Artillery on the Battlefield: Tactics according to Mahan

Looking back at last year, one highlight of, as the disciples of social media say, the “content offering” from this blog was the Artillery tour of First Manassas, held jointly with Harry Smeltzer of Bull Runnings fame. The objective was to analyze the artillery employment at First Manassas with an eye to what we call, in the modern terminology, the tactical doctrine. Not to say things like “I could have done it better” or even “this is where he/they screwed up.” But rather specifically to ask if the employment was “by doctrine” – as in what a commander was expected to do – or was there some innovation going on, either intentional or unintentional. The preface to that “on the field” discussion was a series of quotes from pre-war writings, mostly in manuals that the officers of the time would be exposed, about the use of artillery on the battlefield.

First off, when discussing Civil War tactics, we have to pause and recognize things called “tactics” then were not necessarily what we call tactics today. As such our discussion has to incorporate some translation. For instance, a book titled “Field Artillery Tactics” from 1861 tends to be more so a manual detailing drill of artillery (from the artilleryman up to the battery level). That sort of thing is important, as the complex choreography involved with moving and servicing a gun must be part of the context. But when addressing the question posed above, in relation to the placement and employment of the artillery, we are left wanting descriptions about how a commander should use the artillerymen and their wonderful cannon.

For modern times… pretty much anything since the dawn of the 20th century, I could point you to a series of Army manuals that take us through the entire spectrum – technical manuals, drill manuals, and tactics manuals, all labeled as such. More to the point, I could reference manuals for tactics at the squad, platoon, company, battalion, regiment/brigade, and division level… or for artillery, by gun, section, battery, and battalion. But for the Civil War, we lack such granular detail. I don’t take that so much as a knock on the discipline of military science as practiced at that time, but more so a shortcoming due to a lot of presumptions. The foremost of those presumptions was that a young officer would receive all the tactical training needed at his first duty station. More so, an officer would be “indoctrinated” to the nuances of handling a cannon, a section, or a battery under fire; and further along become aware of the manner in which those guns should be employed. That’s a peacetime luxury, of course. Rapidly expanding armies and the pace of the war outstripped such an indoctrination system.

Still, there should be, and was, a starting point for those discussions. And I submit if we are going to point to one manual that was the American starting point, that was Dennis Hart Mahan’s An Elementary Treatise on Advanced-Guard, Out-Post and Detached Service of Troops, and the Manner of Posting and Handling Them in Presence of an Enemy, with a Historical Sketch of the Rise and Progress of Tactics, &c., &c., Intended as a supplement to the System of Tactics Adopted for the Military Service of the United States, and Especially for the Use of the Officers of Militia and Volunteers. (Yes, I like to introduce that title when playing charades.) Or as many simply refer to – Mahan’s Outpost.

Right off the bat, we see from the full title that Mahan intended his manual to further the discussion based on the established system of drill, called tactics. And considering the original publication date, in 1847, this “system” was that defined by General Winfield Scott. Those were, arguably, tested by fire and deemed sound. But those focused, as alluded to above, on how to move infantry, cavalry, and artillery. Not much in that system as to the “why” one would want to select a particular movement over another… in other words, what we today perceive as tactics. The problem was that officers in the lower echelons were often never exposed to the theories and practices beyond drill. And in the American experience, where grand armies had rarely taken to the field, it was those same junior officers often entrusted with vital operations.

Mahan hit upon that gap in the preface to his treatise:

The suggestion of this little compilation originated in a professional intercourse, some months back, with a few intelligent officers of the Volunteer Corps of the city of New York.

The want of a work of this kind has long been felt among our officers of Militia generally, as the English military literature is quite barren in systematic works on most branches of the military art, especially so on the one known among the military writers of the Continent as La Petite Guerre, or the manner of conducting the operations of small independent bodies of troops….

Wouldn’t you have wanted to be a fly on the wall during that discussion in New York?

Mahan opened his manual with a chapter covering the historical evolution of military science. Then started chapter two with the definition of “tactics”:

Tactics may be defined to be the art of drawing up, and moving troops systematically. It admits of a classification into two divisions. 1. Minor or elementary tactics; under which head may be placed all that refers to the drill, and other preparatory instruction of troops, to give them expertness in the use of their weapons, and facility of movement. 2. Grand tactics; or the art of combining, disposing, and handling troops on the field of battle.

This explains, somewhat, that translation I mentioned above. What we’d call “drill” today, Mahan considered minor or elementary tactics. And it is those “grand tactics” which we want to consider here. Most specifically, how did the artillery factor into those grand tactics. What, according to Mahan, was the artillery supposed to do on the battlefield? Well we turn to page 39:

The artillery is placed third in rank among the arms. Its duties are to support and cover the other arms; keep the enemy from approaching too near; hold him in check when he advances; and prevent him from debouching at particular points.

There, in one lengthy sentence, is the role of artillery on the Mahanian battlefield. Mahan’s vision of this is not just some passage in a book. This was part of the curriculum taught to his students, and his student’s students. Indeed, the majority of Civil War generals had benefit of Mahan’s teaching, either directly or indirectly. So this is an important passage when considering how artillery was used or mis-used on a Civil War battlefield.

Looking at this deeper, consider the nuances here. In the Mahanian context, the infantry and cavalry have the first and second rank, respectively. Their roles are tied to objectives, be that a piece of territory or imposition of a situation. But we mostly think of them as seizing and holding terrain. We might add to that the cavalry’s capacity for gathering information (actively or passively, as in scouting or picketing, respectively). But in the grand sense, the infantry could do the same, but as in all things just slower than the cavalry.

But artillery’s role was not tied to those higher order objectives. Rather to support the infantry and cavalry in attaining those objectives. But how is that done? By effecting enemy actions and activities – keep that enemy at a distance; stop or at least weaken an enemy attack; and deny the enemy use of good terrain. I like to put it this way – and this is my translation of Mahan for our modern ears: The role of artillery is to deny the enemy commander a course of action.

Deny a course of action? Yes. Roll that around for a bit. Try this exercise for any artillery position you’ve considered on a Civil War battlefield – From that point, what influence did they have on the battle? In every case, that will devolve down to the artillery either preventing or not preventing an enemy from executing a course of action. Maybe that course of action was to move up a particular route to attack. Maybe that course of action was to form a defensive line. Or maybe the artillery simply prevented, just by being there, the enemy from selecting a road other path for use in battlefield movement. But either way, the success of the artillery at that position was measured in the impact it had on the enemy commanders’ actions, specifically the courses of action available. Or if you prefer, the enemy commander’s options.

I would submit that if that be a positive influence (for the “home” side of that artillery) then the guns were well placed, and Mahan would have been happy. Were that be a negative influence on the battle, particularly where the guns became the “objective” instead of being the support for the other arms, then Mahan would have contended his lessons went unheeded.

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2 thoughts on “Artillery on the Battlefield: Tactics according to Mahan

  1. Craig: Excellent stuff. The point about the use of the word :”tactics” is (to lapse into internet jargon) “spot on”. If we define “tactics” as decisions on when, how, and where to use the pieces, the Board’s “Instruction” manual (1861, rev. 1864) was mostly “drill” with skeletal material on “tactics”. Gibbon’s encyclopedic treatise also had some “tactics” but on a superficial level. Moreover, the “tactics” in both were based on pre-war experience and also did not truly account for the advent of rifled pieces. Which all explains why I find Hunt’s September, 1862 directive (expanded in January, 1864) so valuable . It’s a concise set of instructions focused on tactics and it’s based on a gunner’s experience to date (including, of course, his prejudices),. I’d never really focused on “Outpost” for this purpose – thanks for bringing that to light. And a question, given the 1847 publication date – is there any observable influence from Ringgold’s manual (1845, IIRC)?

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