General Jacob Cox on Assault Tactics

by Fred Ray on July 16, 2013 · 0 comments

When discussing tactics one needs to look not just at what pundits are saying now but what the people who actually practiced them said about it. I came across an excellent description of the failure of the column attacks at Kennesaw Mountain by someone who was there, Maj. Gen. Jacob Cox, who commanded a division in XXIII Corps. This is from his book Atlanta.

It must be remembered that only three points in the enemy’s line had been selected for assault. The middle of these was attacked by two columns, having each a front of two companies only, and those on right and left did not show a greater deployment than a regimental front. By the time each column had been checked by the obstructions in its way, and the terrible concentric fire to which it had been subjected, conscious of having lacked the impetus necessary to carry the works before them by the first effort, the experience of the division commanders taught them that further efforts at those points would only be destructive, and they allowed their brigades to seek such cover as they found at hand, maintaining so rapid a fire that any counter-charge by the enemy was not thought of. Except at a very few open points, the forest came up to the verge of the abattis covering the trenches, and once within its margin, the timber, the undergrowth, the rocks, all gave such shelter that the loss was slight to soldiers who knew how to take cool and intelligent advantage of them.From the moment that the heads of the attacking columns were well developed, the enemy knew that these alone needed serious attention, and understood as well as our own officers, that the rest was only a demonstration to cover these real assaults. They, too, were brave and ready, and instantly concentrated both artillery and musketry upon these three points of danger. Reserves within the lines were hurried hither, and unless the first rush were successful, everybody knew that there would not be one chance in a hundred for a second attempt. It would have been easy to have doubled or trebled the numbers of killed and wounded that covered the narrow space where each assault had been made; but it was impossible that columns should be better led, and they did not stop till further progress was out of the question. The one chance to break through had been bravely tried and lost, and it would have been criminal in the commanders to have caused a further carnage that would have been futile. About eight hundred men had fallen at the head of each of these three assaults before its progress was stopped, and on so contracted a front this was proof that they had done enough to test fully the impregnable nature of the Confederate defences, and the vigilance of the troops that held them. Each of the opposing armies had tried the same experiment, and each in turn had found that with the veteran soldiers now arrayed against each other, one rifle in the trench was worth five in front of it. The attacking columns saw little more before them than a thin and continuous sheet of flame issuing beneath the head-log of the parapet, whilst they themselves marched uncovered against the unseen foe. In this case, as has already been said, the exigencies of the situation, and the chance of finding an open joint in the harness had warranted the effort, but the division and corps commanders were wise in judging when the effort had failed.The evidence which the assaults by both armies near New Hope Church gave of the tactical weakness of narrow and deep columns of attack against such fortifications in such a country, is greatly strengthened by the experience in front of Marietta. Our books of tactics, copying from the French, had taught that the regimental column of divisions of two companies, “doubled on the centre,” was par excellence the column of attack. In spite of the fact that Wellington in the Peninsular war had shown again and again that such a column, even over open country, melted away before the “thin red line” of British soldiers armed only with the old “Brown Bess ” with its buck-and-ball cartridge, the prestige of Napoleonic tradition kept the upper hand. We made our attacks in this instance (excepting Logan’s) in a formation which did not give front enough to have any appreciable effect in subduing the enemy’s fire; which by its depth offered the greatest possible mark to a concentric and flanking fire of the enemy; and which the obstructions in its way deprived of all the impetus to pierce an opposing line, which is the only merit of such a column. So hard it is to free ourselves from the trammels of old customs and a mistaken practice! pp.125-129

By 1864 both sides had pretty much concluded (except for General Hood) that frontal attacks on a prepared position, especially in column, were tantamount to suicide. As Cox said, one rifle in a trench was worth five in the open. While a column allowed you to concentrate a lot of men against a point on the line, it was fearfully vulnerable to both artillery fire (a shot could take out a whole file) and rifle fire. The increased range of both weapons allowed a defender to concentrate his fire on the head of the column with bloody results. Fortunately for Sherman, the scale of the American landscape allowed plenty of room for flanking maneuvers.


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