Provocative Analysis of U.S. Civil War Combat

By Kingseed, Cole C. | Army, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Provocative Analysis of U.S. Civil War Combat


Kingseed, Cole C., Army


Provocative Analysis Of U.S. Civil War Combat The Bloody Crucible of Courage: Fighting Methods and Combat Experience of the Civil War. Brent Nosworthy. Carroll & Graf Publishers. 752 pages; charts; photographs; notes; index; $21.95.

Given the veritable avalanche of monographs published on the American Civil War, the reader may ponder the need for another work on this nation's most bloody conflict. In The Bloody Crucible of Courage, Brent Nosworthy fills a needed gap by providing a single work devoted to the full spectrum of both the fighting methods and the combat experience over the course of the entire war. He opens with an intriguing question: Is the study of fighting methods meaningful?

Nosworthy is no stranger to military history, but this work is his first attempt to examine the American Civil War. The Bloody Crucible of Courage follows a familiar path in Nosworthy's two previous books on military history, The Anatomy of Victory: Battle Tactics, 2689-1763 and With Musket, Cannon, and Sword: Battle Tactics of Napoleon and His Enemies. Nosworthy's intent is not to delve too deeply into matters purely philosophical or psychological, but to make "a detailed examination of the techniques, practices and tactics that were used during the bloody crucible of battle."

In taking the initial steps towards a comprehensive treatment of tactics and weaponry, Nosworthy provides the context needed to understand the overall place of the Civil War in the evolution of military thought and practice. Though the book is rather voluminous, Nosworthy succeeds admirably in linking the experience of the engagement with the fighting methods at the soldiers' disposal. In doing so, he challenges the conventions of history by positing alternative interpretations to some of the war's most controversial myths and legends.

One of the book's most intriguing chapters addresses grand tactics, which Nosworthy defines as the methods used "to manipulate large bodies (brigades, divisions and corps) of troops to win an engagement." At the beginning of the war, the traditional linear system, with its emphasis on fighting in line, dominated the battlefield. By 1864, however, innovative tactical thinkers like Emory Upton advocated the "column of attack" that proved somewhat successful during the Overland Campaign. Upton's tactics were not widely accepted and massed frontal assaults still characterized infantry attacks at the end of the war.

Nosworthy is also sure to attract a number of critics with his interpretations of battlefield actions. In examining the effectiveness of the rifled musket, he notes that the results were discouragingly low, with less than two percent of bullets fired inflicting a casualty. His research also reveals that the critical moments of engagement frequently occurred when both combatants had closed to 80 to 120 yards. In other cases, a short-ranged firefight "occurred because both sides became visible to one another only at the last moment." To his credit, Nosworthy admits that his evidence is more circumstantial than conclusive.

In addition, Nosworthy sees notable differences in the characteristics of warfare between North and South as well as East and West. While Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his opponents fought many battles in relatively open terrain, Nosworthy opines that campaigning in the West proved to be more inhospitable and disruptive to daily campaigning and battlefield activities. …

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