Review: Civil War Infantry Tactics by Earl Hess

by Fred Ray on September 18, 2016 · 4 comments

Civil War Infantry Tactics: Training, Combat, and Small-Unit Effectiveness

by Earl J. Hess

CW Infantry Tactics cover

Hardcover: 368 pages
6.1 x 9.4 inches
ISBN-10: 0807159379
ISBN-13: 978-0807159378
Publisher: LSU Press (April 13, 2015)

Earl Hess has added yet another tome to his ever-growing list of Civil War books. His latest is devoted to infantry tactics, which I must say has long been needed. It’s one thing to say that the 378th North Carolina advanced to the right with the 333rd Georgia in support, but what does that actually mean? What about an attack in column vs. one in multiple lines? How does a battalion column differ from that of a brigade? Mixed order? Fortunately the author explains all this and more in considerable detail. To put it another way, Hess has pored through the sometimes arcane drill books by Hardee, Gillem, Casey and rest so you don’t have to. Many re-enactors study their drill manuals and know small unit drill very well, but seldom if ever have the chance to operate beyond company strength, but Hess examines larger units (division and corps) as well.

While some of his previous books have been criticized for lacking illustrations, Infantry Tactics has author-drawn diagrams that clearly explain unit formations. The author follows up a description of a certain tactical formations by explaining when and why it would be used, and follows them with solid examples of them as they were used in combat. Not only that, he gives examples of how a good commander would vary his formation as he traversed the battlefield and the advantages of doing this.

Hess also addresses larger questions, such as whether or not “linear” tactics were obsolete. He observes that tactics remained such for a simple reason, “because they worked.” Given the limitations of the technology of the day and arms available, i.e. single shot, muzzle loading rifles, it remained a workable and proven system. Although dispersed skirmish tactics could be of great value in specialized situations, the basic calculus remained the same – to mass firepower you had to mass men, and that meant close ranks in linear formations. Similarly, while trained marksmen might open fire at extended ranges, the great mass of infantrymen waited for the enemy to close to within 100 yards or less to open fire.

Hess also mentions skirmishing but does not emphasize it, even though he believes that the American conflict represented a sort of high point of technique. This however is probably a good idea since it could fill another volume. My own opinion is that the war saw a gradual loosening of the line of battle and that combat was shifted more and more to the skirmish line. He also does not have much to say about the use of earthworks in the second half of the war, but of course he’s already written three volumes on this. Nevertheless, it seems to me that a discussion of tactics might benefit from a close look at how these two trends affected the campaigns of 1864-65. I also think a closer look at the wooded American landscape might be in order.

Hess moves on through the 19th Century up until WWI, giving his take on the changes in infantry tactics, much of which I agree with. However, the book’s real strengths are in the sections on the Civil War. Naturally I do have some reservations about some parts of the book, for example my take on the Battle of Fort Stedman differs considerably from his. There are some mistakes, none of which materially detract from the value of the book. For example, he cites the use of Winchester repeaters at long range at the battle of Plevna in 1877, when in fact they were used at close ranges (under 200 yards) only, the long range fire being provided by the Peabody-Martini. He also characterizes both the French Chassepot and the Prussian Needle Gun used in the Franco-Prussian War as magazine rifles, when in fact both were single-shot paper cartridge weapons.

Overall I think this is a valuable (and long overdue) work that every serious student of the war should read and have on his bookshelf. Highly recommended.


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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Josh Liller September 19, 2016 at 9:04 pm

“Given the limitations of the technology of the day and arms available, i.e. single shot, muzzle loading rifles, it remained a workable and proven system.”

Does he address the psychological reasons for continuing to use linear tactics, especially with primarily volunteer soldiers?

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Fred Ray September 20, 2016 at 6:32 pm

No, he doesn’t. There were other reasons as well — it was easier to command and police a line of battle where you could see everyone and where there were file closers to make sure no one left without permission.

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art cook September 29, 2016 at 6:21 pm

my great great grandfather was naserth paquette surogen in 17th michigan infantry and my family history is at monroe county ,mich and email only!god bless america

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Bruce Klem October 5, 2016 at 6:01 pm

Just wrote up a review for this book as well for The Civil War Round Table of Milwaukee. I read the book last month and I agree that it helps somewhat to clear up the reason for the tactics. Hess does a nice job in talking about the rifle musket non effect on tactics as well. Not a book for the average student but I agree it is a good addition to my library.

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