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Changing Generalship and Tactics in the late 19th Century
Changing Generalship and Tactics in the late 19th Century
by Blake Whitaker

In the history of the American military, there are dozens of generals who have displayed a variety of characteristics, both positive and negative. In addition, the environment of military leadership changed greatly from the outset of the 19th Century until its end; however, these changes did not take place until the later half of the century. This is displayed in a letter from William T. Sherman to his brother, Senator John Sherman, about Ulysses S. Grant's appointment as Commanding General: "Give Grant all the support you can. He is subject to being lionized…. Grant is as good a leader as we can find. He has honesty, simplicity of character, singleness of purpose, and no hopes to usurp civil power."[1] This quote is a prime example of generals who were the mainstays of the 19th Century: bold, driven men who are committed to the nation but are not trained to expand far beyond their military duties. Great changes took place during the 19th Century in the American military establishment; some of these areas include generalship and tactics. This paper will explore those areas of the American military in the 19th Century and show how they were adopted and applied.

During the Civil War, two great armies were raised within America, and a new generation of citizen soldiers shouldered the burden of command in the war. Many of these commanders had little or no military training at all and would end the war in command of thousands of soldiers. An example of a fairly typical Civil War general is Confederate Major General Patrick Cleburne. Cleburne was a shining example of a citizen-soldier of the era. He had no formal training for military command other than his time as a private in the British Army. According to historian Craig Symonds, Cleburne's performance can be described by saying "In his first fight he had behaved gallantly and with unsurpassed determination and perseverance. Alas, gallantry, determination, and perseverance had not been enough."[2] Symonds states clearly that Cleburne had determination, but it failed to make up for his lack of creativeness and tactical know how.

In Symonds's, Stonewall of the West , he structures the book around Cleburne's development as an officer. At the beginning of the war, Cleburne possessed several key traits that are necessary in being an effective commander; he was reliable, committed, self-disciplined, and courageous. In addition to these traits, he was an effective trainer and stressed unit drill to develop and effective combat force. This quality, the ability to train men effectively, is key in generalship. The importance of training is paramount; General Winfield Scott demonstrated this at the battle of Chippewa in the War of 1812. After facing a numerically superior force, his well-trained soldiers decimated the British because of their unit cohesion and disciplined training.[3] It was apparent that training efficiency was and continued to be a tenant of effective generalship.

Another trait of generalship that is important to recognize is character. Cleburne would have been described by anyone that knew him as a man of high morals and impeccable character. This was demonstrated on an occasion early in his military career when he arrested a superior officer who was quite incompetent. Symonds says he was "torn by conflict loyalty, Cleburne had to choose between obedience to appointed authority and what he saw as his obligation to his men."[4] This was a clear demonstration of moral courage and he served the greater good by violating the established orders. This is a trait that has been apparent in many great American generals, including George Patton and Douglas MacArthur. From Cleburne's mistakes and strengths there can be made a list of important qualities of generalship: professional knowledge, decision, humanity, equity, courage, consideration, delegation, loyalty, selflessness, and character.[5]

Some of these characteristics would become more important as time progressed, especially professional knowledge. In warfare of the early and mid 19th century, an untrained commander could become well versed in the tactics of the day by gradually observing and learning on the job for a short period of time. Towards the end of the 19th century, tactics became much more complex. During the Civil War little had changed tacitly since the Revolutionary War. Historian David Fitzpatrick points out that, "the Army's existing manual… had made some effort to account for the development of rifled weapons (it emphasized speed of movement and rifle marksmanship), it still placed great reliance on traditional tactics."[6] This would begin to change during the latter part of the 19th Century. It was Emory Upton's manual, A New System of Infantry Tactics , which would signal the change. Until Upton's manual the traditional tactic used by almost all professional military forces was the double lined massed infantry approach. Upton argued for a completely different system. His system was based around groups of four soldiers, which would form a single line of battle and push forward individually. This single rank approach was used partially to maximize firepower and make a harder target.[7] This system was also contingent upon the fact that small unit leaders (company grade officers and non-commissioned officers) took a much more active role in maneuver on the battlefield.

This system of tactics made maneuver on a larger scale much more complex than before. This would also imply that professional education would become a much more important part of military leadership. In addition to professional education on the part of the officer, new tactics would also call on the officer to hone their training skills. In Fitzpatrick's essay, "Emory Upton and the Citizen Soldier," the importance of training is touched on, "In it [Upton's 1867 tactics manual], he stressed the value of training and discipline for any organization."[8] This can only further stress the importance of these two traits in the evolving military environment of the late 19th century.

One thing that did slightly tarnish Upton's work was the fact that it was misinterpreted by many. It is thought by many that Upton was a military elitist and disliked civilian control of the military. This was quite literally the opposite of the truth. Upton was in favor of adopting a "Prussian Reserve System," and many thought this to be anti-democratic. The simple fact is that he wanted to put mobilization of the reserve forces in the hands of the federal government rather than the individual states. This was to ensure uniformity and quality. After the Civil War, he also criticized the civilian controlled military, but the mainstay of this was directed towards the Secretary of War's postwar policies rather than the principle of civilian oversight of the military.

Much of this misinterpretation can be attributed to the fact that Upton was in favor of federal control of almost the entire national defense establishment. This is what many interpreted as anti-democratic, which is not at all surprising since the country had just recently fought a war over states rights. Part of this was the fact that some believed Upton wished to do away with the militia entirely. Fitzpatrick shows that while Upton believed the militia to be useless still he recognized that, "The militia is guaranteed to the states by the Constitution, and is an instrument for preserving law and order, is to be maintained by the states."[9]

These new systems of tactics combined with the increasingly important areas of military leadership were put to use in the Philippine War 1899-1902. The Philippine War was the first of a series of small wars of American imperialism that would partially define the military culture of the early 20th century. The U.S. Marine Corps would even write a Small Wars Manual . The Philippine War itself was short lived as a conventional conflict. The Spanish forces and then the Philippine National Army were defeated in less than a year. Most of the war was a post conflict pacification effort, and the U.S. Army spent its time fighting off guerillas and trying to win the cooperation of the local population rather than fight a conventional force.

The U.S. Army at the time consisted of 65,000 men, hardly a number suitable for conducting large-scale expeditionary work. In light of this, Congress authorized a 35,000 man volunteer force to be raised. Regular and state officers commanded the U.S. Volunteers, who were trained in skirmishing tactics, march discipline, and marksmanship and were suited to fighting a guerilla war.[10] The formation of this expeditionary force demonstrates the changes happening and the move to Upton's open order tactics. The general in command during the mainstay of the operations that overtook the conventional Philippine forces was Major General Elwell Otis. He was a micro manager and a stickler for administrative perfection. His lack of ability to delegate effectively seriously crippled him as a commander as well as his headquarters as an administrative unit. Otis commanded the army through the defeat of the conventional force and the beginning of pacification programs.

In May of 1900, Major General Arthur MacArthur replaced him. MacArthur was a dynamic commander who delegated effectively and developed his subordinates. Brian Linn shows a key difference between the two generals in his book, The US Army an Counterinsurgency in the Philippine War 1899-1902 by saying "Throughout 1900, as Otis refused to recognize the existence of the guerillas and MacArthur attempted to conciliate them with an amnesty, Army officers in the field took the initiative in structuring counterinsurgency programs to deal with conditions in their areas".[11] Perhaps MacArthur's most important imprint on the conduct of operations in the Philippines was an adaptation of the Army's General Order 100. It stated the Army had an obligation to protect all citizens that had accepted American authority. This was adapted from use in the Civil War when dealing with former Confederate territory.[12] This established the precedent that anyone who assisted the rebels or failed to assist American forces were considered war rebels themselves. This proclamation contained the guidelines for the policy the Americans would carry out for the remainder of the war.

The final American commander of the war was Major General Adna R. Chaffee. He was appointed because of MacArthur's failure to work with William H. Taft, the American Civil Administrator for the Philippines. Chaffee consolidated the American forces, organized them into military camps, and returned them to military duties such as training, drill and administration. Shortly thereafter, a brutal campaign by American forces ended the war with the surrender of the last rebel leaders.[13]

There were several important factors that led to the conclusion of the war; the first was the initiative taken on the part of general officers. There was little or no direction given by civilian or military leadership in Washington. This left the commanding general to formulate their own policies on pacification and administration of the islands. Sound decisions on the part of military officers on all levels made the Army as efficient as it was. In addition, the level of training that American forces had when they entered the theater made then a superior force to be reckoned with. This yet again stresses the importance of training and professional knowledge of generals. Another factor was the localization of American forces and the Army as a key component of pacification programs.

The American military changed a great deal from the 1860's to 1900. While many aspects of the military remained the same or only slightly changed, some important things changed. Due to Upton's revolutionary new tactics and the advent of rifled weapons and later smokeless powder, a new emphasis was placed on professional knowledge and training. These two traits became increasingly important factors in generalship. The change in tactics also led to an open order revolution in which military forces shied away from large, two ranked formations clashing and relied more heavily on squad-based tactics. The period from the 1860's to 1900 has become one of the most important in American military history for institutional change and development.


Footnotes

[1]. Edgar F. Puryear, American Generalship Character is Everything: The Art of Command. (Novato, CA.: Presidio Press, 2000), quote on 3.

[2]. Craig L. Symonds, Stonewall of the West: Patrick Cleburne and the Civil War. (Lawrence, KS.: University of Kansas Press, 1997), quote on 79.

[3]. Joseph Dawson, "War of 1812." History 443: American Military History Until 1901. Texas A&M University, College Station, TX. 15 Feb. 2005.

[4]. Symonds, Stonewall of the West , 48-51, quote on 50.

[5]. Puryear, American Generalship , 1-4, information on 1.

[6]. David J. Fitzpatrick, "Emory Upton and the Citizen Soldier," The Journal of Military History 65 (April 2001), 355-389, quote on 365.

[7]. Fitzpatrick, "Emory Upton and the Citizen Soldier", 365-366.

[8]. Fitzpatrick, "Emory Upton and the Citizen Soldier", quote on 367.

[9]. Fitzpatrick, "Emory Upton and the Citizen Soldier", quote on 368.

[10]. Brian McAllister Linn, The US Army and Counterinsurgency in the Philippine War 1899-1902 . (Chapel Hill, NC.: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), information on 14.

[11]. Linn, The US Army and Counterinsurgency , 20-22, quote on 22.

[12]. Ibid, p. 20-24

[13]. Ibid, p. 24-27

Bibliography

Brian McAllister Linn, The US Army and Counterinsurgency in the Philippine War 1899- 1902. Chapel Hill, NC.: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Craig L. Symonds, Stonewall of the West: Patrick Cleburne and the Civil War. Lawrence, KS.: University of Kansas Press, 1997.

David J. Fitzpatrick, "Emory Upton and the Citizen Soldier," The Journal of Military
History
65 (April 2001), 355-389.

Edgar F. Puryear, American Generalship Character is Everything: The Art of Command. Novato, CA.: Presidio Press, 2000.

Joseph Dawson, "War of 1812." History 443: American Military History Until 1901. Texas A&M University, College Station, TX. 15 Feb. 2005.


Copyright © 2005 Blake Whitaker

Written by Blake Whitaker. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Blake Whitaker at: blakwhit@aol.com.

Published online: 10/30/2005.
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