War and Landscape

I’ve been reading Matthew Spring’s new book on the British Army in the Revolutionary War, With Zeal and Bayonets Only. It’s an excellent look at how the British actually fought during that conflict, and I may do a full review in the future.

One thing that Spring does very well is to analyze how the landscape affected tactics, something I’ve touched on as well. It comes down to this—the American landscape we see now is not the landscape our forefathers saw, or their fathers before them. Spring talks about how the vast forests of America literally swallowed up the armies, and how they had to adjust their tactics to fight in the woods, which they did more often than not.

The British modified their standard three rank, close order formation into a “loose files” arrangement of two ranks with files separated by 3-5 feet. This was because you just could not keep a tight formation aligned in all those trees. Recall also General Sherman’s description of his army fighting in “strong skirmish lines” instead of regular formations. “If the procedure of European warfare was very often departed from,” observed British military historian Col. G. F. R. Henderson, “it was because the nature of the country and the conditions under which marches were made and battles fought were utterly unlike anything that obtained in Europe. No European general has yet been called upon to carry on a campaign in a wilderness of primeval forest, covering an area twice as large as the German Empire, and as thinly populated as Russia.” For example, much of the country between Chattanooga and Atlanta varied between sparsely populated and an outright roaring wilderness. Chickamauga and the Wilderness were fought in the midst of forests. “The country over which the troops moved and fought was difficult in the extreme,” said Henderson. “The maps available were few and bad. Virginia, the theatre of war, was thinly populated—not half opened up. A great part of the State was covered with primeval forest. There were immense tracts of swamp and jungle which were terra incognita to all but a few farmers and their negro slaves. The roads were as scarce and indifferent as the maps.”

This is one of the areas that I disagree with tactical pundits like Paddy Griffith and Earl Hess. In his latest book on the rifle musket, Hess acknowledges that there were battlefield obstructions, but posits that these were not greatly more than in Europe. Yet fighting in a forest or wilderness is quite different than fighting in a the developed space of Western Europe, where obstacles tended to be civilizational artifacts like fences, canals, and villages. Then too the European countryside varies a great deal. The battlescape is very obstructed in northern France and the Low Countries, but the North German Plain is quite open and stretches all the way to Poland and Russia, where things really open up. Much of Spain is also quite open. Remember all those “Spaghetti Westerns” of the 60s? They were filmed in Spain, not the American Southwest. Here’s the present-day landscape around the 1809 battle of Talevara, which, to judge by contemporary images, was not a great deal different then.

Below is the picturesque village of Prace in the Czech Republic, which was at the center of the battle of Austerlitz. The Pratzen Heights, which the French stormed at the climax of the battle, are in the background. There’s a nice panoramic tour here.

I decided to take a look at the relative forest cover of the two continents. The best source I found was Michael Williams’ Deforesting the Earth (University of Chicago Press 2003).

Europe was once covered by immense forests. In 9 AD the Romans had three legions ambushed and annihilated in the midst of the vast Teutoburg Forest (near modern-day Detmold, Germany). After a thousand years of civilization the forest receded, a process greatly accelerated by the industrial revolution, which geared up around 1700. Expanding populations needed vast quantities of wood with which to cook, heat and support local industries like iron foundries, not to mention naval stores and shipbuilding. In France the revolution of 1789 increased deforestation as large tracts of woodland previously held by the crown and nobility became available for cutting. By the 1860s, “Germany was just over one-quarter forest covered; France, Switzerland, and Sardinia a little more than 12 percent, and the rest of Europe had very little woodland.” What forest remained tended to be concentrated away from areas of military interest.

What about North America? The landscape was vast, primitive, and heavily wooded. One British participant in the Revolution observed:

The woods here are immense, and a European can hardly get an idea of their extent without having seen them. They are marshy, full of underbrush and almost impassable, large trees having fallen down, barring the way…. Each soldier must do his best to seek cover behind a tree and advance without command, keeping an eye only on the movements of the whole body of soldiers, to which our regular troops are not accustomed.

I’ve posted a graphic showing forest cover from 1620 to the present (click for a larger view). It’s a bit misleading since it shows virgin forest and not total forest cover, but since sustainable forestry has been practiced on a large scale only since the 1920s, it gives you a good idea. Note in the 1850 map how much virgin forest falls across areas of military operations in the Civil War.

Michael Williams estimates that prior to 1850 perhaps 114 million acres in the US had been cleared, but in the next 20 years some 60 million acres fell to the axe. Much of this was regional, first in New England, then across the newly opened Northwest territories and later into the Midwest. During the decade of the Civil War the rate fell to 20 million acres, but resumed with a vengeance afterward, with a staggering 80 million acres being logged from 1870 to 1889.

Clearing in the South proceeded initially at much slower pace, leaving it as a region much more wooded than the North. Because of inaccessibility of the interior most large-scale logging operations before the war were limited to the coast for naval stores. Not until after the Late Unpleasantness did logging operations really get rolling in the South, but by the turn of the century vast tracts had been cleared, even in formerly remote areas like the Smokies. Thus the neat countryside one now sees in places like northern Georgia and Virginia looks little like what a soldier would have seen in 1861-65, and even areas that have been preserved give no idea of their former vastness.

The conclusion, then, is that fighting in Europe and fighting in America were quite different affairs, and that the landscape had a major effect on the weapons and tactics used. Spring points out that it favored the defense, since the wooded terrain both hindered an attacking force and provided the defenders with an almost limitless supply of materials with which to build obstructions and take cover. And as Sherman mentioned in his memoirs, it also allowed the defenders to slip away after a battle, making it hard to inflict a decisive defeat or to mount an effective pursuit. It also hampered cavalry, making the European-style massed mounted operations difficult except in open areas such as the countryside around Winchester. It forced a much looser tactical style on the infantry, and greatly limited the the ranges of their weapons. Thus although there are many other factors, the nature of the landscape had much to do with how military operations developed during the Civil War, and why they differed materially from those in Europe.


One response to “War and Landscape”

  1. […] another post I argued that the effect of the heavily-wooded American landscape had to be considered, and that battlefields here were quite different than those in […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *