Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

We often hear about how war changed in the 20th century due to machine guns and tanks, but how was warfare revolutionized in the 19th century through technological advances? Were there any precursors to the 20th century’s changes?

Preface: American Civil War and “the rest” (Franco-Prussian and Austro-Prussian primarily) are two separate entities so ill discuss them separately even though it breaks chronological order. They involved two entirely different approaches of waging war and need to be treated as separate cases. The Americans had a Jominian (a Napoleonic military theorist) understanding of warfare and thus attempted to replicate Napoleonic methods tactically. When I get to this point at the end I’ll describe Napoleonic tactics in it and you can use that to compare/contrast with what else I describe. The rest of the West, basically, Europe, would have a style of war which swung much more in the WWI-side of the spectrum in their respective Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian Wars.

The big game changers were breech loaded artillery (as opposed to muzzle loading), flintlock and percussion cap muskets (ie: using sparks or chemical pouches to ignite a muzzle loaded smoothbore or rifled musket) going to cartridge based breech loaded rifles, and proto-machine guns. The Austro-Prussian War would be the first (and last) European war where cartridge based breech loaded rifles were faced up against muzzle loaded muskets. The Prussians would enter the ring with the Dreyse Needle Gun. It would be a singleshot breech loaded rifle which had an effective firing rate of 8-10 rounds per minute and an effective range of over 650 meters. It had the added benefit as well as being capable of being fired from the prone position. The Austrians were using a percussion cap muzzle loaded musket called the Lorenz. It could not be fired from the prone position (by virtue of being muzzle loaded) and only had an effective range of ~500 meters. Most notably, however, was its firing rate; it could like all other muskets pump out 3 shots, 4 maximum, per minute.

The Dreyse completely and utterly outclassed the musket and through this many Prussian thinkers thought that 300 of their men were superior to a battalion of Austrians. They were completely right. This is how the Prussians fought in the Austro-Prussian War: They would send up a “skirmishing line” 2 lines deep. Remember in the ACW how men would be packed together elbow to elbow? Each man would be given a 3 meters between each of them — 10 feet-ish a couple dozen men wide. Basically these 2 lines would approach the enemy and use cover as they saw fit and approached and retreated as they saw fit (again, infantry chains). The rest of the battalion would sit back and send in platoons/company’s to reinforce the skirmishing line throughout the battle. That is, essentially, what WWI fighting was in the infantry realm of things. Skirmishing lines of men approaching an enemy position with strong reserves constantly reinforcing them in ‘waves’.

The Austrians, in contrast, were heavily influenced by their very recent war with France in 1859 during the wars of Italian Unification. With the Austrians ranging their guns for long range (and thus firing “high” and letting the bullets drop) the French would use a revolutionary new tactic which the Germans would dub Stoßtaktik, or shock tactics. The French would essentially march at quick pace across open field to the Austrians face; while they would suffer casualties in the approach once they got in the Austrians face their muskets would still be “ranged” for long distance and thus would literally shoot over the French’s heads. After being thoroughly routed in 1859 the Austrians, in their infinite wisdom, would just completely copy French tactics in their doctrine without any thought of it. That is, they would put their men in dense formation and charge in open field attempting to use ‘shock tactics’ against the Prussians in 1866.

The Austrians would, completely and utterly, be annihilated. As the Austrians were charging more or less shoulder to shoulder the Prussians were lying prone next to a tree or a rock or what have you and picking them off. At Podol 400 Prussians would face off against 2000 Austrians and they would, in the truest sense, obliterate them. The Prussians would have 100 killed or injured with the Prussians having over 1000 killed, injured, or captured. At Trautenau, one of Austria’s few “victories”, they would lose 5000 men compared to Prussia’s 1300. The biggest battle of the war, the Battle of Königgrätz, saw 9000 Prussians killed or wounded with 43,500 Austrians killed, captured, or wounded. As you can see this was a war in which modern tactics and modern rifles would be the defining reason of defeat.

The Franco-Prussian War is an interesting case because it’s one where the French had their own breech loaded rifle, the Chassepot. It was superior to the Dreyse Needle Gun in just about every single way and French infantry chains would, on average, outclass the Prussians. Where the Prussians had the distinct advantage would be in the strategic level of war (ie: mobilizing their men effectively and striking the French before they could ‘get ready’) and with their artillery, new breech loaded Krupp Guns. The French, despite their superior cavalry and infantry, would be hit immediately and taken by surprise. They would be battered back to Sedan where they would be surrounded on the ridges and simply battered into surrender.

The French still used muzzle loaded artillery which had to be set to detonate at set distances and thus the rounds had to be precisely timed to strike certain areas of the enemy at a certain distance. It was quite complicated and cumbersome at best. The Prussians breech loaded guns in contrast, while at a lesser range than the French, had a significant rate of fire advantage and also had percussion impact fuses which meant wherever the shell hit that’s where it exploded. To make things even more deadly the Prussians made a habit of putting all of their artillery in one area and firing as a single empowered battery right at the front to obliterate the enemy. The French would be battered by combined German artillery while being squeezed from all sides by the infantry (despite the Germans suffering egregious casualties — one Prussian company suffered 68% casualties at Mars-la-Toure for instance). A battle would look more or less like platoons/companies finding cover and picking off at each other with artillery batteries on both sides laying waste to the other side; very proto-WWI in my opinion.

The American Civil War, however, was a totally different beast. Light infantry became a “thing” in the mid 1700’s and would be an integral part of European warfare in the Napoleonic Era where a light infantry body would win or lose battles at time. Wellington would at times make 1/3rd of his force skirmisher/light infantry forces which would decimate enemy formations; all which would be ‘taking cover’ and the like. Further, and this is just pre-content pettiness, Napoleonic warfare was more than just two sides lining up in an open field and unloading on each other until one side gave up. This is very important to know because having a strong understanding of Napoleon’s tactics are necessary to understand America’s in the Civil War, and, most importantly, why it didn’t work and why it was faux-Napoleonic. In short, Napoleons tactics were to use combined arms to force the enemy to dedicate his reserves to the flank and thus have the entire enemy engaged. He would then use the remainder of his own reserves to smash into the weakest enemy spot with massive columns in a final bayonet charge to crush the enemy with overwhelming numbers and without the enemy being capable of reinforcing the position.

Let me make this clear as it’s important: It was the cooperation between the infantry, cavalry, and artillery that locked the enemy in place through a delicate dance of maneuver and the reserves that decided the battle. The American Civil War was absolutely nothing like this but it attempted to, and now we get to what an American Civil War battle looked like. Whereas in a Napoleonic battle you’d have a mass of columns approaching the enemy and forming a line or staying in a column respective to the situation with cavalry advancing with the infantry and artillery batteries suppressing the enemy while skirmisher formations screen the enemy and pick them off, the Americans had just one of these components: the infantry bit. Their artillery was present but hardly as decisive as Napoleon (or his contemporaries) would use them. The Union never really had anything resembling real light infantry battalions and the CSA, while using them in small number, never really put them to use in mass as his European contemporaries were and as they were used in the Napoleonic Wars. While on the tail end of the war this would change, for the major bloodbaths my assertion remains true.

Further, and perhaps most deadly of all, rifled muskets along with advances made cavalry nearly useless. This is only compounded by the fact that America had zero cavalry tradition whatsoever and thus what little cavalry they did have were dragoons (mounted infantry, essentially) and scouts. They had next to nothing to ‘crash’ into the enemy and be that decisive factor and what little they did had was useless in the face of rifled muskets which were accurate up to 350 yards and effective to 500. Last but certainly not least the Americans on either side were not keen on keeping reserves which, again, was completely against the entire principle of the tactics they were trying to apply.

What we get, in result, is an absolute bloodbath that we now know as the American Civil War and notable battles like Gettysburg. Pickett’s Charge would have, with Napoleon, been accompanied with cavalry to add a decisive shock factor and to draw out the enemy reserves. Instead it was a colossal failure. In fact Pickett’s Charge is a microcosm of ACW tactics as a whole. Justus Scheibert, a Prussian observer to the ACW, commented on his experience with witnessing a battle:

“The nearer to the enemy, the more faulty the lines and the more ragged the first (line) until it crumbled and mixed with the skirmishers. Forward went this muddle leading the wavy rest. Finally the mass obtruded upon the point of attack. In a sustained, stubborn clash, even the third would join the melee. Meanwhile the usually weak reserve tried to be useful on the flanks, or stiffened places that faltered, or plugged holes. In sum it had been a division neatly drawn up. Now its units, anything but neat, vaguely coherent, resembled a swarm of skirmishers.”1

This is really what ACW battles came down to. They were entirely indecisive as they lacked a deciding factor. Even infantry can be that factor with the right weapons but they just didn’t have them. Imagine two massive blobs of infantry with 5-6 men packed into a square meter elbow to elbow and using modern, rifled muskets. They would meet, fire off volleys at each other and try to act with a column attack that was entirely unsupported by cavalry and only marginally so by artillery and without any skirmishing body to weaken the enemy. It would have been an absolute bloodbath and a chaotic mess. With totally amateur officers on all levels of command compounding this men just could not engage with the enemy. There are too many cases of a battalion attempting a charge and just stopping short and breaking down formation into just, as Scheibert calls it, a loose collection of line infantry who are now “skirmishers” who just charged the enemy and are now, short of them, just dissolving into random and uncontrolled fire. In response to this by the end of the war bloody campaigns of attrition like the Petersburg and Overland campaigns.

Really one of the biggest issues with the Americans was their insistence on using, at first, the Regiment (1500) as the smallest tactical unit and later the Battalion (800). One officer would lead these men and if he died the entire thing went to crap. There was no backup plan — the entire regiment or battalion operates as one. It fights as one and dies as one. This was an incredibly Napoleonic way of doing things while, as our friend Scheibert will again observe, Europeans were already on the path out of:

“Prussian tactics freed (officers) to use their own minds… Liberated battalion and even company commanders could be the heads of tactical units, their own, and make them fight as right-thinking officers saw fit and as well-trained troops best could. The flexible line at the forward edge resembles a chain , then with detachable links under independent guidance. At crisis they can dismember into smaller and even the smallest units without disfunction… Our Prussian tactics thus gave our line officers energy, elasticity, and speed – to the entire army’s benefit… Furthermore, diligent peacetime training provided our troops an abundance of formations, something to fit any circumstance.”2

What Sheibert just described is what is commonly referred to as an “infantry chain”, that is, the gradual breaking down of infantry bodies into smaller tactically independent units. It doesn’t matter too much if your Battalion Commander gets popped because your lieutenant or your colonel or whatever can just break off on his own and make his own decisions.This is the beginnings of squad based warfare that will be so prevalent in WW2 and contemporary warfare. Rather than operating in groups of 800 or god forbid 1500 you would see Company’s and Platoons with men as little as 80-100 operating independent from the rest of the body. This harkens back to what I talked about in my first post with the Prussians and later the French and would be completely reminiscent of 20th century warfare.

The difference in the Napoleonic Wars as opposed to the American Revolution or the Crimean War or the Franco-Prussian War and the American Civil War:

  • The Napoleonic Wars were with flintlock muzzle loaded smoothbore muskets and would be reminiscent of 18th century warfare. Napoleon would be famous for using his infantry, skirmishing bodies, elite cavalry, and artillery to decisively force the enemy to commit their reserves. Once the reserves were committed Napoleon’s reserves would be organized into columns and then smashed with bayonets into the weakest link of the enemy line and ‘roll them up’. This is a very basic understanding of the wars but it provides a good enough overview.
  • In contract the Austro-Prussian War would be a good ‘transition point’ of where we see the old world make way for the new. Muskets versus breech loaded rifles. Tight infantry bodies and cavalry against infantry chains and skirmishing lines. It would be a total slaughter as imagined.
  • The Franco-Prussian War was absolutely nothing like the Napoleonic Wars. It would be masses of skirmishing lines hundreds of meters wide screening each other with massive artillery batteries pounding the enemy. The major technological change here would be percussion operated artillery shells and breech loaded Krupp guns versus timed fuse muzzle loaded cannons from the French. The
  • American Civil War was an attempt of the Americans, who had absolutely zero experience with higher levels of war to use Napoleonic tactics without any understanding of how they worked. The largest force an American general commanded in their history to this point was in the Mexican-American War and it was 12,000 men. They had zero experience with the operational or strategic level of war and had an officer corps totally unprepared for mobilized, modern, total warfare. Add into this their absolutely zero cavalry tradition (and thus no heavy cavalry to act as a decisive actor), horribly inefficient low level officers, and trying to use column charges against percussion cap minie ball firing muskets and you get the makings of a bloodbath. Infantry literally just charging head on into other infantry, breaking apart, and retreating. However no one side had a decisive actor so even if you lost horribly you didn’t really have to worry about pursuit. So every battle both sides could just retreat, lick their wounds, and go back to it. There was nothing forcing the victory or being that final crush that made the enemy truly crushed.


[1] Justus Scheibert, A Prussian Observes the American Civil War: The Military Studies of Justus Scheibert, edited & revised by Frederic Trautmann, p.41

[2] Scheibert, 49

Further Reading:

The Franco-Prussia​n War: The German Invasion of France 1870-1871, Michael Howard

With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other: The Problem of Military Thought in the Civil War North, Carl Reardon

The Campaigns of Napoleon, David Chandler


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