The American Civil War And The Origins Of Modern Warfare

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What was new, or “modern,” was the instant slaughter these rifles inflicted. In the Sunken Road at Antietam, Confederates rested their rifles on a breastwork of fence rails and efficiently tore apart one charging Federal line after another. “The entire front line, with few exceptions, went down in the consuming blast,” said a Rebel officer of one attack. At Fredericksburg no Yankee in repeated charges got within a hundred yards of the Rebel line securely posted behind a stone wall, and most got nowhere near that close. In Pickett’s famous charge at Gettysburg, the Federal infantry opened fire at two hundred yards and rapidly wrecked the assault. The fact is that Civil War combat changed radically between 1861 and 1865, and while Napoleon might well have been at home on the Bull Run battlefield, four years later he would have found nothing at all familiar in the trenchlock at Petersburg.

It is just this evolutionary character of change in the Civil War that interests Edward Hagerman. He works on a much larger canvas than Griffith and reaches broader conclusions in describing the war’s modernity. For this book Hagerman has drawn heavily on his articles in scholarly journals, and the reading is never easy. Neither is his constant focus on logistics and command organization and institutional structures. Yet what he has to say here is important, and a necessary (if dry) corrective to the “airy generalizations” Paddy Griffith lets himself fall prey to.

It was the strategies and tactics and logistical innovations begun by Grant in the Western theater in 1863 and brought to perfection by Sherman in 1864 and 1865 in Georgia and the Carolinas that form what Hagerman calls the “historical roots of modern warfare.” These two generals, more than any other, he writes, “exploited diversion, dispersion, and surprise to pursue successfully a modern total-war strategy of exhaustion against the enemy’s resources, communications, and will.” Napoleon might not have immediately recognized these changes, but that most forward-looking of commanders would most certainly have approved of them.

—Stephen W. Sears