Small Unit Combat Reconsidered (and Analyzed)

by Fred Ray on June 8, 2008 · 0 comments

Speaking of stumbling, I came across a very interesting study on Civil War small unit combat effectiveness by Mark C. Barloon that I haven’t seen cited before. In this Ph.D. thesis Barloon attempts to use various types of statistical analysis to draw some conclusions about regimental-level combat performance. Here’s the abstract:

Historians often emphasize the physical features of battleterrain, weaponry, troop formations, earthworks, etc. in assessments of Civil War combat. Most scholars agree that these external combat conditions strongly influenced battle performance. Other historians accentuate the ways in which the mental stresses of soldiering affected combat performance. These scholars tend to agree that fighting effectiveness was influenced by such non-physical combat conditions as unit cohesion, leadership, morale, and emotional stress. Few authors argue that combat’s mental influences were more significant in determining success or failure than the physical features of the battlefield. Statistical analysis of the 465 tactical engagements fought by twenty-seven Federal regiments in the First Division of the Army of the Potomac’s Second Corps throughout the American Civil War suggests that the mental aspects of battle affected fighting efficiency at least as much and probably more than combat’s physical characteristics. In other words, the soldiers’ attitudes, opinions, and emotions had a somewhat stronger impact on combat performance than their actions, positions, and weaponry.

While I am a bit skeptical about overeliance on this sort of analysis, it can also be quite useful if done correctly. I haven’t had a chance to do much more than skim it, but this passage stood out in relation to the rifle controversy:

The impact of rifled versus non-rifled muskets on the results of the 465 engagements included in this study was not significant. As discussed earlier, the data suggested that a unit armed with rifled muskets had a slightly improved chance for success versus one armed with smoothbore muskets; however, the difference failed to rise to the level of statistical significance. Speculating that the strength of rifled muskets lay with their use as a defensive weapon, the data were split into two groups: those engagements in which the Federals fought offensively, and those in which they fought defensively. Analysis indicated that the infantrymen’s armament had no significant effect on combat performance in either situation, though both scenarios showed a slight improvement in Federal performance when they were armed with rifled muskets. In other words, the data suggested that the impact of the rifled musket on Civil War battlefields may be overestimated.

Anecdotal evidence offers one possible explanation for the lack of significance between rifled and non-rifled muskets: Civil War soldiers frequently did not fire their weapons at ranges greater than the effective range of smoothbore muskets. Of the 465 engagements examined in this study, the participants recorded the ranges at which they opened fire in 206 of the actions (44 percent). The mean distance from the enemy at which the soldiers began firing was approximately 152 yards. War Department tests in early 1860 demonstrated both rifled and non-rifled shoulder arms could be used effectively up to 200 yards from a target. In other words, both Federal and Confederate soldiers tended to refrain from firing until their enemy was within 200 yards, at which point both rifled and non-rifled muskets could be used effectively.

Statisticians will note that Barloon uses the mean here and not the average. I have long suspected that in most wars engagement ranges follow a rough power law distribution i.e. a large number at close ranges, with a long and gradually decreasing “tail” of engagements at longer ranges. Still the figure here is very close to that figured by Paddy Griffith (141 yards) for Civil War engagements. Griffith figured 68 yards as the average engagement for Napoleonic battles, so this would be at least doubling the distance for rifled arms. If one accepts Bilby’s figure of 200 yards for Gettysburg, then it’s triple.

Barloon also looks at the impact of field fortifications:

The data clearly indicate that fighting defensively from an entrenched position led to victory more often than defeat. Comparison of the southerners’ combat record when maintaining an entrenched position, versus a position of lesser protective value (i.e., wooden fence, tree line, open field, etc.), illustrates the value of strong fortifications during combat. Of the 129 engagements in which Confederate soldiers fought defensively from positions with complete cover, they won 88 percent of the time, were stalemated 5 percent, and lost 7 percent. However, of the 109 engagements in which Southern soldiers fought defensively from positions of limited or no cover, they won only 44 percent of the time, were stalemated 25 percent, and lost 31 percent. In other words, the Confederates doubled their chances of success, and reduced their chances of defeat fourfold, by fighting defensively from an entrenched position versus fighting from any position of lesser strength.

And finally, and most surprising:

The third comparison involved those engagements in which two high-quality forces fought. The majority of these engagements occurred on level, open ground. When southern soldiers attacked in hot weather and Federal troops defended from positions with limited protection, the Federals lost every time, and the Confederates won. When the Federals attacked in mild weather and the Confederates defended from positions of limited protection, the Federals won half and lost half, and the Confederates won 100 percent of the time. In other words, when high-quality forces fought under equal conditions, the Confederates won every engagement. The Federals, however, occasionally won and frequently lost. These data suggest that high-quality Confederate troops fought more effectively than high-quality Federal soldiers.

Though the overall differences in combat performance were not glaring, southern soldiers appeared to fight with greater efficacy than northern soldiers.

As I said, worth reading.


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