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Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage

Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage

by Grady McWhiney, Perry D. Jamieson
This book is a veritable kaleidoscope, showing pictures ranging from the seemingly hyperbolic to those that are clearly representative of the finest scholarship to be found anywhere.


This book is a veritable kaleidoscope, showing pictures ranging from the seemingly hyperbolic to those that are clearly representative of the finest scholarship to be found anywhere.

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University of Alabama Press
Publication date:
1480L (what's this?)

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Attack and Die

Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage

By Grady McWhiney, Perry D. Jamieson

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1982 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-9016-7


It Was Not War — It Was Murder

On July 1, 1862, General George B. McClellan's Federal forces held a strong position on Malvern Hill, near the James River, a few miles southeast of Richmond, Virginia. "It was a fine afternoon," recalled a Union officer, "hot but tempered by a cooling breeze. The soldiers waited. ... The ranks were full." Confederate observers noted that "all approaches" to the hill were protected by Union artillery and "guarded by swarms of infantry, securely sheltered by fences, ditches, and ravines." The Yankees were ready.

So were the Confederates. General Robert E. Lee had decided to disregard the advice of a division commander and to assault this formidable Federal position. For the task he selected country boys and men from the Deep South — mostly from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and South Carolina — together with regiments from North Carolina and Virginia. These were proud soldiers, even a bit cocky now because for nearly a week they had been pushing Yankees back, and the Southerners moved briskly when ordered forward late in the afternoon of July 1 after considerable delays, confusion, and misunderstood orders. Union General Fitz John Porter thought they came on with "a reckless disregard of life, ... with a determination to capture our army, or destroy it."

But their courage was insufficient to bring them victory. "[R]egiment after regiment, and brigade after brigade [of Confederates] rushed at our batteries," Porter recalled, "but the artillery ... mowed them down with shrapnel, grape, and canister; while our infantry, withholding their fire until the enemy were within short range, scattered the remnants of their columns." Fourteen Confederate brigades tried unsuccessfully to break the Union line before the slaughter ended. General Daniel H. Hill, whose division lost 2,000 of its 6,500 men in what he called these "grandly heroic" assaults, wrote afterward: "It was not war — it was murder."

What Hill called murder became almost commonplace during the Civil War. Confederate attacks, whether or not they drove back the enemy, usually cost many southern lives. A Federal officer described the charges made by the troops of Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville: "It was dusk when his men swarmed out of the woods for a quarter of a mile in our front. ... They came on in line five and six deep. ... I gave the command to fire, and the whole line of artillery was discharged at once. It fairly swept them from the earth; before they could recover themselves the line of artillery had been loaded and was ready for a second attack. ... [When it came] I poured in the canister for about twenty minutes, and the affair was over." Confederate General Samuel W. Ferguson stated that the Second Alabama once charged the famous Federal Lightning Brigade in "han[d]some style, routing the enemy, ... chasing them for several miles and capturing about fifty of their white horses," but this victory cost the Confederates heavily and took the life of the Second's commander, Colonel R. G. Earle, who "was killed a considerable distance ahead of his regiment. His loss I felt greatly," Ferguson admitted.

At Sharpsburg a Federal remembered that the advance of his unit was stopped by a "long and steady line of rebel gray ... sweeping down through the woods." Another Northerner recounted the "invincible bravery" of the attacking Confederates and how his regiment "opened a withering, literally withering, fire on the rebels ..., but they still advanced. A color-bearer came forward within fifteen yards of our line, and with the utmost desperation waved a rebel flag in front of him. Our men fairly roared, 'Shoot the man with the flag!' and he went down in a twinkling and the flag was not raised in sight again." Several charges at Sharpsburg cost the Twenty-seventh North Carolina Regiment 62 percent of its 325 men. One company lost all but 5 of its 30 men; two-thirds of the men and all of the officers in another company were killed or wounded.

At Gaines's Mill a Texas regiment lost 380 of its 500 men in a single charge, and a member of a Louisiana regiment reported that when his unit charged "four of my companions fell dead, and four severely wounded, within ten steps of me, in the short space of fifteen minutes, while I escaped with a bullet hole in my hat. Strange to say, from the position in which our regiment was placed not a single one of the enemy was visible, being concealed behind a breastwork of logs."

Confederate assaults on fortified positions produced the heaviest losses. General A. P. Hill lost 1,300 men from his corps in an attack on the Federal line at Bristoe Station, which the Confederate secretary of war described as "a gallant but over-hasty pressing of the enemy." In 1864 a Union soldier whose regiment was armed with repeating rifles wrote from City Point, Virginia: "The Rebs made 3 charges on us but we stood up to the rack with our 7 Shooters & repulsed them each time & we piled the Rebs in heaps in front of us. ... We are as good as a Brigade." Of the disastrous Confederate assault against the strong Federal defenses at Franklin, a Tennessean reported: "O, my God! what did we see! It was a grand holocaust of death. Death had held high carnival. ... The dead were piled the one on the other all over the ground. I never was so horrified and appalled in my life."

The South lost 175,000 soldiers in the first twenty-seven months of combat. This number was more than the entire Confederate military service in the summer of 1861 and it far exceeded the strength of any army that Lee ever commanded. More than 80,000 Southerners fell in just five battles. At Gettysburg 3 out of every 10 Confederates present were hit; one brigade lost 65 percent of its men and 70 percent of its field officers in a single charge. A North Carolina regiment started the action with some 800 men; only 216 survived unhurt. Another unit lost two-thirds of its men as well as its commander in a brief assault.

The announcement by President Jefferson Davis early in the war that "the Confederate Government is waging this war solely for self-defense" implied that the South would concentrate on warding off Federal attacks, but it is doubtful that Davis actually intended his words about "self-defense" to be more than a propaganda statement. He had long favored offensive over defensive warfare and he would continue to do so throughout the war. In July 1861 he informed General Joseph E. Johnston: "I could not permit you to suppose that I had allowed any rule to stand in the way of the one great object of giving to our columns capacity to take the offensive." In 1862 Davis praised the Confederate survivors of the Seven Days' campaign. "You marched to attack the enemy in his entrenchments with ... daring valor," he told them; "you charged upon him in his strong positions, drove him from field to field ..., compelling him to seek shelter under cover of his gunboats where he now lies cowering before the army he so lately derided & threatened with entire subjugation." The president's appeal to the army in February 1864 revealed a continued commitment to offensive tactics. In this speech Davis reminded the soldiers of their "glorious victories" over "vastly more numerous hosts" that had been achieved by "desperate assault," and he urged them to ever greater efforts. "Soldier! the coming spring campaign will open under auspices well calculated to sustain your hopes," he promised. "Your brave battlecry will ring loud and clear through the land of the enemy." And, finally, in October 1864 the president told an audience in Columbia, South Carolina, "I believe it is in the power of the men of the Confederacy to plant our banners on the banks of the Ohio."

Despite Davis's enthusiasm for offensive warfare, there were good reasons why the South might have elected to remain on the defensive. The North had greater resources and a three-to-two military manpower advantage over the South. Offensive operations almost certainly would exhaust the Confederacy more quickly than the Union because invasions and tactical offensives use up more men and resources than defenses. As a rule, defense is the most economical form of warfare. Civil War defenders, as will be explained more fully later, enjoyed even greater advantages than usual because tactics lagged behind military technology in the 1860s. The rifled muzzleloader gave the defense at least three times the strength of the offense; consequently, it would have been possible theoretically for the Confederates using defensive tactics to have remained in their entrenchments and to have killed every man in the Union army before the South exhausted its own human resources. The Confederacy only had to be defended to survive. As Federal General Henry W. Halleck pointed out: "the North must conquer the South."

But defensive tactics were not what the Confederates elected to use. From the war's outset southern sentiment overwhelmingly favored an invasion of the North. Confederate Secretary of State Robert Toombs announced in May 1861 that he was for "taking the initiative, and carrying the war into the enemy's country." He opposed any delay. "We must invade or be invaded," he said. The famous Confederate war clerk, John B. Jones, feared that the government's military policy might be defensive. If so, he warned in June 1861, "it will be severely criticized, for a vast majority of our people are for 'carrying the war into Africa' without a moment's delay." When President Davis indicated in a public speech just after the Battle of First Manassas, in July 1861, that he was ready to take the offensive, Jones noted in his diary: "Never heard I more hearty cheering. ... Every one believed our banners would wave in the streets of Washington in a few days; ... that peace would be consummated on the banks of the Susquehanna or the Schuylkill. The President had pledged himself ... to carry the war into the enemy's country. ... Now ... the people were well pleased with their President." Davis called his policy defensive-offensive, but as it was practiced, and as the president encouraged it to be practiced, it was offensive warfare.

By taking the tactical offensive early in the war more often than their opponents, the Confederates hoped to crush or capture one or more large Union armies, but they were never able to achieve this goal. Instead, their attempts to take the war to the enemy, to attack and destroy him, ruined the Confederate army. "There is an insane desire on the part of the Southern people, & some of the Generals to assume the offensive," wrote Colonel Benjamin S. Ewell in 1864. "Our successes have consisted in driving back the enemy & in defeating their attempts to invade. Our failures in attempts to carry the war into their territory. There have been exceptions to this but the remark is generally correct."

Confederate forces attacked in eight of the first twelve big battles of the war, and in these eight assaults 97,000 Confederates fell — 20,000 more men than the Federals lost in these same battles. The first twelve major campaigns of the war, those in which the total casualties exceeded 6,000 men, were Shiloh, Fair Oaks or Seven Pines, Seven Days, Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, Perryville, Fredericksburg, Murfreesboro, Chancellorsville, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga. The Confederates clearly assumed the tactical offensive in all of these battles except Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, and Vicksburg. Both sides attacked for a time at Shiloh and at Second Manassas, so one is counted here as a Confederate attack and the other as a Union attack. (See table 1.) The South simply bled itself to death in the first three years of the war by taking the tactical offensive in nearly 70 percent of the major actions.

After 1863 the Confederates attacked less often. Unsuccessful offensives had spent too much of their limited manpower, and thus forced them to defend. Even so, Confederate commanders attacked in three of the last ten major campaigns of the war, and they frequently met enemy advances with counterattacks. Southerners doubtless would have attacked more often if they could have replaced their losses. General Ulysses S. Grant appreciated this Confederate aggressiveness and developed a plan to neutralize it. "We ought not to make a single exchange nor release a prisoner on any pretext whatever until the war closes," he informed a high government official on August 19, 1864. "We have got to fight until the military power of the South is exhausted, and if we release or exchange prisoners captured it simply becomes a war of extermination." The day before, Grant explained his strategy more fully in a letter to another general: "It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. Every man we hold, when released on parole or otherwise, becomes an active soldier against us at once either directly or indirectly. If we commence a system of exchange which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those caught they amount to no more than dead men. At this particular time to release all rebel prisoners ... would insure Sherman's defeat and would compromise our safety here."

Casualty lists reveal that the Confederates destroyed themselves by making bold and repeated attacks. They took the tactical offensive in 91 percent of the battles in which they suffered their greatest percentage losses; they defended in 89 percent of the battles in which they suffered the lowest percentage of casualties. In ten of the eleven battles that cost them their highest percentage of casualties, the Confederates were on the tactical offensive, and in the other battle — Sharpsburg — they were compelled to defend their position with costly counterattacks. The Federals assumed the tactical offensive in five of the eight battles in which they suffered their highest percentage of casualties, and in the other three — Murfreesboro, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga — they made several counterattacks. (See table 2.)

A close examination of two battles reveals how so many men were lost. Both Murfreesboro and Chickamauga are examples of sustained Confederate attacks, and an analysis of regimental losses in each battle indicates a high degree of correlation between assaults and casualties. Because the Federals were on the defensive in both battles they suffered relatively fewer casualties, except for those units that were outflanked or surrounded. It is significant that half of the most battered Union regiments incurred their highest casualties when they attacked or counterattacked. At Murfreesboro the Fifteenth Indiana lost 130 of its 440 men in a single bayonet charge, and the Thirty-fourth Illinois and the Thirty-ninth Indiana each sustained 50 percent casualties in a counterattack. In still another attempt to check the Confederate advance a brigade of regulars charged into a dense cedar grove and lost 500 men in about twenty minutes. The Sixteenth and Eighteenth U.S. Infantry regiments, which formed the center of this assault group, lost 456 men from a combined total of 910. At Chickamauga the Eighty-seventh Indiana suffered over 50 percent casualties in one charge across an open field, and three Illinois regiments — the Twenty-fifth, Thirty-fifth, and Thirty-eighth — together with the Twenty-sixth Ohio, tried to dislodge part of General Bushrod Johnson's Confederate Division from the crest of a hill. The attack failed, and it cost the Federal regiments 791 of their 1,296 men.

Confederate losses in these two battles were even more exceptional. Of the eighty-eight Confederate regiments present at Murfreesboro, twenty-three suffered over 40 percent casualties. Moreover, 40 percent of the infantry regimental commanders were killed or wounded, and in several regiments every field officer was lost. Eight of the twenty Confederate brigades that fought at Murfreesboro sustained more than 35 percent casualties, and 25 percent of the infantry brigade commanders were killed or wounded.


Excerpted from Attack and Die by Grady McWhiney, Perry D. Jamieson. Copyright © 1982 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Grady McWhiney is professor of history, and director and distinguished senior fellow, Center for the Study of Southern History and Culture, The University of Alabama.
Perry D. Jamieson is historian, Strategic Air Command, United States Air Force, Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.

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