Battle Tactics

The Battle of Chancellorsville was, arguably, Lee’s greatest victory. His using Jackson in a flanking movement was nothing less than inspired. Pity its execution came so late in the afternoon as it may have totally smashed the Federal forces.

How much more amazing is it, then, that at the later Battle of Gettysburg, Lee didn’t reinforce the attack on Little Round Top and flank the Federal positons, instead of squandering his men, formed up in columns, in a frontal attack on the Union centre.

What lessons were there to be learned and applied from other engagements?

One of the biggest lessons is the the value of battlefield intelligence and command situational awareness. One of the main speculative views of the Confederate defeat, and Union victory, at Gettysburg is the fact that it took place on Northern soil, where the population was no longer supporting the South and giving them immense reams of tactical information and updates on their enemies movements and dispositions. I have no doubt that Gen. Lee was a rare military genius as were some select commanders under him. But it’s often overlooked that he had great advantages on HUMINT over his Union adversaries when fighting in Virginia. But not in Pennsylvania. I think Lee also suffered from the lack of his ‘eyes’ in cavalry under Gen. Stuart to probe the enemy and find weak/strong points, who IIRC were not present at the time…

Arguably, if Stuart had been present, Lee wouldn’t have been sucked in to an encounter battle scenario.

Howeverr, Lee was aware of the situation with Little Round Top, hence the attacks upon it. It seems that hubris played no small part in his under-estimating the chances of defeat and over-estimating his chances of success in the centre. Sending columns against whithering fire power has echoes of the Somme etc. The wrong tactics for the technology.

At the same time, in the West, one of the Southern generals, his name escapes me at the moment, was having a lot of success against Grant with hit-and-run tactics against his lines of communicaton and supply, forcing Grant to withdraw.

Head-on “bayonet charges” of Napoleonic character remained a preferred tool of Civil War generals almost (if not absolutely) to the end. Not that such charges always worked through that way. A major difference between the technologies of the Napoleonic period and that of the Civil War was the development of effective mass-issue muzzle-loading rifles in the 1840s/'50s. The critical difference between smoothbore muskets and “rifle-muskets” was not a matter of rate of fire or of accuracy (although a truly skilled marksman could achieve accuracy with a muzzle-loading rifle over a considerable distance). That critical difference was in the matter of range. Smoothbore muskets in volley fire were generally effective over ranges of (roughly) 75 - 125 yards; rifle muskets could achieve the same over 400 - 500 yards, and could kill over considerably longer distances. This change drastically reduced the effectiveness of the traditional bayonet charge. The longer range allowed trained infantry to loose off four or five shots on enemy troops within effective range where smoothbores could only have achieved one shot. The effect of this was that instead of having to bear one volley of musket fire from about the limit of their charging range, they might have to endure four or five volleys from a distance stretching well outside their charging range. Equally, if the defending infantry decided it expedient to run away in the face of superior attacking forces, they would have to decide this earlier with the alternative of being shot in the back.

Ordinary soldiers and junior officers seem to have adapted to this situation with more flexible tactics where possible. Not surprising - it was they in the old fashioned, head-on charge, were likely to be killed. However, such flexibility was not always possible - as, for example, where a large head-on charge was ordered on an uphill, heavily-defended enemy position. Arguably, such attacks should not have been ordered in the world of rifle-muskets. But there are instances of such advances at both Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, Pickett’s Charge being the most famous and disastrous. Curiously enough, the battle for the Round Tops was a reasonable example of more flexible tactics employed on both sides, with the Union troops under Chamberlain, in particular, employing a form of “area defence” that would have been familiar to some commanders in the later part of WW1.

All in all, the comparison of the Somme with at least some Civil War battles in tactical terms is not at all without validity. Best regards, JR.