TIMELINE OF WORLD HISTORY
 

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  Warfare

The Industrialization of War

(1715-1871)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Warfare

The Industrialization of War

(1715-1871)
 
 
The settlement of twenty-five years of war between the European powers in 1815 represented no easy task. But the victors agreed that they possessed certain interests in common; in particular they aimed to control the nationalistic emotions that had swept Europe. Perhaps even more critical to European peace, however, was the general exhaustion: none were willing to resort to war to settle territorial disputes or to consider hegemonic ambitions. Although the industrial revolution occurring in Britain before and during the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars had provided the British with unheard of wealth and economic power, they were content to maintain a balance of power on the continent while controlling the world's commerce.
 
 
The victors also agreed to grant the French an easy peace; they restored the Bourbon monarchy and the frontiers of 1792.
The settlement in eastern Europe and 'the Germanics', however, proved more difficult than the problem of what to do with defeated France, for the impact of French conquest had so disturbed the fabric of German life that no settlement could possibly have turned the clock in central Europe back to 1789. Moreover, the Russians had considerable ambitions in eastern Europe, particularly with regard to Poland.

In the end the statesmen hammered out an acceptable settlement. The Russians received virtually all of Poland; in return the Prussians received territories along the Rhine on the French frontier, in order to prevent a resurgent France from moving into western Germany. These acquisitions conferred two important advantages upon Prussia: first, by trading most of its Polish lands for German territories, it became a state with a relatively homogenous population; equally important, it gained control of an obscure river valley the Ruhr, which was to become the second great centre of the industrial revolution.

By accommodating the interests of all the major powers, the Congress of Vienna proved to be one of the most successful negotiated treaties in the history of western civilization. It did possess a number of weaknesses - the growing threat of nationalism being the most obvious - but on the whole the Congress provided the major powers with a rationale for upholding the balance of power among themselves, reinforced by memories of the catastrophic wars of 1792 to 1815 (which helped dampen down the ambitious, until another generation had come to power).
 
The Paris-St Germain line, 1837. Railways transformed economic structures throughout Europe, but only the Prussians perceived the military implications. They developed railroads in accordance with strategic as well as economic needs. Consequently, in the 1860s they could deploy and support larger forces on their frontiers more quickly than any potential opponents.
 
 
After 1815 Europe therefore settled into an unprecedented period of peaceful development. There were, of course, political difficulties. In 1830 a revolution in France tumbled the Bourbon monarchy for good, although the result only led to a dynastic change, while rioting in Brussels provoked partition of the Low Countries. In 1848 a more serious challenge to order occurred with trouble again starting in France. But this time it did not stop at the French frontier; instead it spread to central Europe. The system of control created by the Congress of Vienna, which aimed at throttling nationalism throughout the Habsburg and German lands, collapsed in a matter of weeks. In the end, only Russian intervention helped to crush rebel Hungarian nationalists and keep the Habsburg monarchy together.
In Prussia, the conservatives initially did little better against the revolutionary forces, but an assembly of representatives in Frankfurt proved incapable of putting together a new German state in the revolutionary situation. After a desperate struggle, the conservatives regained control of the situation. The Prussian king refused the offer of the Frankfurt assembly for the crown of a new German state with the derisory comment that he would not accept a crown from the gutter. Even though it failed in the most general of terms, however, the revolution of 1848 underlined the depths of nationalism underlying the European equilibrium.
 
 
 

The Russian destruction of the Turkish fleet at the Battle of Sinop on 30 November 1853 sparked the war; painting by Ivan Aivazovsky
 
 
THE CRIMEAN WAR

Russia's success both in avoiding revolution in 1848 and in putting down Hungarian nationalists encouraged the Tsar to pursue a more aggressive policy in the Balkans. The Ottoman Empire was already a decrepit, weak state, incapable of adapting to the industrial and technological challenge of the West; yet, it possessed an almost inexhaustible capacity to survive its disasters. The Russians hoped to take advantage of Ottoman weaknesses; the British and French demurred. They could not allow Russia to pick up the pieces from Turkey's collapse and the British, in particular, wished to prevent the Russians from gaining direct access to the Mediterranean.

In 1854, a Russian army crossed the Danube and invaded Ottoman territory; the British and French declared war and sent armies to Constantinople to defend the Turks. Even before fighting could occur south of the Danube, the Austrians stepped in and displayed astonishing ingratitude for Russia's aid in 1849: they demanded that the Tsar withdraw his forces from Ottoman territory. The Russians complied, thereby removing the casus belli, but British and French leaders determined to teach Russia a lesson. The result was the Crimean War.



The Crimea. Although France and Britain attacked targets in the Baltic, and mounted minor operations in the Arctic and the Pacific to facilitate a complete blockade of Russia, the Crimea remained their primary objective. Their steamships moved a substantial army to the peninsula and supported it there; the Russians, however, lacked railways reaching to the area and thus had difficulty supplying their forces. The allies landed in September 1854 with the intention of taking Sebastopol, the principal base of Russia's Black Sea fleet, before winter set in; but they failed to take into account the sophistication of the city's defences and the siege lasted a year.



In some respects the conflict represents a crucial watershed in the history of war; in others it was a throwback to the 'limited wars' of the eighteenth century. For the first time, the fighting saw the direct impact of science and technology on the battlefield. The invention of the 'minie' bullet for rifled muskets (muskets with spiral groves cut into the barrel) allowed infantrymen to reach out and hit opponents at ranges of upwards of 300 yards. (This lead bullet was hollowed at the bottom, which allowed the explosive charge to push out the flanges and make a tight enough fit that the rifling imparted spin and direction. It thus tripled the musket's killing range.) Of equal importance was the appearance of steamships in navies: the British and French could transport and supply their forces in Turkey and the Crimea with remarkable ease. Finally, the telegraph allowed governments in Paris and London to communicate with commanders in the field; moreover, newspaper correspondents got their stories to their editors in a matter of days rather than weeks. But despite technological advances, the governments waging the war never mobilized popular enthusiasm and nationalism for a total war. Rather, the Crimean War remained a conflict fought over obscure issues, none essential to the participants' survival.



Bombardment of Bomarsund during the Crimean War, after William Simpson


With the Russian withdrawal north of the Danube, Anglo-French commanders determined to invade the Crimea and attack the Russian naval base at Sebastopol. In September 1854 the allied fleet landed Anglo-French troops haphazardly on the Crimean coast; luckily no Russians opposed them. The combined army then marched south towards Sebastopol. On the way, they encountered a Russian army on the heights overlooking the Alma river. A British attack on the left overwhelmed the defenders; well-aimed fire from rifled muskets slaughtered the Russians, massed in columns, well before the advancing 'thin red line' came within range of enemy muskets. Victory at Alma reflected superior allied technology rather than training or discipline.

The allies then marched on Sebastopol. An immediate assault might have taken the port, but the French were cautious, and preparations for a siege allowed the Russians to complete their defences. Before winter terminated military operations, the Russians made two attempts to break through to the besieged garrison. At Balaclava, through a muddle of conflicting conceptions and misunderstandings, British cavalry attacked Russian artillery positions at the end of a long valley. It was all gloriously hopeless, and the 'Charge of the Light Brigade' added to the long list of heroic British failures. Nevertheless, by day's end the allies still remained between the Russians and Sebastopol. A second attempt to relieve the port was no more successful: at the battle of Inkerman, the rifled muskets of the allied troops completely dominated the battlefield and the Russians suffered 12,000 casualties, the allies only 3,000.
Then winter settled over the region, and the British army was not prepared. Its supply system broke down: conditions in the front lines and hospitals were soon appalling; some commanders wintered in their yachts. But for nations possessing representative governments, the time when senior officers could ignore the plight of common soldiers had passed. British correspondents reported the dreadful conditions under which the army was suffering, and the public outcry resulted in substantial reforms that began the process of modernizing the British army.



Roll Call', an oil painting by Lady Butler. Although the Russian army lost some 500,000 men in the Crimea, the allies also suffered heavy casualties because their supply system broke down amid the harsh winter conditions along the Black Sea. Uniforms were inadequate; rations, when available, proved inedible; an incompetent medical system further exacerbated the misery. But unlike previous wars, the British reading public was kept informed of conditions by newspapers which maintained reporters on the scene who sent their copy to London by telegraph.



In the short term, however, the Crimean winter ruined the British forces, and the French and the Piedmontese had to bear the bulk of the fighting in 1855. The Russians made further attempts to relieve Sebastopol, but again technology told against them. In their last relief attempt, in mid-August, the Russians suffered over 8,000 casualties, the allies fewer than 2,000. On 8 September the French stormed the fortress at Malakoff. For the first time in history, the officers leading the assault columns synchronized watches. The attack succeeded, making further defence of the port impossible.

In the end, the Crimean War had little impact. It only temporarily halted Russian ambitions in the Balkans and put off to another century Turkey's collapse. Nevertheless, advances in weaponry that had marked the war's conduct at the tactical level underlined that technology and science were now crucial to battlefield success. The side that recognized and utilized such changes in its military forces would enjoy an important advantage over its opponents.
 
 
 

The bloodiest day in American military history occurred at the battle of Antietam, 17 September 1862, where 20,000 Americans were killed or maimed. At Bloody Lane', (shown in this fragment of an unrestored painting by Captain James Hope, who served as a scout and topographical engineer for the Vermont Infantry at Antietam), a major Union attack lapped a strong Confederate position along a sunken road. The result was a slaughter pen as Union troops firing the length of the trench massacred their opponents.
 
 
THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR

The American Civil War ranks as the most important conflict of the nineteenth century because, for the first time, opposing governments harnessed the popular enthusiasm of the French Revolution to the industrial technology that was sweeping the West. From the first, the contending sides staked out positions that brooked no compromise: for the North there would be no peace without restoration of union; for the South there would be no peace without independence. Yet both sides initially underestimated their opponent's political will. Most southerners believed that a few quick successes against the cowardly Yankees would guarantee victory, while most northerners believed that the South's population opposed secession and a few victories would lead to the collapse of the secessionist conspiracy.
The North certainly enjoyed significant advantages. Its population numbered nearly 25 million, while the South had barely 9 million people (of whom 3 million were slaves). Nearly all major industrial concerns and the majority of the nation's railways lay in the North. Moreover the Federal government controlled the navy and the army, as well as the bulk of the nation's bureaucratic machinery. But the South possessed other advantages, beginning with geography. The distance from central Georgia to northern Virginia is approximately the distance from East Prussia to Moscow; the distance from Baton Rouge in Louisiana to Richmond exceeds the distance from the Franco-German border to the eastern frontier of Poland. Exacerbating the challenge posed in launching military operations against the South was the fact that primeval wilderness covered many portions of the region, particularly in the west. While the eastern theatre lay relatively close to centres of northern industrial power, the starting point for the Union's western armies, Cairo, Illinois, was over a thousand miles from the North's industrial heart. Without railways and steamships, the North could not have brought its economic potential to bear and probably would have lost the war. The South also possessed the advantage that it did not have to 'win': it would achieve its aims by merely thwarting northern military efforts.
Both sides faced daunting problems in creating effective military forces out of nothing.
 
 

Lincoln with McClellan and staff at the Grove Farm after the battle. Notable figures (from left) are 1. Col. Delos Sackett; 4. Gen. George W. Morell; 5. Alexander S. Webb, Chief of Staff, V Corps; 6. McClellan;. 8. Dr. Jonathan Letterman; 10. Lincoln; 11. Henry J. Hunt; 12. Fitz John Porter; 15. Andrew A. Humphreys; 16. Capt. George Armstrong Custer
 
 
The regular army was little more than a constabulary designed to overawe Indians; none of its officers had received the training or preparation to lead large armies. As with much of American military history, the Civil War was the story of military improvisation and learning on the battlefield. If the officers knew little about war, the politicians knew nothing; Abraham Lincoln was desperate enough to have the Library of Congress send over to the White House the classic works of military history. In the end, he proved an eminently successful wartime strategist and political leader, but almost entirely due to native intuition and guile - not to any serious intellectual preparation.
 
 
The first problem confronting both sides was gathering, training, and supplying large military forces. Ironically, the South again enjoyed an important advantage. Since it possessed no regular army, those who resigned their Federal commissions to fight for the Confederacy were spread throughout the various state militia regiments, where their experience provided a modicum of basic knowledge. In the North, however, the regular army remained in existence and refused to part with its officers for training volunteer regiments.

The armies themselves retained a fundamentally civilian character. Photographs of even the Army of the Potomac, supposedly the most 'spit-and-polish' of Civil War armies, suggest a general casualness towards the niceties of uniform. When properly led, however, these troops endured sacrifices that few units in American military history have equalled. The performance of the 1st Minnesota regiment at Gettysburg is a case in point. On 2 July 1863, it sustained over 80 per cent casualties; yet its few survivors were back in the line receiving Pickett's charge on the next afternoon.

The war's opening year, 1861, displayed Lincoln's extraordinary political talents: the North's successes in that year stand in stark contrast to mistakes in southern policy. The crucial strategic issue was who would control the border states. In Maryland a policy of direct military intervention by federal authorities overawed secessionists in Annapolis. In Missouri, local politicians and soldiers loyal to the Union seized control of the state and drove off rebel supporters, although in the back country a vicious guerrilla war began. The prize was Kentucky, where the state legislature and populace remained loyal but the governor favoured secession. In the impasse the state declared neutrality, but southern troops invaded and forced the pro-Unionists in the state to support the North.

Beside losing the border states, southern leaders made the mistake of embargoing cotton shipments to pressure European states into intervening in the conflict. Such hopes proved illusory: substantial portions of British and French populations were pro-union, while Britain always confronted the problem of how to defend Canada from a northern invasion. In the end, the cotton embargo robbed the South of substantial earnings and the opportunity to import sizeable amounts of weapons and ammunition while the federal blockade was still in its infancy.
 
General Winfield Scott Hancock's division commanders and staff pause for reflection. By 1864 the Union army had evolved a highly effective staff and command system, consisting of regular and volunteer officers who had learned their trade on the battlefield. These men may have displayed a certain casualness towards the niceties of military dress, but they provided driving, competent leadership.
 
 
 

USS Cairo, Mississippi River. 1862. One of the crucial advantages enjoyed by the Union forces throughout the war in the west was the large fleet of steamboats - some equipped with artillery others serving as transports - which allowed effective exploitation of the vast river systems that flowed into the Mississippi River from the states of Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, and Mississippi.
 
 
THE WAR IN THE EAST

Military action in 1861 underlined how ill-prepared both sides were for war. Under pressure to 'thrash the rebs' and facing the fact that most ninety-day volunteer regiments would soon return home, the federal high command marched its forces out of Washington to Manassas. The resulting battle of Bull Run, with everything from heroism to comedy - a number of congressmen brought ladies out to watch the spectacle - saw southern troops win a closely fought struggle. After fighting with considerable heroism, the Union army collapsed in late afternoon before a rebel counter-attack in a panic that did not stop until the troops got to Washington.

Defeat at Bull Run underlined how idle had been Union hopes that a single victory could end the Civil War. Lincoln recognized the need for long-term enlistments and appointed a bright young general to command the army, George McClellan. 'Little Mac', as his troops affectionately called him, was a great trainer and self-propagandizer. However, his talents went no further. He rated himself as the successor to Napoleon and referred to Lincoln as 'that ape', but displayed little capacity on the battlefield to provide either leadership or guidance. He was a man afraid of the unknown; consequently he consistently estimated his opponents as possessing numbers that were impossibly larger. Almost anything served to excuse inaction.

Despite political pressure to use the army he was training, McClellan refused to launch a major military operation for the rest of 1861. In 1862 he planned to move his Army of the Potomac up the James river against Richmond, now the Confederate capital; in spring McClellan made his move and achieved general surprise. Admittedly, he failed to receive all of the troops he requested for the attack, since Lincoln wished to protect Washington from the Confederates and kept one corps back. Nevertheless, McClellan enjoyed considerable superiority over his opponents. The advance on the James peninsula was a slow, tortuous movement in which outnumbered Confederates consistently baffled the over-cautious Union commander. By the end of May McClellan was at the gates of Richmond and preparing for an extended siege. But the Confederates were also ready. Under the inspired leadership of General Robert E. Lee, they launched a series of savage counterattacks which drove McClellan and his army back to their supply ships. Not all the Confederate attacks were successful - the battle of Malvern Hill was a disaster - but Lee achieved a complete dominance over his opponent, a dominance from which the Army of the Potomac never fully recovered.

McClellan's ineptitude, rudeness, and arrogance eventually led Lincoln to remove him as the army's overall commander before the James peninsula expedition had ended. Now defeats in front of Richmond pushed Lincoln to appoint a new commander in Northern Virginia, John Pope, a successful and aggressive general from the west. Upon taking command, Pope announced to his new troops that soldiers in the west had never been accustomed to display their backs to the enemy; he soon antagonized his corps and division commanders as well. The result was another disastrous defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run, where Lee used his subordinates, Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson and James Longstreet, to confuse and eventually smash Pope's forces. With McClellan straggling back from the James peninsula and Pope in general disarray, Lee invaded the North. The Army of Northern Virginia marched into Maryland, while Jackson destroyed a Federal force at Harper's Ferry, Virginia.

Threatened by Lee's move, Lincoln reappointed McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Fortunately for the Union, Lee's plans for the campaign fell into Union hands, but even then, McClellan moved with an excruciating caution that allowed the Confederates to concentrate their forces at the last moment. The result was Antietam, the bloodiest single day in American military history with the combined casualties well over 20,000. McClellan launched three great attacks on a thin line of Confederates; each came within a whisker of success, but the Confederates held and McClellan refused to commit his reserves despite the fact that the enemy was on the brink of collapse. McClellan claimed victory though at best he had gained a draw. Nevertheless, Lincoln seized the opportunity of a battlefield 'success' to issue the Emancipation Proclamation; as of 1 January 1863 the slaves would be free in all territories that remained in rebellion. Lincoln's proclamation represented a direct attack on the social structure and culture of the South; few illusions remained about what would be required to win the war.
McClellan, who strongly objected to freeing the slaves, talked loudly about how he had saved the North, but he displayed no inclination to confront Lee again. Disgusted, Lincoln fired 'Little Mac' for good and appointed Ambrose Burnside commander of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside proved more aggressive but even less competent. In December he launched his troops against an impregnable southern position at Fredricksburg; the ensuing slaughter led to his replacement.
 
 
 

Confederate trenches at Petersburg (1865). By the last years of the war (1864 and 1865) both armies had become highly skilled at entrenching themselves. Lee's defensive system at Petersburg - which protected the Confederate capital at Richmond - was comprehensive, well-sited, and mutually supporting. Chevaux-de-frise (the sets of pointed metal stakes in the photograph) played the role that barbed wire would play in World War I, making such defences almost impregnable to direct attack.
 
 
THE WAR IN THE WEST

Events in the west in 1862 proved more propitious for the Union. In early 1862 an obscure Union general, Ulysses S. Grant moved against the two forts guarding the entrances to the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers, Forts Henry and Donelson. Their seizure opened up the two rivers, secured Kentucky for the Union, and allowed Union gun boats to proceed up the Tennessee all the way to Mussell Shoals in Alabama where they cut the only east-west railroad in the Confederacy.

Grant's army then moved up the Tennessee to Shiloh, where in April he busily engaged in training his troops, while awaiting arrival of General Carlos Buell's army. General Albert Sydney Johnston's Confederate army arrived first and caught Grant by surprise. For a time it seemed that the Confederates might drive Grant's army into the Tennessee, but night and Buell arrived in time after a day of slaughter. On the second day Grant and Buell drove the Confederates entirely off the field, and the North gained its second significant victory of the war.

The two days at Shiloh saw terrible casualties on both sides. Infantry formations, using rifled muskets, stood their ground and blasted away at each other. Napoleonic tactics proved incapable of accommodating the technological advances of the day. The results were to be repeated on numerous occasions in 1862, but the heavy losses at Shiloh did Grant's reputation considerable harm; public opinion in the North still had no idea of how costly the war would prove. Still Shiloh underlined the extent of southern resistance to the Union. As Grant commented in his memoirs:

Up to the battle of Shiloh, I, as well as thousands of other citizens, believed that the rebellion against the Government would collapse suddenly and soon, if a decisive victory could be gained over any of its armies. Donelson and Henry were such victories...But when Confederate armies were collected which not only attempted to hold a line further south.. .but assumed the offensive and made such a gallant effort to regain what had been lost, then, indeed, I gave up all idea of saving the Union except by complete conquest.


After Shiloh and Antietam the defence resorted increasingly to building protected emplacements or digging trenches, while the attackers confronted the problem of crossing the killing zone - a problem that offered no solution until the end of World Warl.

Union victory at Shiloh opened the way for an advance on Corinth, Mississippi, and perhaps the opening of the great river. The US navy had already seized New Orleans, and Confederate positions along the river were open to attack. But the Union commander in the west, General Henry Halleck, assumed direct command of Grant's and BuelPs armies. Halleck's advance on Corinth made McClellan's moves look like blitzkrieg, and the remainder of 1862 saw Union efforts in the west fragment. In Tennessee and Kentucky the Confederates counter-attacked and almost reached the Ohio river before their advance collapsed. Along the Mississippi, Grant began his advance on Vicksburg, the key to control of the river, but substantial failures dogged his opening moves.
 
 
 
CHANCELLORSVILLE AND GETTYSBURG

The campaigning in the east in 1863 saw few changes in the balance between the contenders. In the east General Joseph Hooker, like McClellan, a man with an enormous regard for himself, took over from Burnside at the beginning of the year. In his appointment letter to Hooker, Lincoln specifically noted rumours circulating in Washington that the new commander had declaimed on the need for a military dictatorship. Lincoln dryly reminded the general that the prime requirement for such a coup was success on the battlefield. What I ask now of you is military success,' Lincoln observed, 'and I will risk the dictatorship.'

In early May 1863 Hooker moved against the Army of Northern Virginia, and for one of the rare times in the Civil War, a northern commander caught Lee by surprise. But on the far side of the Wilderness (an area of virgin forest in central Virginia), Hooker froze. Lee recovered, divided his army, and sent 'Stonewall' Jackson on a march that hit Hooker's flank at Chancellorsville with devastating effect. Only evening saved the entire Union right from collapse. The greatest impact of the flank attack, however, was on the mind of the Union commander: as Lincoln noted, from that point on Hooker acted like a duck hit on the head by a board. Despite the fact that his corps commanders wanted to remain on the field and continue the fight, Hooker ordered a retreat.

The crucial question confronting the southern leadership was what to do next. Lee argued for an invasion of the North in pursuit of a decisive victory to end the war; others argued that Lee's victory at Chancellorsville should allow the South to stand on the defensive in the east, while reinforcing the west, where Grant had just trapped a Confederate army in Vicksburg. There, the South confronted the possible loss of both the Mississippi river and a major army. Thanks to his prestige, Lee won the argument: in mid-June the Army of Northern Virginia began its march towards Pennsylvania.

The Army of the Potomac and its new commander, General George Meade, known as 'old snapping turtle' to his staff, set out in pursuit. In a classic encounter battle, fought on ground that neither side chose, a titanic three-day struggle occurred at the little college town of Gettysburg. The Confederates won the first day handily and drove three Union corps pell-mell back through the town. The second day was a draw, but barely. Only the courage and toughness of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, the commander of the 20th Maine - who, when outnumbered three to one and out of ammunition, ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge - saved the Union left flank. On the third day, Lee launched a massive corps attack on the Union centre. Union soldiers chanted 'Fredricksburg, Fredricksburg', as the Confederates emerged from the woods to begin a mile and a half walk up the slope towards Cemetery ridge. The result was a slaughter of General George Pickett's attacking force, as decisive as the one that had occurred below Mayre's Heights at Fredricksburg six months before. With his army shattered and almost out of ammunition, Lee withdrew.

Gettysburg was more than a tactical defeat for the Confederacy. By invading Pennsylvania Lee set the stage for catastrophic defeat in the west, a defeat that lost the Confederates control of the Mississippi and opened up Tennessee to Union invasion. In fact, his pursuit of a decisive victory accorded with neither the tactical realities of the war nor the South's strategic situation, given the crisis at Vicksburg. The rest of the year in the east saw desultory fighting. Lee sent Longstreet's corps out west and was hardly in a position to wage aggressive operations, while Meade recognized Lee's competence and proved unwilling to involve his forces in a war of manoeuvre against so talented an opponent.
 
 
     
Joshua Chamberlain, Brevet Major General, US Volunteers

By the time of the battle of Gettysburg, Joshua Chamberlain, former professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College, had served in the army for less than a year. Appointed second-in-command of the 20th Maine, Chamberlain and his fellow Mainers had enlisted in summer 1862. They received their baptism of fire four months later at Antietam (the worst day for casualties in American military history). In June 1863 Chamberlain became the 20th's commander; on the second day at Gettysburg his brigade was rushed into the line to defend the crucial position of Little Round Top on the left of the Union line. In late afternoon a massive southern attack threatened to engulf Little Round Top. Intense fighting used up virtually all of the 20th's ammunition; with the enemy coming on again, Chamberlain ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge the enemy. This action broke the Confederate attack and saved the Army of the Potomac from defeat.
For his bravery and skill, Chamberlain received the Medal of Honor, and by the end of the war he was a brevet major general. Grant considered him the finest combat brigade commander in the Army of the Potomac and picked him to receive the southern surrender at Appomattox.
Chamberlain returned to Maine to become the state's governor and president of Bowdoin. He died in 1914 of the effects of a wound he had received in 1864.
 
Joshua Chamberlain
 
 
 
GRANT TAKES CHARGE

In 1863 the weight of the war shifted west. After a dismal winter trying to get through the swamps north of. Vicksburg Grant began his spring campaign with a stunning move: in May, he sailed his army down the Mississippi past Vicksburg and thereby cut his lines of communications to the north. Then, in perhaps the most impressive campaign of manoeuvre in the war, he separated the two southern armies in the region and shut one up in Vicksburg. Thus began a major siege that culminated in the surrender of the city and its Confederate army on 4 July 1863 and opened up the Mississippi. Grant then suggested to his superiors that his army move against the crucial port of Mobile, but Halleck, jealous of his subordinate, demurred and divided Grant's forces among other commands.

As a result, the Union advance into central Tennessee under General Rosecrans lacked support from other operations in the west. Rosecrans, however, was up against one of the least capable southern commanders of the war, General Braxton Bragg. By late August, Rosecrans had manoeuvred Bragg out of Tennessee; but in Georgia the Confederates, reinforced by Longstreet's corps from the Army of Northern Virginia, counter-attacked. At the battle of Chickamauga, Longstreet's attack on the second day pushed through a gap in the centre of the Union line - a hole caused by the incompetence of staff officers and Rosecrans's inability to get along with his subordinates. The result was a great southern victory, although Bragg bungled the pursuit. The survivors of the Union defeat made their way back to Chattanooga, where the Confederates besieged them.
 
 
Lincoln responded with vigour. He gave Grant command of the entire western theatre and ordered deployment of two corps from the Army of the Potomac to reinforce the west. The Union logistical system moved 25,000 men with all their horses and artillery 1,200 miles in less than two weeks. Grant, displaying his usual aplomb, concentrated Union forces on Chattanooga. First, he opened up supply lines to the city, where troops were already on short rations.

Once communications were open, Grant attacked Bragg. Flanking attacks had some success, but did not dislodge the defenders from positions overlooking the city. Grant then ordered General George Thomas, who had saved Rosecrans's army from complete collapse at Chickamauga, to launch a probe against Confederate positions overlooking Chattanooga. The probe turned into a full scale assault that succeeded in the face of seemingly impossible odds.

Grant's successes restored the situation in the west. The Union now controlled the Mississippi river; moreover, its forces had driven through Tennessee to the gates of Georgia, the economic heart of the South. The contrast between Union successes in the west and failures in the east were marked. At this point, Lincoln, recognizing Grant's worth, appointed him Commander-in-Chief of all Union forces; Congress added to his honours by making him a Lieutenant General. Grant now assumed control of Union operational strategy to end the destructive war that had already lasted three years.

In 1862 Lincoln had suggested to McClellan that it might be good strategy for the North to pressure the South by offensive operations in all theatres. In letters to his wife McClellan expressed contempt for such an approach. But Lincoln had been right; the North with its superior resources and manpower could break the South by pressuring it concurrently from different directions. That was precisely what Grant intended to do. As he told his subordinate commanders: 'It is my design, if the enemy keep quiet and allow me to take the initiative... to work all parts of the army together, and somewhat toward a common centre.'
 
Ulysses S. Grant (1822-85). Grant had failed at every career he had chosen before 1861 - officer, farmer, and store owner - but he displayed extraordinary powers of decision, was a shrewd judge of men, and had sufficient humility to learn from his own mistakes as well as those of others. His writing possessed a clarity that was to make his memoirs one of the literary triumphs of the nineteenth century. He was also the only general in the Civil War who came to have a clear understanding of the larger political and strategic issues -skills that later helped him win the presidency for two terms (1869-77).
 
In the east the Army of the Potomac would attack the Army of Northern Virginia, while the Army of the James struck south of Richmond to cut Lee off from supplies.

Another Union army would move down the Shenandoah and deny the South the agricultural riches of that region. In the west, Sherman would move against General Joe Johnston's Army of Tennessee, while Banks moved against Mobile and forced Johnston to divide his forces.

Had these pieces moved in the fashion that Grant directed, the Civil War would have ended in 1864, but Banks went up the Red river instead of against Mobile; Siegel proved a dismal failure; and (in Grant's words) Butler got his army 'corked' in the James peninsula. Thus, everything fell on the backs of Sherman and Grant. Part of the problem was the fact that the subordinate players - Banks, Butler, and Siegel - were political generals without the competence to play their parts properly. But Grant never complained about their lack of performance or blamed them for the failure to achieve victory in 1864 for, alone among the North's senior generals, he recognized their political importance to Lincoln's bid for re-election in November 1864.
Grant placed himself with the Army of the Potomac. He recognized the lack of drive in both the army and its commander: while he admired Meade for his honesty and integrity, Grant also recognized Meade's sense of inferiority against Lee. Throughout the rest of the war Grant remained with the Army of the Potomac and assumed responsibility for its actions as it grappled with Lee. But the army and officer corps that McClellan had trained proved as flawed a military instrument as their former commander. No army in American military history has had a more dismal record; no US army has suffered more nobly in the pursuit of victory; and no army has missed more chances in its operations. Not until the Battle of Five Forks in April 1865 did it finally win a battle while on the offensive.
 
 
 

The defeat of the South. The Union strategy that evolved over the war's course had four basic elements: a blockade of the coast; the capture of Richmond; the opening of the Mississippi; and bringing the war home to the South's economy and population. It was the last approach that finally broke the Confederates' will.
 
 
THE DEFEAT OF THE SOUTH

The Army of the Potomac fought its spring and summer battles of 1864 at an appallingly high cost to itself and the nation. In the horrific battle of the Wilderness, it barely survived a savage Confederate flank attack. Then, by a swift shift to the left, Grant attempted to outflank the Confederates and place his forces in a position where Lee would have to attack. But by the narrowest of margins the Confederates reached Spottsylvania Courthouse. A second terrible killing battle ensued as, protected by entrenchments, the Confederates took a heavy toll of attacking Federal troops. Bad luck continued to dog the Army of the Potomac. To encourage his troops General John Sedgwick, one of the more competent corps commanders, stood on an earthwork and announced that the Confederates could not hit an elephant at that distance; a rebel sharpshooter put a bullet through Sedgwick's head.

After a week of savage killing that bled both armies white, Grant again shifted south; at North Anna and Cold Harbor he launched direct assaults on Lee's position. Even by the standards of this war, these were dark days. A brigadier in the Army of the Potomac wrote to his wife: 'For thirty days it has been one funeral procession past me, and it has been too much.' Grant then slipped around Lee to the James river. There, he placed his army in position to capture Petersburg and break the southern lines of supply. Had Petersburg fallen, Lee would have had to abandon Virginia and Richmond and retreat to North Carolina. But once again the Army of the Potomac's corps commanders missed the opportunity, and Lee got sufficient troops to Petersburg to man its defences. By this time both armies were exhausted, incapable of further offensive operations - although Grant had at least succeeded in his objective of drawing Lee's sting: the Army of Northern Virginia was no longer capable of offensive warfare.
 
 
So everything came down to what Sherman could achieve against Johnston. Sherman began his offensive against Atlanta in early May. The two armies fenced and, although he manoeuvred Johnston out of one position after another, he failed to achieve significant military success. By July, Johnston had retreated to defensive works in front of Atlanta. At that point the Confederate government, frustrated by retreat, replaced Johnston with a corps commander, General John Bell Hood. Hood had been a brilliant divisional commander under 'Stonewall' Jackson; he had also proven his bravery on many battlefields and had lost both an arm and a leg in battle. But Hood had also been a divisive and argumentative corps commander, and he proved to be as bad a choice for senior command as Bragg had been.

Hood's explanation for the troubles confronting the Confederacy in 1864 was that southern troops had lost the offensive edge they had enjoyed in 1862. As army commander in front of Atlanta, he determined to regain that offensive spirit. Over the course of the next month, he launched three savage attacks on Sherman, but experienced Union soldiers destroyed each strike, inflicted horrendous casualties on the attackers, and eventually forced Hood to abandon Atlanta. To the end, he blamed his failure on a lack of offensive spirit in his troops; he entirely missed the fact that the face of battle had changed in fundamental ways. Nevertheless, the casualties suffered by his attacks underlined that the South was still willing to suffer terrible losses in pursuit of independence.

Sherman's capture of Atlanta was crucial to Lincoln's re-election. Now Hood moved north to threaten Sherman's lines of communications in Tennessee, but Sherman persuaded Grant to allow him to pursue one of the most innovative operational concepts of the Civil War: while a part of his army under George Thomas fell back to cover central Tennessee, Sherman cut loose from his supply lines and marched into the heart of Georgia on the way to the sea. Grant eventually approved the move.
 
General William T. Sherman (1820-91), pictured here at the battle of Atlanta, directed much of the savage destruction of the South in what was called the 'hard war'.
 
Hood pursued Thomas's forces first to Franklin where, after accusing his general officers of cowardice, he launched his troops against well-entrenched Federals.
The result was a slaughter in which many of his generals died. Unrepentant to the end, Hood advanced to Nashville, where Thomas destroyed the remnants of an army the Confederate commander had begun wrecking at Atlanta.

Meanwhile, Sherman marched through Georgia. The war had taken a vicious turn, as troops carried the war to the South's heartland. While Sherman did not aim his campaign directly at civilians, its 'collateral' effects - wrecking habitations, destroying the crops, stealing the farm animals - underlined how far the Federal government was willing to go to destroy the Confederacy. Sherman's troops took great delight in the 'Chimneyvilles' that remained in the wake of their march. As Sherman warned the citizens of northern Alabama:

The government of the United States has in North Alabama any and all rights which [it chooses] to enforce in war, to take [Confederate] lives, their houses, their lands, their everything, because they cannot deny that war exists there, and war is simply power unconstrained by constitution or compact. If they want eternal warfare, well and good. We will accept the issue and dispossess them and put our friends in possession... [T]o the petulant and persistent secessionists, why, death is mercy and the quicker he or she is disposed of the better. Satan and the rebellious saint[s] of heaven were allowed a continuance of existence in hell merely to swell their just punishment.


The destruction wrought in Georgia and in South Carolina represented a portion of a larger policy aimed at breaking the southern will to continue the war. It served a clear warning to Confederate soldiers that they could no longer protect even their homes from the war.

As Sherman was driving to the sea, Grant unleashed General Philip Sheridan on the Shenandoah valley. Sheridan was one of the most competent battlefield commanders of the war; he was also, like Jackson, one of the most ferocious. Grant's instructions underline that what Sheridan did to the Shenandoah was the general policy of the Union high command; he ordered Sheridan to turn the Shenandoah into 'a barren waste... so that crows flying over it for the balance of this season will have to carry their provender with them.'

Sheridan enthusiastically executed his orders. A remark to his Prussian hosts in 1870 when he toured the battles of the Franco-Prussian War suggests how far the Union's strategy had become a relentless war against the South's popular resistance: Sheridan noted that the Prussians were being far too 'humanitarian' in their treatment of the French and added for the benefit of his avid German listeners that 'The people should be left nothing but their eyes to weep with over the war!' Admittedly, neither Sherman nor Sheridan achieved the level of Bomber Command's 'dehousing' campaign in World War II, but northern military forces fought only on the ground: they could thus spare the wretched inhabitants their lives while destroying the South's economic infrastructure, homes, foodstuffs, and farm animals. And everywhere that they moved they destroyed the institution of slavery, the heart of the South's cultural and political identity.
By early 1865 the Confederacy's position was hopeless. Re-election of Lincoln in autumn 1864 had removed its last hope; the great emancipator would see the war through to its conclusion. Through every Confederate state Union armies moved at will. Lee's army was gradually disappearing through desertion; Sherman was destroying South Carolina. His troops revelled in wrecking the state that had led the move towards secession and which had begun the conflict four years earlier by firing on Fort Sumter. North Carolina soon felt the weight of Union armies and the Confederates' last port, Fort Fisher, fell to a combined navy-army operation.
 
 
 
THE COSTS OF 'THE LATE UNPLEASANTNESS'
 
In April Lee's position at Petersburg collapsed as the Army of the Potomac won its first offensive victory at Five Forks. A rapid pursuit with Sheridan in the lead eventually caught Lee at Appomattox. Recognizing the inevitable, Lee surrendered. He then took on the mantle of one of the great statesmen in American history by spending his last years urging his countrymen to accept the results.

Unfortunately the destructive war waged by Union armies in the conflict's last year, the problems of race relations in a defeated country, and the bitterness of the lost cause perpetuated the division between North and South for well over a hundred years. But a simple grammatical change underlined the transformation wrought by the Civil War. Before 1861 Americans said 'the United States are'; after 1865 they said 'the United States is.' The North's victory had important consequences for the twentieth century.

The maintenance of a united nation in North America with its immense industrial and agricultural power was to play a crucial role in winning both world wars against Germany; a fragmented sub-continent would have played little role in such a conflict. The Civil War was the first modern war: one in which military power, built on popular support and industrialization, and projected by the railroad and steamship over hundreds of miles, approached the boundaries of total war. Neither strategic vision nor military capabilities to wage a great war existed at the beginning: the mere creation of military force and its requisite support created problems that were not readily apparent nor easily solved. Nevertheless the Union's political and military leadership eventually evolved a strategy that brought victory, a strategy of attrition rather than decisive battle.

Along with the general assault on the South in 1864 went a war to break the popular will of the southern population. But the cost of such a war was appalling: around 625,000 soldiers died in the war on both sides, a figure equal to the total of all other American wars up to and including most of the Vietnam conflict. A comparable level of losses for the United States in World War I would have been about 2.1 million lives (instead of 115,000). The Civil War indicated that the new technological battlefield would take a heavy toll in lives, and that the capacity of the modern state to mobilize its human and industrial resources could feed that technological battlefield almost indefinitely And those resources, both human and industrial, were growing by leaps and bounds as western civilization entered the twentieth century.
 
Robert E. Lee (1807-70). Lee was the best operational commander of the war. His dominance over the Army of the Potomac, at least until Grant arrived in the east, was almost complete. A notably aggressive commander, Lee was to demonstrate in his last campaigns the immense advantage that modern firepower provided the defence.
 
 
 

German unification and expansion, 186471. Prussia waged and won three great wars against her neighbours: against Denmark in 1864, against Austria in 1866, and against France in 1870-71. While her victories extended German territory to the north and west, Prussia's major gains came with the amalgamation of the German states into one, less than perfect, union. The results fundamentally altered Europe's balance of power.
 
 
BISMARCK'S WARS

However, at approximately the same time, the Europeans learned different lessons about modern war. Almost concurrently with the American Civil War a series of wars achieved the unification of Germany under Prussian leadership. These successes involved a series of short, triumphant wars, but they did not rest on the tactical or technological superiority of Prussia's armies; rather they reflected the brilliance of its statesmanship and the professionalization of its officer corps. The latter arose in part from the reaction to the devastating defeat of Jena-Auerstadt in 1806. The creation of a Kriegsakademie (war college) to produce trained staff officers allowed the Prussians to establish the nucleus of an effective staff system in time for the War of Liberation against the French in 1813 and its success in managing the myriad details involved in fighting Napoleon prevented the retrenchments of the post-war period from dismantling the Kriegsakademie and a nascent general staff.

In the period leading up to the 1860s a small, elite general staff pushed the Prussian army towards a recognition of the advantages that railways and changing weapons technology would provide in the next war. The appointment of Helmut von Moltke as the chief of the general staff in 1858 accelerated the process, for Moltke encouraged the construction of strategic railways throughout Germany, arguing that they would prove more valuable in future wars than fortresses. The fate of railway expansion in Germany was over twice the rate in France during the 1840s, and by 1854 the German Confederation possessed nearly 7,500 miles of railways. By 1860 Prussia itself possessed 3,500 miles of railways (and Moltke had grown rich from his investment in railway stock). The crucial point was that the Prussian general staff, unlike other military organizations in Europe, systematically thought through how best to exploit this expanding potential for mobilization and deployment of military forces. However, Prussia's advantage lay not only in its capacity to mobilize, deploy, and support its forces. The Prussian army was also first in Europe to adopt a breech-loading rifle, the needlegun, which allowed its soldiers to reload three to four times faster than their opponents - and to do so while lying down, an obvious advantage in any firefight.
 
 
But such changes represented only potential; it took skilful strategic and political moves to turn this military potential into strategic reality. In the early 1860s the Prussian state had come to a constitutional impasse between the king's demand that the legislature support a three-year term of military service and the legislature's refusal to provide the funding. In desperation Wilhelm I turned to an aristocrat of the old school, Otto von Bismarck, to break the deadlock.
Bismarck was an extraordinary character. He had enjoyed little success in a short army career, while he had spent his days in university drinking and wenching. His diplomatic service won him few friends. But he did have qualities that few recognized at the time. He possessed an extraordinary capacity to size up his opponents; and he was a first-class politician with a gamblers instinct of when to play and when to leave the table. Unlike most Prussian conservatives, he understood the strength of German nationalism and saw that Prussia must either swim with the tide or be swamped by it.

Bismarck's greatest advantage lay in the weaknesses in the European system. Few in Europe recognized Prussia's latent strengths with its ongoing industrial revolution; equally important, most Europeans regarded the Prussian army as one of the least effective on the continent. Moreover, after the Crimean War Britain had largely removed itself from continental affairs; France had no effective focus to its strategic policy; and Austria and Russia were at odds due to Austria's behaviour during the Crimean War. In this vacuum the new Prussian chancellor moved to make his mark. As he had warned the Prussian assembly: 'The great questions of our day are not decided through speeches and majority votes - that was the great error of 1848 and 1849 - but through iron and blood.' The first opportunity came with Denmark.

When the Danish king died without a male heir it made no difference for the throne of Denmark, but for the German duchies of Schleswig-Holstein, it did. In 1864, the German Confederation, led by Prussia and Austria, refused to recognize Danish claims to the duchies.
 
General Helmut von Moltke (1800-91) combined an extraordinary operational mind with a far-reaching recognition of where technology was driving war. Consequently, he pushed the Prussian army to utilize the full potential of both the breach-loading 'needlegun' and the railway. However, Moltke proved less able to discern the political constraints that must bind all operations, and his quarrel with Bismarck was to mislead Germany's generals in two world wars in the next century.
 
 
The allied armies of the German states then made short work of the Danes, but the question of what to do with the liberated provinces remained. Bismarck welcomed the confusion, since the Austrians received territories to administer but the lines of communications to them ran entirely through Prussian territory. The chances for misunderstanding were numerous and Bismarck was only too glad to maximize them. It appears that Bismarck hoped to negotiate a deal with the Austrians whereby Prussia would control northern Germany, while Austria controlled the south. But the Austrians displayed no appreciation of the altered balance in Germany. Not only did they refuse to recognize Prussia as an equal, they actively courted war. The other European states, except for France, displayed scant interest in the brewing conflict in central Europe; the French for their part believed that the war between Austria and Prussia would be a prolonged affair in which they could intervene to advantage.

Prussia did suffer from some significant disadvantages: the other German states rallied to Austria; Prussia's territory was divided in two; and Bohemia offered an easy launching pad for an Austrian attack on Berlin. But Moltke and the general staff capitalized upon these challenges. A Prussian army swiftly disposed of Hanover, and thereby united Prussian territory. Meanwhile in June 1866, utilizing the north German railroad system, Moltke rapidly deployed three armies on the Austrian frontier with the intention of uniting them in Bohemia. Austrian staff work was abominable, reflecting the casual approach to the profession of arms that the Austrians had displayed throughout the preceding decades. Consequently, the Austrian armies gathered slowly in central Bohemia, while the westernmost Prussian army overran Saxony, and three other Prussian armies moved swiftly into Bohemia. The needle gun gave the Prussians an overwhelming tactical advantage, which the initial skirmishes confirmed - casualty exchange ratios were on the order of one Prussian for four or five Austrians. Even more important, the early defeats sapped Austrian morale.
 
 
Surprised by the speed of the enemy's advance, the Austrian commander, Prince Benedek, fell back on a series of low hills just north of the town of Koniggratz. The Austrian army numbered 190,000 men with 25,000 Saxons in support. The Prussian forces exceeded 200,000 men, but only two of their armies were on the field (and Moltke's telegraph system had broken down) when the battle of Koniggratz began on 3 July.

By this point Benedek had a keen appreciation of the danger that needle guns posed to his troops; he ordered his subordinates to hold their troops back and rely on their artillery, which was generally superior to that of the Prussians. But Austrian senior officers displayed a cavalier disregard for their orders. As a result, when the 7th Prussian Division gained a local success in a small wooded area, the Swiewald, on the Austrian right, Austrian commanders threw in counter-attack after counter-attack. All withered before Prussian firepower. Out of fifty-nine battalions in the area, the Austrians committed forty-nine in the firefight in the Swiewald, twenty-eight of which simply disappeared. In effect this wrecked the entire Austrian right wing. The difficulties on the right turned into a catastrophe when the third Prussian army, commanded by the Prussian Crown Prince, arrived on the battlefield.


Meanwhile the Prussians managed to work the Elbe army around the enemy's left flank. Only the most desperate efforts by Austrian artillery and cavalry prevented the Prussians from surrounding Benedek's entire force. What survived was a wreck; in one day's fighting the Austrians had lost 40,000 men killed or wounded, with a further 20,000 prisoners of war. The road to Vienna lay open, and the complete destruction of the Habsburg state seemed imminent. The Prussian generals, Moltke included, were champing at the bit to acquire the laurels of their great victory.
But Bismarck would have none of it.
 
Prince Otto von Bismarck (1815-98). Bismarck was one of the few statesmen in European history who truly understood that war was an extension of policy by other means. Consequently, he always aimed for what was achievable and instinctively understood when it was time to end the game. But Bismarck never explained his policies or educated the next generation of German leaders: the consequences eventually proved fatal for the Second Reich and almost destroyed Europe.
 
 
He persuaded his king to halt the Prussian advance and open negotiations with the Austrians, for he saw that only France and Russia would benefit from the war's continuation. If, however, Prussia offered generous terms, it would persuade Austria to accept a long-term settlement. Prussia should limit its territorial gains to northern Germany; the south German states would merely come under its sphere of interest. Such a peace would be most attractive to the Austrians, since they would lose no territory themselves. Bismarck's settlement represented inspired statesmanship. Prussia absorbed the north German states; it controlled the military and foreign policies of the south Germans; the peace placated Austria; and Bismarck had entirely excluded the French. The Austrians accepted with alacrity. But such strategic wisdom did not find favour with Prussia's soldiers; to them, Bismarck's manoeuvres had robbed them of their chance to pursue a beaten foe to his capital.
 
 

Prussian infantry advancing towards French positions near Sedan in 1870. Throughout the Franco-Prussian War, the French normally possessed superior firepower in infantry weapons, and so the Prussians generally took heavier casualties, even though they were usually able to dominate the battlefield. However, at Sedan the Prussians were able to bring the superiority of their artillery to bear, and in short order the out-gunned French were forced to surrender.
 
 
THE FRANCO-PRUSSIAN WAR

For the immediate future Bismarck wanted to consolidate his gains. He felt no great desire to create a united Germany; after all, southern Germany was the bastion of two of his great hates: liberalism and Catholicism. But the French refused to accept the results of 1866. The following year they attempted to buy the duchy of Luxembourg, but backed down before a storm of British and German protests. That diplomatic setback did not end French interference in southern Germany and, in the end, French intransigence persuaded Bismarck that he must risk another war in order to stabilize his gains. The French accommodated him. The empire of Napoleon III had come under increasing political pressure at home to liberalize the constitution, while setbacks in foreign policy had steadily eroded the regime's popularity. Therefore, the emperor sought relief in foreign policy or military success.

The military balance favoured Prussia even more than it had in 1866. The Prussian general staff had honed its administrative and organizational skills to a new pitch. Staff work allowed the Prussians to utilize further the enormous potential of railroads, while the general staff system provided a means to convey orders and ensure their obedience; the Prussians would find it relatively easy to manage the deployment and operations of the great armies they mobilized in 1870. Without such a system, the French did not.

Ironically, the Prussians lacked the technological edge they had enjoyed in 1866 - the French chassepot rifle was superior to the needlegun - but the Prussians had rectified their weakness in artillery: their new steel breach-loading cannon gave them an advantage over the French in both rapidity and accuracy of artillery fire. Nevertheless the French possessed another weapon that might have provided them a great advantage - the mitrailleuse, the first machine gun - but the Ministry of War had kept the weapon so secret that few French commanders even knew of its existence. Beyond their staff system, the Prussians enjoyed other advantages. They possessed an effective reserve system; two wars had blooded their senior officers; and Moltke was an outstanding operational commander. Most importantly, in Bismarck they possessed a brilliant strategist whose policies ensured that the other European powers remained outside the conflict. The French had no reserve system, a weak staff, and no general of particular competence.

Seriously miscalculating the balance, Napoleon III challenged the Prussians. The all-too-clever Bismarck edited the account of a minor confrontation between his king and the French resident ambassador into a dispatch where Prussians believed their king insulted and Frenchmen their honour impugned. France declared war and both sides mobilized and deployed, the French believing that war would begin with their invasion of the Rhineland - to what purpose was unclear -and with their army in firm control of the initiative as at Jena-Auerstadt in 1806. Despite the fact that the Prussians deployed over greater distances, their effective staff work and reserve system allowed them to put 380,000 men on the French frontier while, at the same time, they deployed 95,000 men to watch Austria. By 31 July 1870, by contrast, the French had only 224,000 soldiers on the frontier. Napoleon III established two provisional armies under marshals who had never held such responsibilities before, and neither French army possessed a staff to control the operational and logistical movements of its component corps. The three Prussian armies, on the other hand, had effective staffs to co-ordinate their operational and logistic movements; and they were led by commanders who had won their spurs in the wars of 1864 and 1866. The opening skirmishes displayed a pattern that would hold throughout the fighting between the Prussian and French imperial field armies. The French displayed considerable competence on the tactical battlefield, while the chassepot proved its worth again and again. But French ineptitude at the operational level more than counter-balanced successes on the tactical battlefield. On 6 August the Crown Prince of Prussia's army bested its French opponents at Weissenburg; both sides suffered approximately 6,000 casualties, but the Prussians also captured 6,000 Frenchmen. Even more important than the local success was the fact that the Crown Prince succeeded in getting around Marshal MacMahon's army and forced a general retreat of French forces from Alsace. Meanwhile, the main French army under Marshal Bazaine also came under attack. On the heights of Spickern, vastly superior Prussian forces attacked the French II Corps. The French inflicted over 5,000 casualties on the attackers, while suffering barely 3,000 casualties themselves, but Bazaine failed to support his corps commander (not the last occasion in which he remained mired in inaction while subordinates fought for their lives). However, the significance of Spickern lay in the fact that Moltke interposed his First and Second Armies between the two French armies, while the Crown Prince's Third Army was outflanking MacMahon's forces on the Prussian left. On 16 August Moltke, controlling the movements of First and Second Armies, brought Bazaine to battle. By this point the Prussians were close to enveloping their opponent. That day a massive encounter battle took place at Mars-la-Tour. The French suffered 16,000 casualties, the Prussians 17,000. Significantly, Bazaine retreated northwards instead of to the west, further increasing the chances that the Prussians would encircle his forces.

Two days later the armies tangled again and the French came close to scoring a major victory that might have reversed the course of the Franco-Prussian War. At St Privat, Bazaine's VI Corps of 23,000 men held off nearly 100,000 Prussians for an entire day; reinforced, the VI Corps might have turned a local tactical success into something of operational significance. Meanwhile, at Gravelotte, two Prussian corps achieved initial success, but as they advanced they became entangled. They then launched a series of confused attacks that only added to their losses. French defenders smashed the last German attack so decisively that the attacking units entirely collapsed: any French counter-attack at this point would have resulted in a serious operational reverse for the Prussians. But the French commander on the scene refused to take independent action, while Bazaine, like McClellan at Antietam, again refused to intervene in the battle. Casualties were heavy on both sides, but the balance in favour of the French suggest how close they were to success: the Germans lost 20,163 men, the French only 12,273. In the end, Bazaine pulled back into Metz and thereby allowed the Prussians to entrap his entire force. The encirclement of one French army at Metz constituted a political disaster for Napoleon III - one that threatened his political survival. The French therefore gathered together all the remaining forces of their professional army: Marshal MacMahon led the expedition and the emperor himself accompanied the troops in a desperate bid to win back his waning prestige. However, the French approached Metz by manoeuvring along the Belgian frontier; they could have chosen no more unfortunate route of approach. The result was predictable: Moltke manoeuvred around MacMahon's flank, in order to trap and then destroy a second French army at Sedan. The Prussians had learned from their bloody experiences at St Privat and Gravelotte and battered the surrounded French into surrender with their artillery. This marked the end of the Second Empire.
 
 
 
GERMANY TRIUMPHANT

In Paris the French declared a republic and its new leaders proclaimed a levee en masse. The war had unleashed the full flood of nationalist feeling on both sides. The problem for the French was that as thousands flocked to the colours, the trained professionals were all in Prussian prisoner-of-war camps. Thus, the new republic was in the same situation as the contending sides in the American Civil War in 1861; it had to create military organizations out of the fabric of civilian society with little professional expertise available. The Prussians of course did not face that problem. In October, with the destruction of the Metz pocket completed, Moltke moved on Paris. The French desperately prepared to withstand a siege; at the same time they attempted to put their army back together. As soon as the siege of Paris began, Bismarck demanded that the Prussian generals open a bombardment to force the republic to the peace table. While siege and bombardment proceeded, the French launched a series of efforts to relieve the capital and a guerrilla war against Prussian lines of communication through northern France. The relief efforts failed with heavy casualties, while attacks on supply lines angered the Prussians and further embittered the war, but failed to achieve their objective. The French Republic eventually surrendered to the logic of its situation, undoubtedly assisted by the growing threat of revolution in Paris.

The peace that resulted had a number of unfortunate repercussions on the history of the twentieth century. First, acquisition of Alsace and Lorraine by the Germans created a permanent rift between the two powers. Secondly, the short, swift nature of Prussia's victories in 1866 and 1870 convinced most of Europe's statesmen and generals that wars in the modern age would be brief and relatively painless. By and large, analysts of these conflicts missed the extraordinary nature of Bismarck's statesmanship as well as the gross incompetence of Prussia's opponents on both the strategic and operational levels. The most dangerous result of these wars was their impact on the Germans, who believed that they had won because of their prowess on the battlefield. Their military performance had of course played a role, but the crucial component had been Bismarck's political and strategic realism and restraint. The victories of 1866 and 1870, however, seduced German statesmen, soldiers, and intellectuals into believing that military and operational concerns should always outweigh strategic and political factors. The new German Empire, proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, carried the military glory of that founding to its death in 1918. And the new state enshrined the principle on which Bismarck had come to power: namely that the Prussian military would remain independent of constitutional constraints. That had not mattered in a state where a statesman such as Bismarck, with direct access to and great influence with the emperor, remained in control; but in post-Bismarckian Germany, the political sphere would lose all control over the state's military institutions.
 
 
 
 
The changing face of war

The period between 1815 and 1871 saw unprecedented economic, social, and political change. The military changes were as dramatic, but perhaps less obvious to the Europeans of the time. With hindsight, however, the impact of technology and the industrial revolution on warfare is clear. Advances in weapons rapidly increased the lethality of the battlefield, while the steam engine enabled military organizations to project and supply forces over greater and greater distances. The American Civil War underlined the direction in which modern war was moving; both the North and the South combined the mobilization of economic strength and manpower with political will, as had been the case during the French Revolution, and utilized the changing technology of war to make conflict even more lethal. Only the brilliance of Bismarck's statesmanship and the operational skill of the Prussian general staff prevented the Europeans from experiencing the same harsh lessons. But they would get their opportunity to experience modern war in full measure in the first half of the twentieth century.
 
 

Communards defending a barricade on the Rue du Rivoli
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
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