Tactical Defeat

By Matt Slattery
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in the winter of 2002.

Many of the books on the Civil War (the fighting Civil War) deal with the strategy of the governments, North and South, and as carried out by their leading generals. Then there is a great break and many books then turn to the story of the individual soldier, the young man in blue or gray, and his contention with the terrors of battles and the risks of years’ long campaigning.

In between these extremes lies a vast military field known to both practitioners and historians as tactics, the actual fighting of battles. In the Civil War, the unit of tactical command, both North and South, was the regiment. On paper, a regiment consisted of 1,000 men, which in fact was often the case at the beginning of the war. Later on, after the war had become a deadly battle of attrition, a regiment counted only some hundreds of troops.

To illustrate the problems and failures of the tactical command, we have herewith created the mythical 75th Michigan Volunteer Infantry (sorry, Michigan). Oh, how often we have come across some version of the following: “The battle was fought between evenly matched bodies of divisional strength, but the 75th Michigan holding the right wing collapsed, and with the threat of encirclement, what should have been a Union victory turned to abject defeat.”

The 75th is the goat, but what really transpired? We are left only to guess, but herewith are some possibilities – tactical errors, oversights, and failures:

  1. The Union line was well established except for the 75th, which had to make an all-night march in the rain to get to its position and arrived dead tired and hungry. A determined Confederate assault drove them from their position.

  2. The Union line was well established along a stretch of high ground except on the far right which was on low, exposed land and which the unfortunate 75th was given to hold. The rebel commander immediately saw this and sent in a heavy force to break it.

  3. In a quartermaster goof, the 75th was short of ammunition. Or early in the war, when there were a variety of rifles, the wrong caliber bullets were sent.

  4. The unfortunate 75th had no artillery support. Or the rebel artillery was concentrated on it.

  5. Or, and too often, the fault lay with the regiment’s own colonel who failed to get his men into the right position, at the right time.
The collapse of the Union right flank at Chancellorsville: a tactical or logistical failure?

When we are reading the story of a battle and come up against “the right wing broke down” or some other anomaly, we should seek to know what caused it, or take a charitable attitude. The odds are that the troops of the 75th were as competent and as brave as those of their fellow regiments as well as those of the enemy. War is a complex affair and often does not follow the laws of logic.