Air University Review, July-August 1984

Johnny Reb and Billy Yank:
Culture and Tactics in the Civil War

Dr. John F. Guilmartin
Technical Sergeant Klaus J. Schiffler, USAFR

THE American Civil War has been played and replayed many times during the nearly 120 years since its final battles were fought. Biographies of Civil War generals, accounts of the battles, and analyses of causes and effects would fill many a bookshelf, offering military historians much food for thought.

Nor has scholarly interest in the Civil War waned in recent years. Attack and Die, by Grady McWhiney and Perry D. Jamieson, is a recent and noteworthy example.* An innovative thesis, coupled with the authors' remarkably comprehensive research effort, marks Attack and Die as an important work worth reading. The thesis--that the tactics of the Confederate armies in the American Civil War were self-defeating, sacrificial in nature, and linked to the South's Celtic cultural heritage--will be (indeed, is being) hotly disputed. Many Southern historians will question the soundness of the authors' cultural arguments, contending instead that the presumed link between Scottish and Irish culture and that of the antebellum South is far from proved and, in fact, of dubious significance. Many military historians, these reviewers included, will take issue with the authors' unflattering assessment of Confederate tactics. Nevertheless, Attack and Die is a searching and penetrating historical analyses of military tactics. Regardless of their opinions about the authors' conclusions, thoughtful military historians must concede that in taking a fresh approach to a number of issues that lie at the heart of the study of military history, McWhiney and Jamieson force the rethinking of many standard assumptions.

*Grady McWhiney and Perry D. Jamieson, Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1982, $17.95), 209 pages.

Attack and Die consists of three interconnected parts. First, and of great value in its own right, is an impressive analysis of Civil War tactical theory and practice--so thorough, in fact, that it is unlikely to be supplanted for many years to come. Making extensive use of letters and other contemporary memoir material as well as published sources, the authors delineate the doctrinal background clearly and explain the relationship between tactics and the weapons and human resources called on to execute them. They argue convincingly for the importance of the Mexican War experience in shaping the tactical ideas of key leaders on both the Northern and Southern sides. Covering contemporary tactical literature exhaustively, McWhiney and Jamieson offer a supporting bibliography for this section that is worth the price of the book in itself.

In the second section, the authors use an extensive, battle-by-battle, statistical analysis to buttress their argument that the South's tactics were self-defeating. Here, their case is less firm. While the exhaustive tabular breakdown of losses by side, commander, and battle is valuable in its own right, the conclusion that the proportionately higher Confederate losses are indicative of serious tactical deficiencies seems debatable at best. McWhiney and Jamieson contend, in sum, that the casualty imbalance was the product of a Confederate predisposition to bayonet charges given the slightest excuse: the book's title is a neat encapsulation of the argument.

While not questioning the innate aggressiveness of most Confederate units, one could argue, with considerable factual support, that the imbalance was primarily an unavoidable consequence of being outnumbered. Since Confederate armies ordinarily fought at a numerical disadvantage, a higher proportion of Confederate troops tended to come into contact with the enemy. This was partly the result of deliberate Southern calculation but was also due to the simple geometry and arithmetic of the thing. Weapons on the two sides were more or less equal, and the outnumbered Southern troops had to fight more often and in more places.

Close analysis of the Chancellorsville campaign--as described in John Bigelow's The Campaign of Chancellorsville (New Haven, 1910) and Vincent Esposito's The West Point Atlas of the American Wars (New York, 1959)confirms this hypothesis for at least one pivotal battle. Robert E. Lee, whose Army of Northern Virginia was outnumbered more than two to one by Joseph Hooker's Army of the Potomac, was consistently successful in bringing a higher proportion of his force into contact than his Union opponent. As Jackson's counterattack on Hooker's right flank struck home--the crucial point of the battle--no less than 84 percent of Lee's army was in contact, as opposed to only 53 percent of the Union force. The resultant Confederate numerical superiority at the decisive time and place decided the battle and the campaign. Hooker was never able to bring more than some 67 percent of his force into contact, at which time the Confederate figure was 77 percent.

Viewed from this perspective, proportionately higher Confederate losses were an unavoidable by-product of the tactical skill and aggressiveness needed to fight outnumbered and win. At Chancellorsville as elsewhere, the alternative of waiting passively for the Union forces to deploy their full strength was plainly unacceptable. To endure strategically, the South had to be victorious tactically; to triumph tactically against a more numerous and better supplied opponent, the Confederate forces had to be tactically aggressive. Lee's victory at Chancellorsville bought the Confederacy precious time; the fact that he lost 18.7 percent of his force while Hooker lost 11.7 percent tells us little about Confederate generalship or tactics.

The South's manpower pool was eventually bled white, and the persistent aggressiveness of Confederate soldiers no doubt played a role in the bleeding. However, the South ultimately lost the war due at least as much to logistical inadequacies as to the exhaustion of its fighting manpower.

The final section of Attack and Die is an analysis of the presumed cultural determinants of Southern tactics. In many ways, it is the most provocative and least satisfying of the three parts. It is provocative because common sense and the historical record suggest that there is an important kernel of truth in the authors' thesis, which, if fully developed and tested, might tell us something of value about troop morale and motivation under fire. It is unsatisfying because the thesis is not fully developed.

AS REVIEWERS, we are not competent to assess the adequacy of the evidence that McWhiney and Jamieson muster to support their claim of cultural continuity between the Celtic nations of Europe and the Old South. However, it does seem apparent that the mechanics of primary military group morale and motivation in the Confederate forces had a distinctive style. That style, whatever its cultural origins, was quite different from that of the Union forces and, at least in general terms, fits McWhiney and Jamieson's typology.

Indeed, in tracing the difference between Union and Confederate attitudes in this area, one finds a pattern that has repeated itself in other times and places. The Southerner possessed a code of military honor that emphasized individual daring; his battle cry was a high yipping sound; and his military music was light and often humorous--typically a solo tenor voice with musical accompaniment. In contrast, the Northerner's code emphasized steadiness and loyalty to the group; his battle cry was a low grumbling sound that rose, not so much from individual throats, as from whole companies and regiments; and his music was baritone, serious, and choral. The contrast between "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "John Brown's Body," on the one hand, and "Dixie" and "The Yellow Rose of Texas," on the other, makes the point. The Confederate soldier drank whiskey as the military beverage of preference; the Union soldier drank beer.

In this, there is an idea that should be pursued. Though the point could be easily pushed too far, it is intriguing to observe similar patterns elsewhere. The whiskey-drinking Scottish Highlander, for instance, fits the former pattern with surprising accuracy; so does the tequila-drinking soldiery of the Mexican Revolution, right down to the humorous, self-deprecating content of the music. German soldiers of whatever period, from the sixteenth century Landsknecht to the troops of today's Bundeswehr, would seem to fit the latter pattern; so would the Welsh regiments of the British Army and the French Foreign Legion.

Comparative exercises of this sort can produce interesting hypotheses, yet our current knowledge of the culture-specific mechanisms of primary military group cohesion is simply too scant and too disorganized to support them. Further study is indeed warranted. It is clear, however, that the mechanisms in question are culture-specific and that they are a crucial determinant of effectiveness in battle. Whether or not we agree with the thesis of Attack and Die in whole or in part, we are indebted to McWhiney and Jamieson for focusing our attention on the issues in question.

Rice University
Houston, Texas
Salt Lake City, Utah


John F. Guilmartin, Jr. (USAFA; M.A., Ph.D., Princeton University), is Director of the Space Shuttle History Project and an Adjunct Professor of History at Rice University. He is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and former editor if Air University Review. While on active duty, he also served as an instructor, Assistant Professor, and Associate Professor of History at the USAF Academy; helicopter pilot (HH-3E and HH-53C) stateside and in Southeast Asia; and Chief of Tactics, Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service. Dr. Guilmartin is author of Gunpowder and Galleys (1974, 1980) and numerous articles and reviews. . . .

Technical Sergeant Klaus J. Schiffler, USAFR (B.A., M.Ed., University of Utah), is a Reserve Adviser with Air Force Intelligence and presently is employed by the Postal Service. His military career includes service with the Marine Corps, Marine Corps Reserve, Army Reserve, and Air Force Reserves.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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