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Command & Control in the American Civil War


In this article, we will examine the evolution of the armies of the American Civil War from bands of militia and indian fighters into the finest military formations of the era. While the key to this evolution, be it leadership, tenacity, or the American fighting spirit, will always be debated among the students of the age, this analysis will look at the mechanics of the operational art to learn the hard lessons of our forefathers.

Lesson Objective.

In this article you will review:

1.  Status of the Armies

In 1861, the United States Army was a proven constabulary and frontier defense force directed by a skeletal core of general staff officers who served, in reality, as the personal staff to the Commanding General. There was no American "General Staff" active at the War Department nor had there been any attempt to form one since the 1840s. In fact, the United States Army did not even possess the legal grounds to field formations larger than a division unless that organization was an "expeditionary force."

Compounding the problem was the fact that in the United States in 1861, there were only two individuals alive who had commanded any force larger than a regiment in the field. One of these, Winfield Scott, was the septuagenarian Commanding General of the Army, whose days of field duty were best left described in the histories of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. The other, Gideon Pillow, was a political appointee from the Mexican War who had run afoul of Scott and was best known for his limitations. The hard truth was that in 1861 the armies of the American Civil War did not possess any commanders nor staff with knowledge of the art of command and control of large military formations.

The theories and organizations for the control of large formations were readily practiced on the Continent. As recently as 1859, during the Italian campaign of Napoleon III, combined Sardinian and French armies of over 150,000 men had been fielded, maneuvered, and fought Austrian formations of nearly similar size producing the French-Sardinian victory at Solferino. During the same time period in the United States, the largest military formation active had been Albert Sidney Johnson's Mormon Expedition where he moved the 6th US Infantry and a couple of smaller militia units against the separatists in the Great Salt Lake Valley.

So, in 1861, the armies of the combatants were eager but certainly not ready for war. Laboring under the restrictions imposed on the political climate as well as the inexperience of the respective War Departments, the ad hoc nature of the formations at 1st Manassas show the incompleteness of organization that characterized the first major battle in the continental United States since the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.

manassas.gif (9437 bytes)

Complimenting these errors in organization was the non-existent state of the military staff in both armies. In fact, the northern commander, McDowell went into the battle without even using a Chief of Staff ! It is thought that McDowell's attempt to handle the staff personally as well as serve as the army commander lead to his inability to keep pace with the flow of the battle nor organize the withdrawal when it came.

The French had a well-defined military staff system as well as a staff school at St Cyr. The Prussians under von Moltke were evolving the "Generalstab" into that mythical model of efficiency. The armies at Manassas in the east and at Wilson's Creek in the west went to war with military staffs based on the guidance sent from George Washington to his Secretary of War, James McHenry, in 1798 !

Within the Confederacy, there was no great difference to the approach of the organization of the military staff. Given the common background of Confederate officers to their northern counterparts, the Confederate Army did not opt to employ the progressive theory of the Prussians but copied the organization contained within the US Army regulations of 1861. The evolution of the staff in the Confederacy became one of trial and error as the talented officers found solutions to the problems they faced and the short-sighted ones failed or fell victim to courts martial (a more frequent used system to settle disputes between officers than occurs today).

2. Status of the American "General Staff"

Organization of duties of military staffs in the 19th century were, even in Prussia, based on the French model which had served Napoleon's armies so well. The principle work which recounted the Napoleonic model is Paul Thiebault's Manuel des Adjutants Generaux, written in 1800. Until the rise of the Prussian model in the late 1800s, the French Etat Major as expressed by Thiebault, the adjutant general of the French Republic, was the model. However, in the United States, due to politics and a general distrust of a standing military, the European models for a military staff were, at best, ignored, or, worse case, mutanted into a series of bureaucratic organizations designed to support certain politically-based businesses and individuals.

It is difficult for citizens of the 20th Century, especially Americans who, in this century, have experienced 10 years of global conflict, 7-12 years of various regional conflict, 40+ years of the "Cold War," and the recent 5 years of "humanitarian missions", to comprehend the 15 years of peace prior to the Civil War {or the 30+ years of general peace that preceded that conflict}. Except for the continuing friction along the western frontier, the United States had no need for the Army above the local level. So naturally, the consequence was a loss of purpose, careerism, and the rise of the military bureaucrat.

The Office of the Commanding General, United States Army, was supposed to be assisted by the General Staff of the Army. What occured during the long peace of the early 1800s was the evolution of two parallel but distinct staffing systems. The Commanding General had his Aides-de-Camp and a handful of staff officers. These individuals, the true General Staff, consisted of::

The remainder of the occupants of the War Department were a series of "Bureaus" which were appointed by the Secretary of War (or his political allies in the Congress) and supposely answered to the Commanding General. In reality these Bureaus answered only to themselves {General Malcomb, Scott's predecessor as the Commanding General had written a long letter to President Jackson seeking to disband the Bureau system}. These Bureaus encompassed many of the functions that the General Staff should have coordinated and supervised.

With the beginning of the crisis that started the civil war, The United States War Department found itself woefully unprepared. The CSA War Department had to develop its policies and systems as it went along as well as identify talented officers to serve as general staff. Unfortunately, the regional politics that characterized the newly-formed CSA would hamper this evolution well into 1862.

The armies of the combatants proved to be the main force in the evolution of military staff. The recent graduates of the United States Military Academy on both sides gained approval for the development of embryoic unit level staff as evidenced by the Army Organization Act of 1861 (United States Congress).

In June of 1861, the United States sought to authorize more staff positions as the army expanded. The Army Organization Act of 1861 increased regimental staffs to include an assistant surgeon and a chaplain while also authorizing the following staffs for brigades:

However, no thought was given to the organization of staff departments such as existed in the Prussian model or as outlined by Thiebault.

3. Duties of Unit and General Staff

The duties of military staffs in the 19th century can appear to be confused at first glance. This is mainly due to the use of different terms plus the fact that the main focus of the ACW staff was to keep the unit functional by providing the required logistics, subsistence, communications, and medical services (used more for epidemics in camp than combat losses). The figure below shows a comparison of the ACW staff structure compared to the one used by the modern United States Army. This figure should illustrate the more narrow focus of ACW operations and concerns.

Staff1.gif (21478 bytes)

It should be noted that the American 19th Century model did not include an intelligence chief. Though this shortcoming was corrected in modern era by the establishment of the "2" staff section, Military Intelligence, as a branch, was not formed until 1973

Summary. The formulation of operational command and control procedures / structures have three very viable applications in planning for the play of CWOL:

4. ACW Era Command Structures.

Students of the modern era many times have difficulty in adopting the organizations and structures of the 1800s. In CWOL, this confusion is seen often. Shown in the figure below is a list from the National echelon down to the Tactical (actually grand tactical) echelon as existed in 1861.

acw_orgn.gif (17000 bytes)

The largest "missing link" is the American application of the French Corps du Armee' which had evolved as the major operational level formation in the Napoleanic Wars. The simple reason that no corps formations appear on ACW order of battle charts until the spring of 1862 (latter than that for the Army of Nortern Virginia) are:

In the spring of 1862, Abraham Lincoln, by Executive Order, formed four "army corps" within the Army of the Potomac. His reason for this was not to solve any military command proiblem but to allow him to place "Lincoln men" (conservatives or Republicans) in those command slots to counter the growing influence of George B McCellan ( a Democrat) within the army and in the nation (George McCellan would later run against Lincoln for the Presidency). The success of this command arrangement lead to the celebrated Union "corps system" that was used to great effect in 1863-65 to move land forces between theaters and armies with great success in continuity of the commands.

In the South, the regional politics also contributed to the adoption of the corps system. The use of corps (which was applied significantly looser than in the North) was emplaced to ensure that certain region's "favorite son" had the stature to be a participant in the field army's "War Councils". Addditionally, this stature would cause the general to be heard by the War Department when the corps commander defended his region involving political issues.

5. Hard Lessons.

The hard lessons to be addressed in this section concern two areas.

  1. Historical lessons learned in 1861 - 1862 involving basic command and control,
  2. What these lessons mean to the CWOL player(s)

The number and corrsponding toll in lives or time lost of the historical lessons learned are numerous. The following listing outlines the more significant ones.

Within CWOL these lessons mean:

{This is a fault which will be corrected in CWOL IV. Neither side will be allowed to form corps-sized formations nor is the rank of Lieutenant General authorized for appointment. The forming of corps will only be allowed after an executive order. The rank of Lieutenant General or full General will only occur after the passing of an authorization act by the Congress.}


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