Category Archives: American Civil War

More cold steel: “just so much he trusts to his sword, his morale will be raised”

Last week, I discussed the use of the cavalry’s melee weapons – the pistol and the saber.  (And I do apologize, as that post from last Monday was botched!  I’d not paid sufficient attention while editing, so have revised it with the correct quoted passages.) Writing almost fifty years after the Civil War and but a handful of years before Flanders Fields, Alonzo Gray contended the mounted arm, with sabers in hand, still had a place on the battlefield.  One of the sources Gray used to frame his conclusions were the words of Frederick Whittaker’s Volunteer Cavalry:

So far as the author’s observation goes, he never remembers an instance which the saber charge, resolutely pushed, failed to drive the pistols.  But the individual fancy of the colonel seemed to regulate the matter for his regiment. If he were an enthusiastic swordsman he always managed to infuse the same spirit into his men, and such men depended upon their sabers with just confidence. The saber is a weapon that requires constant practice to keep one’s hand in, and our cavalry officers as a class are entirely deficient in the practice.

In all the instances during the war in which the saber proved ineffective it may be safely asserted that it was owning to two things – want of fencing practice and blunt sabers.

In Whittaker’s view, the saber was one area in which the American mounted arm should have improved.  While lauding the performance of the American cavalry, to the point of alleging superiority over European powers in its application as a raiding force, Whittaker took a dim view of the results when limited to edged weapons.  He predicted:

Had one of our cavalry regiments been put on a level plain with no arms but sabres, opposed to like force of European heavy cavalry, especially cuirassiers, they would in all probability have been routed.

Why such a dire prediction?

The reason was that our men had little or no confidence with the sabre.  The reason of that again was that they were never taught to use it properly.  The ultimate reason of all – our system of sabre exercise, as laid down in the tactics, is radically bad, and our men never fenced together.

And Whittaker offered refinements and emphasis on drill as a remedy.  Such would install confidence in the weapon while ensuring leaders were well acquainted with the means to employ the weapon.

But there was one other aspect of the saber (or, as Whittaker preferred, sabre) which needed attention – the edge.

It is a strange fact, that after all that has been said and written about sharp sabres, by every one who has written on the subject of cavalry they still remain, in every service known, as blunt as ever….

Sabres are issued blunt enough to ride on to San Francisco.  The steel is hard.  Grindstones are not to be found. The soldiers lose confidence in the weapon, and prefer the revolver.

So Whittaker suggested that all new saber contracts carry the requirement that the weapon be “sharp enough to cut a sheet of paper, by striking the paper on the sword lightly….” Speaking from personal experience:

The writer has stood at a grindstone turned by steam, and tried to grind an Ames sabre for over an hour.  He can testify that it is hard, the hardest kind of work.  But if ground while soft in temper, at the factory, the hardening temper  subsequently received would leave them sharp still, and easily kept so.

To ensure that edge was maintained, each trooper should have a whetstone.  Whittaker felt such would go a long way to instill confidence:

Soldiers are fond and proud of good weapons, and take good care of them.  All men are apt to be vain of bodily strength and skill.  It gives a man a braver feeling to cut down an adversary than to shoot him, and by just so much he trusts to his sword, his morale will be raised.

Morale!  Morale!  Confidence in the weapons always translated to higher morale in the ranks.  And this greatly increased the impact of the weapon.

Now the moral effect of a charge is tremendous. The fierce charging yell, rising and swelling higher and higher till it overtops the sound of musketry, frightens more men than the bullets.  Very, very few troops will stand up against a charge unsupported by works; we might say none.  One side or the other is sure to give way, not from the force of weapons, but simply because they’re afraid.  And anything which encourages men to charge home doubles their morale, and morale is everything.

Whittaker’s conclusion was, as with Gray’s, that the saber’s value lay in the positive morale instilled within the ranks of those wielding the “three-foot razors” and in the shock effect on the enemy.

There are two perspectives we should take from Whittaker and Gray in regard to the saber.  Both men were writing about how the saber was used during the Civil War.  As such both provide context to the tactical actions the student of the war will study.  Yet, considering that both authors offered these “lessons” to be applied to what would be future conflicts (as of 1871 and 1910, respectively), we need to apply these as opinions of the time in regard to tactical employment.  We gain some perspective as to what the military mind thought at those places in time.

(Citations from Frederick Whittaker, Volunteer Cavalry: The Lessons of the Decade, New York: printed for the author, 1871, pages 5-7, 10-12.)

Fortification Friday: Curtains on a fort? Yes, there are faces, flanks and curtains!

Last week we moved to the horizontal plane and discussed the plan or, as I prefer, the trace of a field fortification.  A trace depicts advanced and retired parts, with salient or re-entering lines between the points of the fortification.

Another way to put this, the nature of a defense requires a fort to have intersecting lines, as opposed to a single line or a set of parallel lines.  That is because a defensive line should provide the defender a means to attack the assailing body’s flanks.  In order to generate the “combat multiplier,” the defensive arrangements had to offer something better than a face-to-face battle line.  Thus the need for these intersecting lines which enabled the defender to work on a flank or two.

In regard to these intersecting lines, classified as salient or re-entering, Mahan wrote:

When such a disposition is made, it is denominated by a flanked disposition; because the enemy’s flank is attained by the fire of the retired parts when he is advancing upon the salients.

Allow me to illustrate using one Mahan’s good old Figure 2 as a base:


You see how the dark blue line of fire from the retired part hits perfectly upon the side of the advance of the “bad guys.”  From there, Mahan introduced more terms to explain the role different lines played in the defense:

The advanced parts are denominated faces; the retired parts, which protect the faces, the flanks; the retired part connecting the flanks is the curtain.

So three new terms to illustrate here.  First the face: trace_Faces

You might notice the lines denominated as faces are exactly the same as those called out as advanced parts in the earlier discussion.  While that is not always the case, it is normal.  Advanced parts face the enemy… and thus are generally faces of the fortification.

Then the flank:


Again, we see some overlap in the terms used.  Flanks are one component of the retired parts, and are the same as re-entering lines.  But the term “flank” here is referring to the purpose, while re-entering is referring to the orientation.  Function and form, if I may.

And the curtain: Trace_Curtain

The curtain is a component of the retired parts, being between two flank lines.  One might dismiss the curtain as just a necessary connecting line of lesser importance.  But the curtain played a vital role to the defense, as it formed the base line on which the rest were oriented.  What’s behind the curtain?  The very thing which the fortification is designed to defend.  The salients and all those other lines are determined so as to prevent the “bad guys” from gaining any position in front of the curtain.  So when planning, it is the curtain which is set first.

Great, we have lots of lines.  What else? We are told in geometry class that intersecting lines create angles.  And in the Mahanian instruction, those angles have names:

An angle formed by two faces is denominated a salient angle; that formed by two retired parts a re-entering angle; and one made by a face and the opposite flank, an angle of defense.

And I’ll show those here.  First the salient angle:


The salient angle is of course not the blue lines, but rather the space bordered by those lines, on the interior of the works.

Now the re-entering angle: Trace_Reentering_Angle

While in the diagram the re-entering angle appears as obtuse, that was not always the case when applied to the field.  Also note that while the diagram shows generally complementing angles – salient and re-entering – that was not always the case when the plan was adapted to the reality of the ground.  But as a general rule, one looked to form complementing angles because that gave a better definition of the third angle mentioned – the angle of defense.

The angle of defense is perhaps the most important to consider. And we have two in the figure to consider:




Notice this angle is the only one of the three defined with a line departing from the fortification walls.  It defines the angle of fires that the defender can offer from the flank lines.  Thus the angle is the primary zone in which the defender can bring resistance to bear against the attacker – a crossfire between the face and the flank lines.  This depicts, on paper, the ability of the fortification to resist a particular line of advance.

So if the officer laying out the fort can predict the most likely line of advance the enemy might select, the fortification built in response should offer an angle, or angles, of defense that directly addresses that line.

But there is an opposite to the angle of defense.  That is the dead zone or dead angle.  And that, which the engineer would hope to diminish or mitigate, is the subject of the next Fortification Friday.

(Citations from Dennis Hart Mahan, A Treatise on Field Fortifications, New York: John Wiley, 1852, pages 4.)

The nuts-and-bolts history when studying the nuts-and-bolts OF history

This last weekend, we took the aide-de-camp to World War II Weekend at the Eisenhower Farm, Gettysburg.  As one might expect for a boy his age, the attraction was the soldier stuff on display. And a number of the displays were “hands on.”  At one of those tents, we stopped to examine some World War II era signal equipment operated by some living historians.


In front of the young man is a telephone switchboard.  For the demonstration, the crew had a couple of field telephones wired up.  They demonstrated the process involving hand-cranked phones, bells, flags, and patch cords. And this is rightfully defined as a process.  The operator had specific functions to perform in a sequence, lest the call be broken or otherwise disrupted.

Very early in my Army days, I trained on and operated similar switchboards (with marginally better “insides”).  So I was acquainted with the process.  One point the living historians placed emphasis on was the call termination.  When the conversation was over, they didn’t just hang up the phone.  Instead, the caller had to ring the switchboard again to let the operator know to close the connection… basically pull the patch cord out and return it to the stored position.

It was that point that the aide-de-camp looked confused.  In his experience, when you hang up the phone, the call is terminated.  Done.

But field telephones of World War II (and even many of the Army’s phones of the 1980s) didn’t “just hang up.”  The technology to “just hang up” required some development and refinement.  That said, few are the readers who will recall having to ask the operator to terminate a call at the switchboard (heck, few will actually recall having to reach a real, live operator to make a call!)   I had to pause and explain all this to the Aide.  He was very intrigued and noted the complication involved with making a simple phone call (paraphrasing here, of course).

So other than a quaint demonstration at some nostalgic event, what would that matter?   Well, to me this was another example of how the nuts-and-bolts fit into our greater understanding of history.  Technology has a way of abstracting people from our primitive past.  Consider….

There may be a future where these food replicators are all over the place.  And when that day comes, how far will the people be abstracted from the primitive?  Will they know and understand the supporting activities needed to put catfish on the plate?   Will they relate to the frustration of “the fish are not biting today” given that the nearest fishing hole is hundreds of light years away? Will they gladly accept the “clean the fish” chore as a necessity to obtaining the meal?  Will they have their own personal recipes for catfish?  I prefer mine breaded and fried with a side of hush puppies, please, Mr. Replicator.   And how would I know that as a favored preparation, verses the baked version that the computer spit out?  Answers depend upon how far the people have allowed the technology to remove them from the primitive.

And will the people of those times look back and wonder how any food shortages could have existed? Will they understand the great deal of effort required, in our time and even more so in “primitive” times of old, required just to obtain nourishment?  In essence, will they cast presumptions upon our times and our decisions because they don’t know first hand just how hard it is to catch, clean, and fry a catfish?

Likewise, do we, as we look at history, understand the effort required just to make a phone call on those primitive devices of 1944?  The idiosyncrasies of placing a call on the battlefield of 1944 has some value to the historian studying the time period.  One must understand the nature of that experience, at the nuts-and-bolts level in order to put in context the interactions made between participants of the events.

More to the point, we must understand the process… or protocol… of using a courier to send orders on the battlefield of 1863.  Battles and campaigns, and ultimately the course of a war, turned on how those couriers were used to convey information.  Ask Robert E. Lee or William Rosecrans about that.  It’s not enough to simply say “things were misunderstood.”  And beyond just battlefield activities, we might consider how public opinion was shaped in a time without Cable News Network and the immediacy of a 24-hour news cycle… you know when one had to wait until the morning paper… the LOCAL morning paper, that is, which might be carrying news from three day’s earlier.

We’ve got to work with the nuts-and-bolts of the process to understand the particulars as to why things occurred as they did.  That’s the nuts-and-bolts of history.