Civil War Infantry Tactics

Civil War Infantry Tactics

Training, Combat and Small Unit Effectiveness

Earl J. Hess

Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 2015, 368 pages

Book Review published on: May 19, 2017

Distinguished Civil War historian Earl Hess fills a necessary void in the oft-overlooked realm of actions on the Civil War battlefield by zeroing in on small-unit tactics at the squad and company level. He further examines tactical employment of regiments, brigades, and divisions, shedding light on the complexities of effectively maneuvering these larger formations on the battlefields of the Civil War.

Hess wastes no time with his eloquent attack; in the preface he discusses the notion that the newfound technology contained in the rifled musket was solely responsible for the horrific carnage that characterized so many of the battles of the Civil War. He also debunks the myth that forces on both sides mechanically followed an outdated manual of arms. Instead, he offers through case studies, letters, and battlefield analysis that training, tactics, and employment of infantry formations continuously evolved throughout the war to match new developments in small arms, artillery howitzers, and other weapons.

The book is well organized, alternating between the several themes necessary to understand Civil War tactics. He sets the stage with a brief but detailed overview of the roots of tactical formations in Europe since the invention of gunpowder, particularly in the Napoleonic period. He also looks at the North American tactical heritage beginning with the Continental Army and continuing through the Mexican-American War. Much attention is given to regimental training programs along with the evolution of tactics as described in tactics manuals. The heart of the book explores tactical formations from the skirmisher to brigade in extensive detail.

Hess is successful with all of this by digging deep into official records, battle reports, and letters, and then applying his own analysis to develop his case studies and reach sound conclusions. The narrative is richly accompanied with charts, diagrams, and photos, and the combination greatly helps to illustrate the tactics, techniques, and procedures of the day. It is richly referenced, creating a wonderful opportunity for further study. This is scholarly, well researched, and objective interpretation of infantry tactics of the Civil War. In fact, as the reader gets further into this work, the purpose behind the tactics—such as line, echelon, and column formations—begins to pop out, giving the reader the “so what.”

Of course, this book is an exciting addition to any library for Civil War buffs, historians, and reenactors, but this is also an excellent read for the military professional, as it gives a historical reference point to the age-old problem of matching up tactics to new innovations in technology. It is hard not to come away with a newfound appreciation for Civil War leaders who continuously and pragmatically challenged their tactical methods to find better ways to use terrain and to employ advancement in weapons to their maximum lethality. Civil War Infantry Tactics serves as a reminder that an army can never sit still or be satisfied but must constantly improve on its integration of new advancements across all the domains of doctrine, organization, training, leadership, and weapon systems.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Ronald T. Staver, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas