The American Way of War 2

Lithograph of Lee's Surrender, with Taylor sta...

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There are two main themes to the American way of war. They have come down to us from their first glimmerings in the War of 1812, where we learned that our soldiers, like all soldiers required discipline and leadership. Once we took that lesson to heart, as epitomized in West Point, a distinctly American style became inevitable.

One part was that we needed a different sort of officer, for the American soldier is, and always has been, a free man, giving some part of his life voluntarily to his country. The rigid pattern of Europe would not apply here. The other thing was that from very early America needed engineers, as did the Army, so West Point developed as the cradle of engineering in the United States.

The American style in its adolescence was on display in the Mexican War, with the amazing sight of a major amphibious landing, with the march through Mexico, and especially Stephan Watts Kearney’s march to Santa Fe and then on to California (with only 120 dragoons).

But the real showcase came a bit later. Here is where America became a world power, although nobody realized it, or cared. The American Civil War (or War Between the States, if you prefer) was a spectacle for the ages. Why? Read on.

The showcase war that everyone watched was the Eastern Theatre, with the main actors being the Army of the Potomac (Federal) vs. The Army of Northern Virginia. Here were fought the legendary battles: Bull Run (1 & 2), Chancellorsville, the Seven Days, Antietam, Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, the Wilderness, the Muleshoe, Cold Harbor and finally the Siege of Petersburg. The Union spent years trying to find a general who could win here, the problem being they were fighting two of the finest generals ever to wear an American uniform, Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson. The Confederates pretty much ran rings around the Yankees who had the structural problem of being tied too tightly to Washington, although it’s hard to see how it could be otherwise, given that the Occupation of Washington would have led almost inevitably to recognition of the Confederacy by the UK and France.

The legend comes from this; here we have two of the largest armies ever seen up to that time fighting each other to a standstill, not for a season but, for four years with neither one able to finally beat the other. When Grant became Lieutenant General, he co-located with the Army of the Potomac, Grant never commanded that army, G.G. Meade commanded it to the end of the war, what Grant commanded was the United States army. He co-located with this army because he knew he could trust Sherman to fight the Army of the Tennessee properly, but didn’t think that Meade would. He gave Meade the orders that wherever the Army of Northern Virginia goes, there also you will go.

Grant has come down to us as a butcher, much like Field Marshal Haig int WWI. He wasn’t. He showed enough daring in the Vicksburg campaign to scare none other than Uncle Billy Sherman, and Uncle Billy didn’t scare easy.

The thing is from this point on the strategy could have been written by George Patton. The Army of the Potomac held them by the nose, and the Army of the Tennessee kicked them in the a$$.

The real story here for our purposes is this. You remember that earlier I said there are two strains in the American way of war? Here they are, in full display.

The Army of Northern Virginia had the most superb leadership of any American army anywhere, anytime. It fought what may well have been the most powerful army in the world to a standstill for four years. Actually, immediately after the war, not only the US, but both Germany and France adopted the corps artillery plan developed by the Army of Northern Virginia’s Porter Alexander, When Lee surrendered the Army was so fought out that some commentators say that it didn’t so much surrender as pass directly into legend.

The Army of the Potomac on the other hand, while well led, did not have leaders of the caliber of Lee (Grant may have been close, some of his early campaigns would indicate this but the situation did not allow). What they did have was the nascent industrial power of the Union. This was the most lavishly equipped and armed army in the 19th century. It was also the beginning of modern warfare and it took time to learn to use the new weapons like rifled muskets and rifled artillery extended the kill zone by orders of magnitude. The Army even used aerial observation for artillery spotting and reconnaissance. The first crude machine guns made their appearance as well.

The two thrusts of American War making are these:

  1. Superb and daring leadership at all levels but especially in small units.
  2. Overwhelming (and accurate) firepower and mass.

There’s another thing running through this narrative, logistics. The Army of the Potomac was pretty much always well supplied (except tobacco, which the troops habitually traded coffee to the Rebels for). These were huge trains which could have happened only with the railroads that the military built and ran. It was a marvel of the military world, and the world noticed. After Chickamauga, the 11th and 12th corps of the Army of the Potomac were sent to reinforce Thomas. This was by rail (from the History of War): ” By the middle of the first week of October some 20,000 men had been moved to Bridgeport from Virginia, a journey of over 1,100 miles in eleven days.” Think about the size of that movement, and the speed, this was something entirely new in the history of war. There is a story that at one (of the many) places where these trains went around a corner, there were three officers watching, they wore sort of funny uniforms and their headgear was what a later age would call Pickelhaube. Yes, they were observers from the Great German General Staff. Think they learned anything?

And that may be the greatest American innovation to art of war of all. As Nathan Bedford Forrest put it, the main key to winning is “Getting there firstest with the mostest” and Americans do that better than anyone.

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