The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database

As a lead-in to a more analytical article I plan on posting here toward the end of the month (hopefully), I thought it’d be useful to highlight this wonderful tool. The National Park Service’s Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database (CWSS) is a thing of beauty. With a little info on a relative or subject of interest (say, a surname, a state, and on what side the subject fought), one can find service data on anyone who fought in the US Civil War. This includes what regiment they fought with, what company assigned to, rank in, and rank out. For me, it probably helped that “Greenberry Shanks” is a fairly unique name, because the CWSS immediately gave me the right data.


Then, to add context to this service, one can follow the link to the regiment. This leads to a fantastic summary of major engagements, such as this for the 11th Kentucky Cavalry.


You’ll note that many of these engagements are themselves hyperlinked to even more detail. I selected the first conflict at Saltsville:


The other kind of cool functionality that has one massively frustrating limitation, at least for researchers interested in unit data, is the link under the regiment’s history, View Battle Unit’s Soldiers. This brings you to a page where soldiers are listed alphabetically. That’s okay, if you’re unsure of how a name was spelled and need to page through 20 soldiers at a time.

Soldier List

I first discovered the CWSS through a blog post from another Civil War blog (Dead Confederates). In his post, which was published a couple of years ago, he highlighted another fantastic capability: there was an export button that allowed you to download an excel spreadsheet of the entire regiment. This was very exciting to me, since I’m currently taking a close look at the people who made up the regiment that my ancestor belonged to. So it was pretty aggravating when I went to the CWSS last year and discovered that this feature had been removed for some reason. I searched everywhere, and even emailed the site administrators and the NPS, but unfortunately never heard back.

Well, I was determined to get this data one way or another. I started scouring the National Archives and the farthest reaches of my search engines for anyone who may have stored it somewhere. All I found were broken links. On May 4 of this year, however, I had a breakthrough. After searching the corners of the Google-verse, I eventually turned up the data files used by the CWSS. The search was maddening, at least for me, as it was quite hard to find. I don’t even remember how I finally found it. I just tried to find it again, and the only way I could was to go back into my browser history and locate the download address. Here it is, if you’re interested:

Keep in mind, this is the raw data, over 800 MB of historical goodness, but not anything that is quickly used. Fortunately, I have a little background in SQL and excel, so I converted the data into a SQL table, and now I’m able to query the data in a number of ways. I’m trying to figure out how I can make this data available on my website, but I’m not sure this blog is the right medium. Until I crack that nut, feel free to ask for regimental soldier queries, as I’d be happy to help.

Speaking of which, my next article will be on Company A of the 11the Kentucky Cavalry. I’m using the CWSS data as a starting point to give me the name and rank of each member of the company, and then cross referencing those names in Fold3. Using that, I’m adding additional data to the names: their ages, the county where they’re from, occupations (if known), casualty data, and a few more data points.

My Spreadsheet
Example of cross referencing CWSS Data with other sources (e.g. Fold3). 

This will allow me to get a feel for the men who made up the company, as well as how they fared throughout the conflict. I’m almost a third of the way through the Company A roster (I’m trying to finish one company per month), and I’ve been fascinated with what I’ve learned so far. I look forward to sharing it with you.


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.

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.

“Shall I arrest Colonel Taylor?” Confusion in Alexandria, May 1861

In the first days of May, 1861, with the echoes of Fort Sumter scarcely faded, Confederate forces stationed at Alexandria, Virgina, directly across the river from the Union capital, waited nervously for the next move. Flush with zealous patriotism, the new nation’s leadership in Richmond was adamant that not an inch of sacred Southern soil be yielded without a heavy price in blood. It was easier said than done.

Alexandria from Pioneer Mill, looking north-west (1865)
Alexandria from Pioneer Mill, looking north-west (1865)

Leading the Confederate soldiers in Alexandria was Lieutenant Colonel A.S. Taylor. With orders to stand ground “unless pressed by overwhelming and irresistible numbers”, he conducted a sober accounting of his fighting strength as compared to the swelling army across the Potomac. Two companies of “raw Irish recruits” armed with “altered flint-lock muskets of 1818, and without cartridges or caps…”; a company with 86 musket-armed troops; an additional 52 men in various states of armament (including 15 with no weapons at all); two companies of about 160 men armed with minie rifles, but only from five to nine cartridges each; and two companies of cavalry, one with 40 troops armed with carbines but “limited” ammunition, and one with no weapons except Colt revolvers. So with less than 400 soldiers, Taylor was tasked with holding or delaying the inevitable Federal invasion.

Probably about the same time as he received his orders, which had been delivered on 5 May, Taylor received intelligence from one Mister J.D. Hutton, who until recently worked as a cartographer for the War Department. From Mr. Hutton, Taylor was dismayed (but certainly not surprised) to learn that the Yankees intended to occupy Alexandria within days, either the 7th or the 8th of May (in fact, it would be a few more weeks before Union troops organized enough to even venture across the river). With forces arriving almost daily around Washington, and two steamers only a few miles downriver seemingly ready to move troops, the colonel decided the threshold for “overwhelming and irresistible numbers” had been met. He quickly gathered up his small command, and retreated to Springfield, 10 miles west of Alexandria.

The commanding general of the Potomac Department, General Philip St. George Cocke, was furious that Taylor had not

Philip St. George Cocke (1809–1861). After perceived slights from General P.G.T. Beauregard and General Lee following the Battle at Bull Run, General Cocke took his own life in December, 1861.
Philip St. George Cocke (1809–1861). After perceived slights from General P.G.T. Beauregard and General Lee following the Battle at Bull Run, General Cocke took his own life in December, 1861.

only retreated, but was in such a hurry that he didn’t bother to communicate his intentions. It’s this break down in command and control, as well as in the convoluted handling of intelligence, that is highlighted here. Taylor received credible intelligence from a trustworthy source, but his first instinct was not to disseminate this up the chain of command in order to coordinate a response or seek reinforcements. Cocke’s order to remain in place was clear that this should be done: “keep up your communications with the various parts in your rear, so as to call every resource to your aid and support in making a gallant and fighting retreat, should you be forced to it, and can stand at all without danger of uselessly sacrificing your command.” It wasn’t until 7 May that Cocke located Taylor, and up to this point he was still completely ignorant of why Alexandria had been abandoned. Late on the 6th, in a dispatch to Richmond, Cocke wrote that he had not “been able, from any other source, except that furnished me by the arrival of Mr. Skinner, direct from Alexandria…to learn the cause of that movement; and, so far as I am informed up to this moment, there was no proper or justifiable cause whatsoever for any such movement. After waiting for further intelligence and receiving none, and duly considering and weighing all the circumstances and bearing of that movement with the information before me, I have ordered the return of the troops, as communicated by telegram, a duplicate of which has just been transmitted to the general-in-chief.” Cocke even requested permission to arrest Taylor, but was talked out of it by Robert E. Lee, who instead asked for a reason the forces evacuated.

By the 9th, Taylor had explained his reasons, and this seemed to placate Cocke. On 13 May he forwarded Taylor’s written statement to Richmond. The request to arrest him was absent from this communication. But the lesson here is that, although strategic intelligence around the overall disposition and intent of the US military was becoming clear, operational intelligence operations were off to a rough start, at least in the northeast corner of Virginia. Unfortunately for the Union, more competent leadership would soon arrive, and intelligence preparations were to be put in place over the next three months that proved critical to the Confederate victory at Bull Run.

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.

Lieutenant Jones’ Intelligence Network and the Evacuation of Harper’s Ferry, 18 April 1861

The burning of the United States arsenal at Harper's Ferry, 10 P.M. April 18, 1861

“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]

Harper's Ferry, photographed immediately after its evacuation by the rebels. 1861Both 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.

Richmond Captured, April 3 1865 #OTD

There are a few #OTD posts about the fall of the Confederate capital.

"The Fall of Richmond, Virginia, on the Night of April 2nd 1865"
“The Fall of Richmond, Virginia, on the Night of April 2nd 1865”

In the 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.