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.
Charge at Gettysburg: a tactical or strategic failure?
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:
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
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.
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.
The unfortunate 75th had no
artillery support. Or the rebel artillery was concentrated on it.
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.
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.