Were Civil War soldiers suicidal!?!

I’m sitting here watching a special about the American Civil War on the History Channel. In watching it, I can’t help but wonder… just how STUPID were these army commanders. I;ve yet to see anyone dive for shelter, get in a fox hole, hide behind someone, hold a suprise attack, etc. The basic strategy in fighting seems to be: “Lets stand all our men 20 feet apart and fire rifles at each other. Don’t use any ingeniuity whatsoever, that’s for weaklings. If we’re lucky, there’ll be 20 of our men left instead of 20 of your men.”

Why the hell didn’t they duck for cover? They just stood there, in their ornate uniforms, firing shots into one another. Didn’t we Americans learn the art of Geurilla warfare and it’s advantages over stiff British warfare during the Revolution? This would appear to be the same strategy the British used.

They were firing in volleys which due to the lack of accuracy in the guns at the time was the best way to inflict damage on the opponents. If you go to a Civil War battlefield you can see they did hid behind ridges and things but unless it was a siege there was no advantage to a huge set of trenches since there was not one unchanging front like WW1. There wer guerillas, suprise attacks, and trenches but during the major battles the best infantry tactics of the time called for massed assaults and volleys of fire.

I don’t know what show you watched, but Civil War leaders and soldiers definitely used cover, concealment, terrain, embankments, trenches, fencelines, streams, ditches, etc. in fighting their battles.

Well there is that silly notion of fighting with “honor.” This was mostly displled by the trenches of WWII.

You do need to understand the limitations of weapons at the begening of the Civil War. Low rate of fire, Inacurate, and required a lot of skill to operate. This makes the idea of massed fire attractive. With improved weapons, fewer people can have the same effect.

Commanders at the time were chosen by who could raise a company of men, not skill. Also the training of the officers was set for weapons that were becoming obsolete. There are examples of modern small unit tactics such as Morgan’s raiders in Ohio, but these were not the norm. The South had the handicap of fighting like ‘gentlemen’ and the North had the handicap of having crappy generals due the fact that most of the generals were from the South.

It may have seemed suicidal, but given the understanding of war at the time, it was the logical approach. (The extent to which the British were defeated with guerrila tactics is pretty minimal.)

First of all, it’s simply not true that Civil War soldiers didn’t use trenches and foxholes. They didn’t do so at the beginning of the war, for reasons to be discussed, but the wisdom of digging in and taking cover was well learned early on, and entrenchment became a major part of the war.

The reason they didn’t early on was because it just hadn’t been good tactics before. The tactic of employing formations to move and shoot was, prior to the mid-19th century, the ONLY logical way to fight. Prior to about then, rifles weren’t rifles in the sense we mean the word today; they were muskets, which fired balls that weer actually slightly narrower than the barrel of the gun. Such a weapon is accurate out to a hundred yards at best, and for most riflemen, maybe fifty. Given the extremely slow rate of fire, the reality is that you could charge an enemy formation and they’d be damned lucky to get two aimed shots before you were on top of them. So mass firing was the best way to inflict both physical and psychological damage, and in an era with no radios it was the easiest way to take control of a large number of troops. If you needed to soften up troops, you used cannon. There are also practical considerations; remember, these aren’t light little M-16s with magazines, they’re muzzle-loading weapons that are clumsy to use, and damn near impossible to use if you’re lying down.

Now comes the Civil War. A Frenchman named Minie has invented the rifle we use today, which has a bullet that expands to the size of the barrel and thus comes out with a lot more accuracy; such a weapon can be used at ranges of hundred of yards. The effective firepower of an infantry formation is thus multiplied many times, but initially they had to use the only tactics they knew - just standing there and whomping away. The result was, of course, a bloody mess. Eventually they did learn to take cover, stop using cavalry charges, etc. Charging and moving in formation was still sometimes useful - it’s not like most armies had machine guns - it just had to be used at the right time and place.

The same thing happens in most major wars; witness World War I, which illustrated the need for tanks and radios to conduct offensive operations.

I think you’ve been mislead into thinking that formation volley fire was the only tactic used in the war of northern aggression. The 1860s were a time of great change in firearms technology and the end of the old tactics.

As Rickjay says the Minie bullet was a huge leap in technology. It gave rifles the fast loading of a smoothbore musket with high accuracy the musket doesn’t have. Until then a rifle could only be fired about once a minute, a third the rate of a musket.

Repeating arms were widely available too though not standard issue for infantry. Some officers bought repeating Henry rifles (the high capacity assault weapon of its day) for personal use and six shot Colt and Remington percussion revolvers were issued by the Union and copied by the Confederacy.

And some Dopers claimed I was wrong when I said I thought people actually used the term “war of northern aggression” in seriousness. (See here.

I use the term half in jest. I am not a confederate apologist and don’t fly the flag of dixie. I do not wish to identify myself with those causes. I don’t think the US civil war was fought purely for the good reason of abolition.