The First Modern War? presented by Wayne Pickering

(This is a synopsis of a lecture given to the Ottawa Civil War Round Table in November 2013)

Introduction. What historians term “late modern history” begins in the late 18th Century with the American and French Revolutions and the advent of the industrial age. As a result, most of us today consider the modern era to have begun with the industrial age of the 19th Century.

Military historians generally break warfare into two ages: the agrarian age and the industrial age, although futurists argue that we are now in a transition into a post-modern information age. The principal causes of war in the agrarian age were the dynastic and territorial ambitions of rulers. Agricultural age warfare was characterized by hand-to-hand combat. Armies manoeuvred in close order on relatively small battlefields, under the watchful eyes of their princes and generals. Cycles of change in warfare were centuries long, as the factors that generated change, namely population growth and dynastic politics, were relatively constant and the pace of military-technological innovation was very slow. There was a lengthy transition period between the ages of warfare and industrial age warfare evolved gradually, with machines at first complementing and then replacing the methods of the agrarian age. Three forces drove us into modern or industrial age warfare: cultural, technological and managerial.

The first force driving modern warfare, cultural, was the revolution in political thought that began with the American Revolution (1775-1783) and French Revolution (1789-1799). The French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) set the scene in his 1762 work The Social Contract which discussed the relation between the state and the citizen. He maintained that the state had a duty to protect the citizen and conversely the citizen had a duty to protect the state. Therefore every citizen is a potential soldier and the concept of “the nation in arms” was born.

The second force driving modern warfare resulted from the advances in science and engineering that began in England in about 1780, reached their full effect in the 1840s and became known as the “Industrial Revolution”.  The Industrial Revolution saw manufacturing processes going from manual to machine production and the muscle power of humans and animals replaced by mechanical power driven by water, steam, petroleum and electricity. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, the civilian factory worker rather than the king’s armourer was responsible for providing the resources needed to prosecute war. In the 1830s the first of two waves of major technological change to warfare began, which saw the introduction of rifled, breech loading firearms and ordnance, explosive shell firing guns, the railroad, steam navigation, screw propellers and the telegraph. The second wave began in the late 1850s and saw the introduction of magazine fed repeating rifles, machine guns, smokeless powder, improved fuses, quick firing artillery and iron clad warships. Both waves led to revolutionary changes in the mobilization and deployment of armies and navies, as well as in their firepower, mobility, protection, communications and logistics. Rail and steam navigation allowed the rapid movement of large numbers of men and supplies. However, militaries are inherently conservative and it took time for technological changes to be reflected in changes in the methods of waging war, and old and new methods often comingled.

The third force driving modern warfare was the revolution in management. In Europe and North America the industrial age brought about administrative reform and the dawn of specialization, with a new class of educated middle class professionals arising in business, government and academia. In conjunction with this, the Napoleonic wars of 1799-1815 introduced the concept of armies made up of independent corps, with the command of each delegated to a trusted subordinate; these corps in turn consisted of the traditional hierarchy of smaller and more manoeuvrable and easily controlled divisions, brigades, regiments and companies. The defeat of a single corps did not necessarily mean defeat of the nation. The management of large, complex and spread out industrial age businesses, in particular railroads, introduced changes in the techniques of administration. In parallel, more spread out military operations increased the “fog of war”, and better coordination and staff work was required. This led to changes in the commander’s management team in the appearance of specialist staff officers responsible for assisting commanders and translating the commander’s decisions and plans into orders. For the officer class, meritocracy replaced family background, and public service replaced personal loyalty to a king or prince.

The economics of war changed as well. Wars of early modern Europe, such as the wars of the French Revolution, were not conflicts where economic strength was decisive. Relatively limited economies were able to sustain these wars. This is not the case for industrial age wars.

There are 11 characteristics which appear to collectively govern industrial age warfare; not all are recent, some appeared before the industrial age but collectively they characterize modern warfare. They are shown in Table 1 below.

Characteristics Governing Industrial Age Warfare

  • Mass destruction is its core principle.
  • There is a blurred distinction between military targets and non-combatants.
  • War is waged by mass citizen armies led by professional senior officers.
  • To maximize efficiency, huge quantities of standardized weaponry are produced.
  • Combat is impersonal and is accomplished by weapons that are continually improved with technological advances.
  • Combat is supported by highly skilled labour.
  • Entrenchments and protected machines replace masonry fortifications and individual armour.
  • Command is supported by a bureaucratic staff and the use of electronic means of communications.
  • Mass mechanized transportation is used to move large bodies of personnel and materiel quickly and over long distances.
  • Massive financing is needed to support mass armies, mass production and mass transportation.
  • Government propaganda is used to sustain the war effort among citizens and to discourage enemy populations.

The presentation used World War I, which most historians agree is a modern war, as a benchmark to describe the characteristics of industrial age warfare listed above. It then examined the American Civil War against each of the characteristics and also offered arguments against the Civil War being the first modern war. Finally, it looked backwards to the two wars that occurred just before the American Civil War, the Crimean War and the War of Italian Independence, to determine if they meet the criteria of an industrial age war and perhaps predate the American Civil War as the first modern war.

The American Civil War. The American Civil War was the largest and longest lasting major war fought in the second half of the 19th Century. In 1860 the United States, although not a major military power, was rich in the manpower and resources needed to wage war in the industrial age, and the Civil War brought out issues of national existence of both North and South, and unleashed passions in a population that was both literate and politically aware.

The first major land engagement in the East, the five hour battle of First Manassas or Bull Run in July 1861, was reminiscent of Napoleonic War engagements. The Union campaigns of 1864 and 1865 sought strategic decision not in a single decisive battle, but through a single, coherent campaign, characterized by a series of linked operations, engagements and battles by independent army groups fought through Virginia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia and the Carolinas to defeat the Confederacy through attrition and constriction. These offensives overwhelmed the Confederate government’s ability to command its forces, ground down its manpower and strained its logistics. In the East, the war ended with a final sequence of engagements in 1864: the Wilderness, Spottsyvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor, Bermuda Hundred and Petersburg, followed in 1865 by Five Forks and Saylor’s Creek, where Grant and his Yankee technocrats, using the tools of the industrial age, ground the Confederacy into oblivion. Union success depended on continuous mobility and logistics and centralized communications, orchestrated by a large bureaucratic staff. Arguably the most important Union general after Ulysses S. Grant was not William Tecumseh Sherman, but Montgomery Meigs, the Union quartermaster general.

How then does the Civil War meet the criteria of industrial age warfare discussed above?

a. Mass destruction is its core principle.  By 1864 the North had defined its war aim as the elimination of the South’s will and ability to wage war, and not merely to occupy its territory. This was accomplished through the attrition of military manpower and the destruction or denial of resources and infrastructure.

The Civil War was the first major conflict where most of the infantry on both sides were armed with the rifled musket. The introduction of the cylindro-conoidal Minie bullet in 1852 mated the rifled musket with a round that could be quickly loaded and which properly engaged the rifling groves. The percussion cap and the Minie bullet enhanced the power of the rifled musket by making it serviceable in all weathers and by increasing its rate of fire, range, accuracy and lethality. The rifled musket greatly increased attrition on the battlefield; its power was illustrated early in the war on 17 September 1862 at Antietam, when 26,000 soldiers of both sides were killed, wounded or missing in a single day of fighting by two sides equipped with rifled muskets. When Grant took command of the Union armies in early 1864, he proposed a strategy of annihilation through attrition, with continual battle becoming synonymous with his campaigns. Between April-May 1864, from the battles of the Wilderness to Cold Harbor in Virginia, the Army of the Potomac inflicted 32,000 casualties on Lee, at the cost of 55,000 Union dead and wounded. Between July-August 1864 in Tennessee and Georgia Sherman inflicted 28,000 casualties on Johnson and Hood, at the cost of 22,000 Union dead and wounded. In a war with such casualties, the side with the larger population has the advantage. The North had three times the white male population of the South and could endure such casualties longer than the South.

To strike against the resources needed to raise and maintain armies is an indirect means of accomplishing their destruction. Early in the war the Union seized most of Tennessee, which was a major source of flour and meat for the South, its second largest industrial area and the source of most of its copper and gunpowder. This strategy continued throughout the war, with the seizure of the industrial and commercial city of New Orleans, overrunning of the coal and iron complex in Alabama and the destruction of the factories, farms and mines of Virginia. In the West the Union severed the eastern Confederacy from their sources of foodstuffs and leather in Western Louisiana and Texas and supplies from Mexico by Grant’s victory at Vicksburg and the subsequent Union dominance of the Mississippi River. In the 1864-65 campaign, Sherman’s march from Atlanta to Savannah cut the rail lines from the Southern heartland to its capital Richmond and torched the food producing lands, livestock and barns of Georgia.

An effective way of denying resources to an enemy is by blockading his coast. The South had little industry and depended on imported finished goods to sustain both its armies and its economy. Southern agriculture was concentrated on producing cash crops such as cotton, sugar cane and tobacco, and, in addition to industrial goods, the South was a net importer of food, clothing and medicine. From April 1861 the Union imposed a naval blockade of the South’s Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. By mid 1861, the number of ships entering Southern ports had dropped to 15 percent of the pre-war levels, and running the blockade was left to a small number of ship owners willing to take huge risks for high profits. The blockade was complemented by the seizure of Southern seaports.

Finally, the destruction of infrastructure. Rail, road and water transportation were needed to sustain the Southern armies and its economy and to feed its people. Northern advances were accompanied by the take-over or the deliberate and massive destruction of Southern railroads and the domination of Southern Rivers by Union gunboats. Northern advances also saw the deliberate destruction of cities such as Fredericksburg Va, Jackson Miss and Columbia SC and rail centers such as Atlanta Ga and Chattanooga Tenn.

b. There is a blurred distinction between military targets and non-combatants. The aim of the Union became not only the destruction of the armed forces of the South, but also their political, social and economic order. Although the numbers of civilians killed by bullet and shell in the Civil War was relatively small, there was widespread destruction of Southern cities, towns, factories, farms, foodstuffs, transportation and communications, much of it as a matter of policy, in particular during the bitter fighting in Northern Virginia, Sherman’s advance through Georgia and the Carolinas, Sheridan’s campaign in the Shenandoah and in the partisan fighting in Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky. If the terror and destruction of war could be carried to the people of the South, it was believed that the Confederate army would collapse because the people would lose their will to fight. In Sherman’s words: “We are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people…”  and  “if the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty…I will answer that war is war…if they want peace, they and their relatives must stop the war.”  As the Union blockade became more effective and the South’s inland transportation system collapsed, the cost of food, clothing and medicine increased and Southern civilians, unless they were wealthy, went hungry and became more susceptible to disease. These measures led to widespread misery to the civilians of the South: food shortages, disease, lack of shelter, psychological shock and the creation of hundreds of thousands of refugees. No accurate figures are available for civilian deaths due to privation and disease in the Civil War, but estimates range from 60,000-200,000.

c. War is waged by mass citizen armies led by professional senior officers. In 1861 the North and South began the war by mobilizing state militia and organizing volunteer regiments. In March 1863 the Union imposed a system of selective service, or conscription, on all white males, but with substitutes allowed for those who could afford to pay. The Union raised 2.9 million men during the war, and its army peaked at 600,000, but most of these were volunteers. The South imposed conscription in April 1862 for all white males age 18-35, with a number of exemptions, including major slaveholders and plantation overseers.  The South raised 1.3 million men during the war and its army peaked at 260,000. To equip such large armies, both sides mobilized their economies. The North had 110,000 industrial establishments with 1.3 million industrial workers. The South, with only 15 percent of the North’s industry, could not compete. In the United States, the dawn of specialization had arrived and a new class of educated professionals was arising in business, government and academia. This was also true in the military. In late 1861 professional officers accounted for about 65 percent of Union generals and 50 percent of Confederate generals. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point provided a specialized college education and opened the officer corps to all classes of society. Although West Point graduates made up a small percentage of the officer corps of North and South during the Civil War, they occupied many of the key command and staff positions. For example, over one-third of the general officers of both North and South were graduates of West Point. Of the war’s 60 major battles, 55 had West Point graduates commanding both sides and in the other five a West Pointer commanded one side.

d. To maximize efficiency, huge quantities of standardized weaponry are produced. During the Civil War the North, and to a lesser extent the South, applied mass production and assembly line techniques to manufacture large quantities of weapons.  Three examples are small arms, artillery and gunboats. The North and South used 2 1/4 million rifled muskets. Although they were initially of many types, by war’s end the Northern infantry had standardized on the Springfield, of which 1 ½ million were produced, and the South on the British Enfield. By the end of the war, the Union had produced 1900 mobile field and siege guns and 1100 fixed guns for fortifications and ships. The quantities produced of one type of cannon alone, the Napoleon 12 pdr field gun, were 1100 for the North and 500 for the South. In 1861-62 the North built a class of 23 identical wooden steam gunboats, each of 500 tons and armed with five heavy guns; the first four were completed in 90 days. From 1862-65 the North built 48 ironclad gunboats modeled after the USS Monitor, each with one or more turrets mounting heavy calibre guns, while the South commissioned 22 ironclad rams.

e. Combat is impersonal and is accomplished by weapons that are continually improved with technological advances. The rifled musket had a battle range of 300 yards, great accuracy and a rate of fire of three rounds/minute. By 1862 the Union had introduced the Sharps breech loading carbine, with a combat range of 250 yards and a rate of fire of 8-10 rounds/minute. This was followed by the Spencer and Henry repeating rifles which fired 14-20 rounds/minute. The Spencer had a seven round magazine and the Henry had a 15 round magazine. Initially breech loading and repeating rifles were issued to the cavalry and snipers. By early 1864 large quantities of repeating rifles and carbines began to be issued to the Union Army, a factor that helped to make 1864 a decisive year on the battlefield. By 1865 the North had produced over 200,000 breech loading rifles and 100,000 repeating rifles and the US Ordnance Board had adopted the breech loading rifle as the standard infantry weapon. Both sides began the War with the 12 pdr Napoleon, a muzzle loading smoothbore cannon with an effective range of 1600 yards and a rate of fire of 2-4 rounds/minute. As the war continued, the Union complemented the Napoleon with more accurate Rodman 3 inch and Parrott 20 pdr rifled cannon, with ranges of 1900 yards. The Confederates imported from Britain fast firing Whitworth breech loading rifled cannon, with ranges of up to 2800 yards. Later in the war the lethality of artillery was further increased by massing regimental and divisional batteries into artillery battalions and brigades at the corps and army level. The range of the rifled musket and artillery grapeshot and shrapnel meant that firers no longer needed personal contact with their targets; and in some cases, due to the use of trenches and the heavy smoke caused by black powder, did not even see them.

Conversely, casualties caused by hand-to-hand combat dramatically decreased.  Only 0.4 percent of Civil War wounds were inflicted by sword or bayonet. The sabre suffered a similar fate. The Civil War was the first war where mounted cavalry was of little shock value, with cavalry battles being incidental to cavalry’s new primary role of strategic reconnaissance, screening larger forces, intelligence gathering and long range raiding. In the Civil War, cavalry killed with carbines, and almost always dismounted.

It was the same at sea. The Union navy started the war with fully-rigged wooden steam warships, with broadsides of solid shot and boarding parties. However, the Civil War mated steam power, screw propulsion, iron cladding, the turret and the shell gun, a combination which doomed sail power and unarmoured wood construction. The sea going Monitor class, introduced by the Union in 1862 and continually improved, combined these features into one vessel. In March 1862, during the engagement between the steam driven ironclads USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (aka Merrimack), neither crew saw each other. Conversely, the Civil War saw the decline of the naval boarding party.

f. Combat is supported by highly skilled labour. Four modern specialized military branches that complemented the infantry, cavalry and artillery branches appeared in the Civil War.

Corps of Engineers. Although formed in 1802, until the Civil War the engineers in the U.S. Army consisted of a small number of specialist military officers, who were considered staff and not line, trained to conduct surveys for roads and forts and supervise non-specialist troops and civilians in construction projects. The demand for field fortification and other engineering works in the Civil War resulted in both sides forming Corps of Engineers of trained civil engineer officers and artisan soldiers: by 1864 the Union had 86 officers and 9000 men and the Confederacy 300 officers and 4000 men.

Signals Corps. The Civil War was the first war to be fought with modern communications systems and both North and South organized Corps of Signallers to operate their flag and telegraph systems. In 1860 a tactical communications system of semaphore, sent by flags or lights, was adopted to complement couriers. The Morse telegraph appeared in 1844 and by 1861 the Union had created the first of 30 “flying telegraph” trains equipped with portable telegraph systems. The Union introduced a portable tactical telegraph, with wire unreeled from wagons and mules, which allowed division headquarters to keep up with advancing troops. In March 1863 the Union Signal Corps was created as a separate branch and by 1864 totalled 300 officers and 2500 men.

Aeronautic Corps. Both sides used gas filled balloons for reconnaissance, signalling and directing artillery fire, at heights up to 1000 ft. The Union Aeronautic Corps, organized in July 1861, had portable hydrogen generators and was equipped with lightweight telegraph equipment with five miles of cable.

Railroad Troops. The US Military Railroad Construction Corps included 24,000 men, mostly civilians under military command. They operated locomotives, laid track and built trestles. They developed rapid track laying techniques and prefabricated trestle components. By 1865 the U.S. Military Railroad System, which operated railroads in Union held Virginia and Tennessee, had 2100 miles of track and 400 locomotives.

g. Entrenchments and protected machines replace masonry fortifications and individual armour.  The rifled musket doomed the frontal assault, ushered in the entrenched battlefield and brought out the importance of the spade and axe.  In 1861 Lee had his men dig trench lines in front of Richmond, earning him the derisive title “the King of Spades”. Spurred by the lethality of the rifle bullet, earthen field fortifications, reinforced with sandbags and log revetments, appeared during the Seven Days’ Battles in 1861 and trench warfare, characterized by multiple lines of earthworks, became the norm by the end of 1863. The trenches were reinforced by cleared field of fire, obstacles such as ditches, abatis (pointed stakes), palisades and wire entanglements. As the war progressed, both defender and attacker dug in as a matter of course. By 1865 the trench lines of both sides during the 10-month siege at Petersburg extended 35 miles.

Steam propulsion and ironclad construction made ships faster and more manoeuvrable, therefore more difficult to hit, and protected their crews, guns, magazines and engines. Union ironclads with long range rifled shell guns were able to batter any Southern masonry coastal fort into submission with minimal injury to their crews and Union ironclads protected Union troops moving along rivers.

h. Command is supported by a bureaucratic staff and the use of electronic means of communications. Union Secretary of War Stanton made a number of managerial and operational reforms to bring the archaic War Department up to the standard of the times, including establishing the War Board, which coordinated the activities of the bureaus in Washington and recommended strategy, and appointed Major General Henry Halleck as the defacto Union chief of staff with the responsibility of coordinating military operations. The resulting informal structure possessed many of the qualities of a modern staff system. The Union logistics staff of Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs used modern concepts of organization and management, including the close integration of supply with operational planning. The staffs of Meigs’ subordinate Herman Haupt, the Union railroad chief, coordinated rail movement with strategic planning, scheduled the movement of large numbers of locomotives, wagons and ships and produced the associated staff work.

As a rule the generals commanding field armies: Grant, Sherman, Meade, Lee, Johnson and Bragg, rarely lead their troops into battle personally. The field army of neither side had a staff college or a Prussian style operational staff system to translate their general’s intentions into action and to plan, organize and integrate operations, intelligence and logistics or to make decisions on behalf of the commander. However senior commanders on both sides employed a number of staff officers to prepare orders and collate information and in Stonewall Jackson’s corps, to ensure tactical co-ordination. The Union organized a separate strategic Military-Telegraph Corps, made up of civilians, to pass information between higher headquarters quickly, improve command and control and coordinate operations and logistics. By 1864 strategic wire communications linked every Union division, corps, army and major supply depot.

j. Mass mechanized transportation is used to move large bodies of men and materiel quickly and over long distances. The use of railroads allowed large numbers of troops, equipment and supplies to be moved and concentrated quickly and enabled both sides to mobilize, supply and deploy armies of unprecedented size at unprecedented speeds. Railroads also allowed commanders to rapidly change their lines of operations. The Union armies were the first in history to be supplied over long distances and for long periods of time by railroads; without the railroad Union operations over extensive territory would have been impossible. Northern campaign strategy was often based on the availability and capacity of rail lines.  The most spectacular use of railroads for the movement of troops was in September 1863, when Hooker’s two Union Corps of 25,000 men and 60 cannon were moved by rail from Alexandria Virginia to Bridgeport Alabama, near Chattanooga in 11 ½ days to reinforce Rosecrans after his defeat at Chickamauga. During Sherman’s Atlanta campaign, a single-track railroad of 475 miles carried supplies for 100,000 men and 35,000 animals for 196 days.

The Union campaign in the West relied on the steamboat. In 1860 over 700 steamboats plied the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio River systems. In February 1861 Grant used steam gunboats and transports to capture Forts Henry and Donelson. Sherman, during his expedition to the Yazoo River near Vicksburg in December 1862, moved a force of 25,000 Union troops deep into Confederate territory by riverboat, supported by Porter’s gunboats. In February 1863 Grant moved his entire army of 45,000 by steamboat from Memphis to Milliken’s Bend, just North of Vicksburg. The Union used coastal shipping extensively for strategic moves of corps and armies. In the March-April deployment for the 1862 Peninsular Campaign, McClellan moved 120,000 men, 14,000 horses and mules and 44 artillery batteries from northern Virginia down the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay to the Peninsula east of Richmond, using 128 steamers.

The railroad and steamboat, managed by telegraphic communications, made it possible to repair the appalling casualties of major battles, to rapidly resupply and reequip armies, to deploy reinforcements from other theatres to close gaps which the enemy opened up, and to manoeuvre armies so as to prevent tactical defeat from turning into destruction.

k. Massive financing is needed to support mass armies, mass production and mass transportation. By 1864 the U.S. government was spending $25 million a week on the war. Initially the U.S. monetary system, where only gold and silver coin were legal tender, and the taxation system, which taxed imports and exports, was incapable of financing the war. In February 1862 U.S. Treasury Notes backed by gold reserves became legal tender. By May 1864 the Union introduced a modern system of finance, including income tax, and floated huge government borrowing in the form of war bonds. In 1864, of Union income, 62 percent was provided by bonds backed by government guarantees, 21 percent by taxes and 13 percent by printing paper money backed by gold. The cost of the war to the Union was over $4 billion.

The Confederacy mismanaged its finances. It introduced ineffective tax laws in April 1863 and was never able to raise adequate revenue by taxes. To finance the war effort, the South relied on paper money, backed by government credit, loan certificates and ineffective bonds guaranteed by future cotton sales. The Confederate debt by the end of the war was $2.3 billion and their money and bonds were worthless.

l. Propaganda is used by governments to sustain the war effort among its people and to discourage enemy populations. War waged against the enemy’s will, fought by citizen armies spurred on by ideology and nationalism, was new to warfare. This was made possible by increased literacy. In the North Eastern states 95 percent of adults could read and write, while in the South and West over 80 percent of the white population was literate. There were 4000 daily newspapers and periodicals, printed in every major city and town in the North and South. The years before the war saw newspapers on both sides distributing violent propaganda, which over time obliterated any sense of moderation. During the war, correspondents sent daily reports to their editors by telegraph. Censorship was rarely imposed directly, but newspapers in the North and South that were hostile to the war effort were closed down, either by government edict or mob action. In addition, the governments of both sides became skilled at manipulating news stories.

The Counter Arguments. Some historians do not consider that the Civil War was the first modern war, but rather believe that it was a transitional struggle. Sadly, some of their arguments could also be used to disqualify World War I as a modern war. Some of the arguments used by historians, particularly Europeans, to disqualify the American Civil War as the first modern war are shown in Table 2 below.

Arguments Used to Disqualify American Civil War as First Modern War

  • The first years of the war were a limited struggle.
  • Commanders on both sides expressed continued faith in a decisive battle.
  • Regimental battle tactics differed little from those of Napoleon.
  • The effects of the new weapons and logistics were delayed.
  • Romantic notions of warfare continued.
  • Armies depended on manpower and horse drawn transport for movement.
  • There were problems with ammunition resupply.
  • The war remained a conflict between men.

The Crimean War and the War of Italian Independence. The presentation then examined two wars that occurred in the decade before the American Civil War to determine if they meet the criteria for a modern war.

The Crimean War of 1854-56 was a limited war fought for limited purposes between Russia and Turkey. Turkey was supported by Britain, France and Sardinia and an Allied expeditionary force consisting of 25,000 British and 40,000 French regulars. The main event, the siege of the Russian naval fortress of Sebastopol by the Allies, lasted from October 1854 to September 1855, when the Russians evacuated Sebastopol. The Crimean War saw the use of some modern technology, but it was applied in a sporadic manner. While the Russian infantry were still armed with smoothbore muskets, almost all British infantry and the French light infantry were armed with rifled muskets; however, infantry tactics were not affected. Throughout the war the infantry fought in tight formations, the French using Napoleonic columns, the British double lines dressed shoulder to shoulder. Cavalry charged with considerable effect with lance and sabre, and rarely used their carbines. The British converted some of their cast iron smoothbore cannon into rifled guns, but their influence was not significant. British and French warships, wooden steamers with smoothbore guns, quickly established supremacy over Russia’s sail fleet in the Black Sea, however Allied naval gunfire proved ineffective against the walls of Sebastopol and the French were forced to build floating batteries protected by iron plates. The Crimean War was the most incompetently planned, poorly executed and badly managed conflict of the 19th Century. Officers whose qualifications for command were social status, influence and privilege led both sides. Orders were often vague and obscure,  best illustrated by the order that committed the Light Brigade to the charge at Balaclava. Incompetent supply and transport planning caused great suffering among Allied soldiers from hunger, cold and disease. Finance did not prove to be a major problem to the British and French treasuries, each supplied about $150M from the imperial coffers.

The War of Italian Independence, fought between the French Army and their Italian allies and the Austro-Hungarian Empire from April to July 1859, was a short limited war fought by professional armies. Both the French and Austrians were armed with rifled muskets and the initial French troop movement was partly by rail. A treaty ended hostilities before the effect of the rifle had any major impact, other than at the Battle of Solferino, a bloody and confusing encounter battle, where the carnage resulted in the founding of the International Red Cross. The War of Italian Independence has been called a war in 1859 fought by armies of 1809 using tactics from 1759.

The American Civil War and European Military Thought. The American Civil War was a war of attrition, won by the mobilization of the industrial and technological strength of the North. Had Europeans recognized it, the Civil War provided a sobering vision of future warfare. However, European armies were slow to acknowledge the lessons of the Civil War; indeed many European historians refused to consider it as a modern war until after World War I, and some still refuse to consider it as such.  Although major European armies sent military observers to the Civil War, for many years the Civil War remained almost unnoticed by their senior staffs. To the French army, forcefully expressed by their doctrinal guru Colonel Louis de Grandmaison, the power of the defence, brought about by the rifled musket, massed artillery and field fortifications, challenged the Napoleon ideal of l’attaque a outrance, the attack to the limit symbolized by the bayonet charge. To the German army the seemingly chaotic nature of the Civil War challenged their concept of careful and meticulous planning by a well-trained staff. In the words of the elder Von Moltke, the Civil War was fought by: “two armed mobs chasing each other around the country, from which nothing could be learned”. To some in the British army, the emergence of a corps of professional officers, the relegation of the cavalry as a support arm of the infantry and the defeat of the genteel land owning Southern chivalry by the crass Northern shovelry, was almost too much to bear. However, one of the few European political and military leaders to recognize that future wars would be long and would require the complete mobilization of national resources was Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, a Royal Engineer officer. Navies were quicker to absorb the lessons of the Civil War, in particular the marriage of steam power, screw propulsion, iron cladding and the shell gun, although European navies did not build ships similar to the sea going monitors for another 10 years.

Conclusion. To conclude, the presentation compared the Civil War to 11 characteristics of a modern war, repeated some arguments against it being a modern war, discounted as modern wars two wars fought in Europe in the decade before the Civil War and explained why Europeans refused to consider the nature of the Civil War until after World War I.


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The American Civil War – The First Modern War? © W.L. Pickering, November 2013