The Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare: Ideas, Organization, and Field Command.

By Edward Hagerman
Book review by A. T. R. Pantaze

  Professor Hagerman’s book, which I will refer to as “The Civil War and Modern Warfare”, is a thorough study of the science and art of warfare. The book traces the development of American military thought in the decades prior to the 1860, and it completely examines changes in strategic and tactical operations forced on commanders by developing technology and North American terrain. The Civil War and Modern Warfare is about the business of waging war, about how the rifled musket affected the tactics employed, about how maneuver was affected by supply limitations, and about how organization and communications affected the final outcome.
    Hagerman sets the tone of his work in the introduction when he points out that, “The American soldier was not ready for the challenges that would push him over what might be called the critical threshold of modern land warfare. In theory and doctrine the United States followed the lead of France, and there was no reason before the Civil War to question the prestige of the Napoleonic tradition.” That tradition would linger, but as Hagerman states in his opening, the rifled musket and “transportation and supply system(s) responsive to the demands of American geography” would compel commanders to turn from eighteenth century models to new standards - the foundations of modern war. For example, Hagerman establishes a reasonable link between Sherman’s 1864-65 logistical operations and those of the World War II German armies’ horse drawn trains almost eighty years later.
    This book provides a thought provoking chronicle of the evolution of tactical and strategic systems in both major theaters of the war. The author demonstrates how McClellan’s ability to maneuver on the offensive was inhibited by logistical demands, and how Lee suffered the same fate when he moved to the attack. Hagerman discusses Federal experiments with the flying column concept and growing pains in the telegraphic service. On the Confederate side he studies the adverse affects of poor railroad policy and the innovative organization of field artillery.
    I set aside the greatest praise for Professor Hagerman’s reserve and tone throughout the book. He evaluates, he compares, and he draws reasonable, thoughtful conclusions without second-guessing or over judging. These last two traits are, in my opinion, far too common in too many books about the Civil War. One reads the word “blunder”- a gross error resulting from stupidity, ignorance, or carelessness - quite often in works written by people who I suspect could not lead a squad across a parking lot much less guide an army spread out over many square miles of field and forest.
    In fact, The Civil War and Modern Warfare effectively conveys war as a many-faceted puzzle with which commanders must grope for solutions in semi-darkness and fog. As Bob Jones, designer of the war game “Piquet”, wrote, “ ... as the battle progressed the commander’s view often degraded, not only by vision blocking smoke , but battle confusion, and command infrastructure failure, making accurate tactical assessments and adjustments more difficult. Much of the capability of good commanders (is) in (the) art of estimating, not knowing, the enemy’s intentions, quality, and likely actions.”
    Hagerman shows that Northern and Southern commanders had to unlearn much of what they were taught at West Point and practiced in Mexico. Men who as young officers became masters of the direct assault and of offensive artillery were forced through hard and bloody experience a generation later to become masters of field entrenchment. Although the author occasionally speculates on individual character or motivation he makes no attempt to psychoanalyze the commanders he writes about. Instead, he examines their actions as those of military professionals with missions, objectives, and strategies, and he tries to determine why they did or did not succeed. I do not agree with all of Hagerman’s conclusions. He writes in Chapter 4, Elan and Organization, that, “... Lee took longer to learn from his experience that the frontal assault contributed only to attrition without victory than any other field commander in the Civil War.” I do not think this stands up if Grant’s attacks at Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor, Sherman’s at Pickett’s Mill and Kennesaw Mountain, and Hood’s at Franklin (to name but three) are considered. I also disagree with the author’s depiction of Jackson’s overall tactical integrity. Hagerman creates the impression that Stonewall’s dispositions were judicious and that he maintained good command communications through the use of his staff. This was very often not true, at least through the Battle of Cedar Mountain. Jackson’s subordinates many times did not know where they were going or what they were supposed to do. At Kernstown, Port Republic, and Cedar Mountain, Jackson’s incomplete tactical arrangements caused problems.
    The Civil War and Modern Warfare is my kind of military history. Without being dry or dull Hagerman’s style dispenses with much of the baggage loaded into “popular” histories leaving the reader with a truer understanding of the combat operations of the Civil War. In my opinion, every living historian or student of the war would benefit from reading this book.
    Note: I realize that works like that reviewed above may not be to everyone’s taste, so my next review will cover a short book describing how Abner Doubleday and Ambrose Burnside tried to sleep on the same gum blanket and invented “Twister”.