New Weapons and the Unnecessary Carnage

The South should have fought a defensive war that would bleed the enemy in massed assaults, though time and the North’s increasingly large army of bounty-enriched foreigners, paid substitutes and freedmen meant eventual exhaustion. The question remains of why Lincoln continued the unnecessary slaughter rather than peacefully allow the South’s desire for political independence.

Bernhard Thuersam,


New Weapons and the Unnecessary Carnage

“The engine of change was technological modification. An advance of weaponry overthrew the efficacy and then the moral meaning of the tactics soldiers wished to employ, robbing of significance the gestures they had been determined to make. Civil War muzzle-loaders . . . were no longer smoothbore but rifled [and charging] columns could be brought under fire much earlier, at a half-mile’s distance, and a much higher toll exacted. Even with the persistence of poor firing instruction and wretched firing discipline, rifling strengthened the hand of the defense decisively.

The futility of the frontal attack, with each regiment advancing on a two-company front, should have been apparent as early as [Sharpsburg] . . . in those ranks of dead ranged as neatly as if on parade. Three months later Burnside attacked Lee’s men on the heights of Fredericksburg at a cost of 12, 653 casualties against their opponents 5,309.

At Gettysburg it was Lee who sent . . . 15,000 in Pickett’s charge, perhaps half returned. At Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864 . . . Grant ordered frontal attacks that in less than sixty minutes cost the Army of the Potomac 7,000 killed and wounded against the Confederates’ 1,300 casualties. There the principal charges could be sustained only twelve to twenty minutes.

Ironically, Sherman’s first opponent, Joseph E. Johnston, was perhaps the only defensive adept in either army, and it was he who repulsed Sherman’s charges while yielding ground before Sherman’s otherwise masterly campaign of probing operations and flanking movements. But on July 17, 1864, Jefferson Davis relieved Johnston of his command and installed in his place, John Bell Hood, whose devotion to the attack was unsurpassed in either army. Sherman was pleased: “I inferred that the change of command means “fight.” This is just what he wanted. As [Jacob D.] Cox put it:

“We . . . regarded the removal of Johnston as equivalent to a victory for us. Three months of sharp work convinced us that a change from Johnston’s methods to those which Hood was likely to employ was . . . to have our enemy grasp the hot end of the poke . . . we were confident that . . . a succession of attacks would soon destroy the Confederate army.”

Sherman was willing to wait for those attacks. At Peachtree Creek Hood lost between 5,000 and 6,000 in killed, wounded and missing to Sherman’s 1,800; at Decatur, as many as 10,000, against Union losses of 3,700; at Ezra Church 5,000 against 600. Describing for Sherman that last combat, soldiers of the 15th Corps assured him it had been “the easiest thing in the world; that, in fact, it was a common slaughter of the enemy.” [Sherman] saw more clearly than others that the charge had become defeat.”

(Embattled Courage, the Experience of Combat in the Civil War, Gerald F. Linderman, Free Press, 1987, pp. 135-137)

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