A Comparison of the American Civil War of 1861-65 with the Franco-German War of 1870-71, by Wayne Pickering

(This is a synopsis of a lecture given to the Ottawa Civil War Round Table in November 2012 by W.L. Pickering ©

Helmuth von Moltke, the Chief of the Prussian General Staff from 1857-1888, stated that the American Civil War was fought by: “two armed mobs chasing each other around the country, from which nothing could be learned”. This statement begs a comparison of the last war that von Moltke fought, the Franco-German War of 1870-71, with the American Civil War. To do this, we first need to know why, where, how, with what and by whom the Franco-German War was fought.

The Franco-German War. The root cause of the Franco-German war was the determination of Prussia to unite all of Germany under its leadership and the equal determination of France to prevent this union. The trigger for war was a dispute regarding the right of a distant relative of the Prussian royal family to the Spanish crown. Although Prussia dropped its claim, Emperor Napoleon III of France and his Foreign Affairs Minister the Duc de Gramont were determined to humiliate the Prussians. After a series of sharp diplomatic exchanges, France declared war on Prussia on July 19, 1870 and mobilized her army. France’s declaration of war on Prussia united all of Germany against France, and the other German states, in fulfillment of their treaty obligations, immediately joined Prussia in a common front against France.

In 1870 Britain and France were the dominant economic and military powers in Europe. France was ruled by Emperor Napoleon III, also known as Louis Napoleon, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. Politically France was divided into hostile republican, liberal and conservative factions. Militarily, the French armies were led by three experienced Marshals of France, Bazaine, McMahon and Bourbaki, all veterans of France’s wars in Algeria, the Crimea and Italy. However, all three proved to be over promoted men of action who were to buckle under the strain of the responsibility of commanding an army.

Germany was not a single nation, but a group of independent kingdoms, princedoms and duchies, with Prussia the first among equals. Prussia was the leading member state of the North German Confederation and had established military links with almost all of the German States. The Prussians had fought successful wars against Denmark in 1864 and Austria in 1866. The King of Prussia, Wilhelm I, was a professional soldier. He was ably assisted by his Minister-President, Otto von Bismarck, who is considered to be the greatest European diplomat of the 19th century, and his Minister of War, Field Marshal Albrecht von Roon, an exceptionally able administrator. The Prussian Army had a competent staff under their Chief of General Staff, Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, and three able Army commanders: Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia, Field Marshal Prince Frederick Charles and General Friedrich von Steinmetz.

The French Army recruited through selective service, which allowed those selected to find substitutes. After their five or seven years of service was completed, many of the soldiers, unable to find a civilian trade, re-enlisted. France’s system of reserves and mobilization were flawed, as were its supply, administration and training systems. The ruling principal of the French Army was “on se debrouille” or “we’ll muddle through”, known to the officers as “System D”. As a result, French planning placed great emphasis on the bravery and endurance of their soldiers to make up for the deficiencies in administration. In 1870 France was only able to deploy to its frontier with Germany 240,000 men of its standing army of 490,000 men.

Germany had universal military service, with three years in the regular army, four years in the reserves and five years in the territorial militia, the Landwehr. With the army reserves mobilized, the North German Army totalled over 740,000 men. With the armies of the South German states added, the German Army totalled 1.2 million. In 1870 the Germans initially mobilized 1,180,000 trained and equipped soldiers, and rapidly deployed 462,000 of them to the frontier with France.

The infantry of both armies were armed with breech loading rifles, the French Chassepot and the German Dreyse. German infantry tactics recognized the superiority of the defence and in the attack emphasized the decisive flank attack, rather than costly frontal assaults. The French still believed in the Napoleonic ideal of the decisive attack conducted with dash and élan. The heavy cavalry of both sides relied on shock tactics, with cavaliers armed with lance and sabre riding stirrup to stirrup. With one exception, all heavy cavalry charges by both sides proved suicidal against infantry armed with breech loading rifles and modern artillery. The German light cavalry, called Uhlans by the French and trained for scouting and raiding, were successfully employed and proved to be the eyes and ears of the German Army. The German artillery was equipped with Krupp steel breech loading rifled cannon which were vastly superior to the bronze, rifled muzzle loaders used by the French. However the French artillery had the Mitrailleuse, a 25-barrel machine gun that could fire 125 rounds/minute. Both sides used railways and the telegraph. The Germans studied the lessons of the Civil War and successfully used their railway system to rapidly mobilize and to resupply their armies, while the French railway system collapsed under the strain.

The 10 month war can be broken into three phrases, which echo in reverse order three climactic stages of the American Civil War: Phase 1, which resembled Grant’s advance to Richmond of 1864/65; Phase 2, which resembled the chaotic mobilization and initial battles of North and South of 1861/62; and Phase 3, which resembled on a grand scale John Brown’s uprising at Harper’s Ferry of 1859.

In Phase 1 France deployed 240,000 troops in eight corps in the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, along the German border. Along the French border the Germans deployed 462,000 men, organized into three armies totalling 15 corps. The first engagement, a minor skirmish, was won by the French, when they drove a Prussian detachment from the city of Saarbrucken, a few miles north of the Franco-German border. The campaign then resembled Grant’s march into Virginia of 1864. In the major encounter battles at Spicheren and Worth on August 5-6, the left wing (Bazaine) and right wing (MacMahon) of the French Army were defeated after hard fights, but withdrew in good order. However, this caused a split in the French army, with the right wing under MacMahon falling back, and the remainder, under Bazaine, halting. On August 16 Bazaine fought a third encounter battle at Mars-la-Tour which ended as a draw, but allowed the Germans to cut off his withdrawal route. He had to defeat the Germans to re-unite with MacMahon.

On August 18 the decisive battle of this phase of the war, involving 188,000 German and 113,000 French troops, was fought between the villages of Gravelotte and St Privat, 10 km to the west of the French fortress of Metz.  Unlike the previous battles, it was a deliberate battle, with the Germans attacking a strongly held French position. The battle bears some resemblance to the Battle of Gettysburg. Bazaine’s army of five corps, four in line with the Imperial Guard Corps in reserve, fortified a series of villages and stone farmhouses on a ridge over a front of eight miles, with a depth of three miles and with their right flank in the air. Advancing from the west were two German armies under General Steinmetz and Prince Frederick Charles, with a total of seven corps.

Steinmetz launched a series of costly attacks against the strongly held French left flank, and failed to turn it. Prince Frederick Charles launched costly attacks against the French centre, one of which resembled Pickett’s Charge, with 8000 soldiers of the elite Prussian Guard Corps becoming casualties in 20 minutes. After heavy casualties on both sides, Frederick Charles’ XII Corps under one of the ablest of the German corps commanders, the Crown Prince of Saxony, finally found the French right flank at Roncourt, turned it, and routed two French corps. Bazaine was forced to withdraw his troops into the fortress of Metz, and surrendered 10 weeks later, his 154,000 soldiers reduced to starvation.

MacMahon, marching to relieve Bazaine, was surprised by the Germans at Beaumont and driven northward into the 17th Century fortress at Sedan and the surrounding hills, where a fierce battle began early in the morning of September 1. Sedan, in a bowl between three rivers with high ground on three sides, was a very unfavourable defensive position for the French. After the French were driven from the surrounding hills and under a fierce artillery bombardment, the white flag was hosted over the citadel of Sedan. Over 104,000 French soldiers were taken prisoner, along with Louis Napoleon, who had joined MacMahon. After a seven week campaign, with the French armies either besieged or in captivity, the way was open for the Germans to advance on Paris.

Phase 2 developed into a war between the peoples of France and Germany, with many features that resemble those seen in Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee in 1861-62. Passions on both sides were stirred up by the media, and the French and Germans made increasing use of reservists and citizen soldiers. This phase of the war to last another five months and was to account for almost 60 percent of the war’s casualties.

Upon learning of the fall of Sedan and the Emperor’s capture, Paris rose in rebellion, the Legislative Assembly was dissolved, and on September 4 the republicans proclaimed the Third Republic. By September 20 the Germans had surrounded Paris and a siege began. Paris would be a tough nut to crack. It was defended by 15 modern forts and had stockpiled food and fuel for 80 days. Tens of thousands of now highly motivated members of the reserves, the Garde Nationale, flocked to the colours, swelling the defenders of Paris to 400,000 men.

French leadership and its armies underwent major surgery. The republicans established a Government of National Defence. Its key ministers were Jules Favre, Vice President and Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Leon Gambetta, Minister of the Interior and of War. Leon Gambetta was the defacto President. A lawyer, a newspaper editor, a fiery orator and a born leader, Gambetta had led the opposition to the Imperial Regime of Louis Napoleon.

The French war effort after Sedan resembled that of Lincoln’s government after the first Battle of Manassas. In this case Gambetta raised new armies to break the siege of Paris, which was essential if France was to win the war. In four months, he organized and equipped 800,000 men and partly trained about 180,000 of them, and brought in 40,000 marines and thousands of soldiers from North Africa. Gambetta selected three professional non-political officers to lead his armies: General Trochu as Military Governor of Paris, General Faidherbe as commander of the Army of the North and General Chanzy as commander of the Army of the Loire. He accepted one of the Emperor’s Marshals, Bourbaki, to command the Army of the East, which proved disastrous, as Bourbaki’s Army was forced into internment in Switzerland.

The French improvised forces: the recreated regular forces, the Garde Nationale and bands of insurgents called Francs-Tireurs, brought the overstretched Germans to the verge of catastrophe. The German staff displayed discordant views, divergent aims and there was incessant friction between the higher German leadership, in particular between von Moltke and Bismarck, leading to a breakdown of mutual confidence and cooperation. The General Staff did not have a solution. However, the Germans eventually prevailed.

The formal capitulation of Paris, after 128 days of siege, took place on January 28, 1871; following this an armistice was arranged. The final peace treaty, with a newly elected French government, was signed on May 10, 1871. The war cost Germany 28,000 dead and 101,000 wounded and France 156,000 dead and 143,000 wounded.

Phase 3 occurred after the capitulation of France. France, defeated, turned on itself. The 200,000 man Garde National in Paris refused to accept the terms of the peace treaty. The Garde, joined by mutinous regular soldiers and thousands of civilians from the working class districts, rose up. The result, called the Paris Commune, was on a vast scale the French equivalent of the seizure of Harpers Ferry by John Brown and his band of 18 radical abolitionists. Between May 21-28, 1871 the Commune was put down by a recreated French army of 70,000, released from German prison camps, re-armed by the Germans and led by Marshal MacMahon, with over 30,000 lives lost in savage fighting.

Comparison of War Aims and Grand Strategy. The Germans fought the Franco-German War to create a union of German states, while the French fought to prevent this union. The Union fought the Civil War to preserve a union of American states, while the Confederacy fought to separate its states from the Union. In both wars, destruction of the enemy’s army and capture of its capital proved paramount.

Comparison of Geography. In comparison to France’s area of 212,000 sq mi and Germany’s of 182,000 sq mi, in 1861 the US North (not including territories) occupied 670,000 sq mi and the US South occupied 780,000 sq mi. The area of conflict in the Civil War was over three times as large as Germany and France combined. The road system in the US was not nearly as developed as that of Western Europe, nor was the rail system in the US as dense as that of France and Germany, presenting greater challenges in movement and logistics. On the other hand, the Atlantic Ocean separated the United States from the major European powers, while the Franco-German War was fought in the centre of Europe, presenting greater possibilities of interference by other nations.

Comparison of Time Span and Number of Battles. The Franco-German War lasted less than 10 months, only five months of which was actual combat, while the Civil War lasted 49 months. As a result, there were many more battles and skirmishes in the Civil War (76 major battles in the Civil War vs. 22 in the Franco-German War). It took von Moltke 10 months to defeat the French and force them to negotiate a peace settlement. From the time that he was appointed General-in-Chief of the Union Armies, it took Ulysses S Grant 13 months to defeat the South and force them to accept unconditional surrender.

Comparison of Population and Casualties. The combined population of France and Germany was 78 million, of which 184,000 died in the war. The combined population of the US North and South was 32 million, of which 600,000 died in the war. The Civil War resulted in over three times as many casualties as the Franco-German War, yet the population of the North and South was less than half that of the combined population of Germany and France. The disparity in casualties between the two wars was the result of the longer duration and greater number of battles of the Civil War.

Comparison of Leadership. The Union and Confederacy were democracies whose rulers were elected, while Germany and initially France were ruled by monarchs with elected legislatures. The French lost the war because its Emperor and his senior army leadership were not capable of effectively formulating strategy and directing large military formations. Louis Napoleon’s military ability was limited and his Marshals resembled Fighting Joe Hooker and John Bell Hood, brave men who were totally outclassed by their opponents. The Prussian high command resembled that of Grant’s victorious armies of 1864-65. Like Grant, von Moltke was a sound strategist and a good decision maker. At the army and corps level, the German generals were competent professionals; this was not always true for the French. Unlike Grant, who left foreign affairs to Lincoln and Seward, von Moltke was to have fierce struggles with Minister-President Bismarck as to the interplay between war and diplomacy, which finally had to be resolved in Bismarck’s favour by King Wilhelm. In the second phase of the war, France was led by Leon Gambetta, a republican who had the support of most of the French people, was not prepared to compromise and like Jeff Davis proved inflexible in negotiating for peace.

Comparison of Military Operations. In the first three weeks of the war, the French mobilized 240,000 men and the Germans mobilized over 1 million, moving 462,000 men to the French frontier. In comparison, Grant moved into the Wilderness in 1864 with 101,000 men and Lee moved to Gettysburg in 1863 with 75,000 men. The defence proved stronger than the offence in both wars. Like Grant, von Moltke was on the offensive and intended to capture his opponent’s capital. Like Grant in 1864-65, von Moltke engaged in a series of close run battles that finally forced his opponent into fortified camps, in this case Sedan, Metz and Paris, as opposed to Petersburg. However, when faced with a French nation in arms, capable of mobilizing large numbers of highly motivated citizen soldiers and bands of insurgents, and led by competent generals, von Moltke experienced the same command and control issues as the Union generals in Kentucky, Tennessee and the Shenandoah Valley.

Like the American Civil War, the Franco-German War was fought in a number of theatres: in Alsace and Loraine, in and around Paris, west in the Loire Valley, north in the Somme Valley, and east in the Saone Valley, presenting challenges to decision makers of both sides on the allocation of resources.

Both wars saw the use of the telegraph to pass orders and information. To the Germans, with an effective staff system that allowed decentralized decision making, this was a bonus. To the French, with their system of centralized decision making, the telegraph allowed undue interference with battlefield commanders from Paris. Both wars saw the increasing influence of railways on military operations, which allowed the rapid deployment and resupply of mass armies. The Germans benefited from the lessons that the Union learned during the Civil War and developed the use of railways even further, but the French did not.

The Franco-German war saw the increasing importance of the staff system. The German staff system, which allowed the effective employment of huge armies, was superior to any staff system used in the Civil War. German planning was robust but the Germans displayed little tactical flair or enterprise. Sound German staff work made up for the lack of information and incorrect assessments of the situation.

In the Franco-German War, unlike in the American Civil War, there was no significant naval activity Like the Union, France had a powerful navy: 49 ironclads and 420 other vessels, which vastly outnumbered the Prussian navy. However, the French chose not to attack the North German ports and the French naval blockade of the North Sea and Baltic was ineffective.

The press in France and Germany, like that of the press during the Civil War, exposed military operations to public scrutiny, stirred up public opinion and provided intelligence to the enemy, as both friendly and neutral war correspondents frequently gave away military secrets.

Comparison of Tactics and Technology. Initially the French and German infantry, like that of both sides in the Civil War, attacked in dense masses. However, as the war progressed, the experienced German infantry used dispersed formations, concealment and fire and manoeuvre, while the newly raised French armies continued to use close order assault formations.  The infantry on both sides fortified their defensive positions with earthworks, and had a further advantage in the availability of robust stone buildings to reinforce their defensive works. The breech loading rifles of the French and Germans were superior to the Springfield and Enfield muzzle loading rifles used by the North and South in rates of fire, range and accuracy.

Unlike cavalry in the Civil War, French and German heavy cavalry charged infantry and artillery en mass with sabre and lance, and suffered heavy casualties as a result. The German light cavalry was successfully employed for reconnaissance and raids, in a manner similar to the Confederate and later the Union cavalry.

The Civil War saw the infantry, armed with rifled muzzle loaders, predominate over the artillery, while the Franco-German War saw the Germans restore artillery predominance to the battlefield. French artillery weapons and tactics were similar to those used by the North and South during the Civil War. The German artillery, equipped with Krupp steel, breech loading rifled cannon, was superior to any artillery used in the Civil War and was the deciding factor in most of the German victories.

Comparison of Economic Effects. Unlike the Civil War, where the economy of the industrialized North dwarfed that of the agrarian South, the economies of France and Germany were comparable. The Franco-German War actually stimulated the German economy, while the French economy recovered quickly. After the Civil War, while the North forged ahead with the building of a modern industrial state, the South was set back in industry and agriculture for at least a generation.

Conclusion. The American Civil War was a final war. It re-united the United States, subjugated the South and ended slavery in North America. It was the last major war fought on the North American continent. The Franco-German War was the first of three progressively more destructive wars fought in Europe. It united Germany, roused tremendous animosity and a thirst for revenge in France, changed the balance of power in Europe, and guaranteed that another war would follow.

Was von Moltke correct in stating that the Civil War was fought by: “two armed mobs chasing each other around the country, from which nothing could be learned”? If he referred to Grant’s advance into Virginia in 1864-65, he was badly misinformed. If he was referring to the chaotic organization and disjointed battles fought in 1861-2 by the Union he was perhaps right, but his stewardship of the German army in the second phase of the Franco-German War could be subjected to the same criticism.


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