My understanding (which could be wrong) is that armies in the U.S. civil war were "bloody" in the sense that soldiers did not retreat or were sent directly into fire, until one side was wiped out. If I'm wrong about that please correct me.

I'm just curious why the North and South didn't use guerrilla fighting techniques, by which I mean taking cover, spreading out, etc. if these techniques were helpful in the Revolutionary War.

It might be that my understanding of battle history is wrong, but in general I'm interested in the historical context by which the Revolutionary War was called "England's Vietnam" due to England's army's inflexibility compared to colonist soldiers, while somehow 90 years later these inflexible fighting techniques were used.

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    The use of guerrilla fighting techniques in the American Revolution tends to be greatly overstated. Almost all of the significant battles were fought and won using traditional formations and tactics. Commented Jul 31, 2016 at 11:14
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    The Union had fixed assets that it needed to protect: its industrial centers, its rail network, and its capitol, which was close to the front lines and nearly got taken. The Confederacy was terrified of slave insurrection, and many slaves escaped and acted as spies and guides for the Union.
    – user2848
    Commented Jul 31, 2016 at 18:19
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    It's an interesting question but unfortunately, it relies on what is an incorrect definition of a "guerilla" warfare.
    – Anaryl
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 18:30
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    Consider what circumstances guerrilla warfare occurs in and how it typically evolves. Guerrilla is asymmetrical warfare, engaged in by a heavily outmatched combatant, usually because they cannot engage in traditional warfare. This didn't apply in the US civil war. As a tactic employed by the much weaker force, it usually fails, and when it doesn't, provided it doesn't convince the stronger force to leave, it typically evolves into traditional warfare. Vietnam is an example, which was ultimately won by the NVA, using traditional warfare tactics, or ISIS for a contemporary example. Commented Aug 3, 2016 at 6:37
  • if you expand your scope of "the civil war" to include the military occupation period from 1865-77, then the South unambiguously did engage in guerilla warfare. guerilla warfare is something you do when conventional warfare fails. After the surrender in 1865, this is exactly what white Southerners did. Commented Dec 16, 2020 at 0:32

11 Answers 11


Whilst it's an interesting topic, unfortunately, the questions, answers, definitions and many facts are entirely incorrect.

Lets address some of the inaccuracies first and see if we can drill down to what the author is driving at.

My understanding (which could be wrong) is that armies in the U.S. civil war were "bloody" in the sense that soldiers did not retreat or were sent directly into fire, until one side was wiped out.

This is not remotely true. The reason why casualties in the Civil War were so high often had little to do with combat, but rather disease. Here's an interesting random fact:

During the Civil War, diarrhea (Greek, meaning “I flow away”) was the most common and deadly disease. More Civil War soldiers died from diarrhea than were killed in battle. About 1 in 40 cases was fatal. Death came from dehydration, exhaustion, or the rupture of the intestinal wall.

Federal soldiers were over twice as likely to die from disease than combat for the Confederates, were just under half as likely to die from disease. (one source quotes 94000 KIA to 164000 of disease).

Nor were battles in the Civil War often decisive, at least in the terms described by the OP. For example, the Battle of Antietam, one of the bloodiest battles of the war, had a Union Army of 75,300 face the Confederate Army of 52,000. Casualties were: Union: 12,400 Confederate: 10,300 1 These are certainly exorbitant casualty rates - in excess of 20% KIA, but certainly not

until one side was wiped out.

If we look at the battle of Gettysburg we see similar casualty rates: Total engaged: South: 75,000 (S) North: 82,289

Casualties North: 23,049 South: 28,063 Total: 51,112

In fact in most wars, battles of annihilation are very uncommon. It's also very rare for commanders to expend the entirety of their armies in combat.

Let's address some of the semantic inaccuracies next.

I'm just curious why the North and South didn't use guerrilla fighting techniques, by which I mean taking cover, spreading out, etc. if these techniques were helpful in the Revolutionary War.

First of all, what you are describing is not guerilla warfare. What you are describing is either modern infantry tactics or skirmishing. This is not irregular warfare necessarily. Wikipedia defines it as:

Guerrilla warfare is a form of irregular warfare in which a small group of combatants such as paramilitary personnel, armed civilians, or irregulars use military tactics including ambushes, sabotage, raids, petty warfare, hit-and-run tactics, and mobility to fight a larger and less-mobile traditional military.

Arda Bilgen of Small Wars Journal offers a lengthier analysis of Mao's elements of irregular warfare

To begin with, Mao puts a great deal of emphasis upon three major elements throughout the book. The asymmetry between a conventional and an unconventional force is indeed one of them. Mao sees this power gap as an opportunity rather than a deficit and maintains that “conditions of terrain, climate, and society in general offers obstacles to [invader’s] progress and may be used to advantage by those who oppose him.

In guerilla warfare, we turn these advantages to the purpose of resisting and defeating the enemy.”[i] In other words, he believes it makes critical sense to ‘provoke and bait’ the enemy to unfamiliar territory and circumstances; dragging the enemy into a murky struggle may even be a precondition for victory. Asymmetry, therefore, is not a source for vulnerability for guerrilla. On the contrary, it is an opportunity to stick to the “conservation of his own strength and destruction of enemy strength.”[ii]

For Mao, the second major element that is of crucial importance is the role of ‘people.’ It is made clear that the guerrilla movement is doomed to fail without the support of locals. In Mao’s words, “because guerrilla warfare basically derives from the masses and is supported by them, it can neither exist nor flourish if it separates itself from their sympathies and cooperation.”[iii]

People are the backbone of a guerrilla movement because they constitute the recruitment pool and play an important role in supply and logistics. Also, the struggle is thought to be in the interest of them. The third element Mao emphasizes is the distinct feature of guerrilla warfare. He argues that “the general features of orthodox hostilities, that is, the war of position and the war of movement, differ fundamentally from guerilla warfare…The enemy’s rear is the guerrilla’s front.”[iv]

In this context, Mao maintains that guerrillas should always be constantly active, mobile and alert no matter how inconvenient the conditions of terrain, weather, or communication lines are. Deception, speed and surprises are all potential game changers. Due to their greater independence, mobility, and maneuver capability compared to centralized forces, guerrillas have the ability to inflict psychological damage in addition to physical damage on the enemy. It might at first sight look like their weakness to operate in small groups that can be wiped out in a matter of minutes. However, since they avoid the static dispositions, they can easily and secretly move into the vulnerable rear of the enemy.[v] Mobility, therefore, is a sine qua non principle along with the asymmetry and people, from Mao’s perspective.

Comparing Mao and Kilcullen - Small Wars Journal 17/11/11 - Arda Bilgen

Guevara describes it as

"used by the side which is supported by a majority but which possesses a much smaller number of arms for use in defense against oppression".

The two actors in the Civil War do not fit this bill. Whilst the Confederacy was much, much weaker than the North, they were both near peer state level adversaries. Not only this, but both sides engaged in conventional warfare, seeking to capture and hold territory.

We also need to examine the end-states, or victory conditions for either side. For the South, all that was required for victory was to defeat Union aggression, whereas the North had to effect a reconquest of the South in order to achieve victory. Strategic guerilla warfare (a le Vietnam or the Revolutionary War) was not an option for either actor as it did not help fulfill their victory conditions.

Let's correct something else in another answer

What did Stonewall Jackson do in the Shenandoah Valley?

The Shenandoah Campaign (Bull Run) was unequivocally not a guerilla campaign. It could possibly be described as a 'deep raid', but was ultimately carried out by regular forces in a conventional campaign using maneuver tactics.

That said, there were in fact guerilla actions carried out by partisans on both sides. However, these campaigns were not strategic in nature, and were devolved local actions that were usually detached from the conventional command structure.

Wikipedia describes them as:

In general during the Civil War, this type of irregular warfare was conducted in the hinterland of the Border States (Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and northwestern Virginia / West Virginia). It was marked by a vicious neighbor-against-neighbor quality as other grudges got settled. It was frequent for residents of one part of a single county to take up arms against their counterparts in the rest of the vicinity. Bushwhacking, murder, assault, and terrorism were characteristics of this kind of fighting. Few participants wore uniforms or were formally mustered into the actual armies. In many cases, it was civilian against civilian, or civilian against opposing enemy troops. Wikpedia - Guerilla Warfare during teh Civil War

The author is conflating modern infantry tactics with guerilla warfare. His initial question: "Why didn't the actors in the Civil War conduct irregular warfare?" can be answered with: "well they kind of did" - although there were varying level of attachment to regular forces.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-Mississippi_Theater_of_the_American_Civil_War

The reasons for the high casualties were evolving battlefield technology, poor command and control of large armies which American officers had no experience with, and disease. Contact with the enemy was common and bloody but rarely decisive. By the time the Confederacy seriously examined the prospect of irregular warfare on a strategic scale, the war was already lost, and they quite wisely decided to throw in the towel. However, local partisan actions did occur but was as often civilians settling scores with each other or paramilitaries operating behind enemy lines, without formal oversight from the chain of command.

EDIT/part 2

So I think that's only the first part of what the author was really thinking. It was sort of nagging at me over the past couple of days.

So what the author I suppose is really talking about is actually why (if it was) fought with Napoleonic style tactics rather than more modern infantry tactics as we saw evolve over the next century.

So to re-frame the question:

What impact did Civil War Tactics have on casualty rates, and how does this compare to similar conflicts? Were nhe higher casualties rates were a result of disease.

Some commenters and answers were also quite correct in bringing up the smooth-bore rifle, and the advent of rifling and the implications this had for the conduct of warfare.

I also believe that we need to place 'modern' infantry tactics in context as the move from formations of infantry on the battlefield to the evolution of small unit tactics.

So to start with Wikipedia describes the state of tactics at the start of the war.

Traditionally, historians have stated that many generals, particularly early in the war, preferred to use Napoleonic tactics, despite the increased killing power of period weaponry. They marched their men out in tightly closed formations, often with soldiers elbow-to-elbow in double-rank battle lines, usually in brigade (by mid-war numbering about 2,500–3,000 infantrymen) or division (by mid-war numbering about 6,000–10,000 infantrymen) strength. The

This had the consequence on the battlefield that:

This large mass presented an easy target for defenders, who could easily fire several volleys before his enemy would be close enough for hand-to-hand combat. The idea was to close on the enemy's position with this mass of soldiers and charge them with the bayonet, convincing the enemy to leave their position or be killed. At times, these soon-to-be outdated tactics contributed to high casualty lists.

We know that at that outbreak of the war the Union Army was sing the 'Hardee handbook' which still called for soldiers to march shoulder to shoulder. The generals expectations were something akin to the Napoleonic wars. The text of which can be found here Hardee's

John Watts de Peyster advocated making the skirmish line the new line of battle during the Civil War. By the end of the century, fighting in formation had fallen out of vogue and essentially all infantry became skirmishers.

His treatise New American Tactics was a series of articles published in The Army and Navy Journal that advocated making the skirmish line the new line of battle, which was considered revolutionary at the time.[10] These contributions were translated and copied into foreign military journals, including Correard's renowned Biographie des célébrités militaires des armées de terre et de mer. Such tactics were put into practice by generals including John Buford and were later adopted worldwide.[10]

Several innovations were important to the changing conditions on teh battlefield which played a part. We need to look at the evolution of warfare from around the period to track how these changes affected tactics.

For example at Antietam, soldiers were reported to take cover when firing on the enemy. House, stonewalls and even rocks were used as cover by troops rather than fighting in lines.

'Hardee formations' were used for traveling on the battlefield, initially firing by volley from the line. However as the war dragged on soldiers began hiding behind fortifications whenever they could. Once in battle soldiers would take whatever they could find for cover. These formations were still necessary for coordinating large bodies of troops. Command and control on the battlefield was limited to bugle calls an shouting.

The Minie Ball was a major innovation in musketry - allowing a much greater accuracy and rate of fire. The innovation itself drove wider adoption of the rifle, a long reload times no longer were as much of a concern.

Wikipedia describes the physical charac3ersistics of the Minie Ball:

a conical bullet (known as a Minié ball) with a hollow skirt at the base of the bullet. When fired, the skirt would expand from the pressure of the exploding charge and grip the rifling as the round was fired. The better seal gave more power, as less gas escaped past the bullet, which combined with the fact that for the same bore (caliber) diameter a long bullet was heavier than a round ball.

The Minié system allowed conical bullets to be loaded into rifles just as quickly as round balls in smooth bores, which allowed rifle muskets to replace muskets on the battlefield.

The invention of the minie balls in the 1840s solved the slow loading problem, and in the 1850s and 1860s rifles quickly replaced muskets on the battlefield.

The extra grip also spun the bullet more consistently, which increased the range from about 50 yards for a smooth bore musket to about 300 yards for a rifle using the Minié system. The expanding skirt of the Minié ball also solved the problem that earlier tight fitting bullets were difficult to load as black powder residue fouled the inside of the barrel.

There are alternative viewpoints on the efficacy of the rifle in driving tactical innovation. As quoted below, Guelzo believes that the rifle did not maintain a sufficient casualty to to shot ratio to have sufficiently.,

However, historians such as Allen C. Guelzo reject this traditional criticism of Civil War infantry tactics. Casualty estimates compared with expended ammunition from battles indicate 1 casualty for every 250–300 shots discharged, not a dramatic improvement over Napoleonic casualty rates. No contemporary accounts indicate that engagement ranges with substantial casualties between infantry occurred at ranges beyond Napoleonic engagement ranges.

The historian claims that until the advent of smokeless powder, generals were not able to take advantage of the full potential of rifles. Wikipedia describes his conclusions:

Thus Guelzo doubts that contemporary military leaders blatantly ignored technological advances. Rather, Guelzo argued that in actual battlefield conditions, until the development of smokeless powder, the benefits of rifling were largely nullified. Therefore, generals did not alter their tactics not due to ignorance, but because the battlefield had not changed substantially from the Napoleonic era

Others argue that the rifle madeimportant contributions, such as. Wall of Fire - Evolution of Civil War Tactics-sic Major Richard E. Kerr In his paper " see above" - Kerr argues the rifle definitely had a role, and gives us a detailed account of how in the Maryland campaign this had dramatic consequences on tactics.

Major Kerr goes to great detail on this very topic in his paper Wall of Fire, examining the use of the rifle on infantry tactics in the civil war. Kerr examines a number of factors, and describes the debate between whether the rifle was the driver of the new tactics of fortification, or whether the new tactics came before the widespread adoption of the rifle.

He states that at Antietam :

Based on comments from the Operational Records, units often ran out of ammunition, they used Hardee's drills to get around the battlefield, but the soldiers fought from covered and concealed positions whenever possible. Fighting in the open, standing up, resulted in exceptional casualties.

So around 1862 we see unit tactics under fire evolving and commanders were moving away from the Napoleonic formation warfare as prescribed by Hardee, and towards fighting from cover ; the use of fortifications also became common place. Rifles still had a longer reloading time and naturally the soldiers felt more comfortable behind some kind of shelter from the now more discriminate rifle fire.

One of the primary innovations of civil war tactics during the war was the widespread use of fortifications to contain the enemy armies. These preceded the use the of trench war, although the Americans had yet to fully capitalise on or develop the automatic machine gun.

To revist the central question, did new infantry tactics cause high casualties rates> Not so much, the rifle had an impact on the way the war was conducted but some data suggests it wasn't considerably more lethal than the smoothbore musket until the advent of smokeless powder. Prior to this large units with rifles would obscure the battlefield over time with thick white smoke, negating its range benefits.

The minnie ball itself was also an important innovation. It seems that there were a cluster of innovations surrounding small-arms at this time that were all important contributors to the evolution of tactics.

Effects on military thought

There is a correlation between the advent of the rifle itself and the rise of the skirmisher. As mentioned, the rebels from the Crown used skirmisher tactics made possible by improvements in musketry to good effect versus the British in the Revolutionary War.

There was an evolution from the Revolutionary and the adoption of the rifle where American militia engaged in skirmishing tactics, rather than pitched battle; to skirmishers being an integral parts of all European armies in the Napoleonic Wars.

Skirmishers were central to fighting in the Napoleonic Wars as a way ti disrupt the enemy line and as Kerr demonstrates, fighting in lines went out of fashion at least in the civil war by 1862, He describes a kind of hybrid between Hardee's drills and more what John de Peyster envisioned. Quick evolution of skirmishing

We see this trend continue along with improvements in the Franco-Prussian War.

The German casualties were relatively high due to the advance and the effectiveness of the Chassepot rifle. They were quite startled in the morning when they had found out that their efforts were not in vain—Frossard had abandoned his position on the heights.[47]

The French breech-loading Chassepot rifle demonstrates as the rifle improved so did its impact on the tactics of armies on the day.

German tactics emphasised encirclement battles like Cannae and using artillery offensively whenever possible. Rather than advancing in a column or line formation, Prussian infantry moved in small groups that were harder to target by artillery or French defensive fire.[22] The sheer number of soldiers available made encirclement en masse and destruction of French formations relatively easy.[23]

So what we can conclude from our obseva of the Franco Prussian War - is that what took a greater role was the coordination of large armies in the creation of a General-Staff, as well as the use of both cavalry and artillery.

For the Americans drills were still probably the only way the generals on both sides could keep any semblance of control of the armies overall. Both sides were hampered by terrible or insubordinate unit commanders. Even when generals could make changes to strategy, he depended on his unit commanders to carry it out. The war's decisive movement often hinged on the lack or laxity of a subordinate.


There was a distinct evolution during the war, consistent with benefits else derived form the use of the rifle, of infantry tactics. The rifle had a growing impact as other innovation improved its effective range on the battlefield by reducing smoke and better cartridges.

The rifle itself obviously had a real impact on the conduct of warfare over the course of the war.

However it wasn't the only driver of change in Civil War tactics. The existence of railways meant that armies could be moved greater distances with ease. Armies could be raised trained and equipped faster than before.

The increasing accuracy and proliferation of artillery meant that line formations wer no longer tenable. Units spears out to avoid the shellfire. The civil war really marked a transition point to Industrial warfare.

Commanders moved away from formations to favouring the defense and open infantry tactics. We see a lot of precursors to to the same technical challenges of using artillery to soften up prepared positions to trench warfare in WW1. The use of artillery also drove the dispersal of unit formations; as field artillery accuracy and rate of fire, it was simply too dangerous to form up in the open.

Both parties were cognizant of a rifle shortage early in the war but took to importing more rifles from Europe until domestic production took over the shortfall as happened in the North. The ability to produce more weapons than the south was one of the deciding factors in the war.

Rifles became much more prevalent as these changes from Hardee to more modern warfare (de Peyster) as each side had more to experiment too much. We see a clear trend as rifles become ubiquitous and powerful, we see the breakdown of traditional 'Hardee' combat..

The Prussians split their their infantry early in the F-P War, but nonetheless experienced heavy casualties from the entrenched French.As the rifle evolved infantry tactics evolved nations eliminated line infantry altogether.

As for why the war was so bloody? Well I think overall the general competence and inability to adopt to change methods of war in the first half of the war. Generals and commanders were unable to handle their formations or follow basic instructions. In the later half of the war, the attrition tactics adopted by Grant increased the focus on inflicting casualties on the CSA armies to allow the Northern industrial to over take the South. The battle of the Wilderness is a good example of this strategy at play.

There are more case studies but I think I'll publish this as draft for now

t 1,030,000 casualties (3 percent of the population), including about 620,000 soldier deaths—two-thirds by disease, and 50,000 civilians



This random video offers a concise explanation as well. http://www.civilwar.org/education/in4/infantry-tactics.html https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Petersburg https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franco-Prussian_War

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    A note on skirmisher tactics: until the advent of quick-loading rifles (semi-automatic or otherwise), skirmishers didn't have the volume of fire needed to stop a cavalry charge. Only compact infantry formations (a square, or an anchored line) did.
    – Mark
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 21:18
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    Seems like a well-reasoned answer. I wondered what happened between the 1770's and the 1860's to battlefield tactics; when you say the American officers had no experience with large armies, that sounds like one key difference. Interesting that the Confederacy did begin to look at irregular warfare. It was long ago I studied the Civil War in high school, but as I get older I realize the devastating and long lasting harm of civil conflict. No surprise we are still working out the pain 150 years later. Commented Aug 2, 2016 at 6:04
  • Quite a few posters have mentioned the advent of rifling but it's also pertinent to note that the average size of armies grew noticeably during this time. Waterloo was considered an enormous battle at the time with roughly 180000 participants all told. The Europeans had still had experience with larger armies but they too experienced command and control problems at this time. The Americans had had very little experience with large armies, and unlike the Europeans, no large standing armies. That they had significant difficulties controlling large bodies of troops is no surprise.
    – Anaryl
    Commented Aug 2, 2016 at 8:54
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    Even nation states later than this - such as during WW1 still experienced significant problems with command and control of large armies. It probably wasn't until WW2 that the Germans overcome this through profligate use of the radio.
    – Anaryl
    Commented Aug 2, 2016 at 8:56
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    Note that as early as 1806 at Auerstadt and 1809 at Teugn, Davout's superbly trained III Corps was quite capable of fighting in skirmish order by brigade and even division when in covered terrain. That was the secret to routing the Prussians while out manned more than 2-1. Commented Aug 7, 2016 at 20:25

I do not think it is accurate to say that guerilla techniques weren't used in the Civil War. What did Stonewall Jackson do in the Shenandoah Valley?

But guerilla tactics are limited. First, they are adequate in defensive struggle, conducted within your own territory, where you count with superior knowledge of the terrain, and the loyalty of the local population. Second, they are useful to wear down the enemy, to force them to disperse and waste material, to strech their communications, to demoralise their troops. But you cannot storm their capital with guerilla tactics; you have to win a conventional battle for that end (or provoke a rebellion within it; but that rebellion, I promise, will be "bloody").

Guerilla is consequently the weapon of the weak. The North had no reason to fight this way; it was overwhelmingly stronger, and consequently would tend to force decisive conventional battles to break the South as quickly as possible. Geography conspired against this, with so many rivers standing between their troops and their objective in Richmond.

So the South would be interested in guerilla. But they could not use it in offensive war, and even in defense, they needed to block the direct advances of the Union armies, to which end they needed conventional troops. They were, after all, organised as a conventional State, with a capital city, established markets, regular army, hierarchic command, etc. They could not afford a theory of abandoning their political and economic centers and fight "from the void" as a Maoist guerilla.

And the system they were defending divided their population between a higher stratum that would have the interest in fighting, but not the disposition to wear rags and crawl in the mud, and a lower stratum that would have the disposition, but no interest in fighting for the cause (rather, would be interested in supporting the enemy).

So, in short, guerilla was used when it seemed useful and viable. It didn't seem useful and viable too often, due to limitations imposed by the nature of the conflict, and by the nature of each side in the war.

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    kudos! exceptionally well-written & cogent answer.
    – Spike0xff
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 15:42
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    Whilst well thought out, this answer is unfortunately, wildly incorrect.
    – Anaryl
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 18:30
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    @LuísHenrique That's making a different point than I made here. And it says that approximately 1 in 20 Confederates was a slaveholder--5% in other words. I put quotes around "the 1%" for a reason; I didn't mean to imply that it was literally only 1% of the population, but rather that the slaveholders were the wealthy elite, not the common citizens. Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 20:06
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    This answer constantly confuses tactics, operations, and strategy. Commented Aug 2, 2016 at 0:23
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    Stonewall Jackson did NOT fight guerilla warfare. (John Singleton Mosby did, however). Commented Aug 2, 2016 at 21:15

This article on the civil war's more advanced rifles highlights that:

Most American army officers in 1861 had been schooled in obsolete Napoleonic tactics, especially since many of them had served in the Mexican War, which was still fought in the old way with smoothbore muskets and linear formations.

The casualties themselves and the bloodiness of the battles were also the result of it being first war to combine early machine guns and early modern artillery.

(In some fortunate sense, it could have been worse: smokeless powder was around the corner. Firing a blackpowder weapon produces ash, which results in thick smoke that obscured the battlefield in addition to jamming weapons. Also, the military had yet to realize that soldiers were often reluctant to shoot at enemies.)

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    To clarify for those who may not be aware: The range and accuracy of rifles are much better than smoothbore muskets. Thus, shooting at each other while standing up in a line tends to produce a lot more casualties at a greater distance. Commented Jul 31, 2016 at 17:28

My understanding (which could be wrong) is that armies in the U.S. civil war were "bloody" in the sense that soldiers did not retreat or were sent directly into fire, until one side was wiped out. If I'm wrong about that please correct me.

Something to keep in mind is the scale at which battles took place in the Civil War. Battles were significantly larger in the Civil War than American Revolution. Gettysburg had over 150,000 soldiers (Wikipedia puts the total around 175,000).

By contrast, the Continental Army numbered approximately 16,000 at its peak. Even assuming this force size, the Union force at Gettysburg was still over 6x as large.

Effective guerrilla tactics also work at a smaller, more distributed scale. They are more difficult to perform with a centralized army, particularly one which has a rigid chain of command.

Keep in mind guerrila warfare works well for:

  • Harassing invaders/occupying forces
  • Smaller scale engagements

The long term effect is causing an army/nation to lose the will to fight or suffer loses significant enough to cause winning. But that winning is not through defeating an enemy, it is through breaking an enemy.

When the Civil War started, most thought it would be a quick, short war. With that assumption neither side would have had any interest in employing tactics which would imply they didn't think this is the case.

Guerrilla warfare does not work well for (among other things):

  • Preventing a numerical significant army from moving into your capital and removing your government
  • Establishing your nationstate legitimacy

Guerrilla warfare is far better as a tactical option when your ultimate end goal is not nationstate legitimacy but merely removing occupying forces. The South was trying to establish its independence and legitimacy as a nationstate. Conceding conventional warfare to the North and purely operating on a guerrilla harassment strategy in hindsight could have been their best strategy, but at the time, would not have made any sense, because it would run counter to their goal of legitimacy.

Additionally, Washington DC and Richmond, VA are only a bit over 100 miles apart. Without a concentrated conventional army either side could have fairly easily marched a large army into the other capital.

Additionally, the North wanted to keep the Union together. It would not be to their advantage to have anything other than a traditional "conquering" of the South. So realistically only the South would have had any benefit from a guerrilla conflict period - but that would not have really mattered as the North could have just conquered their capitol.

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    This is much closer to the truth than the "correct" answer.
    – Anaryl
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 18:31
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    @Anaryl such is the problem posting answers after others have already received quite a few upvotes... :(
    – enderland
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 18:38
  • Yes, but people shouldn't be upvoting answers that are incorrect.
    – Anaryl
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 19:58
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    How nice, someone who understands warfare. +1. Commented Aug 2, 2016 at 21:16

I'm just curious why the North and South didn't use guerrilla fighting techniques, by which I mean taking cover, spreading out, etc. if these techniques were helpful in the Revolutionary War.

What you describe are skirmisher tactics, not guerrilla fighting, though guerrillas do usually use them.

Skirmisher tactics are highly effective against a linear infantry formation if you don't intend to hold the field. Taking aimed shots from a distance and reloading from cover lets the skirmishers inflict disproportionately high casualties. Success depends on being able to move out of the way of the advancing army, though: if they ever manage to close in on the skirmishers, the superior numbers and volume of fire from the linear formation will tear the skirmishers to shreds. This means that if a linear formation is willing to absorb the casualties, skirmishers can't stop them.

Skirmishers are also highly vulnerable to cavalry charges. Until the development of quick-loading weapons, only compact infantry formations had the volume of fire or the density of bayonets/pikes to keep cavalry away. A skirmisher can't move fast enough to get out of the way, can only fire one or maybe two shots before the cavalry arrives, and is at a distinct disadvantage in a close-range fight.


This is slightly off-topic, but an interesting side note to this is that a high percent of the casualties in the CW were actually due to non-battle-related deaths like disease, so this can make the war as a whole seem somewhat bloodier than it actually was.

Medicine at that point was obviously vastly inferior to what it is now, including in this area, and there weren't good vaccines for most diseases yet; in fact, the medical consensus hadn't even started consolidating around the germ theory of diseases until the 1850's.


Why were Civil War battle techniques so bloody

Most wars up until the civil war were not fought using "modern weapons" against another almost equal army also using "modern weapons". They tended to be a superior power with "modern weapons" fighting a weaker power without the use of the carbine rifles and artillery that made up the "modern weapons" of the day [this is the same reason WW1 and the Crimean War were so bloody].

It wasn't until WW2 when they really changed the art of war for two modern military powers fighting each other to employ far more guerrilla warfare and a change of tactics to engage less head on with big "modern" armies vs big "modern" armies.

They were still using the same tactics as Napoleon. The British continued to use the same tactics with great success against the Zulu as they were not using "modern weapons".

  • As a sidenote, there were not that many wars after WW2 that were head-on engagements of modern armies of comparable strength and ability...
    – DevSolar
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 14:26
  • @DevSolar that's not actually true at all. The Arab-Israeli conflict provides many examples of near peer adversaries engaging in conventional warfare. There is also the Iran-Iraq conflict, the three Indian-Pakistan Wars, a number of African conflicts, as well as the Korean War, just to provide a few examples.
    – Anaryl
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 18:35
  • @DevSolar were those wars just as bloody? I don't know much history outside of the west to be honest.
    – Cephlin
    Commented Aug 2, 2016 at 9:58
  • Not WW2, rather the Boer War. The Boers combined classic guerilla warfare tactics, excellent marksmanship, and state of the art rifles to great effect. Kitchener needed 400k men to subdue them, as well as inventing the concentration camp. German observers were there as well, and they learned a fair bit, so much so that even though they lost 2 wars, by 1960, Britain was no longer a world power.
    – chiggsy
    Commented Dec 15, 2020 at 0:14

Revolutionary war started as guerilla war, because at the beginning of the war colonists did not have regular army. As soon Continental Army was formed, guerilla warfare did not play significant role in the war; it was less effective than regular army.

On the contrary, when Civil War broke out, both sides already had regular armies, so they did not need guerilla warfare at the beginning of the war. On April 1862, when significant part of Confederacy was occupied by federal army, Confederate Congress passed Partisan Ranger Act, authorizing guerilla warfare. Despite some successful (however minor and more impressive than practically helpful) actions of guerillas, Partisan Ranger Act was repealed on February 1864, after pressure from Robert Lee and other military leaders. Most guerrilla groups were difficult to control and discipline, they could not win strategically decisive battles, and were taken badly needed resources from understuffed regular confederate armies.

In April 1865, when Robert Lee was forced to surrender his army, guerrilla tactic was contemplated by Jefferson Davis and others as a way to continue the war. Robert Lee strongly opposed this

His answer to brigadier General Edward Porter Alexander:

“ If I took your advice, the men would be without rations and under no control of officers. They would be compelled to rob and steal in order to live. They would become mere bands of marauders, and the enemy’s cavalry would pursue them and overrun many sections they may never have occasion to visit. We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from”

His report to Jefferson Davis:

“A partisan war may be continued, and hostilities protracted, causing individual suffering and the devastation of the country, but I see no prospect by that means of achieving a separate independence”

  • That's not even true (your opening paragraph) that it did not play a significant role (though effectiveness varied widely). Your closing paragraphs are most excellent reminders of the relationship between the political and military aims. Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 18:39
  • @KorvinStarmast my closing paragraphs is the opinion of Robert Lee. According to his statements, guerilla tactics could achieve neither political or military aims in reasonable time - could not defeat enemy's army, could not protect population, and could not achieve a separate independence. Commented Jan 19, 2019 at 4:08
  • Yes, I am familiar with them, and I feel that Lee's observations very much answer the question from someone who understood both the objectives and the means. Commented Jan 19, 2019 at 5:53

There is an interesting theory that the high casualties in the American Civil War were partially due to the fact that neither side typically used bayonets. The theory being that it is much harder to a unit of men to withstand a bayonet charge without retreating than it is for them to hold their ground in the face of sustained musketry.


One reason was that "guerrilla warfare" was largely replaced by trench warfare.

The purpose of guerrilla warfare was to allow the weaker side (usually the defender) to "shoot and run" and hide, thereby limiting their casualties and preserving the fighting force.

But since trenches partly "hid" the defenders, they were allowed to "shoot and shoot," running up the death toll. This continued until one side or the other was exhausted (usually the attacking northerners at Fredericksburg, the Wilderness, and Cold Harbor), until the Confederates' last days around Richmond.

The same trench warfare reared its bloody head (with new features such as machine guns and barbed wire), in World War I (on the western front), and even in places of World War II, such as the (narrow and rocky) Italian peninsula.


Something to consider here is that there was a large population of African slaves in the South. Guerrilla warfare requires conceding of territory and blending in with the population, as well as great familiarity with territory around the cities.

At the time of the Civil war, the slaves were the most accustomed to living in those conditions. This is problematic for the insurgent. Northern armies in the cities, and free slaves in the bush? Not ideal. Since emancipation was a pretext, they were better off doing what they did, surrendering, and gradually, as political necessities arose in Washington, extracting concessions from the government in order to set up Jim Crow.

A campaign of asymmetrical warfare for 20 years? That's not how you put yourself in position to exchange such favours. Cities of ash, cropland barren, and a sharp rise in labour costs? Politics was the way forward.

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