THE CIVIL WAR: A MODERN WAR


Locomotives traveled five times as fast as mule-drawn wagons, transported soldiers close to the scene of battle without tiring them, and allowed armies to operate farther from their bases of supply. The strategic importance of railroads tended to channel offensive operations along the routes of railroad lines. Railroad centers—such as Grafton, Manassas, Petersburg, Charlottesville, Lynchburg, and Wytheville—became important military objectives. The artist, Alfred Wordsworth Thompson, noted: Photography was only two decades old when the Civil War began.

Taking a photograph was a slow process and battlefields were too chaotic and dangerous for photographers. Wartime photographs, therefore, consisted of individual and group portraits, camp scenes, and the grisly aftermath of battle. On the Union side, most photographs were made by entrepreneurs. The only photographer hired by the military who left a substantial body of work was Capt. Russell served as a photographer for the U. Military Railroad and the Quartermaster Corps. His images capture the technology, infrastructure, and transportation systems used to move and supply Union armies.

The album of photographs is one of only several bound volumes compiled by Russell that survive in their original form.

The electric telegraph also fundamentally changed the way warfare was conducted. Prior to the Civil War messages were relayed by courier or pigeon.

This is what a civil war looks like

Introduction of the telegraph allowed for telegrams to be relayed instantly across hundreds or even thousands of miles [ix]. Soon it became standard practice for Union armies to construct extensive telegraph networks which extended from Washington and to all areas of the front [x] , allowing for rapid communication and tactical cohesion among the Union force. This rapid communication allowed for the implementation of complex tactical maneuvers, reinforcing and coordination. This innovation in communication also sounded the death of an era in which officers lead their own men into combat, as high ranking generals could now command from a headquarters instead of risking peril on the battlefield.

While during the Civil War officers did lead personally onto the field, by World War I this trend had ended. Finally the railroad brought about the introduction of mechanized warfare and rapid deployment of force. Before introduction of the railroad armies moved on foot or by animal and were supported by local foraging, rarely exceeding 30, men [xi].

The railroad allowed for deployment of vast armies which arrived on the field fresh not exhausted by travel and with a ready supply of rations and supplies, unharmed by overland attrition. The railroad of the Civil War increased geographical deployment range as drastically as the introduction of the Bell UH-1 helicopter did during the Vietnam War: A city suddenly found to be under siege two hundred miles away could be relieved within half of a day if it was relatively close to the ever-increasingly large rail system.

A said geographical region no longer had to support the supply demands of a force, as supplies could now be transported in. These technological innovations did not give the Civil War armies an edge in combat but essentially redefined the fundamental nature of warfare: Warfare would never be the same. Fuller, War and Western Civilization Chapel River Press, , English rifles slaughtered Russian infantrymen, but English generals and cholera squandered English soldiers.

And when the Piedmontese and French fought the Austrians in Italy in , the battles of Magenta and Solferino were clumsy bloodbaths that convinced generals that very little had changed on the tactical battlefield. New rifles in the hands of poorly trained, unmotivated and ineptly led Austrian soldiers proved useless against superior leadership — resulting in a failure to appreciate the killing power of massed rifled weapons.

Soon enough the race would be on to find generals who could think as fast as modern weapons could kill.

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The challenges for the tiny U. Army and its new Confederate States of America opponent in arose, in part, from the European way of war taught by the West Point faculty a faculty as hidebound then as it is again today , but also as a result of the heady victory over Mexico that had blooded the young lieutenants and captains who soon would lead armies, corps and divisions in battle.

Those would be precisely the wrong tactics for an age of rifled and, soon, breech-loading, repeating weapons. Some encounters were bloody enough, such as the gritty fighting at Molino del Rey, but they failed to alarm young officers giddy with victory. In Mexico, dashing deeds won through. In our Civil War, bravado would lead to butchery. In the decade and a half between Palo Alto and Antietam, the range, accuracy, reliability and sheer number of weapons, both individual arms and artillery, increased to a degree that expanded the deadly space between opposing lines by four or even five times.

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The problem, which leaders schooled in a tradition of linear battle arrangements dating back to the age of the Duke of Marlborough simply could not grasp, was how to cross that expanded kill zone and retain sufficient strength to defeat the enemy. Two years into a shockingly bloody war, even a brilliant tactical fighter, Robert E.

Lee, would launch the Pickett-Pettigrew Charge at Gettysburg in the expectation that a sufficient mass of men with spirit could cross nearly a mile of open space while exposed to massed rifled weapons. We all know the results. His lines ran just over three miles. That sprawl would raise the second great challenge of the modernizing battlefield: The initial revolution in military communications, thanks to the telegraph, at first affected only the strategic level, with news of victories and defeats often relayed the same day they occurred if sometimes inaccurately.

Grant, did not even see the ground over which he ordered Meade to assault at Cold Harbor until the grand attack had failed disastrously. Even thereafter, Grant often shunned the front lines and relied on telegraphy — like many a general today, he could seem more concerned with communicating up the chain of command to Washington than downward to his troops. Still, the worst command-and-control problems arose at the tactical level on the fields of battle. As armies expanded wildly in size, flags, drums, bugle calls and shouted orders, if heard or seen at all, as often as not increased the confusion as intermingled units slipped out of control, frustrating plans and spoiling budding successes — with the Spotsylvania Mule Shoe fighting on May 12, , a prime example.

The Faith of a Heretic

Less than two decades before, news from the field would have taken weeks to arrive — or months, in the case of colonial powers. By May , at The Wilderness and Spotsylvania, Lee had finally come to appreciate modern killing power.

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The technology of the industrial revolution applied to the science of killing made the Civil War a turning point between the limited combat of professional armies. The American Civil War is often cited as the first modern war because the belligerents involved wielded a wide array of weaponry and utilized systems of tactics.

Some still could not see beyond frontal attacks Grant, a strategic genius and operational talent, was an unimaginative tactician, to put it gently. At Spotsylvania, then-Colonel Emory Upton, an intellectual upstart in his mids, got to put his thinking into practice. He had calculated that shock columns — rather than lines — still could penetrate entrenched defenses if they gained tactical surprise and were positioned to jump off where the kill zone was at its narrowest.

Given a specially organized elite brigade, Upton did several things that were not in common practice: He ordered his men to hold their fire until they were inside the Rebel defenses; he led his subordinate commanders forward and briefed them on their individual tasks as they observed the objective of their assault; and he echeloned his shock columns, allotting clear, specific tasks to each.

It would be repeated at the corps level two days later, though, with Winfield S. The Confederate infantry, for their part, repeatedly suffered devastating casualties when assaulting dismounted Union cavalry armed with magazine-fed rifles and carbines. In the opening phase of The Wilderness, the 5th New York Cavalry, a superb regiment that, instead of relying on its reputation as a fine saber-fighting outfit, had pioneered dismounted tactics, held off multiple Confederate brigades for up to five hours in a brilliant delaying action that saved a critical intersection for the slow-to-react Union Army.

Indeed, that gruesome month, from May 5 at The Wilderness through June 3 at Cold Harbor, marked the demise of Napoleonic combat and the first maturity of industrial-age war. Nor was it only Napoleon whose legacy haunted the armies of the age: The influence of Frederick the Great was pernicious, too. Again, no general in the early years of the war, not even Lee, comprehended that oblique attacks with brigaded infantry had only worked because of the limited ranges of the weaponry of the Frederician period.

The genius of the oblique attack was that, in addition to threatening to overlap flanks, it fixed defenders in place while holding a major proportion of the attacking force out of range as long as possible.

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With rifled weapons, however, all of the units in an oblique formation ended up in the killing zone simultaneously. The results were horrendous. Again, the past is prologue: Faced with the unknown, we did what we knew. Little changes on the human side: