Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Drill, Training and the Combat Performance of the Civil War Soldier: Dispelling the Myth of the Poor Soldier, Great Fighter, Mark A. Weitz, Journal of Military History, 62 (April 1998): 263-289.

A theme irregularly runs through the military literature of the American Civil War: the worst soldiers made the best fighters and a wink towards the ragged rebels. To explain this characterization, some truisms are offered: a natural inclination towards fighting, the rural life, Celtic genes, and the strong ties of community and cousins. These explanations are couched in the notion of American, North and South, uniqueness. For Mark A. Weitz, these are not the answers. Civilians are made into good fighters by drill. The classical military definition of a professional army holds the answer. The effectiveness of drill and training is reported in the soldiers' statements. The soldiers' faith in training becomes obvious in their letters and diaries.

Non-military explanations for combat effectiveness divides the concept of fighter from that of a soldier. The skills of a good soldier had to be mastered before he could be an effective fighter. A second problem with most explanations is that they discount the abilities of the trained soldiers. A proclivity for personal violence in the civilian world does not translate to controlled effective violence on the battlefield. Rural life may have acclimated to harsh weather, long and vigorous physical activity, meager meals but the will to overcome threats to personal survival and comfort would not follow from having lived in a rural agricultural environment. The idea of a Celtic gene residing in the blood of Southerners, a notion offered by Grady McWhiney before the movie Braveheart appeared, offers little in the way evidence that the gene exists or Southerners have it.

Weitz first considers a definition of 'strong combat effectiveness'. Soldiers equated this a performing duty under fire while suppressing fear. In illustrating this, the author quotes both Frederick the Great of Prussia, Major Eugene Blackford of the 5th Alabama and Private Amos Steel of the 25th Massachusetts. The misperception that combat effectiveness came from environment and not from drill came from international observers. If the country had no significant military class and no military institutions with a storied past, then good soldiers could not be produced. How then did the American enlisted and and the American commissioned officer fight so well?

The stand of Prentiss' division at Shiloh, 1862, supports the traditional interpretation that training, drill, discipline and tactics contributes to combat effectiveness. Weitz briefly examines the military effectiveness of the ancient Sumerian army, the troops in the Thirty Years War and the army of Shaka Zulu in the 19th century. In each case, the transformation of civilians into soldiers is performed by drill in small and large units. Daily repetition of drills in company and battalion sized units. Patrick Cleburne, a former enlisted man in the British Army, relied on constant drill of his company, later regiment, then brigade and later division to become premier fighting units. Reliance on Hardee's Tactics, marching drill and rifle training were the keys to Cleburne's success as a battlefield commander.

A variety of regimental commanders, North and South, attested to the importance of drill as a means attaining cohesion and efficiency on the march and on the battlefield. As a whole, the great strides that McClellan made with the Army of the Potomac after the Battle of Manassas was due in large measure to constant drilling. Wietz's cites regimental diaries throughout the army as a way of making this point. The tremendous losses in the first two years of the war did not impair the soldiers' faith that drilling was essential for battlefield cohesion. Emory Upton, one of the Army of the Potomac's best field commanders and a tactical innovator, denounced the notion that a poor soldiers could be made into a good fighter by anything other than drill. When soldiers failed on the battlefield, Upton felt it in most cases that it was not that the soldiers were undrilled by that the soldiers nonprofessional officers failed to lead.

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