A Small Lesson in Tactics Part 1

Lessons of Thermopylae

The battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC has long stood as the premier example of defending against a force that largely outnumbers the defenders. Fought in a small pass in the northern province of Greece, Analyzing this battle can teach many aspects of tactical planning and development that can be used even in military applications today.

A total force of some 7000 Greek and Spartan allies was able to hold off an invading force of perhaps millions. (Xerxes’ Persian army consisted of a little over 5 million, but not all were present at Thermopylae. Estimates range anywhere from 300,000-800,000 actually took part in this battle.)
Through use of a mountain pass, Leonidas was able to narrow the battlefront between two cliffs. He was then able to consolidate his 7,000 man army into tighter formations, without sacrificing security on his flanks. By doing this, he decreased Xerxes army from hundreds of thousands, to only a few thousand effectives at any single time, a number much easier to handle. After 3 days, all but 2000 of the Allied Greek fighting force were dismissed. Ultimately, after 4 days of fighting, the vastly outnumbered forces were defeated, but with a terrible cost;. 7000 Defenders had inflicted 25,000 casualties on the invading force.

1. The Choke Point and the Numbers Game

Throughout the Civil War, many battles and skirmishes can be used as examples of different aspects of what can be learned from the Spartans at Thermopylae, but first I would address the most vital lesson to be learned; effective use of a choke point to increase defensive capabilities. Burnside’s Bridge at the battle of Antietam proves a very good example for employing this tactic.

Brig. General Toombs had only 520 men from the 2nd, 20th and 50th GA at his disposal to hold off what was supposed to be the entire IX corps. Knowing he could not hold off a full scale attack, he positioned 400 men from the 2nd and 20th at the mouth of the bridge. He also used 120 men from the 50th GA in a skirmish line opposite the Union approach. Using the bridge as a choke point, Toombs ensured that Burnside could not attack with more than a few hundred at any one time. He also ensured that any of those who were to attack, would be severely harassed before they ever got across the bridge. It is also important to note that the Union troops could not cross this bridge in line of battle, but would have to cross in line of columns. Once on the bridge, the Line of Columns formation would not permit the union to stop and fire to fight there way across. They would only be able to cross 4 or 8 wide and so tightly packed that no man past the second row would be able to fire to the front. This left only a dozen or so men at any one time vulnerable to the fire from across the bridge from a force of 400. Roughly 3000 Union troops attempted to take the bridge over a 3 hour period.

Like the battle of Thermopylae, the defenders could not possibly hold forever. As the Spartans were betrayed, the Georgians, after 3 hours of constant assaults, began running out of ammunition. The Georgians retreated, and the 51st NY and PA advanced across the bridge, but like the Persians, victory had come at a terrible price for the Union. The 11th CT lost 33% casualties, the 2nd MD 44%. 500 men all together suffered on the Union side, while, as testament to their excellent tactical advantage, the Confederate forces only lost 120.

Many more lessons from Thermopylae can be applied to the Civil War, and there were other advantages to losing Burnside’s Bridge and Thermopylae that will be addressed in later entries. Part II will be posted after the weekend!







2 responses to “A Small Lesson in Tactics Part 1”

  1. Matt McKeon Avatar
    Matt McKeon

    I would strongly recommend “Persian Fire” for those wanting an engaging account of the Persian Wars incorporating recent research.

    Surprisingly, Herodotus’ reputation gets rehabilitated, his accounts being generally confirmed by archaeology and other written sources.

  2. Ray B Avatar
    Ray B

    Another great book that concentrates on Salamis, including an look at Thermopylae and its roll in the war, is The Battle for Salamis:The Naval Encounter that Saved Greece–and The Western Civilization

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