TOCWOC – A Civil War Blog

Col. G. F. R. Henderson on the Civil War

We have had a lively discussion of my observations of the Civil War and landscape (comments welcome, as always), so I thought I’d take the opportunity to post some of the thoughts of Col. G.F.R. Henderson of the British Army, who wrote and lectured prolifically on the American Civil War, and is best remembered for his book on Stonewall Jackson. Henderson was no mere armchair pundit—he was decorated several times for bravery and was Lord Roberts’ chief of staff and chief of intelligence in South Africa during the Boer War. Henderson was also one of the foremost military historians of his day, who studied and wrote about campaigns all over the world. Not only did he write popular books about it, he lectured extensively at army staff colleges, and a volume of his collected works, The Science of War: A Collection of Essays and Lectures, 1891-1903 can be found on Google Books. The sections on the Civil War are worth reading.

Some excerpts that bear on what we’ve been discussing:

Whatever may have been the faults, due to want of discipline and training, during the first year of the war, 1862 saw a different state of things : and these competent eye-witnesses found then that, whilst the constitution of the armies and their methods of making war differed very greatly from those in force on this side the Atlantic, there were hosts of magnificent fighting men, with leaders who knew the secret of maintaining discipline amongst their volunteers, and of handling them in the field with skill and with success. They learned, also, that if the procedure of European warfare was very often departed from, 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. Nor has any Government been obliged to organise enormous armies for the invasion of such a territory from a multitude of untrained and inexperienced civilians, with the help of a handful of regular officers, and to manufacture, to collect, and to issue, the whole of the materiel needed for their use. Moreover, as the war came to be more closely studied, it was found that every appliance which ingenuity or science could suggest had been brought into play, and that in very many matters Europe had been anticipated.


Again, the country over which the troops moved and fought was difficult in the extreme. 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. The country produced but little in the way of supplies ; and the invaders, when they crossed the border, had the very difficulties to face which so often confront English troops, engaged in rounding off the corners of the Empire by annexing some considerable tracts of savage territory. The organisation of the auxiliary departments, the supply, the medical, and the reconnoitring, which enabled the Americans to overcome those difficulties, afford valuable suggestions to ourselves.

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The science of war: a collection of essays and lectures, 1891-1903


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