Did the Civil War Affect European Military Culture?

This is the latest installment in the Civil War Classics series written by students in Professor Peter Carmichael’s graduate level readings course at West Virginia University.  The following brief review of Jay Luvaas’s book, The Military Legacy of the Civil War: The European Inheritance, was written by Kati Singel.  Click here for other reviews in the series.

There is an extensive literature related to the evolution of war between 1861 and 1865, but few of these studies are specific to what this evolution meant for the modern soldier. How did this evolution affect future wars? What was the military legacy of the Civil War in Europe? In The Military Legacy of the American Civil War: The European Inheritance, Jay Luvaas investigates what the Prussian, French and British military observers learned from what they saw, and how their experiences potentially influenced military theory. The American Civil War was distinguished from previous wars by new technological advances, the departure from European tactics, and the first extensive use of rifled field artillery. European observers recognized these distinctive characteristics, but they did not believe that it was possible to emulate these new tactics in Europe. Contrary to popular belief, Luvaas argues that the American Civil War “never exerted a direct influence upon military doctrine in Europe” (226).

Prior to this publication, few historians have studied the writings of European military observers with the exception of Ella Lonn, author of Foreigners in the Union Army and Navy (1951) and Foreigners in the Confederacy (1940). Evaluating newspapers, published accounts, and official government reports, Luvaas determines that military observers from England, France and Prussia (Germany) were impressed by what they saw, but they did not apply what they learned. They underestimated the value of the volunteer soldier, and therefore they were more concerned with organization and equipment rather than tactics.

After 1865, Luvaas finds that the continued neglect of the lessons of the American Civil War in Europe can be attributed to Prussian ingenuity in 1866-1870. It was not until World War I that Germany and France began to incorporate what they learned, but he does give England credit for the 1886 publication of “The Campaign of Fredericksburg” by an English officer, Capt. George F.R. Henderson. He devotes an entire chapter to Henderson and his legacy for being the first English officer after 1870 to undertake a serious study of the American Civil War. In the aftermath of World War I, Luvaas identifies how this war has been recognized as major turning point in modern warfare in J.F.C. Fuller’s Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship (1932) and Capt. B. H. Liddell Hart’s Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American (1929). It suddenly seemed obvious that the use of entrenchments during World War I was foreshadowed by the trenches at Petersburg, and the belief that the purpose of strategy is “‘to diminish the possibility of resistance’” was directly utilized by Union General William T. Sherman as he marched to the sea. Luvaas offers little criticism of Henderson, Fuller or Hart, but he recognizes that their studies are part of an effort to “confirm accepted principles rather than to discover new information that might lead to a change in doctrine” (233). Although he believes their studies to be important to the historiography of this subject, they were too late to revolutionize the military doctrine of Europe.

This book is more than a study of the effectiveness of European military observers in the American Civil War. It is a guide to understanding how the American Civil War has been understood in Europe from 1861 through World War I. Although his study is limited to military affairs, Luvaas does make an important connection between the events occurring in Europe and the advancement of military theory.

13 comments… add one
  • Sean Jan 2, 2018 @ 14:31

    It is long after this post was made, but this was the most relevant page in my google search. Reading the Guns of August it is striking to me how much French and German strategy (not tactics) was premised on the Franco Prussian war and no consideration of the American civil war. The fact that the south could fight for so long would seem to me to be an indicator that France would not fall quickly if a deceisive blow was not struck. How did the German general staff blunder in its calculations and what made 1914 more like 1861 than 1870? I’m interested to know if the strategic implications of how a country fights was considered more than the tactical impact of trenches.

  • Dan Nov 18, 2013 @ 18:01

    The unification wars of the Second Reich were, in my humble opinion directly modeled on the ACW.

    Forget about the tactics for a moment. Operationally the Prussians realized that they could absorb German states that were either hostile to Prussian hegemony or on the fence. Sherman and Grant showed how a determined ruthless invasion could put down a formidable military with artillery, telegraph and trains. Remember the war was just a means to centralized control in Germany, dominated by the Junckers and the Kaiser. The Yankee industrialists around Lincoln were the driving force for the civil war. I personally doubt the Prussians would have dared invade France if the Union Had been fought to a standstill. They’d have dismissed the idea of defeating France had Sherman or Grant been sent packing.

  • Kati Singel Apr 5, 2010 @ 16:24

    Thank you all for your comments on my post! I am glad to see that Luvaas’ work is still able to provoke such a great discussion.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 5, 2010 @ 16:33

      Hi Kati,

      Thanks to you for writing such a thoughtful post.

  • TF Smith Apr 1, 2010 @ 21:00

    I think the US Civil War was the first “modern” war in the Western world, and I’ll give you a simple reason why: it was the first war involving mass mobilization of hostilities only personnel from a literate and democratic (at least for the cohort that faced mobilization, voluntary and conscripted) society, based on a small regular and reserve/veteran cadre.

    Those basics of military sociology, in the US and among the rebels, are significantly different than how any of the combatants mobilized in the Napoleonic era.

    And the technological differential between the 1860s and the first five decades of the 19th Century is vast; first and foremost, the widespread use of machinery (steam) for transportation, by land and sea, as opposed to animal and/or sails; likewise, minute-by-minute telegraphic communication between the NCA and both theater and army commanders is a major break with the past.

    As an example of how significant that is, posit the above suggested “American vs European military establishment” except in (let’s say) the valley of the St. Lawrence in 1862 or the Rio Grande in 1866…Sumner or Sheridan is in immediate telegraphic communication with Washington; Fenwick Williams or Bazaine has a 30 to 60-day round trip for messages back and forth from London or Paris.

    That sort of change, from the utterly independent field commander (in a grand tactics/operational/theater-level – think Wellington in Spain) to one in constant, literally minute-by-minute contact with his superiors, is epochal.

    And as far as the “European military establishment(s)” go, I’m not sure that in comparison to the Crimea, Solferino, Puebla, Custozza, Adowa, Isandlwana, or Spion Kop, the Americans had all that much to fear…

  • Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh Apr 1, 2010 @ 8:53

    Luvaas’ work remains a classic, in part because most Americanists (myself included) don’t have equivalent proficiency in European languages to do what what he did. And much thanks to Ken Noe for the kind comments… Brian Holden Reid’s book, which I just submitted a review of to the JMH, also fits (in my opinion at least) in with the school of scholarship you’ve mentioned.

    Americans tend to like to see their Civil War as a seismic event in world history, and in the work of someone like Hattaway and Jones’ still standard How the North Won, you see a tendency to argue that if the pompous European professionals had paid better attention, they would have avoided the catastrophe of the Western Front in World War One–an argument made in part by Liddell Hart and Fuller. Non-military historians seems to buy into this concept of the war as being somehow distinctly modern–you see that in Drew Faust’s tremendously impressive book on Civil War death, and when I argued against this idea on mostly military grounds, I remember Stephanie McCurry at a paper panel dismissing this idea. In a sense, this shows just how powerful American exceptionalism really is–even among historians who repudiate that Whiggish narrative, they can’t help but see the American Civil War as being some kind of pivot point in world history.

    Here are a few statistics to throw out, for people to ponder, drawn from one of the appendices in Gunther Rothenberg’s ART OF WARFARE IN THE AGE OF NAPOLEON:

    In October 1813, long before the Am. Civil War, which was supposedly a pivot point toward modernity in western military history, there occurred a battle at the tail end of the Napoleonic Wars at Leipzig. In this battle there are present on one side 122,000 Russians, 105,000 Austrians, 80,000 Prussians, 18,000 Swedes, and 1,384 guns. Under Napoleon, there are 175,000 French and Allied troops, and 717 guns. The victors suffer 75,000 killed and wounded, while Napoleon suffers 45,000 killed and wounded, and 15,000 prisoners and 325 guns captured on top of that. Earlier in the same year, 100,00 Frenchmen and allies defeat 200,000 Russians and Austrians.

    All this, without the supposedly epochal effects of industrialization, technological advance, etc.

    I don’t want to push this argument too far, but people frequently use arguments of scale to describe the seismic nature of the Civil War–scaling arguments that work well in the context of *American* history, but are more problematic in any larger context.

    Furthermore, the modernist perspective ignores the distinctive and peculiar nature of American military history; the American practice during the Civil War of building gigantic armies from scratch (due to our long-standing suspicion of standing armies), and then disbanding those armies just as they become operationally competent, is simply impossible in the context of European Great Power politics. The reality is that at the outset of the war, American armies are by European standards spectacularly inept. This isn’t a huge problem for the Union and the Confederacy, because they both start from the same rudimentary level of expertise, but it would be a serious problem if the United States had fought a European military establishment (indeed, the early American failures during the War of 1812 show some of those problems). The early ineptitude of the Americans thus made the experience seem irrelevant to the Europeans, especially when the introduction of standard magazine-fed breech loading infantry arms and the Franco-Prussian War seemed to move the military art far beyond the state of affairs in the trench lines of Petersburg.

    Furthermore, even if one wants to focus on questions of mobilization of populations, the role of ideology, etc., it’s not as if these factors *aren’t* present in the Napoleonic Wars, or in other nineteenth-century conflicts in Europe.

    For me, what’s distinctive about the American military experience during the Civil War is the peculiar set of problems produced by a powerful political ideology suspicious of large standing military establishments–circumstances that don’t fully exist elsewhere in the western world, outside of perhaps Britain, which itself has its own unique set of imperial circumstances that don’t really transfer either.

  • Chris Evans Mar 31, 2010 @ 20:49

    Interesting post.

    It’s fascinating in Fremantle’s wonderful book that he could have gone into more detail about the defenses of Mobile but chose not to since the war was still going on and that would have been helpful information to the Union. It would have been interesting to see his European eye in sizing up in detail the strength of defenses at Mobile and Charleston that he observed.

  • Kati Mar 31, 2010 @ 9:25

    First of all, props, to my friend Ken Noe, for his new book release. I have my copy on order. As to your comment, I agree that there was not as much to learn. However, I think that Luvaas often confuses what he calls a ‘lesson’ with ‘instruction.’ He was disappointed in the lack of reference to the American Civil War in the European teaching of military theory. In another article that he wrote specifically on the Henderson Legacy in 1956, he explains the difference between understanding the American Civil War as revolutionary and explaining how the American Civil War reflected the development of military strategy and tactics. In his book, he alludes to the fact that although there were few lessons to be learned, he expected the European observers to be more respectable of the volunteer soldier. When Henderson wrote his book, Campaign of Fredericksburg, it was meant to serve in the training of volunteer soldiers in the British army.Luvaas impresses upon us that this was the acknowledgment that he desired.
    I agree that any good military study of the Civil War requires a knowledge of the larger context of military strategy and tactics. The problem is that we often have difficulty finding the parallels across the geographical divide.

  • Ken Noe Mar 31, 2010 @ 8:33

    First of all, ‘props’ to my friend Kati. But as to the larger argument, more recent historians such as Earl Hess, Mark Grimsley, Wayne Hsieh, and Brent Nosworthy have largely persuaded me that aside from the hasty entrenchment, there really wasn’t all that much to learn anyway. The American military followed European practice right up to 1861–the Europeans already knew what the American military knew. Mahan taught fortifications for years before the war. If the army had the West, then the French had Algeria (the home of the zouaves) and the Brits India. The Crimean War foreshadowed everything from the effect of the minie ball to railroads to medical care. Sherman’s tactics go back at least as far as the Thirty Years War. And five years after Appomattox, the Franco-Prussian War was won by men moving in loose order formation and carrying breechloading needle guns, nothing the American war really taught. Yes, the Western Front looks like Petersburg, but it also had concrete and machine guns to create years of stalemate (the Allies would have been thrilled if they could have breached German lines after eight months). More and more, I’m convinced that the biggest problem with military studies of the Civil War is that most practitioners (me included) don’t know enough about the contemporary context of world military history. It’s nice to see that changing.

  • Leonard Lanier Mar 31, 2010 @ 5:06

    What does Luvaas say, if anything, about Arthur Fremantle’s unofficial 1863 tour of the North and South?

    • toby Mar 31, 2010 @ 7:37

      Snap! I was thinking exactly the same thing because I have Fremantle’s book here beside me. In fairness, Fremantle did not write a military study, more of a travelogue. I think his main objective was to influence British public opinion about the war, not to summarise millitary innovation. Incidentally, he made some pertinent observations about “slave soldiers” which I might add to a previous post.

      A more interesting visitor from a military point of view was Garnet Wolseley, who became the British Empire’s chief military troubleshooter. Wolseley wrote that “The side that had a professional corps of 85,000 men could win the war”. Early interest in the war was in the use of volunteers versus conscripts and Wolseley was speaking for the all-professional British Army.

      Other European armies were a bit contemptuous of the loose formations of the Civil War armies. Von Moltke is supposed to have made a comment about “armed mobs”. He probably never said that, but it typifies an attitude. Even Fremantle, who commented on the courage and steadiness of the Confederates, was not impressed by the numbers of men he saw falling out while on the march.

      The other lesson European armies (reputedly) took from the ACW was the use of railways by the North. The Prussians were much more efficient than the French in their use of railways in 1870. But they had also the experience of the 1866 war against Austria-Hungary, and that had probably a greater influence. Other innovations after mid-century, like the introduction of a strong staff function, grew from the German experience, rather than the American.

      Luvaas is probably right that the outsiders probably looked at the war for confirmation of their own biases. It looks like a good book & one I hope to read.

      As another aside, Henderson wrote a very good biography of Stonewall Jackson, called “Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War”. I thought it a great read, imbued very much with a Victorian warrior romanticism. Maybe not appropriate for a hard-nosed, unheroic fighter like Jackson! My copy is a 1904 edition I discovered in a second-hand bookshop, but it is still in print.


      • Kati Mar 31, 2010 @ 9:05

        Leonard, you hit the nail right on the head. Of course, Toby makes a good point that Freemantle’s book is more of a travelogue. In all fairness, Luvaas did intend to document the military legacy of the Civil War. He is not concerned with the political or social effects that these observations had in Europe. Wolseley, as Toby noted, is an important contributor to Luvaas’ agrument about the military observers from Great Britain. Military bservers from England, Prussia and France alike were skeptical of the volunteer soldier. One of the questions that Luvaas seeks to address is why they were so “contemptuous,” but interested enough to send their own officers to the front.

        Another aside, Toby, you would appreciate Luvaas’ in-depth discussion of the value of Henderson’s writings, including his biography of Stonewall Jackson. Although Luvaas cautions us to Henderson’s biases, he applauds this new contribution to the literature from an British officer.

  • Matt McKeon Mar 31, 2010 @ 4:52

    The Europeans go into World War One, thinking it would be a replay of the Franco Prussian War. A swift campaign of manuever, defined objectives, short time frame, acceptable losses. But it turns into the worse aspects of the Civil War; costly, indecisive battles, mass armies of hastily trained civilians, much longer, much bloodier, war driven economies, blockade, revolutionary change.

    In a sense, they couldn’t “learn the lesson” of the Civil War, because the lesson is that modern mass warfare is a fucking mess that runs out of control. What general staff was going to promote that view?

    I own a book by Isidore Bloch called the “Future of War” He predicted that modern nation-states can’t go to war. Given the immense scale of material and human wastage in modern war, Bloch argues that any war would settle into a bloody stalemate in a few weeks, and the combatants would have make a negoiated peace, or ruin their economies. The copyright is 1899.

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