The First Modern War And the Last Ancient War

Steven Dutch University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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The First Modern War - The U.S. Civil War (1861-1865)

In reading the history of warfare, we typically read that General X met General Y on the battlefield, X won, Y retreated, then they met again on another battlefield, and so on. Then we come to a war where the balance of power is described in terms of who has the most miles of telegraph line and railroad, and who has the most steel foundries and rolling mills. That war is the U.S. Civil War. In many ways it was the first truly modern war that depended on heavy industry, rapid transportation, and telecommunications for its conduct. Among the technological innovations and new weapons introduced (more accurately in some cases, used to their full capacity for the first time) were:

This was the first war where transcontinental telecommunications played a significant role. The telegraph line to California was pivotal in helping to keep California in the Union. Telegraphy permitted generals to communicate rapidly with far-flung forces and journalists to file stories with their newspapers, in turn keeping public support for and interest in the war high by providing a sense of direct participation. (It all depends on the war - media coverage had exactly the opposite effect in Vietnam.)
Although photographs were taken in a few earlier conflicts, this was the first war massively documented. Over a million photographs were taken during the Civil War. The clumsy glass plates were so numerous that in some cases they were recycled as window panes for greenhouses.
Aerial observation
Balloons had been used in a few earlier conflicts, and they were widely used by both sides in the Civil War, often with a telegraph line so the observer could communicate directly with the ground.
A one-man mini-sub was unsuccessfully used during the American Revolution, and Civil War submarines were only marginally more successful. The most successful (if it can be called that) was the C.S.S. Hunley. About 12 meters long with a crew of two officers and six sailors, it was powered by steam. It was armed with a torpedo, which in those days was an explosive charge attached to a long pole. Torpedoes were also attached to surface ships and were detonated by ramming them into an enemy vessel. The Hunley was sent out three times, sinking each time. On one trial, two crewmen escaped. The fourth time it was sent out to attack the U.S.S. Housatonic. It detonated its torpedo, sinking the Housatonic and thereby becoming the first submarine ever to sink an enemy vessel. But the Hunley was also sunk by the blast, becoming the only ship in naval history to go down with 375 per cent of its crew. The Hunley has recently been discovered and raised and is now undergoing preservation.
Steam and Iron-Clad Ships
If submarines failed to get beyond the prototype stage, steam vessels came into their own in the Civil War. The first duel between iron-clad warships was the celebrated duel between the Monitor and Merrimac, both prototypes, in 1862. By war's end, steam and iron-clad vessels were the norm.
This was the first war in which railroads were crucial in moving large numbers of soldiers and large amounts of supplies quickly over long distances.
Rapid-Fire Weapons
True machine guns were not invented for another twenty years, but the Gatling gun, a rotating bundle of gun barrels each firing in turn, was in use. The speed of a Gatling gun is limited only by how fast the barrels can spin, and they are still in use on helicopter gunships.

A Mythic Struggle

The Civil War continues to attract attention because it was a struggle of mythic proportions. The ferocity of combat in the Civil War defies belief. At Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia in 1864, the rifle fire was so intense it cut down a tree two feet thick. After the battle men were found on the battlefield unharmed but sound asleep; they simply collapsed on their feet from exhaustion. By modern standards, 30 per cent casualties are considered all but suicidal; when Napoleon took 25 per cent casualties at Waterloo his army collapsed. In several battles in the Civil War both sides took 30 per cent casualties, departed the battlefield in good order, regrouped, and were ready to fight again in a few days. Some of the incidents in the Civil War would be dismissed as the wildest fiction if they were not thoroughly documented. Here are three Civil War vignettes.

Chickamauga and its Aftermath

After capturing the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee in the summer of 1864, the Union Army of the Cumberland prepared to invade Georgia. Not far into Georgia, they ran into a large Confederate force and a major battle developed. Because of a mixup in communications, a Union brigade pulled out of position and relocated, leaving a gap in the Union lines at the worst possible place and at the worst possible time. The Confederates, purely by chance, chose that time to counterattack and the full force of the counterattack came down on - nothing at all. The Confederates punched completely through the Union lines and only some brilliant work by the Union General John Thomas, widely regarded as the greatest defensive general in American history, saved the Union forces from utter annihilation. The battle came to be named after a small creek, a name that meant nothing a day earlier but would forever be associated with slaughter afterwards - Chickamauga.

The Union army retired to Chattanooga to lick its wounds. They were safe behind a river bend and could not be driven out. The Confederates dug in on the ridges south of the city and could also not be driven out. General Grant moved in troops from the Army of the West along the Mississippi, and also moved in troops from the Army of the Potomac (an indication of how railroads were changing the face of war.)

The Union attack came in November. The first objective was to drive the Confederates off the ridges around Chattanooga. After driving the Confederates off Lookout Mountain overlooking Chattanooga, the next objective was to drive them off Missionary Ridge east of town. The Army of the West and the Army of the Potomac would carry out the main attack, assaulting the ridge at either end. the Army of the Cumberland, reduced to a supporting role in their own theater of operations, was assigned to attack the Confederate positions at the base of the ridge in the center. They were only supposed to keep the Confederates busy, since nobody dreamed they would be able to overwhelm dug-in Confederate positions, climb a steep bluff, and drive the defenders off the top.

But that's exactly what they did. Infuriated at their loss of face, and being reduced to minor players in their own battle, the Army of the Cumberland overran the Confederate positions, then, completely without orders, began climbing the ridge. The generals in Chattanooga, watching through field glasses, stared in open-mouthed incredulity at what was going on. How demoralizing the assault was for the Confederates is shown by one incident. A Union soldier reaching the top was faced by a Confederate officer with a sword. The Union soldier dropped his weapon, went after the officer barehanded, and the officer ran away.

Some of the troops from the Army of the West ended up having the widest travels of any soldiers in the war. From the Mississippi, they reinforced Chattanooga, then marched with Sherman through Georgia to the sea. After that, Sherman turned north into the Carolinas. When they finally entered Richmond, they came up from the south.

The War at Sea

At sea, the Civil War was a global, if low-level war. Confederate raiders attacked Union shipping all over the globe. Under the rules of naval warfare, a captured merchant vessel could be sold to finance the war effort, converted to a fighting ship, or sunk if no other alternative were available. The crew would be taken prisoner and put ashore at the next port. Generally speaking, the rules were scrupulously followed. The most famous Confederate raider was the C.S.S. Alabama, built in England and finally sunk off Cherbourg, France. The Alabama is commemorated by a monument in about the least maritime setting imaginable. At the base of the Sierra Nevada just below Mount Whitney are the Alabama Hills. The few settlers in the area in the 1860's were pro-Confederacy but unable to join the war effort, so they named the hills to show their sympathies.

But the most interesting Confederate raider was the C.S.S. Shenandoah. She sailed across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and by early 1865 she was raiding Union whaling vessels in the Gulf of Alaska. (In this remote area, the Confederates would put crews from several captured vessels on one and allow them to sail to safety, then sink the others.) On one of the captured ships, the Confederates found a newspaper from which they learned that San Francisco was completely undefended (who expected a Confederate naval assault on San Francisco?) So they conceived the plan of holding San Francisco for ransom; they would threaten to bombard the city unless a ransom was paid, to go into the Confederate war chest.

What saved San Francisco was an encounter with a British vessel, where the Confederates learned that the war was over. Fearing reprisal if they surrendered, the Confederates decided to sail to England. They sailed south around Cape Horn, up the far side of the Atlantic to avoid Union warships, and finally docked in England in November, 1865, where the last official Confederate flag was pulled down. The C.S.S. Shenandoah was the only Confederate raider to sail around the world.

The Most Remote Land Battles of the Civil War

Mormons have such an All-American and patriotic image today, it is hard to imagine there was once a time when they were viewed as dangerous radicals. In the 1850's, however, there was serious concern (not wholly unfounded) that they might attempt to carve out an independent nation in Utah, and fully a third of the then-tiny U.S. Army was in Utah keeping an eye on the Mormons.

When the Civil War broke out, volunteers in California formed a brigade and began marching eastward. When they got to Salt Lake City, however, the professional soldiers said in effect, "We'll go fight the war - you stay here and watch the Mormons. So, much to their disgust, the California Brigade never got further east than Utah and spent the war on garrison duty.

The Shoshone in Idaho, however, decided that with the regular soldiers gone, the time was ripe to recoup some of their losses, so they began raiding settlements. The Californians marched north and defeated the Shoshone in a couple of battles, and thereby got to see at least some action during the war.

Why did the South Lose?

At first glance the South had many advantages. It had the best generals (one can hardly ask for better than Lee). It had a long coastline, impossible to blockade completely (Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind was a blockade-runner who spent much of the war in London and Paris). The Union capital was vulnerable to attack (Lincoln resorted essentially to brute force to keep Maryland from joining the Confederacy and surrounding Washington).

The Union had a far larger population and industrial base, but all the miles of telegraph and railroad line in the world do little good if they are in your own territory, and the Union problem was to invade the Confederacy. The Confederacy enjoyed the advantage of defense, and they had a fairly compact region to defend. The Appalachians prevented attack from the west into Virginia. Florida was an exposed peninsula, but in those days it was largely uninhabited and played little role in the war. The Union could land anywhere it liked in Florida, but the region simply lacked the transportation to make it useful as a staging area. The same was true of the far West; neither side had the logistical capability to outflank the other by campaigning beyond the Mississippi. When the Confederacy surrendered, it still had an intact army in Texas, but in Bruce Catton's words "it might as well have been in Siberia."

One important factor may have been that the North realized just a bit sooner than the South what sort of war it was fighting. In Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage, G. McWhitney and P.D. Jamieson argued that the South held on to the medieval concept of chivalry and individual valor on the battlefield more than the North. Despite the fact that the South's main objective was to defend, in almost every early battle of the war the South attacked. By the time the South adopted more conservative tactics, it had been bled white. This mentality is echoed in Gone With the Wind; when Rhett Butler cautions about the Union's greater industrial capacity, he is challenged to a duel by a young romantic hothead, but simply walks away.

One southerner did see exactly what the war would be like. In May, 1861 he told a fellow officer:

I fear our people do not yet realize the magnitude of the struggle they have entered upon, nor its probable duration, and the sacrifices it will impose upon them... Their [the Union's] resources are almost without limit...They have also a navy that in a little while will blockade our ports and cut us off from the rest of the world. They have nearly all the workshops and skilled artisans of the country....We have no ships, few arms, and few manufacturers. We will not succeed until the financial power of the North is completely broken, and this can occur only at the end of a long and bloody war. The conflict will be mainly in Virginia. She will become the Flanders of America before this war is over...I wish I could talk to every man, woman and child in the State now, and impress them with these views.

The speaker was Robert E. Lee.

Historian Bruce Catton, as well as many others, believes the numerical and technical superiority of the North was simply too great to resist indefinitely; that eventually the Southern defenses had to fail somewhere, and when they did, it would be all over.

When Grant's attempt to advance on Richmond in the summer of 1864 stalled, unlike all previous commanders, he simply moved and tried again. For the next nine months, Union forces sidestepped to their left trying to outflank the Confederates. Eventually the trenches formed a complete semicircle extending well south of Richmond. Both sides suddenly saw that the city of Petersburg, about 50 miles south of Richmond, was the key to continuing or ending the war, because it was the only rail junction connecting Richmond to the rest of the Confederacy. Faced with the need to defend a line running continuously from north of Richmond to Petersburg, the Confederates were stretched thinner and thinner. Eventually their line snapped. Within a little over a week it was over. The final year of the Civil War, chronicled in Bruce Catton's A Stillness at Appomattox, was actually something new in the history of warfare - never before had two large armies remained locked in continuous combat for so long.

The Last Ancient War - World War I (1914-1918)

The Civil War telescoped 19th century warfare into four years; it started with pitched battles that would have been familiar to Napoleon (civilian observers carried picnic baskets out to observe the first Battle of Bull Run), and ended with World War I-style trench warfare. At the Battle of Cold Harbor in early 1865, the Union assaulted well dug-in Confederate positions and lost 6,000 men in 20 minutes. Confederate losses are unknown but it is entirely possible they were zero.

Full-Dress Rehearsal: The Boer War (1898-1902)

The U.S. Civil War had shown, quite conclusively, that attacks on entrenched positions were suicidal, that railroads and telegraph lines were weapons of war, and that soldiers armed with repeating rifles and making effective use of terrain could have devastating impact.

Making the carnage of World War I still more inexcusable was the fact that the British had a full-scale dress rehearsal 15 years earlier. When diamonds were discovered in the then-independent Dutch-speaking Transvaal, South Africa, the British simply moved in to occupy the region. They expected no problems; they were not facing professional soldiers, but farmers. But they overlooked a few small details. These farmers were used to fighting, having fought several wars with local Africans. They knew the terrain intimately (like American frontiersmen, they faced adversaries who used terrain instinctively). And they were armed with the most modern repeating rifles. The British suffered a series of humiliating defeats resulting from incompetence (like failing to secure a key railroad) and arrogance (failing to post guards). They finally won the war, but it took four years and 22,000 casualties to do it. The Boer War was the first battle experience as a journalist for young Winston Churchill. (He previously served in the Sudan, where he observed "Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.")

To cut the Boer fighters off from their base of supply, the British resorted to rounding up civilians and relocating them in concentration camps. (Before the Holocaust, the term "concentration camp" had no sinister connotations - it was simply a camp where people were concentrated for easier control.) More South Africans died in these camps from disease than died in battle. One reason the struggle to end apartheid was so bitter was that Dutch-speaking South Africans still held bitter memories of the camps and regarded their critics as completely lacking in moral credibility.

The Technology of World War I

The technology of World War I was far advanced over that of the Civil War. Submarines by now were essentially modern in design, and torpedoes had taken on their modern features. Tanks made their appearance on the battlefield. Chemical weapons also appeared. Chemical warfare began as an individual venture; policemen turned soldiers used civilian tear gas to clear trenches, but soon large industrial-scale manufacture of gases, notably chlorine and phosgene, was under way. Radio had made battlefield telecommunications even more efficient. Finally, fully modern machine guns were in use and accounted for much of the slaughter in the war.

Airplanes, though primitive, were used widely. At first, they were used for observation, but before long, opposing fliers were shooting at each other. Aerial combat, like chemical warfare, began as an individual venture, when fliers took up weapons on their own initiative, but soon machine guns were mounted routinely on aircraft. The breakthrough in aerial combat was the invention of a way to synchronize the firing of the machine guns with the propeller so that bullets flew between the blades. Bombing was comparatively little used, since aircraft lacked the range or lifting capacity to make strategic bombing feasible.

Ancient Tactics

Although World War I had technology far more advanced than the Civil War, it was ancient in its mentality; it was widely described in ancient terms as a glorious struggle, and many people still thought in terms of ancient concepts of individual honor on the battlefield. In one tactical respect it was ancient as well: although motor vehicles were in widespread use, so were horse cavalry and swords.

Typical of the glorious war mentality was poet Rupert Brooke, who penned the famous lines "If I should die/ think only this of me/ that there's a corner of some foreign field/that is forever England." In another poem, he wrote "blow out you bugles, over the rich dead." With a mentality like that, it would seem a positive tragedy if Brooke were to survive the war, and he didn't. But he didn't die gloriously in combat. During the Gallipoli campaign he got sunstroke, developed blood poisoning (probably what we would now call toxic shock syndrome), and died.

The total failure by generals to revise their tactics to meet new technology led to perhaps the most senseless carnage in the history of warfare. The Germans had hoped to repeat their success of 1871, when they swept around Paris in a wide arc to attack it from the north. They failed to realize that improved railroads and motor vehicles made it much easier to move troops to meet unexpected threats. Once the initial German push into France stalled, both sides settled into static trench warfare that eventually saw a continuous line of trenches from the Alps to the English Channel. For the first couple of years of the war, thanks to machine guns, the defense enjoyed an advantage not seen perhaps since before the advent of gunpowder. Seeking to break the stalemate and create a war of movement of a more "classical" sort, opposing generals sent mass charges against machine gun fire, in the expectation that one more push or a bit more more willpower would earn victory. In 1916, at the Battle of the Somme, the Allies lost about as many men in one day as the U.S. lost in Korea. Letters and journals of soldiers in the field reveal desperate attempts to redefine old concepts of courage and valor to fit the radically changed conditions of warfare. Aerial combat was (and is today) probably the only aspect of modern combat where ancient ideas of individual combat are at all valid.

The one "modern" battle of World War I

Turkey made the mistake of siding with the Germans in World War I, and lost its empire and almost its nationhood as a result. The strategic importance of Turkey was that it controlled Russia's only access to the Mediterranean. Closing this access was vital to the Germans because it cut Russia off from easy supply and reinforcement.

In February, 1915, the British fleet attempted to force its way through the Dardanelles, but was turned back by artillery fire from Turkish forts. In those days nobody defeated the British fleet, especially not a backward, poorly equipped country like Turkey. The defeat was a tremendous lift to Turkish morale. Next, the Allies tried to seize the narrow Gallipoli Peninsula on the north side of the Dardanelles to capture the forts and gain control of the Dardanelles. The campaign was a costly failure. The one bright spot was the final retreat. Under cover of darkness, using carefully staged deceptions, the Allies pulled every single soldier off the beach without a single casualty. The debacle nearly destroyed the political career of Winston Churchill, who had strongly backed the campaign. Churchill spent the next 15 years in obscurity before returning to power and historical immortality in World War II.

As botched as the Gallipoli campaign was in practice, it employed a number of highly experimental or novel technologies: submarines, amphibious operations, and aircraft. Allied planners in World War II found little to learn from the trench warfare of World War I but Gallipoli was a storehouse of information on amphibious warfare. The lessons of Gallipoli played a major role in planning for Dunkirk and Normandy.

One of the great what-ifs of history happened when the Turks turned back the British fleet. After the war, German advisors who had been in the Turkish forts wrote their memoirs. When the British gave up and turned back, the Turks were within five minutes of running out of ammunition. Five more minutes and the straits would have been in Allied control. Maybe with proper supply, Russia might have stayed in the war. Maybe the Russian Revolution would never have happened, Communism would never have taken over, and the Cold War might not have taken place. 

Postscript: The Miracle of the Civil War

Nothing is as astonishing about the American Civil War as the fact that America survived it. In March, 1996 I was with the peacekeeping forces in Bosnia. A year later to the day, I was traveling the length of Tennessee on business. Not once during the week I was in the South did I encounter a single rude word involving my northern accent or license plate. I seriously doubt we will be able to say the same of Yugoslavia in a mere 130 years. Nations have vanished from the map over divisions far more trivial than our Civil War.

Robert E. Lee was a significant factor. As tenaciously as he fought the war, his refusal to continue fighting once the war was clearly lost and his utter refusal to engage in recriminations or any sort of vindictiveness were powerful role models. Lee is practically worshiped in the South and his character seems to have been as much above reproach as anyone in history. Lee said, in effect, "We lost. let's move on", something that the defeated in many other cultures cannot bring themselves to say.

The mythic proportions of the struggle were also a factor. Perhaps wars come to a clean end when both sides fight to utter exhaustion and are ready to quit. Almost as soon as the war was over, participants on both sides began to show a realization that they had been through something larger than life. Bruce Catton quotes one Southerner's memoirs in which he fantasizes about meeting his former foes in the hereafter and reminiscing about the war, and notes in amazement "the men who lost at the Boyne and Culloden did not write this way."

Finally, the future-orientation of Americans is important. When America began its astonishing leap into industrialization after the war, many people who might have dwelled on the past found something else to do. The past may be noble and moving and tragic, but it's the past; it's over, and the future is coming. My travels in 1997 took me into Alabama. Just over the State line on Interstate 65 is a rest stop with a monument inscribed "We dare defend our rights", a bit of post-Civil War defiance. But not far away is Huntsville, home of Redstone Arsenal, and towering over the same rest stop, literally and symbolically a hundred times taller than the monument, is a Saturn I rocket. And that's what you see first when you enter Alabama.


Bruce Catton is the dean of writers on the Civil War, and everything he wrote is worth reading, but A Stillness at Appomatox and This Hallowed Ground are Catton at his best. They go beyond skillful prose into the realm of fine literature. Shelby Foote is a highly-respected contemporary author on the Civil War. Michael Shaara won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel on Gettysburg The Killer Angels, and his son Jeff Shaara has written Gods and Generals, a critically acclaimed precursor novel.

Among films, Glory is the superb story of a black Massachusetts regiment. Gettysburg is Ted Turner's tribute to the Civil War. It has its flaws: it is so faithful to period dialog and costume that it sometimes looks and sounds silly, Martin Sheen would make a great U.S. Grant but is not a very convincing Lee, and there are some technical flaws. Overshadowing all that is the fact that the film is clearly a labor of love by everyone from Turner to the most anonymous volunteer re-enactor, and it shows. Ken Burns is synonymous with fine documentaries, and his twelve-hour series on the Civil War is a masterpiece. Australian director Peter Weir's Gallipoli tells the story of an ill-fated Australian regiment that was nearly wiped out during the Gallipoli campaign; it features a then-unknown actor named Mel Gibson.

Two classic works of literature, Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage and Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front describe the Civil War and World War I, respectively.

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Created 13 November 1998; Last Update 02 June 2010

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