinction is the manner in which warfare was executed (more on that in a moment). But if there is a distinctive way of American war, what are its roots, and when did it emerge?

Certainly from the initial establishment of European colonies, the Anglo, French, Spanish, and other Europeans would have brought with them their styles of waging war. In the struggle over Nova Scotia in the autumn of 1710, for instance, John Grenier describes the clash between the British and French at Port Royal as falling within the “context of Europe’s emerging “age of limited warfare,” and so fought for glory and honor to a point, but both sides made certain to restrain themselves so as to not “radically [upset] the status quo…”[4] Jon Latimer, in 1812 War with America, notes that leading up to the conflict that “the Americans’ drill was largely modelled on continental patterns,” although in practice they used a “variety of extemporized manuals.”[5] And yet both the Americans and the British recognized the existence of certain styles of combat that was common to the frontier, before and after 1776, that was particular to the New World. The “skulking” way war, the guerrilla-style combat associated with native Indians and tough frontiersmen, was something both scoffed at and admired by Europeans, who strove to emulate it as much as possible when engaged in combat in America. It was a way of warfare that gave the European populations of North America extreme resiliency, but also possessed notable weaknesses.

This American way of war was shaped by the specific threats faced by European settlers, as well as by the limited resources

James Wolfe argued for the need to train British soldiers in similar fashion to American rangers
James Wolfe argued for the need to train British soldiers in similar fashion to American rangers

and manpower available to meet those threats. This warfare, from a traditional European perspective, was brutal. In 1745, the French settlers living under British dominion in Nova Scotia, the Acadians, became alarmed when the British Governor for the region brought in American Rangers to build blockhouses throughout the region. The Acadians evidently drew a distinction between the European military forces and the Yankees, as Grenier cites correspondence sent to the Earl of Newcastle indicating that they thought the Americans “far more terrible than European soldiers.”[6] Surrounded by often hostile native Indians as well as by competing Old World rivals, the Americans took up a manner of warfare that was, in Grenier’s words, “of unrestrained violence, shocking brutality, and devastating effectiveness.”[7] The particular character of American-style combat was recognized by the British even at this point in time. James Wolfe, who overall looked upon North American provincials with little regard, nonetheless argued for the need to train British soldiers in similar fashion to American rangers.[8]

By the time of the War of Independence, both the Americans and the British were quite cognizant of fighting in an “American” style of war. In the earliest days of the conflict, the performance of the British soldiers trained as light infantry, organized into “flank battalions,” was somewhat lackluster.[9] Relatively quickly, however, they seemed to grow in confidence. Letters from royal soldiers record “fighting in the thick wood, in the very style that the Americans think themselves superior to regular troops.”[10] However, the rebel militia fighters of the deep frontier continued to hold a reputation of ferocity and ability that even the British commanders respected. After one engagement where the British were particularly battered, one solider observed that “European discipline” was of little use in the heavily wooded areas, and that the rebels were “by much our superiors at wood fighting, being habituated to the woods from their infancy.”[11] The important point here is that both those British soldiers who boasted of their own skirmishing skills, and those who thought the Americans superior in that way of combat, seemed to consider “bushfighting” as something particularly American. Matthew Spring, in With Zeal and Bayonets Only, cites a number of such letters which contrast how the Americans fought, and compared British capability to adapt to it (both favorably and unfavorably).[12]

The American way of war held a preference of militia over regular soldiers, and guerrilla-style combat over large-scale, head-on confrontations. It was a style of warfare born from the military requirements of the frontier. From the founding of the colonies, European settlers struggled against native Indians and each other, and the potential for warfare was ever-present. As such, all able-bodied males between the ages of sixteen to sixty were expected to participate in the militia in some fashion, which included at a minimum an annual muster for training or militia-related tasks.[13] This is not to say that European-style warfare was totally abandoned. Population centers had to be defended, and fortifications had to be built and manned. General Washington, at the outset of the Revolutionary War, did attempt to lead American forces into decisive engagements against the British army. But after a number of defeats suffered throughout the period 1776 – 1780, the Americans increasingly relied on guerrilla-style tactics, to which they were much better suited. Spring notes that the militia were most effective when they fought in “broken terrain” and employed this “’skulking’ method of fighting…”[14] With self-governance being regionally fragmented in the New World, both before and after the American Revolution, the North Americans developed a way of warfare that usually leveraged the unique environment in which they lived to deal with local as well as foreign threats. The result was typically small standing armies. At the turn of the century in 1802, for example, the United States boasted an army of just 2,500 soldiers.[15]

Battle of Guiliford Courthouse 15 March 1781
Battle of Guiliford Courthouse 15 March 1781

Perhaps one of the most fundamental differences in how Americans waged war compared with their European cousins was rooted in how the individual soldier viewed his relationship to his government. While historians debate the extent to which such a distinction truly applied, in general the peoples of British North America developed the view that service to a government was formed by a contract, wherein each side was obliged to uphold the agreement. Abrogation of the contract meant the other side (in particular, the individual) was no longer under obligation to adhere to the arraignment. This contrasts with the royal army, whose soldiers were bound by the traditional European ruler-subject relationship. The resulting impact of relying on contract-savvy militia was that the government, whether colonial, Federal, or state, had to induce citizens to not only enlist, but to stay committed should a prolonged conflict ensue. To illustrate how this impacted the execution of warfare, John Grenier details an incident in 1755 when Anglo-American militia sought to join British regular troops as they prepared for operations against French forces in Nova Scotia. Rumor reached the American troops that the British army intended to extend their service contracts beyond the 12-months they had originally volunteered for. Apparently deciding that this was a breach of the contract to which they had signed, the American forces took it upon themselves to depart from the area regardless of the plans the British had for them. Grenier speculated that the British regulars watched this with “some sense of envy if not disgust…”[16]

George Washington used short contracts that, while continuously saddling the Revolutionary leaders with new, green troops, did help to ensure the militia did not become fatigued by long-term military commitments. As many as half of the eligible adult male population in the American colonies may have served as either militia or army regulars during the war. Most of the service periods for these men were measured mostly in months, and sometimes only weeks.[17] While this method certainly had some obvious weaknesses, it did offer Washington the ability to rapidly call up and field troops. This created a formidable manpower pool for the Americans, and was something the British – restricted by an inability to quickly replace combat losses – simply could not compete with.

This militia, while often denigrated by the British regulars, offered a resiliency not only with manning but also in the area of logistical support. While logistic concerns for rebel armies were of course greatly simplified by the nature of fighting on their home turf, the American militia had an ability to “live off the land” in a way that the more conventional forces of the British Army had trouble replicating.[18] Despite decades of experience in the New World, including multiple small conflicts – such as King George’s War (1744 – 1748) and the French-Indian War (1754 – 1763) – the British regular army struggled to meet their wartime logistical needs as late as the Revolutionary War. This failure has been identified as one of the primary factors which lead to the defeat of the British in this conflict.[19]

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis By John Trumbull
Surrender of Lord Cornwallis By John Trumbull

As suggested by Washington’s struggle with raw recruits, this reliance on the militia made it difficult to adjust to threats or operations which were better handled by a more conventional force. For instance, at the outset of the War of 1812, the United States had over 700,000 on the states’ militia rolls, but a standing army of less than 7,000 officers and soldiers. Congress acted to authorize an expansion to a 35,000-man army, plus the acceptance of 30,000 militia into Federal service on 1-year contracts and then an additional 50,000 enlisted men with 18-month contracts for the regular army.[20] But it would take time to recruit and train these regulars, and as stated by Latimer, “the militia was everywhere in disarray – inefficient, unreliable, and expensive…”[21] This state of affairs apparently did not dissuade the more exuberant supporters of the invasion of Canada, however. Whether willfully ignorant or unable to see the limitations in the use of militia for projecting power, Governor Daniel Thompkins of New York exclaimed that the United States would become “masters of Canada by militia only.”[22] Despite the confidence, the attempt to wrest Canada from the British was a complete failure.

A related weakness was that the general reliance on militia made it difficult to develop and execute a strategic plan. Jon Latimer, in his assessment of America’s inability to conquer Canada, argues that the government had a “lack of will to dominate the decisive moments.” This resulted in part from the rapid expansion of military officers, from 191 during Thomas Jefferson’s administration to over 3000 by 1814, only a few years later. Many of these officers had little or no prior military training, which hampered the ability of America’s military leadership to execute a coordinated plan.[23]

In conclusion, the unique environment of North America, coupled with the persistent threat posed by European armies – whether rivals of the mother nations or, as with the War of Independence and the War of 1812, against the home state itself – served to cultivate a distinct way of war. This method of fighting emphasized decentralized militia units that could be called upon in times of war – alone or in conjunction with the purposefully small standing army – to defend the nation, the state, or the region. They could also be called upon to project power, although as the War of 1812 revealed, the militia were not particularly strong in this regard. The true value of the American way of war was its versatility. It augmented the standing army as it prosecuted war against the Indians on the frontier, and it provided resilience against conventionally more powerful foes such as Britain.


Grenier, John, The Far Reaches of Empire: War in Nova Scotia, 1710 – 1760. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.

Latimer, Jon. 1812 War with America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Spring, Matthew H. With Zeal and Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775 – 1783. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.

[1] “To George Washington from Henry Knox, 18 January 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives ( [last update: 2014-12-01]). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 5, 16 January 1790 – 30 June 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig, Mark A. Mastromarino, and Jack D. Warren. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, pp. 10–15.

[2] Alexander Hamilton, “Federalist #8,” in te Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York, Mentor, 1961), 66-71.

[3] From George Washington to the United States Senate and House of Representatives, 21 January 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives ( [last update: 2014-12-01]). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 5, 16 January 1790 – 30 June 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig, Mark A. Mastromarino, and Jack D. Warren. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, p. 32.

[4] John Grenier, The Far Reaches of Empire: War in Nova Scotia, 1710 – 1760 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 15.

[5] Jon Latimer, 1812 War with America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 10.

[6] Ibid, 132.

[7] John Grenier, The Far Reaches of Empire, 173

[8] Ibid, 202-203.

[9] Matthew H. Spring, With Zeal and Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775 – 1783 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 253.

[10] Ensign Thomas Hughes, as cited by Matthew H. Spring, ibid, 253.

[11] Ibid, 256.

[12] Ibid, 252 – 262.

[13] Ibid, 37.

[14] Ibid, 15

[15] Ibid.

[16] John Grenier, The Far Reaches of Empire, 185.

[17] Matthew H. Spring, With Zeal and Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775 – 1783 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 28-29.

[18] Jon Latimer, 1812, 38.

[19] Matthew H. Spring, With Zeal and Bayonets Only, 34.

[20] Jon Latimer, 1812, 56-57.

[21] Ibid, 57.

[22] Ibid, 58.

[23] Ibid, 53.

Military Theory and the U.S. Civil War (Part 3): The Confederacy and Conclusion

The army of General Fremont crossing the north fork of the Shenandoah at Mt. Jackson—Pursuit of Stonewall Jackson
The army of General Fremont crossing the north fork of the Shenandoah at Mt. Jackson—Pursuit of Stonewall Jackson

In the South, the evidence is perhaps greater that a more cohesive strategy was followed based on an established understanding of Jominian precepts. Jefferson Davis has long been considered the author of the South’s so-called “Offensive-Defensive strategy.” This strategy, variously defined by numerous scholars, essentially states that the South assumed a defensive posture and awaited Union advances while seeking opportunities to initiate offensive action.[1] The very name of this strategy was seemingly borrowed directly from Jomini when describing a nation forced into a defensive position. In Article XXXI “Offensive Battles, and Different Orders of Battle,” Jomini writes “An army reduced to the strategic defensive often takes the offensive by making an attack, and an army receiving an attack may, during the progress of the battle, take the offensive and obtain the advantages incident to it.”[2]

Jefferson Davis, photographed by Mathew Brady
Jefferson Davis, photographed by Mathew Brady

A number of scholars, however, dispute the existence of a coordinated strategy in general, and a strategic model based on Jominian influence in particular. Donald Stoker, one of the most outspoken of such critics, asserts that historians have been inclined to confuse strategic concepts with operational and tactical ones, much as Jomini himself had been known to do. Stoker argues that this long-held belief is founded on the misinterpretation of the meaning behind President Davis’s comments on how he intended to defend Richmond, which is more appropriately placed in the operational, or even tactical, levels of war.[3] Stephen Badsey and Joseph Dawson III, both of whom rebut Stoker’s claims, firmly believe that in the context described by Jomini, Davis’ plans were arguably strategic.[4] While Donald Stoker disputes the Jominian-inspired strategy, there is evidence to support the notion that Confederate leaders executed a loose strategy based on precepts of maneuver and attacking fractions of an enemy while they protected their own “lines of operation,” all of which are Jominian ideas that were plausibly learned at West Point.

It is instructive to note that one of the more flamboyant of the South’s military leaders demonstrated an academic inspiration from Jomini. In 1863, P.G.T. Beauregard published his Principles and Maxims of the Art of War. A much more abbreviated work than D.H. Mahan’s Outpost, it nonetheless contains significant similarities with Jomini’s The Art of War. Of Beauregard’s three principles upon which “[e]very true maxim of war can be deduced,” two of them appear be borrowed directly from Jomini. Principle number one instructs the leader “To place masses of your army in contact with fractions of your enemy.”[5] This is nearly identical to Jomini’s second maxim of his Fundamental Principle of War – “to maneuver to engage fractions of the hostile army with the bulk of one’s forces.” Beauregard’s principle number two reads “To operate as much as possible on the communications of your enemy without exposing your own,” which also sound similar to Jomini’s more wordy first maxim, “To throw by strategic movements the mass of an army, successfully, upon the decisive points of a theater of war, and also upon the communications of the enemy as much as possible without compromising one’s own.” With these principles established, Beauregard then launched into a series of 34 maxims, many of which echo Jomini.[6]

Beauregard is an excellent example to demonstrate a Southern adherence to both a Jominian Offensive-Defensive strategyGen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard and operational concepts. For the South, the success in taking Fort Sumter in 1861 came with the recognition that a Union counterattack was not only likely, but further action toward the strategic Manassas Junction would follow.[7] After Davis and General Lee consulted with Beauregard, he was dispatched to prepare for the defense at the previously discussed town of Manassas. Thus, the Confederate national leadership and military leadership concurred on the nature of the war, the first thing that must occur in executing strategy, according the Jomini.[8] The theater of war was selected, and Manassas Junction was determined as a decisive point in the theater, as it was a veritable highway from northern Virginia into the heart of the Confederacy. This was not only due to the geography – Manassas Junction was the connecting point for the major rail lines on which Virginia relied to defend itself. Not only did the Confederacy need this for its own defense, but to allow it to fall to the Federal Army opened up two major routes for Federal invasion.[9]

Beauregard was dispatched to Bull Run in July, where he was joined by General Joseph Johnston to prepare the defenses and establish the fixed base (Bull Run) and zone of operations. In this case, this was the territory surrounding Bull Run where Beauregard divided his eight brigades. Of note, General Johnston recounts that Beauregard proposed “instead of remaining in the defensive positions then occupied, to assume the offensive, and attack the enemy” before the advancing Union forces could be joined.[10] This operational planning reflects the non-strategic aspect of Jomini’s “Offensive-Defensive” discussion as highlighted by Stoker. However, this doesn’t take away from the strategic context that Beauregard and Johnston established their plan. The preparations undertaken by the Southern generals arguably reflect Jominian influence.

Evidence of an Offensive-Defense strategy can also be seen in General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley campaign in 1862. Following the victory at Bull Run, the Union failed to make any significant inroads into the South for the rest of the year. In March of 1862, General Johnston withdrew his forces south toward Richmond as McClellan prepared his Peninsula Campaign. Over the ensuing months, Jackson commanded a unit of 5,000 troops to strike the larger forces of Union General Banks (with approximately 20,000 men), and successfully prevented the Union from concentrating as McClellan moved toward Richmond.[11] His small force engaged the Union armies attempting to converge on the Confederate capital. General Lee needed the Federals to remain separated, and so Jackson continued to move throughout the Valley, striking offensively to keep Union forces off balance.

Jackson’s Valley campaign allowed his elite soldiers to concentrate on fractions of the Union army. He never possessed the ability to annihilate the numerically superior Federal armies moving through the area. But by rapid movement and a clear appreciation for lines of operation within the Shenandoah Valley, his actions helped to prevent the Union armies from effectively leveraging their advantages of men and materiel. This was crucial to the survival of the Confederacy, and served in the defense of Richmond and the Confederate heartland by way of offensive operations.[12] Therefore, although the actions of Jackson were operational in nature, they served the strategic plan outlined by Davis and Lee.

Perhaps the most significant examples of the offensive nature of the “Offensive-Defensive” strategy are Lee’s invasions of the north, which culminated in the battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. Here, Stoker admits that the foray into Pennsylvania comes closest to conforming to a strategic action in support of a hypothetical Offensive-Defensive strategy. However, Lee’s objectives were unclear. Ultimately, Stoker argues that the action was a defensive strategic act through a singular offensive action, and does not prove the existence of a larger offensive-defensive strategy.[13]

The battle of Gettysburg
The battle of Gettysburg

Yet, the raid into Pennsylvania seems to be the very definition of the strategy, which dictated that the South would hold a defensive posture while seeking for opportunities to take the offense. Arguably, there was no better time than the summer of 1863 for such a move. For the majority of the war, General Lee and his men had accumulated success after success. The disaster that was the First Bull Run was a stunning defeat for the Union, and a vindication that both strategy and God were on the side of the Confederates. “We recognize the hand of the Most High God, the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, in the glorious victory with which He crowned our armies at Manassas,” wrote Stephen Elliot in the prelude to his sermon commemorating the Confederate win.[14] Over the ensuing years, Lee came to expect victory. The Confederate army was so confident of its superiority over their Northern brethren that there was little effort to conceal their plans to take the fight to Pennsylvania or New York.[15] In addition, the action would serve to move the conflict out of Virginia, where it had largely been centered, to the North. This would also likely stoke President Lincoln’s fears of an attack on Washington, and throw the Northern war effort into disarray.[16]

Part of Lee’s objectives were fulfilled before the catastrophic defeat at Gettysburg. His forces did harass Northern towns which had previously been sheltered from the war. In addition, his army acquired critically needed supplies.[17] But the hoped for payoff of the attack, which conceivably might have forced the Union to negotiate a peace, clearly never came to fruition. This does not make the attack any less indicative of being an offensive expression of an offensive-defensive strategy; it simply means the attempt failed. With the perceived potential to force a quick end to the war, the attack clearly served a strategic purpose.

Of course, not all historians accept that the South followed such a conscious strategy. Donald Stoker, after his critique of the Offensive-Defensive strategy, concludes that the South started the war with a “modified cordon,” and simply engaged in offensive and defensive operations as situations developed.[18] T. Harry Williams reaches a similar conclusion, writing that the Confederacy’s entire strategy was almost entirely defensive (as opposed to “offensive-defensive”).[19]

In conclusion, the Union North did not adhere to any coherent strategy theory throughout the course of the Civil War. Political restrictions and military timidity combined to make any attempt at such practically impossible during the early years of the conflict. While at the operational level Jominian precepts may have been applied, this was not apparent at the national/strategic level. It is important to note, however, that the lack of any cohesive Jomianian strategy by the North is not an indictment on the political leadership of the Union. In spite of the Union army’s struggles for more than half of the war, T. Harry Williams concludes that the North’s overall strategy and eventual unification of command was still superior to Confederate strategic leadership.[20] In fact, by surrounding the Southern States, and eventually attacking from the east and the west, Lincoln and his generals overwhelmed their enemy in spite of violating Jominian notions of concentration.[21] It is perhaps somewhat ironic that Ulysses Grant once said “If men make war in slavish observation of rules, they will fail.” Such sentiment more closely echoes Jomini’s rival Carl von Clausewitz, whose ideas D.H. Mahan, the shared mentor of the students of West Point, avoided most purposefully.[22]

For the South, the evidence supports a more cohesive strategy based on Jominian theory. In 1864, Union General T. Seymore wrote an article entitled “Military Education: A Vindication of West Point and the Regular Army.” In it, he argues that the North squandered the talents of West Point graduates by subsuming many of them to political appointees, while Jefferson Davis took care to place his Academy graduates carefully for maximum effect. “[T]he best possible vindication of the Military Academy is to be found in the history of the Confederacy…”[23] The successful first years of the rebellion supports this assertion. D.H. Mahan’s students, one of which was the Confederate President, were able to operate within a more cohesive theoretical framework than their Northern counterparts. But again, somewhat conversely with the North, the South’s more authentic adherence to Jominian military theory clearly did not translate into ultimate victory. In fact, David Donald believes this adherence to tired theory was responsible for the South’s ultimate defeat. Bull Run, Chancellorville, and other victories, says Donald, were executed with only minor deviation from Jominain principles. But while the North was willing to experiment, the South remained locked into inflexible maxims.[24] This inflexibility lead to final defeat.

[1] Donald Stoker, “There was no Offensive-Defensive Confederate Strategy.” Journal Of Military History 73, no. 2 (April 2009), 574.

[2] Antoine Jomini, The Art of War, 396.

[3] Donald Stoker, “There was no Offensive-Defensive Confederate Strategy,” 581-582.

[4] Stephen Badsey, Donald Stoker, and Joseph G. Dawson III, “FORUM II: Confederate Military Strategy in the U.S. Civil War Revisited.” Journal Of Military History 73, no. 4 (October 2009): 1273 – 1287.

[5] P.T.G. Beauregard, Principles and Maxims of the Art of War: Outpost Service, General Instructions for Battles, Review (Charleston: Steam Power Press of Evans and Cogswell, 1863), 3.

[6] Such as Maxims 1 – 4, which stress lines of operation and communication. Ibid, 4-5.

[7] William C.C Davis, Battle at Bull Run, 51.

[8] “[T]he first care of its [the army’s] commander should be to agree with the head of state upon the character of the war;” Antoine Jomini, ibid, 132.

[9] William C. Davis, The Battle at Bull Run, 28-29.

[10] Joseph E. Johnston, Official Reports of Generals Johnston and Beauregard of the Battle of Manassas, July 21st, 1861, 7-8.

[11] John Keegan, Intelligence in War (New York: Vintage Books, 2002), 84-85.

[12] Ibid, 88-92.

[13] Donald Stoker, “There was no Offensive-Defensive Confederate Strateg,” 588.

[14] Stephen Elliott, God’s Presence with our Army at Manassas!, 21st of July, 1861. Savannah : W.T. Williams, 1861.

[15] Stackpole, Edward, They Met at Gettysburg (Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1956), 3.

[16] Ibid, 73-75.

[17] Ibid, 19, 24.

[18] Ibid, 589.

[19] T. Harry Williams, “The Military Leadership of North and South,” in Why the North Won the War, ed. David Donald (New York: Collier Books, 1960), 53-54.

[20] Ibid, 53.

[21] Ibid, 54.

[22] R. Earnest Dupuy, Men of West Point, 18.

[23] T. Seymore, “Military Education: A Vindication of West Point and the Regular Army,” [U.S.] 1864, 7.

[24] David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered, 100-101.

The American War of Independence, as experienced by the British Army

Book Review

Matthew H. Spring’s With Zeal and With Bayonets Only (University of Oklahoma Press, 2008) examines the American Revolution from the perspective of the British With Zeal and Bayonets OnlyArmy. In doing so, Spring determines that the popular representations of the British forces as a monolithic, unthinking war-machine confounded at every turn by American skirmishers is unfair and untrue. The King’s armies, he concludes, “tailored their conventional tactical methods intelligently to local conditions,” which is why they proved victorious in the majority of engagements.[1]

Spring examines the British Army’s performance at both the operational and tactical levels. The American theater was an exceedingly challenging one that made it nearly impossible for the British to impose a war of general actions, where two armies could bring to bear their full strength in linear combat. Tasked to subdue a wide, wild frontier nation that did not necessarily need her urban centers to continue to fight, the British Army nevertheless was able to achieve constant success that nearly extinguished the Continental Army in the early years of the American War. By delving into such fundamental factors such as “grand tactics,” logistics (ground, riverine, and maritime), the manner of maneuver, and the type and quality of firepower, Spring portrays a disciplined military force that actively sought to adapt to the unique challenges of America.

However, With Zeal only partially proves the author’s thesis that the British Army’s success was largely due to tailored operational and tactical methods. It often seems that much of his evidence drifts in the opposite direction. For instance, the logistical shortfalls common to European armies were even more complicated by the fact the British had to rely primarily on transatlantic resupply.[2] The British Army, despite ample opportunity to adapt and plan, was largely unable to break away from the European-minded reliance on magazines and strategic food reserves. On a more tactical level, Smith does give ample attention to the “flank battalions,” comprised of light infantry that were more prepared to engage with rebel forces on their terms.[3] After a relatively unimpressive start at the beginning of the war, this light infantry became increasingly confident about besting rebels in “bushfighting.” Smith presents a number of British sources which exude satisfaction at besting the rebels in fighting “in the very style that the Americans think themselves superior…”[4] Yet these troops were apparently used effectively primarily in the northern campaigns, and this not even in the far northernmost wooded areas.[5] In the end, Spring does present a more nuanced understanding of British Army capabilities and limitations, and the book is quite valuable in this respect. However, I don’t believe that the overall image of an army primarily designed to fight a European Continental-style war is completely rehabilitated.

[1] Matthew H. Spring, With Zeal and Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775 – 1783 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), xii.

[2] Ibid, 33-34.

[3] Ibid, 57-62.

[4] Ibid, 253.

[5] Ibid, 62-63, 255.