How professional and well equipped were US Civil War soldiers?
Essentially, what the question says - did the war cause Americans to become better at war than the Eurasian powers (Germany, France, England, Russia, Japan, whatever, I am just making up a list) at the time?
Or was there little progress made in weapons, overall technology, and tactics during the period?
The Civil War was fought largely by amateur soldiers with little training who used primarily outdated and sometimes obsolete equipment. 90% of the casualties of the Civil war came from rifles and given the primary rifle used was the rifled musket which was outdated in 1860; that means the war was primarily fought on both sides with an obsolescent weapon.
When the Army of the Potomac marched into the battle at first Manses, they did so not with the obsolescent rifled musket but with obsolete smooth bore muskets which George Washington might have used. Not breach loading carbines, and not repeating rifles. Both of these better options were available but never adopted as the primary infantry weapon throughout the Civil War. The Henry(16 shot) repeating rifle which would be responsible for the death of General Custer at Little Bighorn in 1876 was available in 1861. The Spensor(7 shot) rifle was also available. Either would have more than tripled the union's rate of fire. As Mcclellan rebuilt the Army of the Potomac after it's disastrous collapse at the Battle of first Manassas, where the union almost lost the war in the opening action of that war, the infantry's primary weapon was advanced to muzzle loading rifled muskets. Not any of the superior options previously listed.
The experience improved as the war went on and the equipment improved modestly too, but the primary weapon of both armies the muzzle loading rifled musket was outdated before the war ever started.
Did the war cause Americans to become better at war than the Eurasian powers (Germany, France, England, Russia, Japan, whatever, I am just making up a list) at the time?
Japan is kind of an outlier there. They did not possess a modern military around the time of the American Civil War, nor were they a match for the United States at that time. Commodore Matthew Perry led his four ships into the harbor at Tokyo July 8, 1853, and sparked the modernization of Japan's military. Prior to that Japan's military was a product of 200 years of political and trade isolation which Commodore Perry ended.
The United States Military was not maintained prior to the end of WWII on the scale to rival the leading European Powers. Prior to the Civil war the US Military was primarily used to suppress Indians, and occasionally mormons and Mexico.
One would think the experience and innovation of the American Civil War would have accelerated the United States military in capability and skill. When you compare the United States experience with a country like Great Britain, a leading European power, you start to get the picture.
Great Britain had a global empire to maintain and fought 15 wars around the time of the American Civil war. Essentially Britain was required to maintain a large professional army, the United States was not, or at least not on the same scale.
British Wars fought around the time of the US Civil War.
- Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864)
- Second Anglo-Burmese War (1852–1853)
- Crimean War (1853–1856)
- The National War in Nicaragua(1856–1857)
- Second Opium War(1856–1860)
- Anglo-Persian War(1856–1857)
- Indian Mutiny(1857–1858)
- First Taranaki War(1860–1861)
- Bombardment of Kagoshima(1863)
- Second Ashanti War(1863–1864)
- Invasion of Waikato(1863–1866)
- Bhutan War(1864–1865)
- British Expedition to Abyssinia(1867–1868)
- Klang War(1867–1874)
- Titokowaru's War(1868–1869)
In the Beginning, Equipment and Training of the American Civil War
The Civil war certainly started out badly from the points of view of professionalism, training, and equipment.
Above, U.S. Model 1808 Musket converted from flintlock to percussion
At the first battle of Manassas, the Union army fought with smoothbore muskets circa 1808 nearly the same ones George Washington used as his primary infantry weapon. The US Army ordinance department resisted purchasing new weapons for the war up to that point, the newer yet still antiquated rifled muskets were not distributed to the Army by July of 1861. The equipment for the Civil war would improve moderately but it would never take advantage of the array of modern weapons the Union had available to it. The Civil war would be fought primarily with antiquated muzzle loaded rifled muskets when 7 round repeating Spencer rifles and 16 round repeating Henry rifles which were both available in 1860 before the start of the war.
Battle of First Manassas
As two amateur armies groped to find and fight each other across the Northern Virginia countryside in the stifling heat of July 1861, they did so with a variety of arms, the vast majority of them obsolescent—if not altogether obsolete.
During that first major battle the Union army basically collapsed in an uncontrolled paniced retreat back to Washington. The civilians who came out to watch the spectacle became part of the traffic jam trying to get back to the city after the collapse of the Army of the Potomac. The only Confederate commander to distinguish himself was Stonewall Jackson. If not for the cautiousness of the Confederate Commanding General Joe Johnston the confederacy might have won the war that afternoon. Johnston had fought the first battle of Manassas with one army corps and had another one in reserve he could have used to sack Washington. Johnston decided to error on the side of caution as General Stonewall Jackson wounded in the hand, during the battle, marched around the confederate camp screaming he could end the war with 200 men. Screaming he be permitted to take Washington.
(*) The Battle of First Manassas was the first time railroad was used to transport troops directly into battle. The Confederacy made use of the railroad to bring troops in from the federal Army at Harper's Ferry in what is now West Virginia, to Manassas. Harpers ferry was surrendered to the confederacy in April of 1861 when Virginia left the union.
First Battle of Bull Run
The Union's forces were slow in positioning themselves, allowing Confederate reinforcements time to arrive by rail. Each side had about 18,000 poorly trained and poorly led troops in their first battle.
The American Civil War in 1861 -1865 was the first large war in which railroads were both a major tool and a major target of military action. ... Confederate railroads in the American Civil War. Centerville Military Railroad.
Railroads in the Civil War
The South immediately realized the potential of railroads and used the rails it had to transport troops from one part not under attack to support fellow troops in a threatened area. The North was not so quick to learn this lesson.
An example of this is the First Battle of Bull Run in the summer of 1861. A large and unprepared Union Army under the command of General McDowell moved south out of Washington D.C. towards the rail center of Manassas astride the tributary known as Bull Run. A smaller and equally unprepared southern force under the command of General P.G.T. Beauregard blocked this advance ultimately aimed at Richmond, the Confederate capitol. The Northern forces were defeated when Generals Joseph Johnson and Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson arrived from the Shenandoah Valley with their armies. This concentration of secessionist forces was achieved by transporting these troops to the battle by rail.
Why didn't the Union Sack Washington after the First Battle of Manassas
The only Confederate general who advocated an immediate attack on the Capital was Stonewall Jackson. And he did so forcefully. But Stonewall was the only General on either side to achieve considerable offensive success until Lee took command when the same Joe Johnson was wounded in front of Richmond. Alł the others in the Confederate high command thought Jackson was both wrong and crazy about attacking Washington.
It turns out, I think, that Stonewall was correct. What he intuited was the South’s best chance to win the war at hand after Bull Run. The Union and its Army was shocked and demoralized. It was the time for boldness. Instead the Confederate Army chased the Union Army back to Washington, and stopped at the Potomac instead of rushing the city.
Background Information: Smooth bore Musket vs Rifled Musket and the Minié Ball
For much of history from the 14th century up until around the time of the Civil war the primary infantry weapon was the smooth bore musket. This weapon was terrible inaccurate with an effective range of 100 yards. Most armies used it at half that distance. It dictated tactics at the time. Because it was so inaccurate, to be effective, it required lots of men all shooting at short range (50 yards) at the same general target in order to be effective. This is why volley fire was employed. The smooth bore musket was most effective when massed.
Rifles had been around since the 15th century. Rifles were used for specialty troops such as sharp shooters or snipers. They were far more powerful (5 times plus the effective range) and far more accurate than muskets. They were not used primarily as infantry weapons however because they were very time consuming to load. In order to pick up the grooves in the rifle barrel the round had to be tightly fitted to the barrel. This made muzzle loading rifles harder to load. Sometimes requiring a man to hammer the round down the barrel with a mallet. It also made rifles undependable as powered residue building up in the barrel after a number of shots would make them unusable until cleaned. Both of these reasons made them impractical primary infantry weapons as they could not keep up the rate of fire.
The Minié Ball changed all this. It was a bullet to be used in a rifle which expanded when fired and thus was not required to be so tightly fitted to the diameter of the barrel when loaded. The Minié Ball allowed the Rifle to become the primary infantry weapon. Thus vastly improving range and accuracy without sacrificing rate of fire. The American Civil war was one of the first wars fought primarily using these accurate and longer ranged rifles rather than smooth bore muskets. However thought the civil war and for decades after the civil war the tactics used with the smooth bore muskets (volley fire) were still employed and lead to a vastly more casualties in the face of longer ranged more accurate rifles.
United States Military:
The United States in 1860 was not a significant military power when compared to moderate European Nations. The United States was riding nearly 70 years of isolationist policy first proposed by General George Washington in his fare well address. Their was no need for the US military to be of any significant size. The United States military was small and not on the cutting edge of warfare like the great powers of Europe. They were most accurately described as mimicking the tactics of the great European battles.
The Civil war would change all this and require the standing army to itself divide, choose sides and then for each side to grow by orders of magnitude. At the beginning of the Civil War the United States Army consisted of almost 17,000 men. By the end of the Civil War more than 300,000 men would enlist to fight for the Union.
Thus the vast majority of Civil War rank and file soldiers and officers were not professionals but civilians called up due to the war who would return to civilian life after the war.
The American Civil War Armies were not very well equipped by 1860's standards. Yes there were a lot of new technologies around.
- the Gatling gun
- the repeating rifles
- Parrott rifle
- Iron Clads
But they were not used, or not used to much effect. The Submarine was used once, and lost in it's first unsuccessful action. The Gatling Gun, only 12 were purchased by private citizens, for use during the Civil war and only 2 used in the closing action at the Siege of Petersburg in the final months of the war. Gatling Gun was not accepted by the US Military until 1866 after the Civil War was over. Repeating Rifles I go into be low. They were available and would have transformed the battlefield, but they were never purchased in the numbers sufficient to make them the primary weapon of the infantry of either side. As for the Parrott rifle. The Parrott rifles were dangerous to operate and had a reputation of blowing up. Their use was discontinued altogether in the late 1880s. They were not much of an innovation given their use was discontinued. Also artillery accounted for about 10% of all casualties, to argue they as examples of the army's being well equipment is to argue the exception and not the rule. The Rule is 90% of all casualties in the American Civil war came from rifled muskets, an antiquated weapon in the age of repeating arms(1860).
Most modern weapons technology available in 1860's were not used as primary weapons during the American Civil war. The Union Army opted to use antiquated weapons(muzzle loaders, rather than single shot breach carbines or repeating rifles) even though these more advanced weapons were available. Some modern weapons made it into the Civil war. Purchased by individuals or commanding officers for their units; but they were the exception not the rule. The Primary infantry weapon for both sides during the war remained the muzzle loaded rifle.
The United States Civil War was among the first "modern wars" where the nature of wars changed due to technological improvements. However, the most important of these "technologies" (Minié Ball, important because it caused the most casualties and feed the primary weapon of both Armies) was not new technology in 1860 but decades old. The civil war was just one of the first wars where this decades old invention found wide spread use.
The deadly effectiveness of the rifle-musket loaded with a minié bullet was largely to blame for the Civil War’s appalling casualty rates. During the nearly 10,500 skirmishes and battles of the war, more than 110,000 Union soldiers and 94,000 Confederates were killed, and an additional 275,000 and 194,000, respectively, were wounded. Rifle bullets, primarily the minié bullet, caused 90 percent of all these casualties. Artillery projectiles accounted for less than 9 percent, and swords and bayonets, less than 1 percent. Considering all this evidence, it is no exaggeration to conclude that the rifle-musket and minié bullet greatly affected the overall course of the Civil War and foreshadowed 20th-century warfare.
Both North and South widely used the same "Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics manual", or “Hardee’s Tactics.” written by General William J. Hardee decade prior to the Civil War. It was still a manual which advocated volley fire and relied on Napoleonic tactics in an age of Rifles. The Minie ball while making the cost of war more expensive in casualties did not effect tactics significantly. It was not realized the reason for the increased casualties until after the war was over. Thus tactics employed during the American Civil war were not altered significantly. Volley / Platoon fire which was used in fifteenth century Europe, the American Revolution and by Napoleon was still employed at the onset of WWI; as if the American Civil War never occurred.
Despite the development of light infantry tactics and the increased effectiveness of firearms during the 19th century, -as was witnessed during the American Civil War and the Franco-German War-, the linear tactics, with massed volley fire, remained the basics of European warfare up to World War I.
Civil War Officers Professionalism
The Civil War officers were not especially professional. While there was a small number of career military officers on both sides, most officers in both armies were not career military men. They could be promoted in both armies due to personal wealth, personal contacts, or due to the number of soldiers they could persuade to join the cause. They could also be awarded instantaneous high ranks based upon their performance in the field. Even the career military men most were not generals prior to the war, and most would not be in the army after the war. Grant and Mcclellan had both dropped out of the military for example prior to the civil war. Some men as young as 20 years of age would be advanced to the rank of Major General simple because their weren't a lot of better alternatives.
There were exceptional and fine officers in the American Civil War on both sides of the conflict. They were exceptional largely because they were rare. Overall though both Armies bare significant responsibility for this. The Union Army in the mid 1800's promoted based upon time served, not merit. The Confederate Army adopted this same policy in order to attract senior union officers. Thus President Lincoln had to go through 3 generals and 4 years before arriving on General U.S. Grant. President Davis had to go through 2 generals, and suffer the Army of the Potomac on the door step of Richmond, before arriving on General Robert E. Lee.
The promotion strategy for non career officers as mentioned above was perhaps even worse. One could become a General in either Army based upon personal wealth, connections, or recruiting ability.
How well equipped
The Confederacy faced blockades throughout most of the civil war. While they did import weapons, their primary means of obtaining weapons was manufacture them or to take them from the Union. This made the Confederacy largely dependent upon the union for equipment.
America’s Civil War: Arming the South With Guns From the North
The Union Army was poorly equipped. This is largely because of bad decisions, sometimes criminally bad decisions made by the Union's ordinance dept. see Hall Carbine Affair
We talk about the Minie Ball as being a technology which changed the face of battles. It was, but it was also forty years old when the American Civil War broke out. The Minie Ball changed the face of battle but it was far removed from modern weaponry in 1860.
Initially at the onset of the war the Union Army ordinance department commanded by Gen. James Ripley refused to purchase rifled muzzle loaders instead favoring the large numbers of smooth bore muskets which they had in inventory. It was believed by the commanding officer, incorrectly so, that it would be less expensive to convert the smoothbore muskets into rifles than purchasing new weapons...
This initially was a significant problem for the Union. Eventually changes were made, but the changes also proved to be continuations of poor choices.
Eventually the Union ordinance department Gen. James Ripley did purchase muzzle loading rifles which would become the primary weapon of the Union Army / infantry for the duration of the war..
Springfield Model 1855
Approximately 75,000 Model 1855 muskets were produced.16 The machinery to make the Model 1855s, at Harpers Ferry was captured by the Confederate Army in early 1861. The captured machinery to produce rifle muskets was taken to Richmond, where it formed the "backbone" of Confederate weapon manufacturing capability. The Rifle machinery was taken to Fayetteville, North Carolina where it too was put to use for significant arms production throughout the War. As a result of using the original arsenal machinery, the Richmond rifle muskets and the Fayetteville rifles were two of the finest weapons produced by the Confederacy.
The painfully slow muzzle loaded rifles which essentially the same rifles (snipper and sharp shooter weapons) used nearly 100 years earlier during the American Revolutionary War. They were horrible antiquated. Yes they had the Minie ball, invented 40 years earlier, and yes this greatly increased the speed of rifled muzzle loaders rate of fire. It brought rifles up to the loading speed of smooth bore muskets, no more. 3 shots per minute. A Henry repeating rifle available at the time could shoot 16 rounds without reloading. Antiquated muzzle loaders were a fare cry slower and less effective than other weapons available to the Union before the Civil War began.
Single shot breach loading Carbine weapons were themselves outdated but still superior to the muzzle loaders both armies outfitted their infantry with. like the Sharps Rifle(1848) or Burnside(1855) carbine. Carbine weapons had a faster rate of fire than muzzle loaders and also could be loaded in the sitting or prone position. The Union Army had 5000 breach loading carbines in their arsenal at the beginning of the Civil War but chose to sell them off in favor of muzzle loaders. Hall Carbine Affair
The Spencer seven shot repeating rifle(1860) and Henry 16 shot repeating rifle(1860) were both available and would have greatly increased the effectiveness of the union infantry.
Just 1,731 of the standard Henry rifles were purchased by the government during the Civil War. The Commonwealth of Kentucky purchased a further 50. However 6,000 to 7,000 saw use by the Union on the field through private purchases by soldiers who could afford it.
These weapons like the carbine weapons given above were used in the civil war after the battle of Gettysburg, however they were secondary weapon provided to artillery and calvary and never supplanted the muzzle-loading rifled muskets in either the Confederacy nor Union armies as the primary infantry weapon.
Gen. James Ripley
Many historians have since decried this decision, arguing the lack of modern arms on the Union side, at a time when the Confederates were buying them in large numbers from France and the United Kingdom, lengthened the conflict by as much as two years.
In a testimonial to the professionalism of the Union Army specifically Gen. James Ripley behavior resinates to this day. Union Solders it was feared by the Ordnance Department would waste too much ammunition during battle firing so quickly at the enemy if they were given repeating rifles.
Gen. James Ripley Commander of the Unions Ordinance Department
At the same time, Ripley refused to authorize the purchase of additional stocks of rifle-muskets for infantry use. The decision was based on the large existing stocks of smoothbore muskets in U.S. arsenals, which he argued could be re-rifled in the same manner as the Parrott guns (an assertion which proved incorrect). He also adamantly opposed the introduction of breech-loading repeating rifles, on the basis that they would encourage poor fire discipline and waste ammunition.