Works of Frederick Engels 1861

Lessons of the American War

Written: November, 1861;
Source: Marx/Engels Collected Works, Volume 19;
Publisher: Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1964;
First Published: The Volunteer Journal, for Lancashire and Cheshire No. 66, December 6, 1861;
Online Version: 1999;
Transcribed: S. Ryan;
HTML Markup: Tim Delaney.

When, a few weeks back, we drew attention to the process of weeding which had become necessary in the American volunteer army, we were far from exhausting the valuable lessons this war is continually giving to the volunteers on this side of the Atlantic. We therefore beg leave again to revert to the subject.

The kind of warfare which is now carried on in America is really without precedent. From the Missouri to Chesapeake Bay, a million of men, nearly equally divided into two hostile camps, have now been facing each other for some six months without coming to a single general action. In Missouri, the two armies advance, retire, give battle, advance, and retire again in turns, without any visible result; even now, after seven months of marching and counter-marching, which must have laid the country waste to a considerable degree, things appear as far from any decision as ever. In Kentucky, after a lengthened period of apparent neutrality, but real preparation, a similar state of things appears to be impending; in Western Virginia, constant minor actions occur without any apparent result; and on the Potomac, where the greatest masses on both sides are concentrated, almost within sight of each other, neither party cares to attack, proving that, as matters stand, even a victory would be of no use at all. And unless circumstances foreign to this state of things cause a great change, this barren system of warfare may be continued for months to come.

How are we to account for this?

The Americans have, on either side, almost nothing but volunteers. The little nucleus of the former United States' regular army has either dissolved, or it is too weak to leaven the enormous mass of raw recruits which have accumulated at the seat of war. To shape all these men into soldiers, there are not even drill-sergeants enough. Teaching, consequently, must go on very slow, and there is really no telling how long it may take until the fine material of men collected on both shores of the Potomac will be fit to be moved about in large masses, and to give or accept battle with its combined forces.

But even if the men could be taught their drill in some reasonable time, there are not enough officers to lead them. Not to speak of the company officers -- who necessarily cannot be taken from among civilians -- there are not enough officers to make commanders of battalions even if every lieutenant and ensign of the regulars were appointed to such a post. A considerable number of civilian colonels are therefore unavoidable; and nobody who knows our own volunteers will think either McClellan or Beauregard over timid if they decline entering upon aggressive action or complicated strategical manoeuvres with civilian colonels of six months' standing to execute their orders.

We will suppose, however, that this difficulty was, upon the whole, overcome; that the civilian colonels, with their uniforms, had also acquired the knowledge, experience, and tact required in the performance of their duties -- at least, as far as the infantry is concerned. But how will it be for the cavalry? To train a regiment of cavalry, requires more time, and more experience in the training officers, than to get a regiment of infantry into shape. Suppose the men join their corps, all of them, with a sufficient knowledge of horsemanship -- that is to say, they can stick on their horses, have command over them, and know how to groom and feed them -- this will scarcely shorten the time required for training. Military riding, that control over your horse by which you make him go through all the movements necessary in cavalry evolutions, is a very different thing from the riding commonly practised by civilians. Napoleon's cavalry, which Sir William Napier (History of the Peninsular War) considered almost better than the English cavalry of the time, notoriously consisted of the very worst riders that ever graced a saddle; and many of our best cross-country riders found, on entering mounted volunteer corps, that they had a deal to learn yet. We need not be astonished, then, to find that the Americans are very deficient in cavalry, and that what little they have consists of a kind of Cossacks or Indian irregulars (rangers), unfit for a charge in a body.

For artillery, they must be worse off still; and equally so for engineers. Both these are highly scientific arms, and require a long and careful training in both officers and non-commissioned officers, and certainly more training in the men too, than infantry does. Artillery, moreover, is a more complicated arm than even cavalry; you require guns, horses broken in for this kind of driving, and two classes of trained men -- gunners and drivers; you require, besides, numerous ammunition-waggons, and large laboratories for the ammunition, forges, workshops, &c.; the whole provided with complicated machinery. The Federals are stated to have, altogether, 600 guns in the field; but how these may be served, we can easily imagine, knowing that it is utterly impossible to turn out 100 complete, well-appointed, and well-served batteries out of nothing in six months.

But suppose, again, that all these difficulties had been overcome, and that the fighting portion of the two hostile sections of Americans was in fair condition for their work, could they move even then? Certainly not. An army must be fed; and a large army in a comparatively thinly-populated country such as Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri, must be chiefly fed from magazines. Its supply of ammunition has to be replenished; it must be followed by gunsmiths, saddlers, joiners, and other artisans, to keep its fighting tackle in good order. All these requisites shone by their absence in America; they had to be organised out of almost nothing; and we have no evidence whatever to show that even now the commissariat and transport of either army has emerged from babyhood.

America, both North and South, Federal and Confederate, had no military organisation, so to speak. The army of the line was totally inadequate, by its numbers, for service against any respectable enemy; the militia was almost non-existent. The former wars of the Union never put the military strength of the country on its mettle; England, between 1812 and 1814, had not many men to spare, and Mexico defended herself chiefly by the merest rabble. The fact is, from her geographical position, America had no enemies who could anywhere attack her with more than 30,000 or 40,000 regulars at the very worst; and to such numbers the immense extent of the country would soon prove a more formidable obstacle than any troops America could bring against them; while her army was sufficient to form a nucleus for some 100,000 volunteers, and to train them in reasonable time. But when a civil war called forth more than a million of fighting men, the whole system broke down, and everything had to be begun at the beginning. The results are before us. Two immense, unwieldy bodies of men, each afraid of the other, and almost as afraid of victory as of defeat, are facing each other, trying, at an immense cost, to settle down into something like a regular organisation. The waste of money, frightful as it is, is quite unavoidable, from the total absence of that organised groundwork upon which the structure could have been built. With ignorance and inexperience ruling supreme in every department, how could it be otherwise? On the other hand, the return for the outlay, in efficiency and organisation, is extremely poor; and could that be otherwise?

The British volunteers may thank their stars that they found, on starting, a numerous, well-disciplined, and experienced army to take them under its wings. Allowing for the prejudices inherent to all trades, that army has received and treated them well. It is to be hoped that neither the volunteers nor the public will ever think that the new service can ever supersede, in any degree, the old one. If there are any such, a glance at the state of the two American volunteer armies ought to prove to them their own ignorance and folly. No army newly formed out of civilians can ever subsist in an efficient state unless it is trained and supported by the immense intellectual and material resources which are deposited at the hands of a proportionately strong regular army, and principally by that organisation which forms the chief strength of the regulars. Suppose an invasion to threaten England, and compare what would be then done with what is unavoidably done in America. In England, the War-office, with the assistance of a few more clerks, easily to be found among trained military men, would be up to the transaction of all the additional labour an army of 300,000 volunteers would entail; there are half-pay officers enough to take, say three or four battalions of volunteers each under their special inspection, and, with some effort, every battalion might be provided with a line-officer as adjutant and one as colonel. Cavalry, of course, could not be improvised; but a resolute reorganisation of the artillery volunteers -- with officers and drivers from the Royal Artillery -- would help to man many a field-battery. The civil engineers in the country only wait for an opportunity to receive that training in the military side of their profession which would at once turn them into first-rate engineer officers. The commissariat and transport services are organised, and may soon be made to supply the wants of 400,000 men quite as easily as those of 100,000. Nothing would be disorganised, nothing upset; everywhere there would be aid and assistance for the volunteers, who would nowhere have to grope in the dark; and -- barring some of those blunders which England cannot do without when first she plunges into a war -- we can see no reason why in six weeks everything should not work pretty smoothly.

Now, look to America, and then say what a regular army is worth to a rising army of volunteers.