The Bloody Crucible of Courage: Fighting Methods and Combat Experience of the Civil War

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The Bloody Crucible of Courage: Fighting Methods and Combat Experience of the Civil War. By BRENT NOSWORTHY. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2003. xiv, 753 pp. $35.00.

THIS mighty new tome seeks to offer a comprehensive account of the fighting methods and combat experience of the American Civil War. In over 650 pages of text, it succeeds in providing a valuable survey of almost every weapon and tactic used in the war while remaining disconnected from almost all the recent work being done in the field. For a reader seeking explanations of the mechanics of weapons, the military science of the period, or broad generalizations about the experience of fighting, this book will serve as a useful reference tool. For those seeking to integrate the military aspects of the Civil War with its social, political, or ideological dimensions, this book offers few new insights.

Nosworthy begins by detailing the European roots of American military doctrine in the mid-nineteenth century. This broad approach is a useful corrective to the tendency to treat the period in isolation. Ultimately, it is in the realm of revising established opinion that Nosworthy makes his most specific historiographical contributions. Whereas many previous scholars have argued that the Civil War should be seen as the first "modern" war, Nosworthy marshals persuasive evidence to rebut this view. There were few technological innovations, doctrinal and tactical responses to new weapons were appropriate, most battles occurred at close range, and rifled muskets by themselves did not substantially raise the casualty rate over what could be accomplished using muskets. Nosworthy notes at least one novelty: the success of continuous entrenchments and the futility of open-field assaults characteristic of the 1864 Overland campaign represented an important strategic innovation.

The assessments mentioned above are cataloged in the book's conclusion, but they represent one of the few instances of the author summarizing his work. …