“Maneuver warfare is not a doctrinal choice, it is an earned benefit” applied to the Civil War?

XBradTC, posted a very powerful quote yesterday:

Further the tension between firepower and maneuver-based doctrines often appears as more of a false dichotomy than self-styled maneuver theorists might allow. As DePuy stated in partial response to critics who accused him of being an attritionist, “maneuver warfare is not a doctrinal choice, it is an earned benefit.”

The citation is from a paper examining the nuances of mechanized infantry doctrine as evolved in the US Army.  For someone like me, who cut teeth on the late-1980s to early-1990s doctrine (AirLand Battle ™), this is a good read.  But I suspect for most the audience, such is a deep end subject.

But background is in order, as the quote drops a name.  In 1973, General William E. DePuy was the commander of Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC).  This was a “new” organization, having been formed as part of the Army’s reorganization after the Vietnam War.  It was a difficult time for the Army as an institution, the particulars of which would take a full post to unwind and would detract from Civil War studies.  The important bit for this discussion is DePuy was the man charged with reforming Army training and doctrine as it recovered from Vietnam, digested lessons of the Arab-Israeli Wars, and transitioned into a legitimate bulwark against the Soviets.

And what DePuy did during his tenure in command was remarkable.  The short line here is that DePuy transformed the way the Army thought about “doctrine” and its relation to training, procurement, and even recruitment (it was an all-volunteer army for the first time in several decades).  The product was the 1976 version of FM 100-5, named “The Operations of Army Forces in the Field.” The new manual was not some esoteric work, but stood up equally the officers’ club, motor pool and gunnery range.  FM 100-5 gave the Army’s doctrine a vocabulary which it had not before.

However, the main complaint about DuPuy’s FM 100-5 was with the concept of “Active Defense” which emphasized firepower to reduce the enemy forces.  Some detractors felt this emphasis took away from maneuver. As XBradTC alludes to in his post, such brought on the classic discussions of firepower vs. maneuver.  But in DePuy’s defense, the 1976 FM 100-5 was ground in reality – what could the Army do with what it had, given the political and military constraints at the time.  At that time any war in Central Europe offered no space to trade for time, outnumbered by several multiples, in a war which would be decided within a few weeks. (See Sir John Hackett’s novels on the Third World War to get a feel for this “scenario.”)

In response to the criticism, after DePuy’s retirement in 1977, the Army began to evolve FM 100-5.  Such refinement brought forward revised versions of the manual so that by the mid-1980s a young Army cadet was studying “AirLand Battle Doctrine” which stressed agility, initiative, depth, and synchronization.  Some have cited that as a counter-turn back to “maneuver warfare.”  But the deep thinkers will recognize, as tipped in the quote above, the discussion was really back to the old “war of attrition vs. war of annihilation” debate.

So what does DePuy, FM 100-5, and this maneuver-firepower and attrition-annihilation thing have to do with the Civil War?

Well DePuy’s quote touched upon something I’ve long weighed in regard to Civil War operations.  While the Civil War generals didn’t name it “operations” as we do today, they still practiced operations at the same level (just called it “strategy” or “grand strategy”).  So mull over this notion:

Maneuver warfare is an earned benefit.

Robert E. Lee earned the benefit of maneuver after fighting seven days of hard battles in June 1862, and that benefit paid out with an advance into Maryland.  Lee again earned the benefit of maneuver in the spring of 1863, which he used to advantage during the first half of that summer.

But those are easy point to select.  Let’s get a bit more complex.  On November 7, 1863, Meade threw the Army of the Potomac at some of Lee’s advanced posts along the Rappahannock River.  It lead to the Mine Run campaign.  A longer reaching effect was the Army of Northern Virgina left Culpeper county for the last time.  In that light, can we say that that Meade earned the maneuver benefit, spending it in part for Mine Run… BUT… more importantly, because this allowed Meade to “winter” the Army of the Potomac in Culpeper County, the maneuver benefit carried forward to the spring of 1864.  You see, “maneuver” is not just “movement” but also involves manipulation of the situation or resources to achieve the ends (to the point that some of us would like to strike “maneuver” in the manuals and replace it with “manipulation”).   Meade’s position in Culpeper ensured that when Grant opened the Overland Campaign, the Federals had the initiative, didn’t have an extra set of fords to cross (as had happened a year before), and could force Lee to react at the tactical level.

And beyond that, let us go into those “deep thinking” discussions.  Many will recall the excellent NPS interpretation last spring highlighting the different strategies employed by Grant and Lee for the Overland Campaign.  These boiled down to attrition vs. annihilation.  But is either approach predisposed to firepower over maneuver, or vice versa? Of course not!  These are two different layers to the complex subject of operations, in the military context.

As we consider tactical actions that seem unsound to us today – say like the assaults at Cold Harbor on June 3, or better yet, the Crater on July 30, 1864 – I think we see commanders using firepower (in the form of muskets and bayonets) in an effort to earn that maneuver benefit.  Those attacks went forward NOT to simply grind away the adversary. Rather the intent was to manipulate the situation to allow a follow up with maneuver.

Great quote.  One to keep in the pocket.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

2 thoughts on ““Maneuver warfare is not a doctrinal choice, it is an earned benefit” applied to the Civil War?

  1. There is a lot of good stuff here, but your best point is “maneuver” is not just “movement.” I think that is a concept many people struggle with when first learning of the doctrine, as we tend to place everything in the context of battles. You also demonstrated how superb Meade’s manipulation was in Fall 1863, which is a period of the war that people tend to skip. More importantly, I am all for taking new (reused) frameworks and employing them to examine different wars. This one has legs and it could be a much larger work (or blog posts).

    Great post!

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