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." 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." 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. 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." 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,
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." 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. 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
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." 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
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."
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. 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". 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. 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 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.
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.
. Edgar F. Puryear, American Generalship Character is Everything: The Art of
Command. (Novato, CA.: Presidio Press, 2000), quote on 3.
. Craig L. Symonds, Stonewall of the West: Patrick Cleburne and the Civil
War. (Lawrence, KS.: University of Kansas Press, 1997), quote on 79.
. Joseph Dawson, "War of 1812." History 443: American Military History Until
1901. Texas A&M University, College Station, TX. 15 Feb. 2005.
. Symonds, Stonewall of the West , 48-51, quote on 50.
. Puryear, American Generalship , 1-4, information on 1.
. David J. Fitzpatrick, "Emory Upton and the Citizen Soldier," The Journal
of Military History 65 (April 2001), 355-389, quote on 365.
. Fitzpatrick, "Emory Upton and the Citizen Soldier", 365-366.
. Fitzpatrick, "Emory Upton and the Citizen Soldier", quote on 367.
. Fitzpatrick, "Emory Upton and the Citizen Soldier", quote on 368.
. 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.
. Linn, The US Army and Counterinsurgency , 20-22, quote on 22.
. Ibid, p. 20-24
. Ibid, p. 24-27
Brian McAllister Linn, The US Army and Counterinsurgency in the Philippine War
1899- 1902. Chapel Hill, NC.: University of North Carolina Press,
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
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:
Published online: 10/30/2005.