Journal of a graduate student in military history and the American Civil War

The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare

with 2 comments

Edward Hagerman. The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare: Ideas, Organization, and Field Command. Reprint. Indiana University Press, 1992.

In this important work on tactical and strategic military history, Edward Hagerman posits that the American Civil War marshaled in a new era in land warfare colored by the impacts of the Industrial Revolution. He argues that the complete command and control systems of armies was impacted by factors both occurring across the globe (i.e. technological developments in weaponry and transportation) and unique to America: its culture, geography, and history.

Hagerman is clear in setting two broad aims for the book. The first is to provide a new analysis of the “theory, doctrine, and practice of field fortification in the tactical evolution of trench warfare.” The second is to analyze the development of field transportation and supply and its impact of the movement and maneuvering of Civil War armies

Petersburg, Virginia. Dead Confederate soldiers in trenches of Fort Mahone

Hagerman organizes his study around several themes. The first addresses the ideas and education that informed the American military including the influence of theorists such as Jomini, Clausewitz, and at West Point, Dennis Hart Mahan. Secondly he looks at the organizational change, or lack thereof, in the Army of the Potomac including an explanation of the educational orientation of its leaders. Thirdly he explores the Army of Northern Virginia and the culture and traditions which informed men of the south who entered the military. Next he dives into the emergence of trench warfare and the strategic and tactical evolution that resulted from it. And importantly, he finishes with the evolution of total war and the strategy of exhaustion. 

Dennis Mahan

Dennis H. Mahan

This work should be of particular interest to military historians and even more so to those interested in the American Civil War and its impact on military logistics, the use of technology, weaponology, military tactical and strategic thought, and the concepts of modern warfare and its history.

There is an extensive notes section valuable to the serious student of military history. This is augmented by a “Works Cited” section including listings of primary sources. The introduction to the book provides an exceptional summary of many of the key factors that impacted the war.

Edward Hagerman brings to this study the credentials of academician. He was Associate Professor of History at York University in Toronto, Canada at the time of the book’s publication. He is also the recipient of the Moncado Prize of the Society of Military History.


2 Responses

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  1. Rene,
    How strong a case does Hagerman build around the idea that European theorists had a significant influence on Civil War generals? The reason I ask is many historians believe it was negligible.

    Drew W.

    September 27, 2008 at 9:52 am

  2. Drew,

    Sorry for the delayed response. Your question is a good one and probably not worthy of a short answer but let me say this. Hagerman speaks in depth about theory and doctrine and its impact on the Civil War, which is part of why I find his work so interesting. He provides a fascinating “thought trail” from Dennis Hart Mahan to French theorists. The first two chapters are worth the price of the book.

    Mahan was arguably the most influential instructor at West Point between 1832 and the years leading up to the Civil War. Hagerman argues that Mahan’s texts and courses on field fortification drew heavily from Francois Gay de Vernon, professor of some note a the Ecole Polytechnique. Gay de Vernon and Jomini were contemporaries and shared similar views which Hagerman attributes to the fact that both were heavily influenced heavily by Frederick the Great and Henry Lloyd. The key points in Gay de Vernon’s work had to do with how to use fortification when fighting from a tactical defense. Mahan studied four years in France before assuming his post at West Point. He adapted Gay de Vernon’s work to American conditions but it remained “steeped in French thought.” One key change was a rejection of a primary reliance on offensive assault tactics. Mahan knew that a small cadre of professional officers would lead armies of citizen soldiers and he was quite concerned that these officers (as well as American soldiers in general) should not be wasted in suicidal frontal assaults. The result was a “tactical system in which he advocated the primacy of active defense.” That’s not to say he didn’t believe in a good offense. In this, he advocated a strategy similar to Jomini although he modified it when the Minie was introduced to suggest more open skirmish-line-like advances of offensive troops. I’m summarizing extensively and not doing Hagerman justice so highly recommend a read.

    The tie between Mahan and the leadership of the American Civil War was, according to Hagerman, significant. Much of the military leadership in the North had come from the Corp of Engineers, which typically took the top 20% of West Point graduates. Hagerman makes some fascinating points about the results of having a heavier concentration of Corps of Engineers in the Union versus Confederate leadership ranks. Corp members would have been heavily influenced by Mahan’s adapted-to-America European teaching.

    Hagerman’s mention of Clausewitz is more in the context of the Prussian having correctly predicted a growth in the emotional nature of war, particularly that “nationalistic citizen armies” would cause an increase in the involvement of civilian populations including their being targeted by soldiers (Sherman’s March). But he acknowledges that while Clausewitz’s writings were known, “they were not digested by the Civil War generation of American officers.” Hagerman also suggests that the high command and staff system that evolved on the Union side was most like the French staff system although he doesn’t suggest that the French helped to design it.

    This quote sums it up….

    “Following the French lead, American tactical and strategic thought, except for an antebellum undercurrent in tactics that allowed for historical and peculiarly American factors, crossed the threshold of change peering backward into the eighteenth century.”

    Hope this helps. Thanks again for the great question.


    Rene Tyree

    September 30, 2008 at 8:05 pm

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