Influence of Napoleon on Civil War Tactics and Strategy
At the onset of the American Civil war both North and South scrambled to establish powerful armies to support their causes. The military leaders on both sides, however, all shared the same basic military training as well as the basic concept of how an army should be built and how a war should be fought. The military training as well as tactics of the civil war was geared towards emulating the grand armies created by Napoleon.
The campaigns of Napoleon formed the bases of formal military education through out the western world. At the start of the civil war European observers were anxious to see to what extent the American campaigns would conform to the accepted doctrines of Napoleonic warfare.(1) All of the military thinking of the day was influenced by Napoleon. These lessons learned from the "Great Corsican" were relayed through the writings of Antoine Henri Jominie. Through his writings an emphasis was put on the Napoleonic strategy. Keenly aware of the dominance of French military arms many civil war leaders looked back to the Napoleonic method of wagging war for enlightenment. Through 23 years of war the French army became the world's model of a fighting machine. Through the study of the tactics, training, and even mistakes of Napoleon it was hoped that a copy of the "Grande Armee" could be recreated in America.(2) In West point the writings of Jomini were used as a textbook through Henry W. Halleck's "Elements of Military Art and Science", which was essentially a translation of Jomini. As the curriculum at West Point leaned in the direction of engineering, mathematics, fortifications and administration most cadets absorbed this text, as it was the only resource on military strategy. Today many of these tactics seem to be common sense, their application was so universal. These tactics were such concepts as, concentrate a mass of your own fore against a fraction of our enemy, menace the enemy's communications while protecting your own, attack the enemy's weak point with your own strength. These rules seem to echo the strategy and execution of Sherman's great march for "Salt water."(3)
One of the lessons learned from Napoleon was his concept of concentration, as well as the rules of concentration. It was Napoleons strategy that when 2-3 armies begin a camping to conquer a territory they should converge at a place away from the enemy to prevent the opposing army from destroying the approaching armies piecemeal. This tactic was seen so often in the civil war that a compilation of examples would seem endless here. Among the many other maxims of Napoleon that found their way onto the American battle fields were the call for Skirmishers. When his army was on the move he would deploy advanced guards and flanking parties. This tactic became the standard operating procedure for armies on the move in the civil war, and even today. When not on the move encamped armies established picket lines, the same technique only stationary. Entrenching was also a Napoleonic device for the encamped armies to maximize its strength in order to hold off a superior force. This Maxim offered the Confederates their last bit of hope when Grant converged on Richmond. Had Lee himself not studied the many rules of Napoleonic warfare then perhaps the siege on Richmond would have simply been a battle.(4)
Many of the General officers on both sides of the war had received their military training at West Pont. At West Point all cadets studied tactics under Mahan, the professor of engineering and the art of war from 1830-1871. Having studied the art of war in France Mahan was greatly influenced by Napoleon and would pass his fascination with Napoleonic Warfare on to his cadets. One of the texts used by Mahan's student was "Traite des Grandes Operations Miltaire" by Jomini, a Swiss aid of Napoleons. Jomini was intrigued by Napoleons strategies and sought to systematize his methods. Jomini emphasized the necessity of good internal lines of operations. Another concept, previously mentioned, was concentrating a superior force against an inferior one. This is easily said, but Jomini laid out Napoleons blue print for achieving this. This action could be carried out through effective establishment and exploitation of strong interior lines. Unfortunately the lesson was not long enough and found to be too short to adequately translate the Corsicans methods. To better impart the Great tacticians knowledge upon his students Mahan established the "Napoleon Club." Through this club cadets could study the campaigns and histories of the Great Corsican. Once war finally broke out this study did not cease. Sherman required that all of his officers study up on Napoleon through the works of Jomini.(5) One of the troubles with this mode of independent study was that, at the time, all copies available were in French. At the academy, West Point, students were taught French so that they might be able to read the treatise and reports on the Napoleonic wars. The view was held, at West Point that since the time of the ancient Greeks wars had been getting bigger and better. Students were taught to see the battle field through the eyes of Napoleon, a chessboard where opposing armies faced off in complex deployments.(6) Union General George B McClellan was another student of Napoleon, often referred to as "the young Napoleon".(7) McClellan saw through his study of Napoleon that freedom of movement was essential. McClellan not only implemented these ideas in his marches but also in the design of his uniforms. He took the ideas from the French Napoleonic armies and rebuilt the motley Federal army. Under McClellan's Napoleon plan the Federal army became a model of a fighting force. Discipline and uniforms were not his only contribution. The "McClellan Saddle" found its way into the cavalry, based on those used by the French, and the Shelter Half has been standard issue ever since. Now soldiers could simply carry their shelter with them enabling quick set up and even faster evacuation of an encampment One of Napoleons greatest contribution to the American military, through McClellan, was the Bayonet Manuel, which McClellan translated from French into English.(8) On the other side of the war was one of the countries greatest tacticians, Robert E. Lee. At West Pont the first book Lee ever checked out was a study of Napoleons campaigns, one which he became very familiar with while at the academy. Latter Lee became a master at using Napoleonic tactics of concentrating his armies against a weaker portion of the North's.(9)
Napoleon emphasized the importance of turning movements. The ancient Spartan frontal assault featuring two armies pounding away at each other until one side would give way was gone. Napoleon developed the turning movement to effectively attack an enemy flank. The effect was that the enemy being turned would be forced to adjust, either through a retreat or reinforce the flank, exposing another area of its defense. What this tactic essentially did is forced an attacking or defending army to scrap its battle orders and attempt to make quick adjustments in the midst of battle. In the Civil war this was the goal of all Generals, to effectively execute turning movements against their enemies. McClellan's Peninsula campaign had this Maxim at the heart of his strategy.(10) Examples set by Napoleon did not only appear on the battle field. A larger unit of army organization was introduced, the division. The division was a part of an army commanded by a General officer and was strong enough to engage an enemy successfully until other divisions arrived. No longer would one see large armies forming massive single line formations. This also enabled American Generals the flexibility to move rapidly across the battle field and take full advantage of the terrain. Rapid deployment of the large American armies was made possible due to this new organization of the army into divisions. In marching each division constituted a column. In separating on the march they cold move more rapidly while covering a wider area and never loose their unity. The commanding General could now ride out in advance and with great ease place his army accordingly. Now armies were extremely flexible and easier to command. Through this innovation alone battles would constantly turn from one side of victory to another. This new technique also enabled armies to remain engaged for days before finally being forced from the field.(11) In the South the Napoleonic concept of exploiting interior lines was greatly applied to all battle orders. Generals were reluctant to stretch their lines of communication to far. This influenced greatly Lee's strategy of drawing out the enemy. These interior lines were now more effective than even Napoleon could have imagined. The use of rail roads and the telegraph made possible the rapid communication of battle orders and troop movement reports.(12)
The era of Napoleon produced armies with great maneuverability. Now capable of rapid deployment from March to battle formation and subdivided into corps and division's armies grew extremely flexible and more resistant to attacks and flanking movements. General P.G.T. Beauregard tirelessly preached the need to use the railroad and the telegraph to apply the Napoleonic strategy of an offensive concentration at the enemy's weak point. In the West, Beauregard's theater of operations, President Davis was aware that the confederate army could not meet the enemy with an equal force. He adhered to Beauregard's interpretations of warfare and ordered Johnston to coordinate Pemberton's Mississippi department with Brags and Kirby Smith to "Operate in Napoleons manner" and unite forces in Mississippi and Tennessee utilizing these interior lines. One can quite often see that when baffled by logistical dilemmas the Civil War tacticians simply copied the examples of Napoleon.(13)
One of the wars greatest examples of Napoleonic influence can be found in P.G.T. Beauregard. Being fluent in French Beauregard was able to study the works of Jomini and other French histories of Napoleons campaigns. While Beauregard was always ready with elaborate Napoleonic battle orders, his green army was not quite up to the ask. At Blackburns Ford Beauregard proposed an effective, in theory, strategy of tacking the offensive against the Federal invaders. He proposed that the valley army of Johnston move in two columns. One army was to come by rail to Manassas, exploiting thier interior lines, while the other would cross the mountains to the North and in effect come in to the Federals rear. This was truly a Napoleonic battle order, but it had only one major flaw, Johnston's army was to "green" and small to undertake such an expedition. The Creoles ingenious interpretation of Napoleonic warfare was scraped. Beauregard devised his own strategy as well as his own interpretations of the rules of war based on his intensive study, almost obsession, of Napoleon. He would latter greatly criticize those who would deviate from these rules set by Napoleon. Early in the war, at Corinth, the Confederates were planning a defensive-offensive strategy hoping to cut Grants line of communications. When drawing up battle orders for the coming battle Beauregard was using a copy of Napoleons order for the battle of waterloo. The examples of Napoleon, even his greatest defeat, were so revered that even the Napoleonic bureaucracy found its way into civil war camps. An inexperienced class of Generals now faced off. They could not help but to rely, almost verbatim, on the lessons taught by Napoleon. There was a consensus among some of the Generals, Longstreet, Johnston, and Beauregard, that in order to crush the Union army in the west they must use European tactics, as established by the Great Corsican. The belief was that the tactics became the basic rules of war and conflict.(14)
One of the best known campaigns of the Civil War was Sherman's march to the sea. Venturing deep into enemy territory it was impossible for him to maintain lines of communication. Sherman, rather than waist resources trying to do the impossible, also followed the example of Napoleon. Faced with a similar dilemma Napoleon, as did Sherman, supplied his army off the land. This not only eliminated the need to maintain long lines of communication but carried out a plan of exhaustion devastating the moral of the Southern people. Sherman's army swarmed across the country like a horde of locusts.(15) McClellan's Peninsula campaign, early in the war, was another great example of Napoleonic innovations. His entire campaign was based on a massive waterborne turning movement. He believed that by forcing the Confederates to attack in order to preserve their interior lines he could take Richmond and essentially end the war. McClellan's campaign would have succeeded had the commander of the Confederate forces, General Johnston, not been inured. Johnston was replaced by another West Pointer and avid student of Napoleonic warfare, Robert E. Lee.(16)
Unfortunately not all of the implemented tactics of Napoleon had practical application on the Civil War battlefield. Due to the inaccuracy of the earlier muskets close order formation was essential for maximizing firepower. With the advent of the new rifled musket accuracy, and their for lethality, was now greatly improved. While weaponry, artillery also benefited from riffling, advanced tactics on the battlefield did not. While many of the Napoleonic tactics helped Generals, on both sides, to victory this one out of date tactic imposed a high cost on victory. This tactic is the main cause for the ranking of the Civil war causalities as the highest in the history of American conflict.(17) Napoleon warned not to allow gaps to develop in battle formation; this is one lesson that was better off left on the book shelves. Napoleon spoke of the inaccuracy of muskets. He preached that linear formations should only be two rows deep as the first line would be in danger of being struck by the third line. Though this tactic was essential to battlefield success prior to the Civil War it was now disastrous. The fact that the Civil War soldier could now hit what he aimed at made all the soldiers on the field in formation "sitting Ducks".(18) A good comparison to the effectiveness of the weaponry of the two eras can be seen in the following journal entries from soldiers of that time. First from an American in the Revolutionary war followed by a Confederate soldier account. "One of the soldiers, thinking he could do a bit of mischief by killing some of us…kept firing at us as we passed along the bank. Several of his shots passed between our files, but we took little notice of him…"(19) The weaponry advancement can be compared in the following exert of a similar scenario. "I had taken a rest for my gun by the side of a sapling… Finally wee saw him sort o' peep round the tree… and bang! We saw the Yankee tumble out like a squirrel." Two different wars, similar circumstance and different effects based on modern weaponry.(20) The reason for the great slaughter that the Civil war became is based on the error of studying the use of linear formations. Though the original concept of the tactic was sound it was the creation of the .58 caliber rifle brought together with the Minnie ball that made it obsolete. Though many military thinkers were aware of the new improvements in weaponry they had no idea of how this would change tactical relations on the battle field. Since the foundation of virtually all military thought had deep roots in Napoleonic thinking it is no wonder that no one questioned this, soon to be proven, suicidal technique. It is with great ease that we now look back and condemn the use of Napoleons linear formations, but we must remember that to the Antebellum and Civil War mind there existed no imaginable alternative.(21)
The innovations of Napoleon were revolutionary in his time. In an era where technology was quickly approaching 20th century standards there was no manual instructing how to harness the power of these new advancements. Military trainers and tacticians could only look to the European wars of Napoleon for guidance. Through formal education as well as independent study the works of Jomini were encouraged reading material for all aspiring military officers. The Civil war has been called the first modern war, it began with the suicidal linear tactics of European warfare and ended with the nightmarish trench warfare, soon to be spread to Europe. Though many, if not all , Napoleonic maxims seems common sense today they were on the cutting edge of military thinking in Antebellum and civil war times and many of them have become a part of our modern military culture.
1. Luvaas, Legacy, 15.
2. Wood, Generalship,12.
3. McPherson, Battle, 331-332.
4. Chandler, Maxims, 56-61.
5. Hattaway & Jones, How, 14-5.
6. McFeely, Grant 15.
7. Beringer, Young, 503.
8. Pohonka, McCllelans.
9. Dederer, Orgins.
10. Chandler, Maxim, 65-66.
11. Earl, Makers, 62,66.
12. Lanham, Firearms.
13. Hattaway & Jones, How, 47, 279-281.
14. Williams, Napoleon, 77, 14-126, 182.
15. McPerson, Bale, 515.
16. Pohonka, McCllelans.
17. Mchearson, Battle, 472-473.
18. Chandler, Maxim, 72.
19. Martin, Narrative, 29.
20. Watkins, Co.Aytch, 51.
21. Lanham, Firearms.
Cairnes, William E. The Military maxims of Napoleon. Cambridge: DaCapo Press, 1995.
Chandler, David G. The Military Maxims of Napoleon. London: Da Capo Press1995.
Dederer, John Morgan. "The Origins of Robert E. Lee's Bold Generalship: A Reinterpretation," Military Affairs 49 (1985): 117-123.
Earl, Edward M. Makers of Modern Strategy: Military Thought from Machiavelli to Hitler. Princeton University Press, 1943.
Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones, How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil war Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Lanham, Howard G. Fire Arms and Tactics of the American Civil War: A Minority Opinion. Americas Civil War (2001): 30-35.
Luvaas, Jay. The Legacy of the Civil War: The European Inheritance. University of Chicago Press, 1959.
Martin, Joseph Plumb. Private Yankee Doodle: A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 2001.
McFeely, Willian S. Grant. New York:W.W: Norton & Co.,1982.
McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Ballantine Books, 1989.
Pohonka, Brian. McClellan's Way. Produced and directed by Craig Haffner. 45 min. A&E Television Networks, 1993. Videocassette.
Richard E Beringer, review of George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon, by Stephens W. Sears, Journal of Military History 54 (Oct 90): 503-504, 127.
Watkins, Sam R. Co. Aytch: A Side Show of the Big Show. New York: Macmillan Publishing 1962.
Williams T. Harry. P.G.T. Beauregard: Napoleon in Gray. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1955.
Wood, W.J. Civil War Generalship: The Art of Command. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1997.
This page published 03/26/05RETURN TO ESSAY PAGE
RETURN TO STRATEGY AND TACTICS PAGE