Reflections of a Civil War Historian: Essays on Leadership, Society, and the Art of War

By Herman Hattaway | Go to book overview

THE EVOLUTION OF
TACTICS IN THE CIVIL WAR

This essay was solicited by Keith Poulter, the editor of North &
South magazine, for a special issue on the general topic of tactical
evolution.

It is important that the reader understand what the definition of tactics is, as opposed to strategy and operations. Strategy is “the big picture,” or “the art of the general.” It is distinguished from tactics primarily in scope, but in truth, the ultimate differences between them sometimes blur. Strategy has to do with applying the principles of war, of selecting how one's military forces may be arrayed so as to counter or defeat the enemy regardless of whatever he might do. Operations falls in between the other two: it has to do with moving men and material in such a manner as to place them where they can apply and fulfill the aims of the strategy. Tactics can be defined as what the men are instructed to do and how they do it once they come into close proximity with the enemy's forces.

Sir Archibald Wavell opined that “tactics is the art of handling troops on the battlefield; strategy is the art of bringing forces to the battlefield in a favorable position.” Carl von Clausewitz suggested that “tactics is the art of using troops in battle; strategy is the art of using battles to win the war.” There is a difference between offensive tactics and defensive tactics. The first aims at gaining the desired goal by aggressively attacking; the second is used when one hopes or expects (or knows) that the enemy is going to attack, and aims at inflicting such damage upon the enemy while he is attacking as to bring victory to the defender.

This essay first appeared, in shorter form and under the title “The Changing
Face of Battle,” in North & South 4:6 (2001).

-200-

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