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Thread: 19th Century American vs European Military

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    dogukan's Avatar Praeses
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    Default 19th Century American vs European Military

    I've been curious about this topic. We often hear about the American Civil War and watch tons of content about it. Reenactors are all over it. It takes a massive place in the short history of the American nation and thus is often emphasized in a very detailed manner in popular culture.
    On the other hand, there seems to be very little interest in European warfare after the Napoleonic Era. Granted, this was a relatively peaceful century in European standards, but we still have conflicts like the Crimean War, Holstein War, Austro-Prussian War and most importantly the Franco-Prussian War.
    All of these conflcits were fought around the period of American Civil War. How would the nascent superpower's military compare to European military organization and technologies of the day? Were the European by 1860s still fighting like in Napoleonic Era? In fact, how different was the ACW than the Napoleonic Warfare?
    I would love it if you could also suggest me some reading on the material!
    "Therefore I am not in favour of raising any dogmatic banner. On the contrary, we must try to help the dogmatists to clarify their propositions for themselves. Thus, communism, in particular, is a dogmatic abstraction; in which connection, however, I am not thinking of some imaginary and possible communism, but actually existing communism as taught by Cabet, Dézamy, Weitling, etc. This communism is itself only a special expression of the humanistic principle, an expression which is still infected by its antithesis – the private system. Hence the abolition of private property and communism are by no means identical, and it is not accidental but inevitable that communism has seen other socialist doctrines – such as those of Fourier, Proudhon, etc. – arising to confront it because it is itself only a special, one-sided realisation of the socialist principle."
    Marx to A.Ruge

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    Abdülmecid I's Avatar ˇAy Carmela!
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    Default Re: 19th Century American vs European Military

    Basically, the innovations of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era were intensified. So, mobilisations became even more massive, thanks to the industrialisation and the expansion of the railway system. However, raw recruits and illiterate officers were not particularly useful, because of the need to understand orders, read maps and handle more complicated equipment. The least illiterate and most urbanised societies, like in Germany, were less vulnerable to these disadvantages, though. In France, however, the situation was different. One of the reasons the imperial army collapsed so spectacularly is that Napoleon III failed to pass, because of the liberal opposition, which benefited from the lax system in place, some indispensable military reforms that would emulate Prussia's conscription system.

    Artillery played an even more decisive role and the very advanced Krupp cannons the Prussians possessed were their most significant tactical advantage over the French, whose artillery was completely outmatched by its Prussian colleague. Conversely, the role of the heavy cavalry declined, as charges became too costly and they rarely resulted in the dispersal of infantry formations. By the time of the French Republic, only light cavalry was still necessary, mainly as a reconnaissance force. For a brief, but also dense overview, I recommend Wawro's introduction, which is freely available online.

  3. #3
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    Default Re: 19th Century American vs European Military

    Its a fascinating subject and worthy of discussion, with a bunch of different aspects.

    There's a competitive aspect, with US writers insisting their boys were "as good as" the foreigners, and Europeans sniffing contemptuously (there's a fake quote attributed to Moltke the Elder about the USCW "Two armed mobs chasing each other around the countryside. What have we to learn from them?").

    Some USCW general used Napoleonic battle plans. Ditto the Europeans in several wars, but Europe was the cutting edge and the brilliant French and effective (soon to be acknowledged as brilliant ) Prussian systems were i think world leaders and the US copied them consciously.

    My guess is the US have a tradition of small professional military which scales up for mass warfare. They were effective at COIN ops vs indigenous people, and the navy and logistics were nothing short of superb. The US navy is rightly ranked by all but the Royal navy as equal to any for the period of its existence.

    "The Europeans" were in a constant state of flux and development, with competing themes and agendas tested irl. The UK had small professional army rarely scaled up for mass warfare, and generally deployed on colonial adventures where it performed solidly against other non-European systems (except in South Africa where Dutch settlers adapted Guerrilla warfare into commando warfare very effectively). Leadership was wooden, with chaps from Waterloo in command at Crimea, and stiffs appointed for connections and seniority appointed to disastrous effect in Afghanistan (where everyone wins the war, and loses the peace).

    The Prussians, surrounded by Russians Austrians and French and inheriting a motley of territories from the Napoleonic wars (very fortunately gaining the Ruhr and retaining Silesia) continued to ruthlessly rationalise every element of their forces. The artillery was not as good as the Austrians, the riles were not as good as the French but the mobilisation and replacement system gave them rapidly mobilised striking strength. For half a century wise kings and exfcellent leadership built, anew Germany for Kaiser Wilhelm II to throw in the toilet.

    France attempted to preserve the ardour of revolutionary elan under Bourbon, Orleanist and Bonaparte Boogaloo regimes and retain the tactical brilliance of Napoleon's Corps d'elite. France entered the 19th century with a technical and doctrinal advantage and arguably held it until 1914. The equipment was superb, unit size huge, firepower impressive and in the Crimean campaign the French forces impressed the UK as well as the Russians for their foraging and fighting qualities. 1870 was a political catastrophe for France with inept political leadership throwing away France's advantage by poor tactical choices and an absence of strategy. "A war? We fight!" seems to have been Napoleon III's motto.

    Head to head? Only the Prussians could even approach US for pragmatic logistics and engineering: the problem solving by generals like Grant and McLellan was superb, only Moltke and co.s use of railways comes close (and the Us diud that better too, without the same degree of government centralisation).

    The early days of the Civil war in the US show armies blundering 9as all do) and leaders making errors (as all do) but both armies learned quickly and the US brought the lessons to bear. Reb leaders are much vaunted but in an amateur fight home advantage matters and when they went North the Greys were 0-3.

    Prussia hit hard early with great force. France hit harder more slowly when well led. Russia and Austria had strong army traditions and fought savagely against brilliant opponents.

    I can't see a scenario where the US fights European powers, maybe some weird Mexican intervention? The US Navy is brilliant but for the 19th century they are outnumbered and equalled in prowess by the Royal navy so no Sunset invasion.

    Spacebats, I think if the US goes to war with Prussia they start losing hard early, and after four years Prussia surrenders. If they have a colonial stoush with the UK the UK maybe wins a drawn out affair but the US makes their navy and army bleed so badly they don't want to try again. France eats the US army alive IMHO, and for a brief period (1860's IIRC) the French have the only ironclads in the world, so honestly I think France is a problem for the US, but trust Napoleon III to **** it up somehow.
    Jatte lambastes Calico Rat

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    dogukan's Avatar Praeses
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    Default Re: 19th Century American vs European Military

    Thanks for the posts.

    But what I am curious more about is how exactly did these forces appeared, moved and exchanged fire on the battlefield.

    When I watch content on ACW, which is supposedly 5 decades after Napoleonic Wars, what I see is not exactly a transformation of the battlefield.
    Up until Napoleonic War and from the trench warfare of early 20th centur and onwards, it is somewhat easy to categorize the main methods of conducting warfare.

    But for some reason, there seems to be a gap in the 19th century. We have line infantry formations in the 18th century, in Napoleonic Warfare, these take a far more mass scale and line-movement narrows to more squerish formations to fit into battlefield. The role of skirmishing also grows.

    But what happens in the following centuries? ACW looks extremely similar to Napoleonic Warfare from what I understand. Is that precisely how pickelhaube armed troopers of Prussia conducted warfare? Is there a transition from Napoleonic Line Infantry exchanging fire to something else until we get to infantry pooled up in trenches getting shredded by artillery?
    "Therefore I am not in favour of raising any dogmatic banner. On the contrary, we must try to help the dogmatists to clarify their propositions for themselves. Thus, communism, in particular, is a dogmatic abstraction; in which connection, however, I am not thinking of some imaginary and possible communism, but actually existing communism as taught by Cabet, Dézamy, Weitling, etc. This communism is itself only a special expression of the humanistic principle, an expression which is still infected by its antithesis – the private system. Hence the abolition of private property and communism are by no means identical, and it is not accidental but inevitable that communism has seen other socialist doctrines – such as those of Fourier, Proudhon, etc. – arising to confront it because it is itself only a special, one-sided realisation of the socialist principle."
    Marx to A.Ruge

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    Default Re: 19th Century American vs European Military

    The US self consciously copied Prussian drill and tactics, but the "father of the army" von Steuben was a pre-revolutionary leader and I think the US employed less than cutting edge tactics up to the Mexican war. They were effective, as were cavalry troop and Buffalo Soldiers in supressing native Americans.

    The ACW opens with skirmishes and the rather ramshackle First Bull Run where units front up, run away, rally and the battle is one when Jackson arrives late and stands his ground. Any battle is a matter of courage and discipline but its not an insult to say this wasn't Waterloo (they wanted it to be) or Konnigratz, skilled manoeuvres and brilliant strikes were lacking.

    Likewise at Shiloh courage wasn't lacking but both commanders showed more courage and charisma than technical ability: at least Grant set up a decent defensive perimeter. Johnson's decision to lead the attack personally was an archaic blunder. Beauregard's odd initial disposition was "Napoleonic" (corps in column) on paper but it was not optimal for Johnson's sketchy overall plan and it led to a staggered attack as the forces crossed one another's lines of approach.

    By Vicksburg the Union army has sorted itself out and presented an operating system that delivered predictable results. It wasn't perfect or brilliant but the army did what the commander said and there was a cadre of experienced officers at almost every level to deliver outcomes. If the US has a military talent its for rapid effective adaption. The south delivered armies that fought hard for charismatic leaders but was not a professional force, more like a resistance militia, and once the North was competent it was steamrolled slowly.

    Entrenchment, strong defensive terrain and the willingness to bleed to overcome these was the strongest theme of the second half of the USCW.

    In Europe the long peace from 1815-1848 meant tactics were not tested, but with the revolutions and nationalist wars troops put down popular uprisings and fought smaller engagements eg in Italy and Central Europe, where National and Imperial forces generally bested the less professional or smaller opponents.

    In 1859 France aided Piedmont to form Italy, by defeating Austria at Solferino. It was a bloodbath where the highly rated French took hideous losses breaking the Austrian positions based around several villages: it was a taste of the importance of cover on the modern battlefield.

    Entrenchment had been important in the sideshow of the Crimea too and the lesson slowly sank in. The Prussian solution to the power of entrenched positions was developed in Denmark (1864) and vs Austria (1866); rapid deployment of the fullest strength with meticulous planning by the great General Staff (all tropes associated with Prussian military tradition) but also the highest degree of local autonomy for commanders to use initiative (developed through field exercises and boardgames, yes Moltke was a gamer).

    This clash of positions vs manoeuvre peaked in France in 1870 where the Prussians rushed the French. The political set up by Bismarck was masterful, with the French provoked to attack (securing maximum allies for Prussia and no foreign support to France).

    The glory-hungry Napoleon III flung his armies forward at full speed before his strength was fully mobilised, as opposed to the fully mobilised Prussian alliance, so they actually outnumbered the French on the field throughout the war. The mixture of politicians and military men in command of France led to mismatched strategic goals, and the focussed Prussians brought maximum strength to bear in a series of battles: Prussian generals also took individual initiative to create sudden openings eg the first two battle in Alsace Lorraine. As the aggressor politics demanded Napoleon III attack the Germans again at Sedan, and was handed his arse by well organised forces.

    Inferior rifles, tough border terrain, the line of fortresses across northern France and a smaller roster did not prevent the Prussians from sweeping France rapidly.

    The lesson learned among European militaries was rapidity of mobilisation and deployment was critical (hence the "war by timetable" in 1914) and fixed positions could be overcome by vigorous movements (hence the insane French attacking strategy in August 1914, and the Second Reich's obsession with the Schlieffen plan). Other militaries kept up as they could but I would say for the whole of the 19th century the French and Prussians duelled for military leadership: I think the Prussians won the duel as much for political reasons as anything. When Japan sought to modernise their Army they took the Prussians as their model and quite rightly as they needed efficiency from a lower resource base.

    Entrenchments grew in importance through the century, and served the Ottomans well preserving their capital in several Balkan Wars. They proved their ability again at Gallipoli where under the guns of the Royal Navy they repulsed a strong Entente amphibious invasion (interesting point, this was developed by the US fifty years before).

    Napoleonic and pre Napoleonic elements remained: Frederickan firing lines , the Revolutionary/nationalist ideal citizen soldier (full of elan) (in fact his became the norm), rapid movement and application of force at the schwerpunkt (the true Napoleonic ideal) was the acme of planning, and the Prussian reforms of 1808 (creating the Great general staff) remained the gold standard.

    Increased firepower, repeating and automatic weapons, breech artillery all made entrenchment a natural resort, but it was unattractive and hard to sell. Conscription, citizen soldiers and mass armies all required active propaganda, an old idea that took new forms such as jingoism bigotry and chauvinism. The image of the citizen soldier striking at the enemy's capital sold well, images of standing in a trench while a blockade worked its evil magic did not.
    Jatte lambastes Calico Rat

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    dogukan's Avatar Praeses
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    Default Re: 19th Century American vs European Military

    Great explanation Cyclops. Thank you

    Also, it is indeed funny but likely accurate to think that most of the glorious badass generals of the past would have likely been streaming youtube videos playing strategy games today. Many figures in high command were likely nerds of sort
    "Therefore I am not in favour of raising any dogmatic banner. On the contrary, we must try to help the dogmatists to clarify their propositions for themselves. Thus, communism, in particular, is a dogmatic abstraction; in which connection, however, I am not thinking of some imaginary and possible communism, but actually existing communism as taught by Cabet, Dézamy, Weitling, etc. This communism is itself only a special expression of the humanistic principle, an expression which is still infected by its antithesis – the private system. Hence the abolition of private property and communism are by no means identical, and it is not accidental but inevitable that communism has seen other socialist doctrines – such as those of Fourier, Proudhon, etc. – arising to confront it because it is itself only a special, one-sided realisation of the socialist principle."
    Marx to A.Ruge

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    dogukan's Avatar Praeses
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    Default Re: 19th Century American vs European Military

    Almost as if I asked him to do this for me:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DsStFKUNeDQ

    "Therefore I am not in favour of raising any dogmatic banner. On the contrary, we must try to help the dogmatists to clarify their propositions for themselves. Thus, communism, in particular, is a dogmatic abstraction; in which connection, however, I am not thinking of some imaginary and possible communism, but actually existing communism as taught by Cabet, Dézamy, Weitling, etc. This communism is itself only a special expression of the humanistic principle, an expression which is still infected by its antithesis – the private system. Hence the abolition of private property and communism are by no means identical, and it is not accidental but inevitable that communism has seen other socialist doctrines – such as those of Fourier, Proudhon, etc. – arising to confront it because it is itself only a special, one-sided realisation of the socialist principle."
    Marx to A.Ruge

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