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Chapter XXIX

  • Lessons of the Civil War
  • -- weakness of the military policy at the outbreak of the rebellion -- a poor use of the educated soldiers of the army -- military wisdom shown by the Confederate authorities -- Territorial strategy -- General military education indispensable to good citizenship -- organization of the national guard -- General Grant without military books -- measures necessary to the national defense.

in my opinion, the most important of all the lessons taught by the Civil War is the necessity of using in the most effective manner the means at the disposal of the government when war breaks out. The necessity for adequate preparation is a different question, which has been much discussed, and in regard to which some progress has been made toward a satisfactory solution. Whatever the outcome may be in respect to preparation for war, certainly the government and the people ought to adopt such a policy as will lead to the best practicable use of the preparations which have actually been made.

In this respect the policy adopted by the National Government in 1861 was about as weak as possible, while that of the Confederates was comparatively strong. It is said that this weak policy was due largely to General Scott, and grew out of his distrust of volunteer troops; he having thought it necessary to have a considerable body of regular troops to give steadiness and confidence to the volunteers or militia. This is a very good theory, no [514] doubt, provided the regulars could be provided in advance in such numbers as to produce the desired effect. But if that theory had been relied upon in 1861, the ‘Confederate States’ would have established their independence long before the regular army could be organized and made effective. What was demanded by the necessities of the country in 1861 was the best large army that could be made in the shortest possible time, not a better small army to be made in a much longer time.

The United States government actually had at hand the means of creating in a very short time a far larger efficient army than the South could possibly have raised in the same time. This means had been provided, with great care and at great expense, through a long term of years, by the education of young men at the Military Academy, and their practical training in the small regular army in all kinds of actual service, including one foreign war and almost constant campaigns against the Indians. Nowhere in the world could have been found a better corps of officers to organize, instruct, and discipline new troops. Yet those officers were hardly employed at all in that service at first, when it was of supreme importance. Some time later, when the necessity was not so great, a few officers of the army were permitted to accept commands in the volunteers. Even then it often required great ‘influence’ to secure such ‘indulgences.’ Scores of young officers, qualified in every way to do such service in the first six months of the war, sought in vain for opportunities to render the valuable services for which the government had educated them, and were compelled to drag along four years in the discharge of duties several grades below their qualifications.

In the regular army in 1861 there were, exclusive of those who went South, at least 600 officers who, after graduating at West Point, had served several years with their regiments, and were well qualified to drill a regiment [515] and to command it in battle. A large proportion of them were fitted to command brigades, and some of them divisions, and even army corps. The three years volunteers first called out could have been fully supplied with brigade, division, and corps commanders from graduates of West Point who were thoroughly qualified by theoretical education and established character, and many of them by practical experience in the Mexican war and Indian campaigns, for the instruction, discipline, and command of troops, still leaving a sufficient number with the regulars for efficient service. The old sergeants of the army in 1861 were relatively competent company commanders. One commissioned officer to four companies of those veteran Indian-fighters made as reliable a battalion as any general could wish for in the conditions then existing.

Experience demonstrated that a volunteer regiment could in a very few weeks be converted into an efficient and thoroughly reliable force in battle by a single young officer of the regular army. In other words, by a judicious use of the small body of officers whom the country had educated at so great expense, a fine army of 500,000 men, or more, could have been called into service, organized, disciplined, and put into the field by August 1, 1861; and that without interfering in any way with the three months militia called out to meet the first emergency, which militia ought, of course, to have acted strictly on the defensive until the more permanent force could take the field. In a few months more, certainly by the spring of 1862, the instruction, discipline, and field experience of the first levy would have given good officers enough to organize and command a million more men. It required, in short, only a wise use of the national resources to overwhelm the South before the spring of 1863.

The supply of arms, it is true, was deplorably deficient in 1861. But the South was only a little better off than the North in that regard. Besides, the National Government [516] had command of all the markets of the world, and of the means of ocean transportation. It could have bought at once all the available arms everywhere, and thus fully equipped its own troops, while preventing the South from doing the same. Hence the excuse given at the time—namely, want of muskets—was no excuse whatever for delay in the organization of armies.

The rebellion made some progress at first, and offered effective resistance for a long time, simply because the Southern authorities manifested greater military wisdom than the Northern. The difference in preparation and in military training in advance was quite insignificant. The North had many more educated and competent military men than the South. The difference was that the South used the few they had to the best advantage, while the North so used only a very few of their many.

The lesson next in importance taught by our experience is the necessity of general military education in a country having a popular government. No man can be fully qualified for the duties of a statesman until he has made a thorough study of the science of war in its broadest sense. He need not go to a military school, much less serve in the army or in the militia. But unless he makes himself thoroughly acquainted with the methods and conditions requisite to success in war, he is liable to do almost infinite damage to his country. For example, the very first success of the Union armies—the capture of Fort Donelson—was quickly followed by a proclamation of thanksgiving and an order to stop recruiting. That one act of ‘statesmanship’ cost the country untold millions of dollars and many thousands of lives. It was necessary only to take the ordinary military advantage of the popular enthusiasm throughout the country after Grant's first victory to have made the Union armies absolutely irresistible by any force the South could raise and arm at that time. [517]

There has been much irrelevant discussion about the ability or inability of commanders in the North and South. The fact is that political instead of military ideas controlled in very large degree the selection of commanders in the Union armies; while for three whole years the authorities in Washington could not see the necessity of unity of action in all the armies under one military leader. It required three years of costly experience to teach the government that simple lesson, taught in the military text-books! As experience finally proved, there was no lack of men capable of leading even large armies to victory; but, with few exceptions, they were not put in command until many others had been tried. Information as to military fitness was not sought from military sources. If a lawyer is wanted for the supreme bench, or an engineer to construct a great bridge, information is sought from the best men of the profession concerned; but the opinions of politicians were thought sufficient in determining the selection of major-generals!

Again, the policy of the government required the capture and occupation of all the important seaports and other places in the South, and the permanent occupation and protection of all the territory gained in military operations. Until near the close of the war, neither the public nor the government seemed to have the remotest conception of the fundamental fact that Confederate armies, wherever they might go, instead of places and States, were the only real objectives. Even some of the best Union generals were constrained to act upon this popular heresy, contrary to their own sound military judgment and education. Yet while this erroneous ‘territorial’ strategy was insisted on, no adequate conception was formed of the vastly greater force required to hold all the territory gained, and to push aggressive operations still further into the heart of the South. Very rarely indeed were the Union armies large enough, until [518] near the end of the war, to assure success. The end finally came through a long succession of desperate battles between forces so nearly equal that decisive victory was impossible until the weaker side finally became exhausted. Thus the aggregate loss in men as well as in money was vastly greater than it would have been if the Union had put forth its full strength and ended the rebellion in two years instead of four.

It is true that some of the worst of these ‘blind guides’ were men supposed to have a very high military education. But if sound military education had been at all general in the country, statesmen would have known by what standard to judge of any one man's fitness for high command.

It is true that no amount of military education can supply the place of military genius or create a great commander. It may possibly happen at any time that there may not be among all the living graduates of West Point one Grant or Sherman or Sheridan, or one Lee or Johnston or Jackson. So much greater the need of a well-educated staff and a well-disciplined army. Nobody is wise enough to predict who will prove best able to command a great army. But it is the easiest thing in the world to tell who can best create such an army and command its subdivisions, and this is the work to be done instantly upon the outbreak of war. The selection of commanders for the several armies, and, above all, of a general-in-chief, must of course be the most difficult; for it is not probable that any man young enough will have had any experience in such commands in this country. But even this difficulty will disappear in a very great measure if statesmen will make the study of the art and science of war, instead of far less important subjects, a part of their pastime. They will thus acquire the ability to judge, from personal acquaintance with military men and conversation with others best informed, of the relative fitness of officers for the highest commands. [519]

There is no possible remedy for such evils as this country has suffered except general military education. In my opinion, no man is fit for a seat in Congress unless he has such an education. The first thing he ought to learn is the old and trite military maxim that the only way to carry on war economically is to make it ‘short, sharp, and decisive.’ To dole out military appropriations in driblets is to invite disaster and ultimate bankruptcy. So it is in respect to the necessary preparations for war in time of peace. No man is wise enough to tell when war will come. Preparations are made upon the theory that it may come at any time. If a hundred millions are necessary for adequate preparation for defense, and you have spent only fifty when war comes, you might as well have thrown your fifty millions into the sea. There is no such thing as partial defense in modern war. If there are weak points in your defenses, your enemy is sure to find them. Indeed, he knows about them all the time, and will strike them at once. Then your whole costly system will be worthless.

What would be thought of the business capacity of a man who would not insure his house or his store or his stock of goods against fire because he did not happen to have money enough in bank to pay the premium, but would have to borrow it at three per cent.? Or of a man who would wait until he had realized the expected profit on a commercial venture before insuring the goods? If preparation for defense is the policy of a country, it would be little short of blindness to delay it on account of a temporary deficiency in the current revenues.

All now admit that universal education is an indispensable requisite to fitness for universal suffrage. The most serious questions upon which a free people can be called to vote are: a question of war, a question of preparation for war, and a question of approval and support, or disapproval and condemnation, of an administration on account [520] of the mode in which war has been conducted. Can this highest duty of the citizen be intelligently performed without military education? A sovereign individual regards this as demanding the highest education and the ablest counsel he can possibly obtain. Can sovereign millions do it wisely without any education whatever? I believe no proposition could possibly be plainer than that general military education is indispensable to good citizenship in this country, and especially to all who may be intrusted with high responsibilities in the legislative and executive departments of the National Government. What would be thought of a general of the army who tried to shield himself from censure or punishment behind his ignorance of the law? Can a legislator be excused because he knows nothing of the art and science of war? If there is any one offense in this country which ought never, under any circumstances, to be pardoned, it is ignorance in those who are trusted by the people to manage the affairs of their government. As in the military, so in the civil departments of government, there are few greater crimes than that of seeking and assuming the responsibilities of an office for which the man himself knows he is not fit. It is nearly as great as that committed by the appointing power under similar circumstances.

A system of general military education should of course include elementary training in all the schools, public and private, so that every boy, before he is sixteen years old, would know how to use the rifled musket in ranks, and be familiar with the simple evolutions of a company and battalion. Young men never forget such training received when they are boys. The country would have in a few years several millions of fairly well-trained young soldiers, requiring only competent officers and a few days' drill in regimental tactics to make a reliable army for any service this country will probably ever require of her volunteer soldiery. If it were a question of the invasion [521] of a foreign country against a modern veteran army, the case would be different. But for defense against any possible landing of a hostile army on our shores, our available force ought to be so overwhelming in numbers as to far more than compensate for lack of experience. Yet it must not be forgotten that some training is indispensable. No possible advantage in numbers can overcome the disadvantage resulting from total ignorance of tactics and of the use of the modern long-range rifle. Good parents who apprehend evil effects from giving their boys military training ought to reflect that the boys will go, all the same, whether trained or not, when the country is threatened with invasion. Then, if ignorant, they will simply be doomed to fall the victims of skilled marksmen to whose shots they know not how to reply. Possibly the most cruel fate which American parents could prepare for their sons would be to keep then in ignorance of the highest duty their country may call upon them to perform, so that, unable to offer any effective resistance to invasion, they could only die in a hopeless effort to do their duty as citizen soldiers and patriots—or, worse, live only to be driven in disgrace from a field which a little education would have enabled them gloriously to win.

There should be, under State authority, a general enrolment and organization of all the young men who have received military training, and places of rendezvous fixed at convenient centers at or near railway-stations. Officers of all grades up to that of colonel should be appointed in advance, and occasional musters held under State laws, even if military exercises were not attempted.

Our colleges and high schools, besides the military academies of the country, are even now educating a fair percentage of young men to be officers of such an organization of enrolled regiments as that here suggested. This percentage could easily be increased in accordance with the demand. Besides, the retired men of the regiments [522] of the National Guard in the several States might furnish some officers for the enrolled militia. But those well-trained and fully equipped regiments would be required to move with full ranks at once to the place of danger. Hence their active members would not be available in the great expansion of the army in the first period of war. The organization of the first reserve must, for this reason, be entirely independent of the National Guard.

A great and very important advance has already been made in bringing the regular army into close relations with the National Guard of the several States, and in the employment of regular officers in disseminating military education, both theoretical and practical, throughout the country. These are among the most valuable services the regular army can render in time of peace, and they should be extended, if practicable, still further. Especially in the State artillery, which must soon be organized for war service in the new fortifications, instruction by regular officers will be indispensable, and this can best be given in conjunction with the regular garrisons, the same as in war service. It would also be well to perfect an arrangement by which the new infantry regiments, when first taking the field upon the breaking out of war, might be accompanied by small bodies of regulars, to lead the way and indicate by example what is to be done. Experience has shown that under such example the rawest volunteers will be almost as stanch in battle as the regulars themselves. The beneficial effect upon new troops of the example of men who have before been in battle is very great. Hence it is that old regiments should always be kept full by the addition of recruits, rather than that the casualties of service be replaced by new regiments.

What constitutes valuable education, military no less than civil, is often greatly misunderstood. Elementary education and practical training are indispensable to everybody, while higher education may be rather injurious [523] than beneficial, unless it is so regulated as to cultivate the reasoning faculties and independence of thought, rather than mere acquisition of knowledge. Some notable examples of this have appeared in the military annals of this country, and no doubt in the civil also. Men who had become famous military scholars were total failures in war, not only as commanders in the field, for which no amount of theoretical education alone can qualify a man, but also as military advisers. This was apparently because their elaborate studies had made them mere imitators or copyists. Whatever originality of thought or power of invention they ever possessed had ceased to exist from disuse. They could plan and direct a campaign with absolute accuracy, according to the teachings of the great masters, for the well-defined purpose upon which those teachings had been based. But when a wholly new problem was presented to them, they had no conception of the right mode of solving it. The plan of one great campaign was based absolutely upon the best-approved method of capturing a certain place, without any reference to what damage might or might not be done to the opposing army in that operation. The plan of another great campaign had for its sole object the conquest and permanent occupation of a great territory, and was so conducted as to avoid the possibility of seriously hurting the enemy in that operation. Yet the theory upon which this last plan was based, as well as the first, governed the policy of the government more than two years.

It was not until Grant took command of ‘all the armies’ that the true strategic principle governed the general military policy. In this connection, the story told by Grant himself about his military studies is very instructive. When asked by the representative of some friends who wished to present him a library for his new house in Washington, what military books he then had, so that they might not duplicate them, he replied that he did not [524] have any military books, and never had any, except the West Point text-books. No doubt Grant might have profited by some additional study, but none at all was far better than so much as to have dwarfed his mind into that of an imitator of former commanders.

The development of great military ability in Grant, as the result of his own experience and independent thought,—that is, the independent development of his own native military genius,—is by far the most interesting part of his history.

In short, the great lesson taught by our own experience is that elementary military training should be universal, because every young man may be called upon to perform the duties of a soldier; that general military reading, and habits of independent thought upon all great military subjects, should be cultivated by all who aspire to any high place in life, because they may be called upon to discharge the highest possible duties of good citizens in peace or in war, namely, those connected with the national defense; that due preparation for defense ought to be made without delay, and the requisite means kept always ready; and, above all, that the best method of making the quickest possible effective use of those means ought to be fully matured and understood by all who may be called upon to execute the orders of the government.

It now seems to me amazing that the affairs of an enlightened nation could have been so badly managed as to leave the secession issue in doubt almost to the last moment of a four years contest, as it is now well known it was. Probably the one saving fact in all those years was that the young soldiers of the republic—and they were nearly all young then—knew little and cared less about the wrangling of self-seeking politicians and visionary doctrinaires in the rear, but fought steadily on to the end, never doubting for a moment the final triumph. I have never been able to recall a single instance of doubt [525] manifested by any soldier in the field, though I did know a very few cases of officers of considerable rank, who thought they ought to have had more rank, who went to the rear and said something about failure in the field.

I believe now that it required only some real emergency, such, for instance, as the capture of Washington in July, 1863, to call forth the power of the North and crush the rebellion in six months. If any man thinks a great disaster would have disheartened the North, he knows nothing of the people of our country. It was the slow waste of enormous resources and of latent military strength that at length made many even of the stoutest hearts begin to feel despondent. I do not believe there was any time when the people would not have responded with unanimity and enthusiasm to an appeal to put forth all their strength and end the rebellion at a single blow.

The one lesson of reason and experience that I would impress upon my countrymen in every possible way is, when war or insurrection comes or is threatened, do not trifle with it. Do not invoke judicial proceedings, or call for 75,000 men; but call for men, and let them come as many as will! If some of them do not get there in time, before it is all over, it will not cost much to send them home again! The services of the Pennsylvania reserve, though ready for the field, were actually, positively refused until after the disaster of Bull Run! The greatest wonder in the history of this wonderful republic is that the government actually survived such a military policy as that!

In this connection, it ought to be distinctly understood that the great object of education at West Point and other military schools is not to make high commanders, but to make thorough soldiers, men capable of creating effective armies in the shortest possible time, and of commanding comparatively small bodies of men. If great commanders are ever again required in this country, they [526] will come to the front in due time. They cannot be selected in advance of actual trial in war. Even West Point, though one of the best schools in the world, can at the most only lay the foundation of a military education. Each individual must build for himself upon that foundation the superstructure which is to mark his place in the world. If lie does not build, his monument will hardly appear above the surface of the ground, and will soon be covered out of sight.

It is of vital importance that the necessity of providing for calling into active service a very large army in the shortest possible time be fully understood. It is assumed that every important seaport will in time be so fortified as to be safe against any unsupported naval attack. Modern science has rendered this easy and certain. Hence a naval attack must necessarily be supported by the landing of a military force upon the open coast, to attack the land defenses in reverse; and such defenses are now far more vulnerable to attack in rear than those of former times.

The sea-coasts of the United States are many thousand miles in extent, and an attack may be made at any one or several of the many important seaports in these long lines of coast. No one can anticipate where the blow or blows may fall. Hence it is necessary to be prepared to resist an attempt to land at any one of those many points which are of such importance as to tempt an enemy to attack them. The railroad facilities of the country are such that the necessary armies can be moved to all exposed points in time to meet any emergency. But the armies must be ready to move almost at a moment's notice. There will be no time to organize, much less to drill, new troops. Before that could be done, any one or two or three of our largest seaport cities could be captured and destroyed, and the invading forces get back again on their transports, and under the protection of the guns of [527] their own fleet. And even if we had a navy more powerful than that of our enemy, it alone could give us no adequate protection; for the enemy would be sure to select a point of attack where our navy was not at the time, and which it could not reach until too late. Indispensable as a navy is to this country, it cannot act any very important part in the defense of so extended a sea-coast unless it is many times more powerful than any fleet which an enemy may send to attack us. The enemy being free to choose his point of attack, we would require at or near every one of the exposed points a fleet at least as large as his, or in the aggregate at least five times as large. No one, it is presumed, contemplates the creation of any such navy as that in this country.

Indeed, it would be the height of folly to require the navy to take part in the defense. In a country having the situation of the United States, the navy is the aggressive arm of the national military power. Its function is to punish an enemy until he is willing to submit to the national demands. For this purpose entire freedom of action is essential; also secure depots whence supplies may be drawn and where necessary repairs may be made, and harbors where cruisers or other vessels may seek safety if temporarily overpowered. Hence arises one of the most important functions of the land defense: to give the aggressive arm secure bases of operation at all the great seaports where navy-yards or depots are located. It may be that in special cases military forces may be needed to act in support of naval operations, or to hold for a time important points in a foreign country; but such service must be only auxiliary, not a primary object. Foreign conquest and permanent occupation are not a part of the policy of this country. There is no division of opinion among standard naval and military authorities on this great subject; such standard authors as Rear-Admiral Walker and Captain Mahan have clearly set [528] forth the relative functions of the army and the navy in enforcing the military policy of the United States. The military problem which this country must solve is to provide such means of aggressive and defensive action as to be able to enforce a due observance of American public law on this continent, and, while doing this, to defend itself against insult and spoliation. The land defenses, including torpedoes and in a few cases floating batteries, should be entirely independent of the active navy, so that the latter may be free to act in one compact mass against any enemy which may anywhere oppose it.

There will be another important necessity for very large forces of infantry and light artillery,—that is, large in the aggregate,—in the event of war with even a second-or third-class naval power: to protect our long lines of open coast and small unfortified harbors from destruction by the guns and landing-parties of the enemy's light-draft cruisers. This would require a ‘picket-line’ with considerable ‘reserves,’ several thousand miles in length. The national pride, if not the material interests involved, would not permit the government to submit to such destruction or spoliation without making every possible effort to prevent it. In short, unless the government and the people of the United States are willing to prepare in advance for putting into the field at a moment's notice a very large and effective army, as well as to fortify all important seaports, they may as well make up their minds to submit, at least for a time, to whatever indignity any considerable naval power may see fit to inflict upon them. No half-way measures will do any good. Fortifications without an army would be worth no more, against any country having a considerable army and navy, than an army without fortifications.

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