In a typical border incident, the South American nations of Peru and Colombia went to war in 1932 over a remote stretch of empty jungle. A long-standing border dispute was supposed to have been settled in March 1922, when Peru agreed to the transfer of 2,250 square miles of its territory on the Amazon to Colombia. This region, known as the “Leticia Trapezium,” included 68 miles of the northern bank of the Amazon; since rivers played the major part in South American communications and commerce, river access was always a major factor in relations between states. The treaty was unpopular with nationalist Peruvians; it was not ratified until 1927, and opposition to it continued to rumble into the 1930s. On August 31, 1932, resentment against the treaty turned to conflict when a group of Peruvian nationalists took the little town of Leticia with its 500-strong population, and ejected its six-man Colombian “garrison.”
To the Peruvian government’s surprise, the Colombians were unwilling to accept this occupation, and prepared for war. At the outbreak of the conflict both armies were about equal in size, with 8,400 Colombian troops and 8,955 Peruvians. Getting any of these troops to the isolated theater of war was extremely difficult, however, and the army with the better supply lines would win.
The Peruvian Army was better armed with machine guns and artillery, which included a few modern 20mm antiaircraft guns, but much of their weaponry, including rifles, dated from the early years of the century. The Peruvian force that was engaged during the Leticia Incident was estimated at 2,000 men, including large numbers of civilian volunteers; a number of regular Army officers were flown in to train and command these irregulars. The force began with four 75mm M1895 Krupp mountain guns, and efforts were made during the conflict to bring in more modern artillery from Lima. Initially Peru had the advantage in the air, with 60 Air Force and Navy aircraft, including Curtiss F11C Hawk and Vought 02U Corsair fighters, and acquired 16 others during the conflict.
The Colombian Army had about 32 ex-Austrian Schwarzlose heavy machine guns, some of which had had their water jackets removed. They also had a number of 75mm Skoda mountain guns and some modern 47mm Skoda antitank guns. At the start of the war the Colombians had 16 aircraft, but by the end they had acquired a further 82, largely civilian machines flown by mercenary pilots.
the Colombian Aviacion Militar used three upgraded Ju 52/1ms to ferry troops and supplies to a remote Amazonian region known as the Leticia quadrilateral or trapezium following a border clash with neighbouring Peru in 1932-33. Peruvian forces had occupied the key Colombian port of Leticia in what became known as the `Leticia Incident’ and the region stood on the brink of major conflict. Both the Colombians and the Peruvians needed reliable aircraft, ideally able to operate on water. The three converted 1ms were fitted with floats and flew equipment and supplies from Barranquilla. This time, however, in July 1933, the League of Nations managed to negotiate the return of Leticia and the surrounding area to Colombian control, thus averting a further escalation of the conflict.
Recognizing their lack of preparedness, the Colombians spent large sums on acquiring new equipment. This included several gunboats, which allowed them to get supplies up to their frontline troops via the river network. The effort of supplying the troops across vast distances of jungle country dominated the conduct of the campaign, and the Colombians’ superior organization gave them the advantage.
Since they had no military presence in the disputed territory, the Colombians were slow to react, and Peruvian regulars and irregulars made further advances beyond Leticia. They took the only other town in the disputed territory, Tarapaca, and then dug in to await a Colombian response. It took Colombia until December 1932 to muster the necessary ships at the mouth of the Amazon under Gen Alfredo Vasquez. The war proper only began in early 1933, when his 1,000-strong Colombian force was finally transported up the Putomayo River in six vessels. They arrived at Tarapaca on February 14, when they were unsuccessfully bombed by Peruvian aircraft. The next day the Colombians retook the town almost without bloodshed, and then moved towards the Peruvian stronghold of Gueppi, whose capture on March 27 effectively ended the war.
Coincidentally, on April 30, President Luis Miguel Sanchez of Peru was assassinated in Lima, and his successor handed the dispute over to the League of Nations, which negotiated a peace on May 24. Both sides had suffered only minimal battle casualties: the Peruvians had apparently lost 25 killed and the Colombians 27. However, the dangers of campaigning in the rainforest were confirmed by a later Peruvian admission that they had also lost 800 men who died of disease.
Field Marshal Heinrich von Bellegarde and his staff at the battle of the Mincio River, by Albrecht Adam.
The Battle of the Mincio River (or Roverbella, a village some miles north of Mantua) was fought between the Armée d’Italie under Eugene de Beauharnais, Viceroy of the Kingdom of Italy, and an Austrian army under Feldmarschall Heinrich Graf Bellegarde. Though tactically a draw (neither party claimed victory in official reports), it was a French victory at the strategic level, as the Austrians failed to force the line of the Mincio.
The 1813-1814 Italian campaigns had begun in September 1813 with the Armée d’Italie defending the Illyrian Provinces (parts of present-day Slovenia and Croatia) and the Drava Valley in Styria (now southern Austria and northern Slovenia). A slow and relatively uncontested re- treat followed in the autumn, with bad weather and the lethargic Austrians allowing Eugene to successfully defend the line behind the river Adige for three months. On 4 February 1814, being aware that the King of Naples, Joachim Murat, had recently passed over to the Allied coalition and that his Austro-Neapolitan army threatened the French line of communication on the southern bank of the Po, Eugene ordered a retreat behind the Mincio. The new defensive line, supported on both flanks by the fortresses of Peschiera (to the north) and Mantua (to the south), al- lowed the Armée d’Italie to shorten its front considerably and maintain a central position between Bellegarde and Murat. Eugene’s plan was to move quickly most of his army south of the Po and fall on the Neapolitans. To achieve this goal, he had first to paralyze Bellegarde’s army, positioned at Villafranca, by delivering an unexpected blow across the Mincio on 8 February. For his part, Bellegarde erroneously believed that Eugene was fleeing to Cremona and decided to set off in pursuit. The Austrian army was to cross the Mincio at Valeggio early in the morning of the same day.
Bellegarde had under his command 35,000 generally well-seasoned troops, with 130 guns. Eugene’s was essentially a conscript army of 30,000 men, excluding the troops left in garrison at Mantua and Peschiera, with 90 guns. With morning mist preventing the opposing commanders from detecting each other’s positions, the battle developed symmetrically over two distinct areas 5-6 miles apart and separated by the Mincio. While most of Eugene’s army (19,000 men) pushed northeast from Goito toward Villafranca, clashing with Bellagarde’s reserve, the bulk of the Austrian army crossed to the right bank and ran into a single French division positioned on the hills of Monzambano.
By midmorning, an amazed Eugene realized Austrian intentions and reacted to the unusual situation facing him. Hoping to catch the Austrians off balance and fall on their left flank, he redirected at about 10:00 A. M. three French infantry divisions, with one light cavalry brigade and the cavalry of the Italian Royal Guard, toward Valeggio. His advance, however, was checked by Generalmajor Joseph Freiherr von Stutterheim’s grenadier brigade (with two dragoon regiments), which stubbornly resisted against greater odds until late afternoon on the heights of the village of Pozzolo, midway between Goito and Valeggio.
On the far bank, General Philibert Fressinet’s small French division (5,000) was deployed on higher ground along the Olfino stream and successfully repulsed every enemy effort. Fearing for his rear, Bellagarde eventually ordered a general retreat eastward across the Mincio. Eugene’s army encamped for the night somewhere between Pozzolo and Roverbella, and on the following morning withdrew to its original position behind the river. During the battle, two small Italian divisions launched minor and indecisive sorties from Peschiera and Mantua. The Austrians had some 4,000 men killed and wounded, and 2,500 taken prisoner. French losses lay somewhere between the Austrian claim of 6,000 and Eugene’s figure of 2,500.
References and further reading Nafziger, George F., and Marco Gioannini. 2002. The Defense of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Northern Italy, 1813-1814. Westport, CT: Praeger. Schneid, Frederick C. 2002. Napoleon’s Italian Campaigns, 1805-1815. Westport, CT: Greenwood. Weil, Maurice. 1902. Le prince Eugene et Murat, 1813-1814: Opérations militaires, négociations diplomatiques. Paris: Fontemoing.
29 March 1461 was Palm Sunday, the Christian celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem a week before Easter Sunday. It was bitterly cold, and sleety snow was driven by swirling winds. It was also to see a cataclysmic event in English history. Although often overlooked, that bleak day saw the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. For over a decade, pressure had built until an explosive release became inevitable.
King Henry, along with his wife, son and allies, withdrew all the way up to York after their victory at St Albans. Perhaps more decisive action in the opposite direction would have served their cause better, but they chose instead not to poke the frightened beast that was London, for fear of its rage. In the north they could regroup, gather more men and refresh the cold, tired soldiers who had done them sterling service at St Albans.
With London left open, Warwick met up with his cousin Edward outside Oxford and the two were welcomed into the capital in triumph. Edward, along with Warwick, set about engineering a repeat of recent history, but the duke stage-managed the affair far better than his father had. Gregory recalled the city’s anger toward King Henry, with chants in the street of ‘He that had London forsake; Would no more to them take’. In contrast, Edward was being hailed in the same streets. He retired to Baynards Castle and waited patiently. On 1 March, George Neville addressed a large gathering to extol Edward’s claim to the throne. It was so warmly received that by 3 March, a council gathered at Baynards to ask Edward to take the throne in Henry’s place. The king had violated the Act of Accord by attacking York and his family, an act expressly marked as treason. His unpopularity and ineffectualness had plumbed new depths and there was no end to the conflict in sight under Henry’s kingship. A new direction was needed.
On 4 March Edward attended Mass at St Paul’s Cathedral where he was publically proclaimed King of England. He would not consent to be crowned, though, as long as Henry was at large with an army at his back. He resolved to break his opponent before even attempting to enjoy his new position. Edward left London just over a week later on 13 March with a large army, swollen by men unhappy with King Henry and keen to see the Duke of York’s death avenged. Between London and York, Edward, Warwick and Fauconberg recruited heavily, increasing the horde that followed them.
The armies of York (white) and Lancaster (red) move towards Towton.
As news reached the Lancastrian forces of the Yorkist approach they broke several bridges to slow their enemy’s progress. The River Aire crossed the Yorkist route and Fauconberg, who was ahead of the remainder of the army, sent his scouts in front to examine the road ahead and to find signs of the enemy. Led by Lord Fitzwater, the scouting party began to repair the bridge for the rest of the approaching army. The use of scouts and outriders was the only way for any force in the field to secure solid information about the strength, position and setup of the enemy. Only with this information could commanders decide upon their own tactics for a forthcoming battle.
As Lord Fitzwater and his men began their repairs, a Lancastrian force, sent out from York to scout the enemy and to harass them if possible, watched on. Lord Clifford, who had taken his own vengeance at Wakefield, led his 500-strong crack cavalry force, known as the Flower of Craven. Dark was falling as they set up camp, their Yorkist counterparts doing the same, the light guard they set suggesting that they were unaware of Clifford’s force on the other side of the river. At the crack of dawn, Fitzwater’s camp was rudely awoken by Clifford’s mounted force thundering over the repaired bridge. Lord Fitzwater emerged from his tent to be struck down by a blow that would later see him dead. His men were caught unawares and slaughtered. As those lucky enough to escape fled back to the safety of their main force, Clifford’s squad crossed back over the river, pleased with their morning’s work.
When those stragglers reached the Yorkist army the news of the attack caused panic. There is a legend that Warwick took his men to clear the bridge but found that Lord Clifford had set himself up perfectly to defend the narrow bottleneck. Warwick was struck in the leg by an arrow as his assault failed and returned to the main army, trying to quell the growing concerns of the men there by dismounting and promptly killing his horse, swearing that he would fight and live or die beside the rest of them now.
The main body of the Yorkist army now pressed on to the crossing. Clifford still held firm as the huge bulk of men tried to repair the bridge and cross the river. Eventually Lord Fauconberg took a detachment of cavalry to ride down to the next bridge and drive Clifford’s men away. The Flower of Craven and their leader saw the threat, fending off the Yorkist army for as long as they could. Dusk was closing in as they began their ride back, with Fauconberg in hot pursuit, toward their base at York. Clifford’s men and their horses were tired after almost a full day of fighting. Jean de Waurin claimed that 3,000 of the Yorkist men lay dead in the river and on its banks, so Clifford’s 500 had done their work well, buying the Lancastrian forces, led by Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, another twenty-four hours to prepare.
Just south of his target Clifford was ambushed, possibly by a Yorkist scouting force. The delay they caused allowed Fauconberg to catch up and in the fighting Clifford was killed by an arrow to the face after taking off his helmet. The rest of his crack force was crushed and the Flower of Craven were utterly destroyed. It has been suggested that Somerset left Clifford to this fate because he was jealous of a rival’s success and close relationship to the king, though it seems more likely that the ambush took place out of sight and beyond earshot of Somerset’s position. The trouble that was brewing had claimed its first high-profile victim and Edward had seen his younger brother avenged.
As night fell on the 28 March Edward’s army set up camp a few miles away from Somerset’s position, near the village of Towton. They must have struggled to get any rest, tired from a long march and the melee at Ferrybridge, exposed to the biting cold and icy winds. They rose early the next morning, Palm Sunday. Polydore Vergil, writing at the beginning of the next century, claimed that Henry tried to do all that he could to avoid any fighting on that day, wishing to spend it in prayer instead. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility for a pious man averse to violence, but Vergil was writing for King Henry VII, who actively sought to have Henry VI beatified so had an interest in presenting his religious devotion. Pleading for a delay in the unavoidable violence that would decide the fate of the crown of England to make room for prayer is, though, a fitting summary of Henry’s rule.
Warwick’s uncle Lord Fauconberg, by far the most experienced commander on the Yorkist side of the field, and probably on either side, led the main body of Edward’s army. The night had been harsh but the dawn showed the benefits of the position they had taken up. The armies lined up opposite each other in the swirling snow, wind whipping their faces, unable to see their enemies clearly. Fauconberg had one huge advantage and he meant to make the most of it. The wind was behind the Yorkist force, extending the range of their huge longbows. They opened fire upon the enemy, causing chaos in the Lancastrian ranks as an arrow storm fell out of the white sky, unseen until it was too late. The Lancastrians returned the barrage but Fauconberg had judged his distances perfectly in the difficult conditions. Their arrows fell short. The Yorkists continued to shoot, wreaking havoc as men screamed and fell in the snow on the other side of the field. When they had spent all of their arrows, Fauconberg had his men step forward, pull up the Lancastrian arrows that had fallen harmlessly into the mud and fire them back at their owners.
Somerset realised that he could not keep this up and ordered his men to advance against the Yorkists. Sir Andrew Trollope led the assault with 7,000 men, joined also by Richard Woodville, Lord Rivers, and his son Anthony, who had received the dressing-down from Edward, Warwick and Salisbury in Calais the previous year. The Duke of Somerset took another 7,000 men, according to Waurin, and together they charged the Yorkist lines. They thundered into the Yorkist cavalry with such force that Edward’s mounted men fell back and began to flee. Waurin says that the Lancastrians chased the Yorkists for eleven miles, believing that the battle was won. Henry Percy, 3rd Earl of Northumberland, was meant to charge at the same time. If he had it is likely that the strike would have resulted in a swift victory for the Lancastrians. The delay allowed the battle to become even again.
Fighting persisted for hours; Polydore Virgil later stated that there were ten full hours of slaughter. With the advantage passing to and fro and the outcome impossible to predict, the turning point arrived late in the day, when the Duke of Norfolk arrived to reinforce the Yorkists. Fresh soldiers were too much for the exhausted Lancastrians to face and they began to flee, mercilessly chased and cut down by Edward’s army. The white snow was stained red and innumerable corpses littered the field.
Estimates of the numbers on the field that day vary but around 100,000 men probably came together there, with a light advantage in numbers on the Lancastrian side. Edward’s heralds, a letter he wrote to his mother and a report sent by George Neville to Bishop Coppini all place the number of dead at around 29,000 men, with more injured who would never recover. Waurin placed the final number at 36,000 dead. With so many dead in wintery conditions it was not feasible to individually bury all of the bodies. Great pits were dug to act as mass graves. These have since been discovered and excavated, some of the skulls exhumed displaying savage wounds. Facial reconstruction has been carried out on one soldier, who was in his late thirties or early forties and displayed healed wounds from previous battles. Obviously a veteran, the man would have borne deep scars when he took to the field at Towton. It was to be the last in his experiences of battles. Gregory lamented that ‘many a lady lost her best beloved in that battle’. Waurin coined a phrase that came to sum up the period of bitter fighting in his account of Towton, complaining that ‘father did not spare son nor son his father’.
As well as Lord Clifford, the Earl of Northumberland lay among the dead. The sons of St Albans had obtained their revenge but had in turn been slain by the sons of Wakefield. Lord Neville, who had supposedly contributed to the tricking of the Duke of York at Wakefield, perished on the Lancastrian side and Sir Andrew Trollope, perhaps one of the most accomplished soldiers of his day and whose star had risen so high in service to King Henry and Queen Margaret, had also fallen. Somerset, Henry, Margaret and Prince Edward along with any other nobles able to escape the field rode north and rode hard, heading to Scotland.
Edward tarried in the north a while to try and see the region settled. The Lancastrians were only in Scotland and his departure might be all that was needed to bring them back south into a region traditionally sympathetic to them. There was more to concern the new king now, though. The rest of his kingdom held its breath, and upheaval, though raw and open in the far north, was not restricted to that region alone. Wales was destabilised, with Jasper Tudor resiliently holding on to his castles and showing no sign of leaving nor of bowing to the new king. Edward needed to get back to the capital, arrange his coronation and summon a Parliament that would recognise and legitimise his title.
Finally, on 12 June, Edward could wait no longer and marched south. He was again received in triumph by London. Writs had been issued the previous month summoning Parliament, which opened but was adjourned immediately until November. The first item of business was naturally the declaration of Edward’s right to the throne. The change in tone is striking but perhaps not surprising. Gone was the deference to Henry VI and careful laying out of the Yorkist lineage. The Commons requested that Edward take the throne because during the ‘usurped reign of your said adversary Henry, late called King Henry VI, extortion, murder, rape, the shedding of innocent blood, riot and unrighteousness were commonly practised in your said realm without punishment’. The right of the House of York to the crown was rehearsed as it had been in 1460, though now Henry IV’s seizing of the throne was an illegal act offensive to God for which England had been punished ever since. The House of Lancaster had persecuted the House of York but now Edward had acted decisively to save the country from God’s ongoing wrath. Parliament was quite clear that Edward had only resorted to arms after Henry had breached the Act of Accord, thereby excusing Edward from his oaths under its provisions.
Parliament undid many of Henry VI’s grants, bringing valuable lands and income back to a crown that had haemorrhaged money for decades. From the outset, though, Edward was clearly utterly realistic about what had gone before. Many had flitted from one side to the other but plenty had remained resolutely loyal to one party or the other throughout. If Edward was to be king of a united England he knew that he would have to deal with the situation that he found and he elected to seek an end to the circular conflicts of the last decade. The new regime welcomed any who would reconcile themselves to Edward now, whatever their previous allegiances. Among those keen to take advantage of the king’s offer were Lord Rivers and his son, who had received short shrift at Calais and fought for Henry at Towton. Warkwoth wrote that Edward aimed by the provisions of his Parliament to ‘have the more good will and love in his lands’.
Henry, however, was attainted for high treason but treated by the Act as though he had never been king. His treason lay in leading an armed force against King Edward and his punishment was forfeiture of his lands and titles as Duke of Lancaster. The remainder of the royal estate was Edward’s now anyway. Parliament had jettisoned the country’s king of thirty-nine years as though he had been an imposter all along. Henry had been a weak and ineffectual ruler who had watched as his country had careered headlong into civil war. Residual affection for him, his father’s memory and the royal authority that he held had been stretched thinner and thinner until it had become transparent and men could see through it to another option.
Richard, Duke of York, had been a stark contrast to Henry. He was a man experienced and proven in government, who understood what the country wanted and needed. His family was large, his children growing strong. His wife was a model of a medieval noble woman, happy to live in her husband’s shadow. Henry had not acquitted himself well as a governor. He had only one son and showed no sign of producing more. His wife had disrupted the political fabric of the country, stretching it further still. At six foot four inches, Edward IV is the tallest king ever to rule England, taller than Edward I, known as Longshanks, and taller even than his grandson Henry VIII, who bore a striking resemblance in looks and personality to Edward. Described universally as incredibly good looking, athletic, a fierce warrior and committed womaniser, he was also prone to laziness and happy to allow others to deal with issues that did not grasp his attention.
The new king took the opportunity now presented to him to reward his closest allies and his family. His remaining brothers George and Richard were retrieved from their exile in Burgundy and created dukes. George was made Duke of Clarence, a title that had belonged to the second sons of Edward III and Henry IV, and Richard was created Duke of Gloucester, a title granted to the youngest sons of Edward III and Henry IV. Warwick’s uncle William Neville, Lord Fauconberg, was created Earl of Kent in recognition of his invaluable contribution. Edward’s close friend William Hastings became Lord Hastings and William Herbert was given Jasper Tudor’s title of Earl of Pembroke, the incentive of winning his lands serving to meet Edward’s need to be rid of Henry’s half-brother. John Howard was created Lord Howard and Sir Thomas Blount became Lord Mountjoy. Finally the Yorkist party was reaping the rewards of its commitment to the House of York.
Prominent Lancastrian nobles who refused to be reconciled were charged with treason. Notable among their number was John de Vere, 12th Earl of Oxford. In his mid-fifties, he appears to have initially been excused attendance before Parliament in 1461, perhaps on grounds of ill health, but he was arrested in February 1462 along with his oldest son, Aubrey de Vere. John had been slow to declare his hand in the previous troubles, sitting on York’s Council during Henry VI’s illness but arriving too late to participate in the First Battle of St Albans, meaning it was left unclear which side he might have taken. By 1460 it was clear that he had thrown his lot in with the Lancastrian camp. His son Aubrey married Anne Stafford, daughter of Humphrey, Duke of Buckingham, and the family were now firmly Lancastrian. Tried and convicted before John Tiptoft, Constable of England, Aubrey was executed on 20 February and John followed him to the block at Tower Hill six days later. John’s second son and namesake became his heir and in 1464 Edward allowed him to succeed to his father’s lands and titles as 13th Earl of Oxford.
Edward was afforded little time to enjoy his new status. Towton had been a crushing victory but it had not eradicated the Lancastrian threat, nor would Margaret rest while another took what belonged to her husband and son. She had visited the widowed queen of the Scots, Mary of Guelders, to ask for more assistance. With the Scottish coffers habitually empty, Mary had no money to offer, but she was not short of men willing to cross the border on a mission to kill Englishmen. Margaret and her allies drove hard into Northumberland and swiftly captured Alnwick Castle, the ancestral seat of the Earls of Northumberland, Bamburgh Castle, Dunstanburgh Castle and Walworth Castle.
Edward sent commissions into the southern and western counties, raising men and money to head back up north. The king laid siege to all of the castles and much of 1462 was spent in renewed conflict. Towton is often understood to be a watershed, an end to the conflict that had divided England, but Towton ended nothing other than Henry’s rule. War, faction and fracture continued. As King Edward besieged the castles in which the Lancastrians had embedded themselves, another force from Scotland set off to reinforce Margaret, Somerset, Exeter and their allies. An anonymous report dated December 1462 described the state of the sieges far in the north. Warwick and the lords Cromwell, Grey of Codnor and Wenlock were at Walworth. Fauconberg, now Earl of Kent, was at the siege of Alnwick Castle with the new Lord Scales and ‘many other knights and squires’. Dunstanburgh Castle sat under the watchful pressure of the Lords Fitzhugh, Scrope, Greystock and Powis. John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester, Warwick’s brother-in-law, oversaw the siege of Bamburgh Castle aided by Warwick’s other brother John, Lord Montague, and Lords Strange, Say, Grey of Wilton, Lumley and Ogle. It was at Bamburgh that Somerset had installed himself. According to the writer, Edward’s forces in the north were estimated at between 30,000 and 40,000 ‘without the King and his host’.
A French knight named Sir Peris le Brasylle was in Scotland at the time, possibly to assist Margaret, though Scotland and France were old allies anyway. Warkworth, in his Chronicle, described le Brasylle as ‘the best warrior of all that time’ and reports that when news of the French legend’s approach, heading toward Alnwick and the other castles with a force of 20,000 men, reached Edward’s forces ‘they removed from the siege and were afraid’. The Scots apparently feared that this was some trick on the part of the king’s forces and hung back. Warkworth also believed that the Scottish forces were not keen to venture too close to the stoutly defended castles for fear of being perceived to be attackers rather than a relief force. Those within the castles took the opportunity of the stand-off to slip away, clearly unconvinced that they could prevail in the confusion.
Edward achieved something of a coup at this point. Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, surrendered Bamburgh Castle and went before the king. The two men made their peace, with Edward agreeing to pay Somerset a pension of 1,000 marks per year. Somerset was, without doubt, the military leader of the Lancastrian party, having commanded at the victories of Wakefield and St Albans and overseen the close battle (but ultimately, crushing defeat) at Towton. Somerset had also spearheaded this new Lancastrian drive into northern England, allowing Edward no time in which to enjoy his new throne. To have welcomed the enemy’s foremost general into the fold not only continued Edward’s efforts to reconcile the country to his rule but was a huge victory against Henry and Margaret, a blow to their frantic efforts without swords even being drawn. Six months later, though, his pension unpaid, finding himself impoverished and outside the halls of power, Somerset fled back into Scotland to be re-united with the Lancastrian royal family. Edward had failed to maintain his upper hand and capitalise on great opportunities and it would not be the last time.
The Battle of Towton was apocalyptic for all involved and for the country. It was a watershed moment in history, yet it changed almost nothing. The balance of power swung to the Yorkists as it had done before. Edward was king, proclaimed, crowned and confirmed by Parliament, yet recent experiences would have left most unconvinced of the finality of his victory while such strong enemies watched from just across the border, their menacing presence like the bright eyes of hungry wolves glinting in the dark forest of an uncertain future. King Edward IV is remembered fondly by history, a jovial giant with an eye for the ladies. That was a man yet to emerge, softer than the visceral, angry youth who had snatched the throne. In one hand he held out an olive branch to those willing to take it. For those who would not, his other hand held the sharp, swift sword of cruel, uncompromising justice. England was still divided but now had a king willing to act against his enemies. Peace was not won yet, and some of Edward’s decisive actions merely left him more time to rue them later. Towton did not end the strife; it merely closed one chapter, only for another to follow.
The III. Sqn henceforth comprised the Königs, plus Bayern, which was finally fully operational. She was joined in the fleet by her sister Baden early in 1917, which, once fully worked-up, replaced Friedrich der Große as fleet flagship on 14 March. Friedrich der Große then joined her sisters in the IV. Sqn, relieving Kaiser as its flagship. Baden was the penultimate big ship to join the fleet, the last being Hindenburg, which joined the I. SG in November, becoming its flagship on the 23rd.
The two Bayerns were the most highly developed of the German World War I battleships. Scuttled at Scapa Flow, Baden was raised in July 1919 and used as a target by the Royal Navy, largely to confirm the adequacy of the new generation of post-Jutland shells. These ships introduced the 15in gun to German service. Apparently they were conceived as a response to the British 13.5in gun rather than to the 15in, of which the Germans were unaware when the ships were designed. As in previous classes, the choice was a light, high-velocity shell: 750kg (1653lb) at 800 metres (2624 feet)/second. By way of contrast, the British 15in/42 fired a 1920lb shell at 2450 feet/second. The corresponding battlecruisers, which were never completed, were the Mackensen class, which would have been armed with 35cm (approximately 14in) guns, again to make it possible to build a fast battleship on about the same displacement as these ships. Although the light fast shell might seem intended for shorter ranges, these two ships had the long rangefinders (8m [26ft] base) introduced into the entire German fleet in wartime. Turret rangefinders were, unusually, near the face of each turret.
The Bayern Class
In June 1911, it was noted by the Navy Office that France was now following Great Britain and USA in going beyond 12in/305mm calibre by installing 340mm guns in its Bretagne class. In August, options studies began to consider 350mm, 380mm and 400mm guns, it having been at last agreed that Germany should consider leapfrogging existing big gun calibres, reversing previous preferences for lighter guns. A ceiling of 40cm was chosen because it was believed (wrongly) that British wire-wound gun technology could not support a larger calibre (an 18in [457mm] weapon successfully entered service with the Royal Navy in 1917).
Options were put forward for ships with ten 35cm or eight 40cm weapons, the Weapons Office preferring the heavier gun, as did the Construction Office on the basis that four turrets avoided the complexity added by a midships turret. This latter preference also led to studies into triple turrets to allow ten guns to be fitted in a four-turret arrangement.
In September 1911, the 28,250t eight-40cm scheme D1a was presented to the Emperor, with a 29,000t version developed in early January 1912, along with one of similar tonnage but ten 34.7cm. More work was done on the 40cm variant during the first half of 1912, but in spite of various attempts to cut costs, the ship proved unaffordable under the cash-limited 1913 programme, leading to a switch to the 38cm gun, the design for Battleship T (to be Bayern [ii]) and Ersatz-Wörth (Baden [ii]), being completed in September 1912 for ordering under the 1913 programme.
The armour of the new class was a further development of that of the Kaisers and Königs. While the lower edge of the midships belt now tapered to 170mm, it was now continued up to the main deck 250mm thick. The forward belt was heightened, although in compensation thinned to 75-150mm and terminated 15m short of the stem, where it was closed with a 140mm bulkhead. The aft belt extended to the main deck, 170–200mm, tapering to 120–150mm at the lower edge, closed with a 170mm bulkhead. The battery roof was thickened to 40mm, while the battery floor was now 25mm in thickness. The faces of the turrets were thickened to 350mm, with the roofs also increased in thickness. Barbettes were 350mm thick where not behind other armour, 250mm where screened by another barbette, 170mm behind battery armour, 80mm behind the upper belt and 25mm behind the main belt. The walls of the after conning tower were thinned to 170mm, to give scope for a 80mm roof.
The eight 38cm main guns were superimposed fore and aft in the same way as the contemporary British Queen Elizabeth and Royal Sovereign classes, the latter of which was also broadly comparable with the Bayerns as regards protection against gunfire. The secondary battery had two more guns than the Königs, and was to be on updated C/13 mountings, with higher elevation and thus longer range. Eight 8.8cm AA guns were originally envisaged, but (as in Lützow), both ships completed without any. Eventually, four were installed, around the after funnel in Bayern and a pair abreast each funnel in Baden. The torpedo battery was upgraded to the new 60cm torpedo, the enlarged compartment required, plus the ancillary air-flasks, causing the near-loss of Bayern when she was mined in 1917. Baden and Bayern both had their forward torpedo flat stripped and subdivided following mine damage to the latter in 1917, when its existence had threatened her survival.
Although it had been hoped (again) to install a COSAD propulsion system in the Bayerns, it was decided, given the delays in the diesel development programme, the first two ships should be given conventional three-shaft turbines. Nevertheless, as it was hoped that the diesel would be indeed be proven by the time that a third ship, the 1914 programme’s Ersatz-Kaiser Friedrich III (Sachsen [ii]), was ready to be engined, it was determined that she should receive a diesel. However, on 2 August 1914, it was decided that, in light of the outbreak of hostilities, such a course would be represent excessive risk, and that the future Sachsen should also receive all-turbine propulsion machinery (it was not until April 1917 that the big diesel designed for Prinzregent Luitpold finally passed its tests). On the other hand, Sachsen’s diesel was built and was inspected in the Germania erecting shop by the Naval Inter-Allied Control Commission in 1919.
To protect the top of the tall diesel, Sachsen’s protection was modified by the addition of a glacis over her after engine room, 140mm thick at the ends, 200mm at the sides and with a 80mm top. Otherwise, her protection was the same as that of the first pair, except for a uniform 200mm forward belt (150mm lower edge), extended to the stem with 30mm plating, with all barbettes 40mm behind the main belt; some of the midships deck was thickened to 50mm.
Early in the war the new threat of aircraft led to a progressive replacement of the four 8.8cm guns atop ships’ after superstructures by the same number of 8.8cm/45s on C/13 anti-aircraft mountings. The number of such guns was, however, reduced to two in certain of ships before the end of the war. Even though the Bayerns were designed with no fewer than eight 8.8cm AA guns, Bayern and Baden completed without any, and eventually mounted only four each, suggesting doubts as to their utility. On the other hand, the clear lack of utility of the low-angle 8.8cm weapons led to their progressive removal from operational ships, Derfflinger for example losing those under her bridge in 1915, and those around ‘C’ turret during her post-Jutland refit. The old ships of the II. Sqn had the forward pair of 8.8cm guns on the after superstructure replaced by 8.8cm/45 anti-aircraft weapons during the summer of 1916.
After Jutland, the elevation of main-battery guns was increased to reflect the experience of that battle, by lowering the trunnions of the guns, resulting in a higher elevation but lower depression. The battle had finally shown that the conception of short-range melee that had so long underpinned German capital ship armament policy had been a chimera, a realisation reflected in the upgunning of Ersatz-Yorck and the planning for 42cm armed ships for the future.
In purely military terms, the War between the States had one foot in the past and one in the future: part Napoleonic and part World War I. It was a war that for the first three years of its four-year course was rooted in the tactical tradition of the black-powder warfare of the previous 150 years or so. And yet, the sheer scale on which it was fought and the advances in weapons technology it utilized—rifled muskets, conoidal bullets, repeating guns, breech-loading rifles, and rifled artillery—would shape the wars that followed.
The increase in the rifled musket’s range and accuracy compared to its predecessor, the smoothbore musket, brought death more surely to more men than ever before. Or so the standard argument goes. In fact, such innovations did not make as much difference to the experience of combat as might at first be thought. The innovation of greater importance was the application of the power and skills of an already powerful (and soon to be preeminent) industrial state to the business of war—with all the prerequisites of business: capital, organization, manpower, and natural resources. It was this that predetermined victory, however hard fought and close run it was to be at times.
On one level the Civil War was acted out on the thrilling stage of heroic and bloody theater; on the other, its outcome was determined by the victory of the industrial over the agrarian. Renewable resources of treasure and men, as well as courage and determination, predisposed the outcome. The North, even though hampered by shoddy military leadership during the earlier part of the war, could afford much higher losses of manpower and matériel—in absolute and proportional terms—than could the South, with its smaller population and underdeveloped manufacturing capacity. Even though in many battles fewer Confederate soldiers were killed in action or died of wounds than Federals, those who did represented a higher proportion of the fighting force. It was an actuarial reality that smashed the heart of the Confederate cause as mercilessly as a bullet or shell fragment. The South was forced into a war of attrition that eventually and inevitably ran it into the ground. And it is this aspect of the Civil War that foreshadowed the strategic architecture of the world wars of the following century. Resources provide the stage on which warriors with courage and fortitude, sacrifice and determination, play out their drama. The South had no shortage of all these martial virtues, but it was bled to death. It would lose about one-third more men killed as a proportion of those engaged than the North. And this was the bloody arithmetic that Grant understood when he sacrificed his own warriors at Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor during the endgame of the war.
Numbers, recorded quantities of the dead, estimates of expenditure, the ledger book of life expended and advantage gained: These were the mark of the age. But even in an era that had begun to revel in the mechanisms and skills of bureaucracy, record keeping (especially in the Confederacy) could be a little inexact, to put it mildly. In addition, toward the end of the war swathes of records of the South’s fighting units were destroyed. Numbers were also manipulated. Robert E. Lee became alarmed at the willingness—the almost masochistic relish, even—with which some of his commanders advertised the high casualties they sustained as though they were badges of honor. Lee was forced to issue a General Order in May 1863 discouraging such displays, for fear they gave heart to the enemy, and after the devastating losses at Gettysburg he “seems to have quite systematically and intentionally undercounted his casualties.” The manipulation of “body count” was not something invented in the Vietnam War. Ambrose Bierce, who fought on the Union side and wrote Gothic spooky stories about it, describes the aftermath of a battle in his story “The Coup de Grace”: “The names of the victorious dead were known and listed. The enemy’s fallen had to be content with counting. But of that they got enough; many of them were counted several times, and the total, as given afterward in the official report of the victorious commander, denoted rather a hope than a result.”
In the North, tallying was better, reflecting the organizational strengths of an industrializing society, strengths that would, in their own prosaic but important ways, help win the war. Even so, William F. Fox, a Union officer (who would later compile one of the great statistical books about the war, Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, 1888), remembered the waywardness of record keeping on campaign: “After a hard-fought battle the regimental commander would, perhaps, write a letter to his wife detailing the operations of his regiment, and some of his men would send their village paper an account of the fight, but no report would be forwarded officially to head quarters. Many colonels regarded the report as an irksome and unnecessary task.” (Ironically, even record keeping could prove fatal. In 1893, twenty-two clerks were crushed to death when the floors of Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, which was being used to store Civil War records, collapsed.)
Disease, as in all previous wars, was a greater killer of soldiers than combat (it accounted for 66 percent of all fatalities in the Civil War). Of the approximately 2,100,000 men who took up arms for the North, 360,000 died (17 percent of all who served), of whom about 110,000 (5.2 percent) were either killed outright in battle (67,058) or died from wounds (43,012). Although the high rate of death from disease is shocking, it was an improvement on the Mexican War of 1846–48, in which seven men died of disease for every one killed in battle. Of the approximately 880,000 Confederates who served, about 250,000 (28 percent) died from all causes. Of these Fox estimates that 94,000 (10.6 percent) were killed or mortally wounded. Thomas L. Livermore, reviewing the statistical evidence in his classic study, Numbers & Losses in the Civil War in America, printed in 1900, concludes that “any summing-up of the casualties from [the Confederate] reports must necessarily be incomplete, and the number … arrived at by Colonel Fox can be accepted only as a minimum.” The numbers may be merely indicative, but they suggest that the South lost about 11 percent of its soldiers killed outright or died of wounds, compared with just over 7 percent for the North—a 30 percent greater killed rate for Confederate warriors.
It needs also to be borne in mind that the numbers of men killed outright or who died of wounds expressed as a percentage of those “who took up arms” needs to be tempered by the fact that not all who wore butternut or blue were involved in combat. Obviously, the death toll rises considerably when viewed as a percentage of combatants only: a computation of quite daunting complexity.
There is often an ambiguous attitude to the number of men killed in war. On the one hand, we are saddened, horrified even, at the price paid. But on the other, the sacrifice is intimately involved with our national mythology. It makes us intensely proud. They underwrite our sense of national worth with their blood. A great mortality is a badge of honor, as Fox puts it, “amply heroic.”
Some historians of the Civil War point to its “unprecedented” mortality. “Numbers seemed the only way to capture what was dramatically new about this war: the very size of the cataclysm and its human cost.” Fox states categorically that casualties were “unsurpassed in the annals of war.”
Having complained that too many commanders in the Civil War “claimed losses for their regiments which are sadly at variance with the records [of the muster rolls of the regiments],” Fox goes on to say that to “the thoughtful, the truth will be sensational enough: the correct figures are amply heroic.” As comparison Fox cites the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, in which the “Germans took 797,950 men into France. Of this number, 28,277 were killed, or died of wounds—a loss of 3.1 per cent. In the Crimean War, the allied armies lost 3.2 per cent in killed, or deaths from wounds. In the war of 1866, the Austrian army lost 2.6 per cent from the same causes. There are no figures on record to show that, even in the Napoleonic wars, there was ever a greater percentage loss in killed.”
At Borodino in 1812 (“the bloodiest battle since the introduction of gunpowder”), Fox reckons that of 133,000 French troops engaged, 28,085 became casualties; of 132,000 Russians, “there is nothing to show that its loss was greater than that of its antagonist. Although the number of killed and wounded at Borodino was greater, numerically, than at Waterloo and Gettysburg, the percentage of loss was very much less.” It is as though Fox is determined to raise a homegrown American red badge of courage that will stand up proudly in comparison to the Old World.
The point Fox makes, though, is a valid one. It is battle deaths as a percentage of men engaged that defines the intensity of combat and thus the lethal risk to individual soldiers. Looking at the history of warfare generally (and particularly over the period of nation-state rather than dynastic conflict), we see that the sharp end (those who actually experience combat) tends to get smaller as a proportion of the total number of men involved. The administrative, supply-and-support “tail,” on the other hand, becomes larger. (This “progress,” ironically, increases the risk to the combat soldier of becoming a casualty.)
Obviously, averages do not reflect what we might call “localized risk” where certain units took massive casualties. The infantry could expect to take about 14 percent casualties (an average taken over twenty-five major battles), compared with 5–10 percent for artillerymen. But it was not unusual for an infantry unit involved in the front of an attack to take 50–60 percent casualties.
For example, on day two of Gettysburg the First Minnesota was ordered to make a suicidal counterattack against the Confederates after they had broken the Union line around the Peach Orchard area. In some accounts, 262 Minnesotans started off to attack the 1,600 Alabamians under General Cadmus Wilcox, and 225 Federals became casualties (85.8 percent)—“the highest percentage of casualties suffered by any Union regiment in a single engagement in the entire war,” according to a historian of the regiment. He adds that the “annals of war contain no parallel to this charge. In its desperate valor, complete execution, successful result [the rupture in the Union line was plugged], and in its sacrifice of men in proportion to the number engaged, authentic history has no record with which it can be compared.”
Other Union units also suffered horrifically. The Irish Brigade attacking Marye’s Heights at the battle of Fredericksburg had 1,150 men hit out of a total of 1,400 (82 percent). The First Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment, being used as attack infantry against the Petersburg defenses, lost 632 out of 900 (70.2 percent). The Fifth New Hampshire sustained more killed in action than any other Union regiment during the whole war—295 men—and, says Fox, they “occurred entirely in aggressive, hard, stand-up fighting; none of it happened in routs or through blunders.”
On the Confederate side, the First Texas took 82 percent casualties at Antietam (Sharpsburg) and had the highest percentage of killed to men engaged (20 percent) of any Confederate regiment in a single battle during the whole war; the Twenty-First Georgia lost 198 out of its 242 effectives at the second battle of Bull Run (Manassas)—just shy of 82 percent—and with 16 percent of its effectives killed in that battle was the second in the mortuarial league table for Confederate regiments in a single battle.
Books have been written about what might be called the addiction of Confederate soldiers to the attack, as though lemminglike, they looked for a tactical cliff over which they could throw themselves in some death-embracing ecstasy, responding, so the argument goes, to a Berserker gene passed down from their ancient Celtic forebears. It is a theory that has been much derided (the North, too, after all, did not shy away from taking extraordinary casualties in frontal assaults, as Marye’s Heights, Kennesaw Mountain, Cold Harbor, and many others attest. Nor was there a shortage of men of Celtic origin dressed in blue), but there is an interesting idea at its root: that soldiers may be swept to their deaths by the powerful undercurrents of cultural heritage. The frontal attack becomes not only a tactical option but also one driven by expectations of manly valor and national pride. General D. H. Hill remarked on Confederate tactics in the earlier phases of the war: “We were very lavish of blood in those days, and it was thought to be a great thing to charge a battery of artillery or an earth-work lined with infantry … the kind of grandeur the South could not afford.”
The addiction to the frontal attack had long antecedents, but for the officer class of the American Civil War its most recent and nurturing wellspring was revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Officers who would become influential in both the Confederacy and the Union had attended West Point, where Francophile sentiment was strong, and many had been influenced by the writings of such military theorists as Henri Jomini (a Swiss who fought in the French army attached to Ney’s and Napoleon’s staffs) and others like him, who placed great emphasis on the moral virtue (courage, obedience, patriotic self-sacrifice) as well as the tactical benefit (covering the killing zone quickly and ejecting the enemy at the point of the bayonet) of the swift and determined frontal attack. Implicit in this philosophy was a rejection of the fancy footwork of the limited warfare of the earlier eighteenth century and an embrace of concentrated force and confrontation: an embodiment of what Victor Davis Hanson calls “the Western way of war.”
It was a philosophy that looked back to the heroic tradition of the ancient Romans, with its emphasis on sacrificial courage in the service of the state. It embraced a way of fighting total war, furiously energetic and uncompromising, in the service of an ideological cause, be that revolutionary or imperial France. Although it drew its inspiration from the past, it would also inspire soldiers of the future, be they Confederate, Union, or, in a much more terrible incarnation, military theorists and generals (particularly the French) of World War I.
It is worth remembering, however, that tactical orthodoxy has to be based, to some extent, on the successes of experience. Not all frontal attacks ended up like the Confederate attack at Malvern Hill in 1862, or Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, or the Irish Brigade at Marye’s Heights. There were also many successes, such as Jackson’s bayonet charge at the first battle of Bull Run (Manassas) and the Union assault on Missionary Ridge in 1863, as well as the Confederate attack on the first day of Shiloh.
To a large extent the emphasis on the frontal attack was a reflection, as it always had been, of the inadequacies of weapons to inflict battle-winning casualties at long distance. The battle could only be won, it was firmly believed, by literally driving the enemy off the field. The killing had to be done close up. But conventional wisdom has it that the “unprecedentedly high” casualties of the Civil War were due to innovations in weapons technology, particularly the rifled musket, which increased the range of lethality, bringing death to the advancing attackers at much greater distance than hitherto—Napoleonic tactics smacking up against modern weaponry. And yet there is plenty of evidence that the lethality of the rifled musket was less impressive than its specifications might have us believe.
Both armies had British-produced Enfield or American-produced Springfield rifle-bored muzzle-loading muskets (although it was not until 1863 that the Confederacy could claim to have comprehensively rid itself of old smoothbores and, in fact, at the start of the war even the Union relied heavily on smoothbores as rifled muskets tended to be the preserve of regular soldiers). The South had a preponderance of Enfields (it bought three hundred thousand from Britain) because its relatively weak manufacturing capacity made it more reliant on imports. The caliber was a little smaller than that of the Springfield, and the gun was a little lighter, but to all intents and purposes the weapons were pretty evenly matched.
Compared with the smoothbore, the rifled musket was a great improvement. A trained rifleman, firing a conoidal slug under controlled conditions, had a fifty-fifty chance of hitting a man-sized target at 500 yards. If sighted at 300 yards, the bullet of a rifled musket described an arc, within which were two killing zones. The first was the initial 75 yards in which the bullet was on its upward trajectory and could be expected to hit a man of average height. Between 75 and 250 yards its arc took it above head height. Between 250 and 350 yards it descended into its second killing zone, capable of hitting a soldier’s head at 250 yards, his torso at 300, and a lower limb at 350.
Battle conditions alter pretty much everything about shooting. Men under pressure, even if well-trained, cannot achieve the accuracy or rate of fire of the firing range. In the Civil War, “many recruits went into battle without having fired a single practice round.… Whether firing a Model 1863 muzzle-loader or a gas-operated M1, the average citizen cannot hit the proverbial bull in the behind with a bass fiddle.” A sentimental notion persists, however, as it does among some historians of the War of Independence, that Americans had a natural familiarity with muskets because, unlike their European counterparts, they were raised as hunters and would already have had a great facility with firearms. It is true that the South was largely rural and that the single largest group in the army of the North was of farming background (about 48 percent) and therefore might be expected to be familiar with hunting guns. But even for those with some hunting experience the chaos and psychological pressure of battle makes it difficult to translate those skills into combat effectiveness. “The huntsman who loads carefully and then stalks his inoffensive prey is surely in a very different state of mind from the soldier who has to fire off forty rounds in double-quick time against an enemy regiment which is busy returning the compliment. The assumptions of the close-order firefight … are surely located in a quite different universe from the genteel expectations of game shooting.”
The physical exertion of repeated firing, the vicious recoil, the relative intricacy of reloading procedures, and lack of training all tended to lower the lethality of the rifled musket. A soldier of the Twenty-Sixth North Carolina Regiment on the first day of Gettysburg described a specific difficulty of fighting with a rifled muzzle loader: “[The] men had difficulty in ramming down their cartridges, so slick was the iron ramrod in hands thoroughly wet with perspiration. All expedients were resorted to, but mainly jabbing the ram-rods against the ground and rocks.” During the battle of Shiloh in 1862, the Englishman Henry M. Stanley, fighting as a gentleman volunteer in the Dixie Grays (and in later life to become famous as a journalist and explorer), described the “impossibility” of advancing and firing accurately, “owing to our labouring hearts, and the jarring and excitement.” The surgeon of the Second Maryland observed that men in battle “drop their cartridges. They load and forget to cap their pieces and get half a dozen rounds into their muskets thinking they have fired them off. Most of them just load and fire without any consciousness of shooting at anything in particular.”
Some military theorists before the war predicted a revolution in infantry tactics because of the theoretical extension of range and accuracy over the old smoothbores. Battles would start sooner and would cover a larger area—a prediction of the “empty” battlefield of the twentieth century—but despite the technical possibility of accuracy up to 1,000 yards and “irresistible” fire at 600, the rifled musket was used, as the smoothbore musket in an earlier era had been, at fairly close range. “What is much less clear is whether or not the average soldier in combat actually obtained very much benefit from these improvements, since many of the same factors which had limited range and accuracy in Napoleonic times continued to apply throughout the Civil War. Fields of fire were often very short, the soldiers unskilled in the use of their weapons, and the officers were anxious not to engage in indecisive long range fire … tactical theory still rested upon the idea of massed fire at close range.”
Of a sample of 113 actions in which range was mentioned by eyewitnesses, 62 percent were at 100 yards or less, and none took place at more than 500 yards. In short, infantrymen were more likely to be killed by musket fire not because the rifled musket was more accurate at longer range but because they were in a confined killing zone close to their adversary. At New Hope Church on May 27, 1864, for example, Sherman sent in Hazen’s brigade against a well-established Confederate defensive line. A firefight ensued across a narrow killing zone that, try as they might, the Federals could not penetrate. They left about a third of their men dead or wounded in that zone not more than 15 feet from the rebel line; no one got closer than 10 feet.
If the enhanced range of a rifled musket was not a deciding factor, what about the rate of fire? Compared to the smoothbore, the rifled musket could not deliver lead as speedily. It took longer to ram the ball down against the groove of the rifling. An experienced soldier armed with a smoothbore could get off about four shots a minute in battle conditions, whereas his counterpart with the rifle might manage three. Breechloaders such as the Sharps could increase that rate by about three times, and repeating rifles even more: twenty rounds per minute for the Spencer and about fifty for the Henry. However, these faster-firing rifles, although enormously significant for the future of warfare, had only a limited impact on the general equation of Civil War combat. The South had few of them (and those were captured rather than manufactured), and the North mainly deployed them in their cavalry arm, where they could be highly effective in dismounted action, as Buford’s cavalrymen proved in the opening phase of Gettysburg.
In any event, one of the military establishment’s main objections to fast-firing rifles was that they promoted the wasteful expenditure of ammunition, which was, after all, a major problem even with single-shot muzzle loaders. The gun maker Oliver Winchester put up a self-serving but prescient defense of repeating rifles that became a tactical given for all future wars in which America was involved—“the greater the expenditure of ammunition the happier the soldier.”
If, as we think, it is a consciousness of power that makes men brave, and a sense of imminent peril that makes “cowards of us all” … it is not unreasonable to suppose that such a weapon would give a soldier the courage and coolness needed to send each of his fifteen shots with more unerring certainty than his trembling opponent could send with his single shot? If to save ammunition, it is essential that every soldier should remain for sixty seconds while reloading, a helpless target, to receive his opponent’s fire from one to fifteen shots, why not reverse the order of progress and turn the ingenuity of inventors to the production of a gun that will require twice the length of time or more to reload, and thus double the saving of ammunition? Saving of life does not appear an element worthy of consideration in this connection. Yet this is West Point opinion.
The task of the field commander was often, ironically, to prevent men from firing, at least until they were at close range. The Confederate attack at Gaines’s Mill in 1862 was a classic example. A high-risk, high-casualty attack was ordered and the men were to charge “in double-quick time, with trailed arms [the weapon carried horizontally, i.e., not in firing position] and without firing. Had these orders not been strictly obeyed the assault would have been a failure.” The oncoming lines took a beating (one thousand casualties), but no one stopped to return fire, “and not a step faltered … the pace became more rapid every moment; when the men were within thirty yards … a wild yell answered the roar of the Federal musketry and they rushed for the works.” Speed is a cornerstone of assault tactics, whether it is Gaines’s Mill or Passchendaele or Iwo Jima or Omaha Beach. The massed frontal attack will result in many men being killed; but if done at speed, there will be fewer killed than if the attackers stopped en route to engage in a firefight. Stopping midway simply increases the time the attacker is in the killing zone, and no matter how seductive a protective shelter might be, it could be fatal, as Henry Stanley discovered during the attack of the Dixie Grays at Shiloh:
Continuing our advance, we … were met by a furious storm of bullets, poured on us from the long line of bluecoats.… After being exposed for a few seconds to this fearful downpour, we heard the order to “Lie down, men, and continue your firing!” Before me was a prostrate tree, about fifteen inches in diameter, with a narrow strip of light between it and the ground. Behind this shelter a dozen of us flung ourselves. The security it appeared to offer restored me to my individuality. We could fight, and think, and observe, better than out in the open. But it was a terrible period! How the cannon bellowed, and their shells plunged and bounded, and flew with screeching hisses over us! … I marveled, as I heard the unintermitting patter, snip, thud, and hum of the bullets, how anyone could live under this raining death. I could hear the balls beating a merciless tattoo on the outer surface of the log.… One here and there, found its way under the log, and buried itself in a comrade’s body. One man raised his chest, as if to yawn, and jostled me. I turned to him, and saw that a bullet had gored his whole face, and penetrated into his chest. Another ball struck a man a deadly rap on the head, and he turned on his back and showed his ghastly white face to the sky.
“It is getting too warm boys!” cried a soldier, and he uttered a vehement curse upon keeping soldiers hugging the ground until every ounce of courage was chilled. He lifted his head a little too high, and a bullet skimmed over the top of the log and hit him fairly in the centre of his forehead, and he fell heavily on his face. But his thought had been instantaneously general; and the officers, with one voice, ordered the charge; and cries of “Forward, forward!” raised us … and changed the complexion of our feelings. The pulse of action beat feverishly once more; and, though overhead was crowded with peril, we were unable to give it so much attention as when we lay stretched on the ground.
The frontal charge is a desperate thing; and running through so many Civil War battles is a melancholy acceptance of inevitable death: “Every man vieing with his fellowman, in steadiness of step and correct alignment, the officers giving low and cautionary commands, many knowing that it was their last hour on earth, but without hesitating moved forward to their inevitable doom and defeat,” comments Lieutenant L. D. Young, Fourth Kentucky, on being sent into a suicidal attack by General Braxton Bragg at Murfreesboro (Stones River), on December 31, 1862. And surely there is no more heartbreaking image of this stoicism than the veterans of the Twentieth Maine at the Wilderness watching the “spurts of dust … like the big drops of a coming shower along a dusty road” that were erupting all over the field, and then pulling down their caps over their eyes as though this shielding would in some magical way protect them from the murderous storm into which they were about to advance. Or the Irish Brigade advancing up toward Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, heads bowed into the fury.
There was also a fatally self-reinforcing element to the linear attack with men moving “elbow-to-elbow”—something that, after all, increased their chances of being hit. Men packed together and highly influenced by their peer group become more controllable and less able to make individual decisions about their own fates: “Not to put too fine a point on it, you could ensure that men stood and fought—and died—if you had them all enclosed in serried ranks.” William A. Ketcham of the Thirteenth Indiana describes how the influence of his comrades’ opinions channeled him toward the acceptance of death in combat:
After I had got used to fighting and could appreciate my surroundings free from the tremendous excitement in the blood, of the smell of battle, I knew perfectly well all the time that if a cannon ball struck in the right place it would kill or maim.… I knew it was always liable to strike me, but I always went where I was ordered to go and the others went, and when I was ordered to run and the others ran, I ran. I had a greater fear of being supposed to be as afraid as I was than I had of being seriously hurt and that is a great deal of sustaining power in an emergency.
Confederate general John Gordon describes how the enemy was allowed to come “within a few rods (a rod equals 16.5 feet)” and then “my rifle flamed and roared in the Federals’ faces … the effect was appalling. The entire front line, with few exceptions, went down in the consuming blast.” At Antietam, Frank Holsinger recalled how the Sixth Georgia rose up from behind a fence and poured a volley “within thirty feet” that decimated our ranks fully one-half; the regiment was demoralized.”
Close-order firing also had a devastating effect on men in column, especially when delivered by an adversary arrayed in line. A young company commander of the Sixty-Third Ohio Volunteers describes an action on the second day of the battle of Corinth, October 4, 1862:
The enemy had to come over a bluffish bank a few yards in front of me and as soon as I saw their heads, still coming slowly, I jumped up and said: “Company H, get up.” The column was then in full view and only about thirty yards distant.… Just in front of me was a bush three or four feet high with sear leaves on it. Hitting this with my sword, I said: “Boys, give them a volley just over this. Ready! Aim! (and jumping around my company to get from the front of their guns) Fire!” In a few seconds the fire was continued along the whole line.
It seems to me that the fire of my company had cut down the head of the column that struck us as deep back as my company was long. As the smoke cleared away, there was apparently ten yards square of a mass of struggling bodies and butternut clothes. Their column appeared to reel like a rope shaken at the end.
In fact the tactical orthodoxy, as expressed by the leading West Point theorist of the day, Dennis Hart Mahan, writing in 1836, deplored the use of column because it offered a more concentrated target than attack in line: “In a very deep order, the troops readily become huddled by an inequality of motion; the head alone fights … and a fire of artillery on it causes the most frightful ravages.” Its other disadvantage, as French columns during the Napoleonic Wars discovered, was that it could only present a small “face” of muskets as most men were unable to present and fire because they were boxed in.
And yet the suicidal bloodletting of frontal attacks in great sweeping sacrificial lines has to be set against the merciful ineptitude of most soldiers. It takes a lot of lead to kill a man. There was a natural temptation among the inexperienced soldiers who made up the majority on both sides to fire off their muskets with profligate disregard for any tangible result. Captain Frank Holsinger of the Nineteenth US Colored Infantry observed:
How natural it is for a man to suppose that if a gun is discharged, he or someone is sure to be hit. He soon finds, however, that the only damage done, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, the only thing killed is the powder! It is not infrequently that a whole line of battle (this among raw troops) will fire upon an advancing line, and no perceptible damage ensue. They wonder how men can stand such treatment, when really they have done no damage save the terrific noise incident to the discharge. To undertake to say how many discharges are necessary to the death of a soldier in a battle would be presumptuous, but I have frequently heard the remark that it took a man’s weight in lead to kill him.
Captain W. F. Hinman, a Union officer at Murfreesboro (1862) described an encounter at long distance:
Within half an hour we stirred up the enemy’s cavalry. Firing began at once, and continued throughout the day. The companies on the skirmish line were kept busy, but as scarcely anybody got hurt they thought it was a good sport.… The shooting made a great deal of noise, although it was about as harmless as a Fourth of July fusillade. But our skirmishers blazed away incessantly. We marched over the body of one rebel who had been killed. Shots enough were fired that day to destroy half of Bragg’s army.
A Confederate officer, I. Herman, observed that most infantrymen went through their allocation of cartridges during an engagement of any length. Five thousand men might easily expend 200,000 rounds in a few hours (an average of 40 rounds per man), and in his experience it took 400 rounds for every enemy killed. General Rosencrans at Murfreesboro estimated 145 shots to inflict one casualty (and not necessarily a fatality). No wonder General James Longstreet could inform his less experienced troops that though “the fiery noise of battle is indeed most terrifying, and seems to threaten universal ruin it is not so destructive as it seems, and few soldiers after all are slain.… Let officers and men, even under the most formidable fire, preserve a quiet demeanor and self-possessed temper.”
George Neese, a rebel gunner, found it “astonishing and wholly incomprehensible” that so many could come through the storm unscathed—“how men standing in line, firing at each other incessantly for hours like they did today, can escape with so few killed and wounded, for when Jackson’s infantry emerged from the sulphurous bank of battle smoke that hung along the line the regiment appeared as complete as they were before the fight.”
Looking at casualties through the rose-colored lens of the telescope, we see that at Gettysburg, the bloodiest Civil War battle in terms of the total number of casualties, 81 percent of Union and 76 percent of Confederate soldiers came through the three days unhurt. But through the other more sanguine lens we see that one in five Federals and one in four Confederates engaged in the battle became casualties and one in thirty Federals and one in fifteen Confederates were killed.
Although musketry may have been wayward, it was overwhelmingly the main source of death in a Civil War battle. Union field surgeon Charles Johnson declared, “I think wounds from bullets were five times as frequent as those from all other sources. Shell wounds were next in frequency, and then came those from grape and canister. I never saw a wound from a bayonet thrust and but one made by a sword in the hands of an enemy.”The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, published in six volumes between 1870 and 1888 under the auspices of the surgeon general of the US Army, covers Union and Confederate experience. Of the 246,712 wounds from weapons that were treated during the war, the vast majority (just over 231,000) were from small arms. Next came artillery-induced wounds (13,518), followed by a very small number (922) of bayonet wounds. Obviously, if the wounds were treated the soldier had not been killed outright, but the proportion is at least an indicator of the most likely causes of death. The sites of the wounds also tell a story. Most of the wounds (over 70 percent) recorded in the Medical and Surgical History were to the arms and legs, which is understandable because they would have been the more survivable and therefore recorded in wound statistics, although amputation might well claim a life later. In one group of 54 amputees, 32 (60 percent) subsequently died.
It is not surprising that a smaller percentage of wounds were to the face, head, and neck (10.7 percent) and 18.4 percent to the torso because men hit in these areas tended to be killed outright and therefore not become a wounded statistic. As Charles Johnson observed:
When a minie ball struck a bone it almost never failed to fracture and shatter the contiguous bony structure, and it was rarely that only a round perforation, the size of the bullet, resulted. When a joint was the part the bullet struck, the results were especially serious.… Of course, the same was true of wounds of the abdomen and head, though to a much greater degree. Indeed, recovery from wounds of the abdomen and brain almost never occurred. One of the prime objects of the Civil War surgeon was to remove the missile, and, in doing this, he practically never failed to infect the part with his dirty hands and instrument.
When Captain William M. Colby of my company was brought from the firing-line to our Division Hospital he was in a comatose state from a bullet that had penetrated his brain through the upper portion of the occipital bone [the base of the skull]. The first thing our surgeon did was to run his index finger its full length into the wound; and this without even ordinary washing. Next he introduced a dirty bullet probe. The patient died a day or two later.
Some, though, lived to disprove the rule. Corporal Edson D. Bemis of the Twelfth Massachusetts Infantry was shot in the left elbow at Antietam, gut-shot at the Wilderness, and then, almost at the war’s end, shot through the left temple by the ear so that when he arrived at the hospital, brain matter was oozing from the wound. After the ball had been removed, the patient began to recover and by 1870 could write with splendid equanimity, “I am still in the land of the living.… My memory is affected, and I cannot hear as well as I could before I was wounded.”
A head shot was usually fatal, but a body wound might feel surprisingly innocuous. US Seventh Michigan cavalryman A. B. Isham reports that the “first sensation of a gunshot wound is not one of pain. The feeling is simply one of shock, without discomfort, accompanied by a peculiar tingling, as though a slight electric current was playing about the site of injury. Quickly ensues a marked sense of numbness, involving a considerable area around the wounded part.” Another soldier remembers “no acute sensation of pain, not even any distinct shock, only an instantaneous consciousness of having been struck; then my breath came hard and labored, with a croup-like sound.” A truly terrible experience, though, was to see the look on the face of a mortally hit comrade—“a stare of woeful amazement,” recalls one soldier, while another describes a comrade who had been hit in the head, “gasping in that peculiar, almost indescribable way that a mortally wounded man has. I shall never forget the pleading expression, speechless yet imploring.”
Troops and their field officers were caught, as they have been throughout history, in an awful dilemma: on the one hand, having to obey the iron dictates of grand tactics (particularly frontal assaults against well-prepared defenses) that would, in all likelihood, result in many deaths; and on the other, improvising localized tactics that might save their lives but must not be seen, by their lords and masters, to compromise the mission. The terrible experience of the frontal attack led to compensatory tactics that would be repeated in the First World War. Entrenchment was an obvious one, but there was also a movement away from mass to more fluid, fragmented attacking units, which also became a characteristic of World War I combat as the war progressed. More sustained skirmishing as well as attacking in rushes became more frequent. At Spotsylvania in May 1864 the Twelfth New Hampshire took 338 casualties (of whom a staggering 30 percent were killed) out of a starting complement of 549 men; an observer notes that “the terrible experience of the last hour and a half has taught them a lesson that each one is now practicing; for every man has his tree behind which he is fighting.” Charles W. Bardeen, a Union soldier at the battle, illustrated the tactical issue: “[A] heavy artillery brigade that had come into active service for the first time was ordered to recapture a baggage train. The general actually formed his men in solid front and charged through the woods.… Every confederate bullet was sure of its man, and the dead lay thick; I helped bury … more than a hundred. It even failed with its five thousand men to capture the train, and then our poor little brigade, hardly twelve hundred altogether, was sent in, and advanced rapidly, every man keeping under cover in the thick woods and brought in the train, hardly losing a man.”
Confederate tactics, too, cannot be seen only in terms of heroic but suicidal frontal attacks. Left to their own devices, men will adapt if it increases their chances of survival, especially if it happens also to decrease their opponent’s chances. Captain John W. DeForest, in a faithful though fictionalized account, described how his rebel opponents “aimed better than our men; they covered themselves (in case of need) more carefully and effectively; they could move in a swarm, without much care for alignment or touch of elbows [“touch of elbows” was the standard tightly formed advance prescribed for bayonet attacks]. In short, they fought more like redskins, or like hunters, than we.”
There was a parasitical relationship between Civil War artillery and its primary victim, the infantry. Although there had been many innovations in the science of gunnery, particularly in the form of rifled guns and exploding shells, the main source of death was still, as it had been throughout the black-powder era, solid shot delivered either in multiple doses via canister or in one megadose via cannonball. For the artillery to be effective, the infantry had to play along. The guns feasted on men who, through tactical convention, were all too often presented in tight, massed formations, elbow-to-elbow in frontal assault, and artillery fed heartily at close range. Charles Cheney of the Second Wisconsin Infantry at first Bull Run (Manassas) tried to describe what it was like to be under close artillery fire: “None but those who saw it know anything about it.… There were hundreds shot down right in my sight; some had their heads shot off from their shoulders by cannon balls, others were shot in two … and others shot through the legs and arms.… Cannon balls were flying like hail.”
“Death from the bullet is ghastly,” writes a soldier of the Fourteenth Indiana, “but to see a man’s brains dashed out at your side by a grape shot and another body severed by a screeching cannon ball is truly appalling.” The smaller balls of canister shot certainly accounted for many more deaths than solid shot or exploding shell, but they lacked the horrific grandeur of a cannonball: “It is a pitiful sight to see man or beast struck with one of those terrible things.” The “shock-and-awe” factor was reinforced by the thunderous boom of solid shot, and demoralization was almost as important as lethality: “Dead men did not run to the rear spreading panic and demoralization.”
Most artillery on both sides was old-style smoothbore, the aptly named 12-pound Napoleon, 1857 model, firing a 4.62-inch-diameter ball, being the workhorse. The North had many more rifled pieces, such as the Parrott, which gave it something of an advantage in terms of counterbattery actions because of its superior accuracy. On one occasion, in a spectacular example of artillery sniping, Confederate general Leonidas Polk was practically cut in two by a carefully aimed shell from a Hotchkiss rifled artillery piece at Pine Mountain on June 14, 1864. Like musketry, gunnery lethality had more to do with quantity and proximity than with accuracy. It was the uncomplicated and unfussy smoothbore cannon that was the omnivore of the Civil War battlefield. It could be loaded faster than a rifled piece and be switched from solid shot to canister with deadly fluency.
For attacking infantry there were three distinct artillery killing zones to be traversed.
Zone 1: If their starting point was 1,500 yards out from the enemy cannon (a not uncommon jumping-off point), there would first have been approximately 850 yards to traverse (taking about ten minutes at regular pace), within which they might be hit by both percussion-fused shells that exploded on the ground (or not, depending on the reliability of the fuse and the softness of the ground) and shrapnel-like spherical shot that exploded above the attacking troops and scattered pieces of the shell casing as well as the seventy-plus iron balls it contained. During this time each piece of the opposing artillery might get off fifteen to twenty rounds, and the first casualties would begin to fall, although not yet in significant numbers. The problem for the artillerist was that the fuses for the spherical case were crude and the explosion could not always be accurately predicted, a technical difficulty that was compounded when the target was moving rapidly forward. For maximum lethality, spherical shot needed to explode about 75 yards in front and 15–20 feet above the target, which was a challenge for the technology of the time.
Zone 2: The next 300 yards would be taken at the quick step, and during those approximately three and a half minutes, each of the defending cannon would have time to send seven balls plowing their furrows through the oncoming rank and file. With the attackers now at 350 yards away, the gunners would quickly switch to canister. Over the next 250 yards the attackers, now moving at the double-quick step, would have to endure about nine blasts from each gun (for solid shot and shell, two rounds a minute was considered reasonable, compared with three a minute for canister).
Zone 3: For those attackers who had stayed on their feet, there would be an appalling last 100 yards taken at the full-out charge and lasting about thirty seconds, during which time the cannoneers could get off one round of canister at point-blank range. If the situation had become especially tricky for the defenders, the cannon might be “double-shotted”—two cans fired at the same time.
A Civil War soldier, if killed by artillery, would most likely be hit at close range—cut down by canister. Longer-range gunnery tended to be much less lethal, although the Union shells fired at those Confederate troops massing for the attack on the Union center on the third day of Gettysburg caused a considerable number of casualties. A British observer, Arthur Fremantle, embedded with Lee’s army, noted the large number of men who had been hit while in the woods on Seminary Ridge about a mile from the Union guns on Cemetery Ridge. “I rode on through the woods.… The further I got, the greater became the number of the wounded. At last I came to a perfect stream of them … in numbers as great as a crowd in Oxford Street in the middle of the day.” In contrast, the Confederate preattack bombardment on the Union center on the third day of Gettysburg, although delivered by more than 150 guns, was a failure. It had an insignificant impact on the Union infantry, who were sheltered by the wall and topography atop Cemetery Ridge. And partly due to some deft maneuvering of the Union artillery, the bombardment also failed to interdict the Federal cannon, which would reassemble and inflict terrible casualties on the attackers. A Federal artilleryman scorned the Confederate bombardment: “Viewed as a display of fireworks, the rebel practice was entirely successful, but as a military demonstration it was the biggest humbug of the season.”
In some ways the progression of the fighting on the third day of Gettysburg was a chilling preview of many a First World War battle: the artillery barrage that was meant, but failed, to soften up the defenders; the massed attackers moving at an ordered pace across the deep killing ground of no-man’s-land, where they were vulnerable to shrapnel; and the intense defensive firepower at close quarters that destroyed them. An eyewitness on the Federal side describes how the attackers were pulled into a vortex of destruction: “Our skirmishers open a sputtering fire along the front, and, fighting, retire upon the main line.… Then the thunders of our guns, first Arnold’s, then Cushing’s and Woodruff’s and the rest, shake and reverberate again through the air, and their sounding shells smite the enemy.… All our valuable guns are now active, and from the fire of shells, as the range grows shorter and shorter, they change to shrapnel, and from shrapnel to canister, without wavering or halt, the hardy lines of the enemy move on.” A private of the Eighth Virginia remembered from halfway across the valley between the ridges the terrific intensity of the artillery response: “When half the valley had been traversed by the leading column there came such a storm of grape and canister as seemed to take away the breath, causing whole regiments to stoop like men running in a violent sleet.” Captain Andrew Cowan of the First New York Independent Battery describes hitting the Confederates with canister at 20 yards: “My last charge (a double header) literally swept the enemy from my front.”
It is perhaps indicative of the overall picture of officer mortality in the Civil War that the first and last general officers to be killed (Brigadier General Robert S. Garnett, hit by a minié ball at Corrick’s Ford, on July 13, 1861, and Brigadier General Robert C. Tyler, killed by a sharpshooter on April 16, 1865, at Fort Tyler, Georgia) were both fighting for the South. Where more ordinary Confederate soldiers were killed in proportion to their Union counterparts, so too were Confederate officers. One explanation is that there were simply more Confederate officers in proportion to the men they led, compared with the North. In forty-eight battles analyzed by Thomas Livermore, the officer percentage of the Confederate troops was between 6.5 and 11 percent; on the Union side it ran between 4 and 7 percent.
Other explanations hark back to cultural differences between South and North. For the officer class of the South a few cultural streams flowed together. There was the “knightly” ethos of the southern gentleman-officer inspired, for example, by the medieval romances of Sir Walter Scott, which enjoyed a particular popularity. Young blades from the South embraced a cavalier swagger, quick to take offense and unhesitatingly willing to put their lives on the line or to take a life should honor demand it. A traveler in the South noted that the “barbarous baseness and cruelty of public opinion [that] dooms young men, when challenged, to fight. They must fight, kill or be killed, and that for some petty offence beneath the notice of the law.”
Northern officers, by contrast, were seen by the South as percentage players, businessmen at war. As a Confederate diarist puts it: “The war is one between the Puritan & Cavalier”—the flamboyant Celt versus the dull Anglo-Saxon. Although most of this is utter tosh, for Southern nostalgists past and present, heady with Dixiephilia, it can be intoxicating tosh. In any event, such arguments are meant to explain the higher mortality among Confederate officers.
The underlying truth was that officers of both North and South shared a common code that held them to a very high level of commitment and risk. In the Union army the ratio of officers to men was 1 to 28, but the ratio of officers to men killed in battle was 1 to 17. At Shiloh, 21.3 percent of Union officers became casualties, compared with 17.9 percent of men, and at Gettysburg the proportion was 27 percent to 21 percent.
None, not even the most senior, exempted themselves from the danger of being killed—and an extraordinarily large number of general officers were killed in battle on both sides. Sixty-seven Union general officers (including 11 major generals) were killed outright or died of wounds. Fifty-five percent (235 out of 425) of Confederate general officers became casualties, and of those 73* were killed, including 3 lieutenant generals, 6 major generals, and 1 Army commander—A. S. Johnston, killed at Shiloh. Fifty-four (70 percent) died leading their men in attacks. In one battle alone—Franklin, Tennessee, in April 1863—5 Confederate general officers were killed on the field and 1 later died of wounds. At Gettysburg, 7 Union general officers (including those brevetted) and 5 Confederates were killed or died from wounds received in the battle.
It does not do justice to the bravery of the officers of the North, however, to suggest that such sacrifice was in some way characteristic only of the Confederate officer corps, as in “The Confederacy’s code of loyalty, like that of earlier Celts, required officers to lead their men into battle.… Confederate Colonel George Grenfell told a foreigner that ‘the only way in which an officer could acquire influence over the Confederate soldier was by his personal conduct under fire. They hold a man in great esteem who in action sets them an example of contempt for danger.’ ” Exactly the same sentiments were applicable to the North.
An insouciant attitude toward death was highly esteemed among the officer class of both sides, and there are many examples of sangfroid in the face of extreme danger. Indeed some, such as George Custer, relished testing their staff officers in “an almost sadistic imposition of the leader’s courage on others,” by leading staff parades that exposed them to fire. Any who flinched were subjected to his withering scorn. Union cavalry general Alfred Torbert also insisted on dragging his staff on tours of the front line (his chief medical officer was killed on one such outing), and on the Confederate side, D. H. Hill liked to “treat” his staff to enemy attention. Grant (without any of the theatrics of a Custer, Torbert, or Hill) also displayed conspicuous coolness when he and his staff came under fire at Shiloh. Leander Stillwell saw him, “on horseback, of course, accompanied by his staff, and was evidently making a personal examination of his lines. He went by us in a gallop, riding between us and the battery, at the head of his staff. The battery was then broadly engaged, shot and shell were whizzing overhead, and cutting off the limbs of trees, but Grant rode through the storm with perfect indifference, seemingly paying no more attention to the missiles than if they had been paper wads.”
Although occasionally tarnished by ego and showing off, these displays also had a practical purpose—to get men to fight, either by encouraging them into willing emulation or shaming them into begrudging imitation. Confederate major general Richard Taylor (president Zachary Taylor’s son and a very gifted tactician), commanding raw troops who were being hammered by shot and shell as they cowered within their breastworks during an attempted relief of the siege of Vicksburg, realized that it was “absolutely necessary to give the men some morale; and, mounting the breastwork, I made a cigarette, struck fire with my briquet [cigarette lighter] and walked up and down, smoking. Near the line was a low tree with spreading branches, which a young officer, Bradford by name, proposed to climb, as to have a better view. I gave him my field glass, and this plucky youngster sat in his tree as quietly as in a chimney corner, though the branches were cut away [by bullets]. These examples … gave confidence to the men, who began to expose themselves.”
But there was often a price to pay. A Union officer, desperately trying to halt the retreat after the defeat at Chickamauga, “would walk deliberately up to the rail pile and stand erect and exposed till his men rallied to him. For hours he did this,” until he was killed. And with a higher chance of being killed compared with that which his men faced, an officer had to come to terms with it—one way or another. Fatalism helped. Hilary A. Herbert, colonel of the Eighth Alabama (wounded at the Wilderness and after the war, secretary of the navy), was asked if he dwelled much on the shortened odds of being killed due to his prominence on the field:
Yes, very frequently. But why do you ask?
Well, I thought from [the] fact that you never say anything about it, and then for the manner in which you expose yourself … recklessly, that you had an idea that you were in no danger of being killed.
O, no … I know that the probabilities are that a colonel of an infantry regiment … who does his duty, will in all probability be either killed or seriously wounded. I have … simply made up my mind that I must take my chances.… That is all there is to it.
Another motivation was of a very different order: simple ambition. Throughout the history of warfare the god of battle has flipped his coin: death on the tail, promotion on the face. During the terrible fighting for the “Bloody Angle” of the Mule Shoe salient during the battle of Spotsylvania, Brigadier General Abner M. Perrin of Jubal Early’s corps roundly declared, “I shall come out of this fight a live major general or a dead brigadier.” He was killed in a hail of bullets. Style was important. There are many accounts of what might be called a rhetorical flourish in the face of death, like that of a Louisiana captain: artilleryman Robert Stiles described how the officer, whose left arm was taken off at the shoulder by a shell, swung his horse around in order to spare his men the sight of the ghastly wound, and called out jauntily, “Keep it up boys, I’ll be back in a moment.” He then, considerately, fell dead from his horse when out of sight.
But for some, neither stoicism nor ambition nor the obligations of rank could overcome the fear of death. At Spotsylvania a Union officer was spotted lurking behind a log. He “took a cartridge out of his vest pocket, tore the paper with his strong white teeth, spilled the powder into his right palm, spat on it, and then, first casting a quick glance around to see if he was observed, he rubbed the moistened powder on his face and hands and then dust-coated the war paint. Instantly he was transformed from a trembling coward who lurked behind a tree into an exhausted brave taking a little well-earned repose.”
“Men go to war to kill or to get killed … and should expect no tenderness,” declared General William Tecumseh Sherman. For senior officers there was another intimacy with death in battle—they were responsible for unleashing it. Some were utterly hardened (at least superficially) to the carnage for which they were responsible. Sherman, for example, could recognize, in a detached way, the horror of battle. After the first battle of Bull Run (Manassas), he said, “For the first time I saw the carnage of battle, men lying in every conceivable shape, and mangled in a horrible way; but this did not make a particular impression on me,” for he knew that the “very object of war is to produce results by death and slaughter.” During the Atlanta campaign he even affected a jaunty callousness, saying: “I begin to regard the death and mangling of a couple of thousand men as a small affair, a kind of morning dash.”
Ulysses Grant was not insensitive to the death he orchestrated but suppressed the pity, perhaps out of self-preservation. After the bloody battle of Champion’s Hill (1863) during the Vicksburg campaign, he recorded: “While a battle is raging one can see his enemy mowed down by the thousand, or the ten thousand, with great composure; but after the battle these scenes are distressing, and one is naturally disposed to do as much to alleviate the suffering of an enemy as a friend.” But he had to harden his heart, recognizing that the side “that never counted its dead” would achieve the ultimate victory. On the Confederate side, Lee could be deeply affected by the death he visited on his men, as shown by his anguished reaction after the failure of the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimball assault on the third day of Gettysburg. On the other hand, Stonewall Jackson adopted a Cromwellian sternness as far as the deaths of his own men were concerned. He was doing God’s work, and that absolved him from all responsibility: “He places no value on human life,” George Pickett wrote of Jackson, “caring for nothing so much as fighting, unless it be praying.” Jackson once looked upon a line of his own dead as unaffected as if he were at a review. “Not a muscle quivered,” Confederate artillerist Robert Stiles records. “He was the ideal of concentration—imperturbable, resistless.” To an officer who had protested that the attack Jackson had just ordered was suicidal and “my regiment would be exterminated,” Jackson snapped back: “Colonel, do your duty. I have made every arrangement to care for the wounded and bury the dead.”
Other generals were undone by their tender hearts. George McClellan suffered the tortures of the damned: “I am tired of the sickening sight of the battlefield, with its mangled corpses and poor suffering wounded! Victory has no charms for me while purchased at such cost. I shall be only too glad when all is over.” And on another occasion: “Every poor fellow that is killed or wounded almost haunts me! … I have honestly done my best to save as many lives as possible.” His concern for minimizing casualties endeared him to his men, if not to his political masters, who had a war to win and needed sterner stuff with which to do it.
And how did ordinary soldiers view death on the battlefield? Two concepts fought with each other. On the one hand was the idea of death as noble, heroic, and redeemed by sacrifice, with the body itself lying, as though as evidence, in peaceful repose. On the other hand, there was the irredeemable and meaningless waste, the bodies mutilated beyond any possibility of sentimental embalming. It was, of course, a religious age, perhaps more fundamentally in the South (whose army was periodically swept with fervent bouts of revivalism) than the North. For both sides, religion provided most, though by no means all, the solace that acted as an inoculation against the horror. (Many others found that booze did more to reconcile them to mortality than religion ever could.)
The first contact with violent death was like a smack across the face. On the second day’s fighting at Shiloh, a Union soldier recorded the shock:
The first dead soldier we saw had fallen in the road; our artillery had crushed and mangled his limbs, and ground him into the mire. He lay a bloody, loathsome mass, the scraps of his blue uniform furnishing the only distinguishable evidence that a hero there had died. At this sight I saw many a manly fellow gulp down his heart.… Near him lay a slender rebel boy—his face in the mud, his brown hair floating in a muddy pool. Soon a dead Major, then a Colonel, then the lamented Wallace [General W. H. L. Wallace, who died from his wounds three days later], yet alive, were passed in quick and sickening succession. The gray gloaming of the misty morning gave a ghostly pallor to the faces of the dead. The disordered hair, dripping from the night’s rain, the distorted and passion-marked faces, the stony, glaring eyes, the blue lips, the glistening teeth.… Never, perhaps, did raw men go into battle under such discouraging auspices as did this division. There was everything to depress, nothing to inspirit, and yet determination was written upon their pale faces.
Death could come with stunning swiftness. Leander Stillwell would never forget “how awfully I felt on seeing for the first time a man killed in battle … I stared at his body, perfectly horrified! Only a few seconds ago that man was alive and well, and now he was lying on the ground, done for, forever!” Stillwell was transfixed by how swiftly the human could be transformed into a mere object. The writer William Dean Howells also describes the existential shock of what might be called the “absoluteness” of the battlefield dead. It was a spiritual gutting: “At the sight of these dead men whom other men had killed, something went out of him, the habit of his lifetime, that never came back again: the sense of the sacredness of life and the impossibility of destroying it.” Union cavalryman Charles Weller reflected on the battle of Chickamauga with despair: “What at the present time is a man’s life worth! Comparatively nothing[;] he falls and is forgotten except by his immediate friends.” A soldier of the Sixth Iowa mirrored Weller’s sentiment; war forced him to “estimate life at its true value—nothing.”
There were two main ways of combating this emptiness. One was to invest death with religious and patriotic significance; it was transformed from something final or meaningless into an act consecrated by patriotic nobility and Christian sacrifice. The dead passed over to a better world, not only released from the tawdriness of temporal existence but blessedly rewarded in the afterlife. Stonewall Jackson’s last words are a lyrical evocation of that premise: “Let us cross the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” A devout Confederate at Gettysburg was hit during the last gasp of the battle, and one of his comrades describes how “a terrific fire burst, thundering, flashing, crashing [and] there lay our noble comrade … limb thrice broken, the body gashed with wounds, the top of the skull blown off and the brain actually fallen out.” But no matter how appalling this was, it could be redeemed because a “chariot and horses of fire had caught [him] up into Heaven.” A nurse wrote to the mother of a deceased soldier that he “had been conscious of his death and … not afraid but willing to die … he is better off.” The age revered the cult of dying well—the ars moriendi. Much popular literature and art was devoted to it, and inevitably a good deal was of the maudlin tie-a-yellow-ribbon variety. Joseph Hopkins Twichell, a Union soldier, was no stay-at-home bleeding heart. He had seen “a hideous nightmare … too piteous for speech … as if the universe would stop with the horror of it,” during the Peninsular campaign of 1862, but turned to the plangent sentimentality of the period to deal with it:
They’re left behind!
Our steps are turned away:
We forward march, but these forever stay
Halted, till trumpets wake the final day:—
They’re left behind!
The young and strong and brave:
The sighing pines mourn sweetly o’er their grave;
Mute, moving grief the summer branches wave,
Good-bye dear friends!
They’re left behind!
Comfort!—our heavy souls!
Their battle shout forever onward rolls
Till God’s own freedom gathers in the poles!
The other way to deal with death in battle was to embrace and revel in the nihilism, disarming death by a rebellious refusal to sanctify it. Cynicism born of experience became a way of flipping the bird at the fates. Charles Wainwright, a Union colonel, reported that when a mortally wounded man fell against him, he had “no more feeling for him, than if he had tripped over a stump and fallen; nor do I think it would have been different had he been my brother.” A Confederate soldier described how “we cook and eat, talk and laugh with the enemy’s dead lying all about us as though they were so many hogs.” A Federal soldier echoed the sentiment: “We dont mind the sight of dead men no more than if they was dead Hogs.… The rebels was laying over the field bloated up as big as a horse and as black as a negro and the boys run over them and serch their pockets … unconcerned.… I run acros a big graback as black as the ase of spade it startled me a little at first but I stopt to see what he had but he had been tended too so I past on my way rejoicing.” Men’s souls became annealed by repeated exposure to death: “By being accustomed to sights which would make other men’s hearts sick to behold, our men soon became heart-hardened, and sometimes scarcely gave a pitying thought to those who were unfortunate enough to get hit. Men can get accustomed to everything; and the daily sight of blood and mangled bodies so blunted their finer sensibilities as almost to blot out all love, all sympathy from the heart.”
For many “heart-hardened” soldiers, chaplains were despised as thinly disguised agents of army authority whose job it was to sell the men on the nobility of death in battle. Abner Small describes how before the battle of Chancellorsville the Union chaplains “were eloquent in their appeals to patriotism, and pictured in glowing colors the glory that would crown the dead and the blazons of promotion that would decorate the surviving heroes.” Suddenly, enemy shells start to explode: “The screams of horses, and the shouted commands of officers were almost drowned out by the yells and laughter of the men as the brave chaplains, hatless and bookless, their coat-tails streaming in the wind, fled madly to the rear over stone walls, and hedges and ditches, followed by gleefully shouted counsel: ‘Stand firm; put your trust in the Lord!’ ”107 And to those flag wavers back in the safety of the civilian world, battle-hardened soldiers were only too willing to prick their patriotic bubble: “We ain’t doing much just now,” writes Francis Amasa Walker, a Federal soldier anticipating the next attack, “but hope in a few more days to satisfy the public taste with our usual Fall Spectacle—forty percent of us knocked over.”
The ever-present possibility of being killed inevitably unhinged some men, who in their desperation looked to a different kind of magic for protection by investing some mundane object with totemic powers. Colonel C. Irvine Walker recounts how a Confederate private who had previously shown signs of cowardice and had been reprimanded for it took his place in the battle line, “his rifle on his shoulder, and holding up in front of him a frying pan.” He moved forward, from frying pan to fire as it were, and was killed.
But for others it enhanced life, making it sharper, more intense. Fear was replaced with an adrenaline surge of exaltation. Rice C. Bull, a Union infantryman at Chancellorsville, describes just such a transformation when the Confederate attackers finally came within range: “Most of us … held our fire until we saw the line of smoke that showed that they were on the ridge; then every gun was fired. It was then load and fire at will as fast as we could. Soon the nervousness and fear we had when we began to fight passed away and a feeling of fearlessness and rage took its place.” At Antietam (Sharpsburg), Captain Frank Holsinger felt a similar elation: “We now rush forward. We cheer; we are in ecstasies. While shells and canister are still resonant and minnies [minié balls] sizzling spitefully, yet I think this one of the supreme moments of my existence.” Major James A. Connolly described the sheer elation of death defied. Following a successful assault on a Confederate fortification during the battle of Jonesboro, the last such during the 1864 Atlanta campaign: “I could have lain down on that blood stained grass, amid the dying and the dead and wept with excess of joy. I have no language to express the rapture one feels in the moment of victory, but I do know that at such a moment one feels as if the joy were worth risking a hundred lives to attain it. Men at home will read of that battle and be glad of our success, but they can never feel as we felt, standing there quivering with excitement, amid the smoke and blood, and fresh horrors and grand trophies of that battle field.”
Taking sensual pleasure—eating, drinking, smoking, sleeping—among the carnage was, however bizarre it may appear, a gesture of affirmation of life. After Antietam (Sharpsburg), Union troops bivouacked among the dead Confederates. “Many were black as Negroes,” notes David Hunter Strother, “heads and faces hideously swelled, covered with dust until they looked like clods. Killed during the charge and flight, their attitudes were wild and frightful.… Among these loathsome earthsoiled vestiges of humanity … in the midst of all this carrion our troops sat cooking, eating, jabbering, and smoking; sleeping among the corpses so that but for the color of the skin it was difficult to distinguish the living from the dead.”
For some, killing was another dimension of joy, as though by taking a life the killer replenished his own. Byrd Willis, a Confederate, saw a comrade “jumping about, as if in great agony. I immediately ran up to him to ascertain when he was hurt & if I could do any thing of him—but upon reaching him I found that he was not hurt but was executing a species of Indian War Dance around a Poor Yankee (who lay on his back in the last agonies of death) exclaiming I killed him! I killed him! Evidently carried away with excitement and delight.”
Captured black soldiers and their white officers ran a considerable risk of being summarily executed. At the infamous Fort Pillow massacre of April 1864, the Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest oversaw a systematic killing of black soldiers and some of their white officers, after their surrender. Texan George Gautier described his regiment’s actions after it had defeated black troops at Monroe, Louisiana: “I never saw so many dead negroes in my life. We took no prisoners, except the white officers, fourteen in number; these were lined up and shot after the negroes were finished. Next day they were thrown into a wagon, hauled to the Ouchita river and thrown in. Some were hardly dead—that made no difference—in they went.”
The defeated whites of both sides would be extremely unlucky to be put to death summarily. However, Confederates who had been involved in the Fort Pillow incident were killed. Although many white Union soldiers shared the racial prejudice of their Southern counterparts, Fort Pillow was an insult to the cause that would have to be paid for in blood: “At the battle of Resaca in May 1864, the 105th Illinois captured a Confederate battery. From underneath one of the gun carriages a big, red-haired man with no shirt fearfully emerged. He wore a tattoo on one arm that read ‘Fort Pillow.’ His captors read it. He was bayoneted and shot instantly. Another regiment in Sherman’s army was reported to have killed twenty-three rebel prisoners, first asking them if they remembered Fort Pillow. The Wisconsin soldier who recorded this incident claimed flatly, ‘When there is no officer with us, we take no prisoners.’ ”
On the obverse side of the coin, the fellowship of warriors, no matter which side they were on, could save the life of a captured soldier. Rice C. Bull of the 123rd New York was captured at Chancellorsville, and when a civilian threatened him and his fellow captors with harm, a Confederate soldier stepped in to remind the civilian that “these are wounded men. You have no right or business to insult them.” The point was that soldiers inhabited the world of soldiers, and only they could arbitrate its rules; no others had the right to intercede. The rules were, more often than not, respectful and compassionate. A Union soldier noted that Confederates captured at Port Hudson in July 1863 were brave fighters and “in the twinkling of an eye we were together.… The Rebs are mostly large, fine-looking men. They are about as hard up for clothes as we are.… They have treated the prisoners [Union soldiers captured earlier] as well as they could, giving them the same sort of food they ate themselves.”
Union soldier William Aspinall of the Forty-Seventh Indiana was wounded at Champion Hill near Vicksburg on May 16, 1863:
In the evening some of my comrades brought me blankets, doing without themselves, and made me a bed in a fence corner outside of the hospital. In a little while a Confederate soldier came along. He had been shot somewhere in the bowels and was in great pain. I said—“here partner, I will share my bed with you”—and he laid down beside me. He told me that he was from Savannah, Georgia, and that he could not get well. He wanted me to write to his wife and children and gave me a card with their address. I was to tell them that I had seen him and what had become of their beloved husband and father. Being weak and exhausted from the loss of blood, I dozed off to sleep and left him talking to me. In a little while I awoke and spoke to him two or three times, but he did not answer. I put my hand over on his face; he was cold in death. My foe and friend had crossed the river.
The problem was the marginals, the pathetic bar-stool warriors, who found themselves for a moment enjoying power beyond their expectations: “Whenever we fell into the hands of veteran soldiers who had fought us bravely on the battlefield, we received all of the kind and considerate attention due a prisoner of war, but whenever we were in charge of militia or that class of persons who, too cowardly to take the field, enlist in the home guard, we were treated in the most outrageous manner.”
The distinction between honorable and dishonorable extended to categories of killing. Killing pickets (sentries), for example, was considered a kind of assassination, perhaps because their role was essentially passive and they were too easy a target. There was an understanding on both sides that familiarity with each other’s pickets afforded protection, and killing them when no other general action was going on was denounced as “a miserable and useless kind of murder.” A Southerner who knew he was within range of the enemy felt safe because “we were now real soldiers on both sides and well knew that mere picket shooting helped neither side and was only murder.”
Sniping was also considered “dishonorable” and denounced as “murderous villainy,” but it was a villainy indulged in by both sides. As a Union private fulminated:
Sharpshooting at North Anna [in 1864] was exceedingly severe and murderous. We were greatly annoyed by it, as a campaign cannot be decided by killing a few hundred enlisted men—killing them most unfairly and when they were of necessity exposed.… Our sharpshooters were as bad as the Confederates.… They could sneak around trees or lurk behind stumps, or cower in wells or in cellars, and from the safety of their lairs murder a few men. Put the sharpshooters in battle-line and they were no better, no more effective, than the infantry of the line, and they were not half as decent. There was an unwritten code of honor among the infantry that forbade the shooting of men while attending to the imperative calls of nature, and these sharp-shooting brutes were constantly violating that rule. I hated sharpshooters, both Confederate and Union, in those days, and was always glad to see them killed.
As will be seen in the two world wars, “attending to the imperative calls of nature” could be one of the riskiest things a soldier could do.
The dead were able to offer very tangible benefits to the living. Joshua Chamberlain, later to become the hero of Little Round Top at Gettysburg, found himself pinned among the corpses of the attack on Marye’s Heights on December 13, 1862, at Fredericksburg: “The night chill had now woven a misty veil over the field.… At last, outwearied and depressed with the desolate scene, my own strength sunk … I moved two dead men a little and lay down between them, making a pillow of the breast of a third. The skirt of his overcoat drawn over my face helped also to shield me from the bleak winds. There was some comfort even in this companionship.”
There was, of course, as there always has been, the stripping of corpses—the “peeling,” as they called it. And sometimes the dead continued their beneficence long after their demise. A Confederate, R. H. Peck, happened to pass over the ground of a particularly hard-fought engagement of nine months earlier: “He would always remember crossing a field where the Yankees had delivered a determined charge. It was only with difficulty that he could keep from stepping on bones still wrapped in torn bits of blue uniform.… While crossing the ghastly little field, Peck noticed a man from his regiment who had been a dentist before the war. Busy examining the skulls to see if they contained any gold fillings, he had already extracted quite a number and had his haversack completely full of teeth.”
In other ways, too, the ripple of economic benefit radiated from the killed. They provided a rich feeding ground for energetic entrepreneurs. There were search agencies like the official-sounding U.S. Army Agency (in fact a private company located on Bleecker Street in Manhattan) that for a share of the deceased’s back pay or the widow’s pension would locate the body of a loved one. Embalmers such as Thomas Holmes (who processed four thousand bodies at one hundred dollars each during the war), and the manufacturers of metallic coffins—“Warranted Air-Tight”—that could “be placed in the Parlour without fear of any odor escaping therefrom” (fifty dollars each), literally and metaphorically cleaned up.
Bodies were utilized in other, less physical ways: as agents of propaganda. Confederate surgeon John Wyeth describes how after Chickamauga, “most of the Confederate dead had been gathered in long trenches and buried; but the Union dead were still lying where they fell. For its effect on the survivors it was the policy of the victor to hide his own losses and let those of the other side be seen.” A Union soldier, Daniel Crotty, describes how one could “read” the facial expressions of the dead as justification of the righteousness of the cause: “The dead of both friend and foe lie side by side, but it is remarked by all that the pleasant smile on the patriot’s face contrasts strangely with the horrid stare of the rebel dead.” However, another Union soldier, Frank Wilkeson, dismissed the whole fanciful and self-serving notion: “I do not believe that the face of a dead soldier, lying on a battle-field, ever truthfully indicates the mental or physical anguish, or peacefulness of mind, which he suffered or enjoyed before his death.” Wilkeson concludes bluntly, “It goes for nothing. One death was as painless as the other.”
And long after the war, the “glorious dead” served yet another profitable function. The grim reality of their deaths was replaced by something altogether more palatable, more stirring … more suitable as a motivation for the next generation of warriors. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who after the war ascended to the Supreme Court, dramatically represents this transition. As a young officer he had been grievously wounded and almost died. He had been through the grinder and, in the process, lost his appetite for the rhetoric of patriotism: “He had grown weary of such words as ‘cowardice,’ ‘gallantry,’ and ‘chivalry.’ ” Disillusioned, he eventually resigned his commission. But by 1885 a complete transformation had taken place. Like some American samurai, he discovered a fervent belief in the mystical importance of a warrior’s unquestioning obedience unto death: “In the midst of doubt, the collapse of creeds, there is one thing I do not doubt … and that is that the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he had no notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.… It is only when time has passed that you see that its message was divine … our hearts were touched with fire.”
The military society of Italy had been transformed by the wars. The careers open to those who made war their profession were greatly changed, and a much higher proportion of Italian men would be expected to spend some time undergoing formal military training in militia companies.
In the fifteenth century, Italian professional soldiers had predominantly been cavalrymen, although maintaining their companies was a problem for condottieri when they were between contracts. Infantry constables might be given retainers in peacetime by condottieri or by states, but only limited numbers of their men would be kept on. After the early years of the wars, the French and Spanish kings did not want to hire condottieri and their companies in the manner usual in Italy; if they were to hire Italian troops they preferred to have them fit into the existing structure of their own armies. Individuals given commands might be able to recruit at least some of their men themselves, or they might be given charge of an existing unit.
These changes applied to Italian condottieri princes as well as other captains. They might still be given military commands, but the system by which the maintenance of a military company was part of the patronage network binding subjects to their prince, and condotte were an integral element in the structure of relations between the Italian powers, weakened and lost much of its significance. Princes such as the d’Este of Ferrara or the Gonzaga of Mantua might be given commands or alliances in time of war, and might hope these would become permanent, but they could also find themselves expected to provide additional troops, artillery and munitions, food supplies and financial loans, as a gesture of loyalty to their patron or ally. Foreign monarchs were generally disappointed by the results in arrangements made with Italian princes. Often they did not get the commitment of the prince and the resources of his territory to the war that they expected. Italian princes, accustomed to regarding the primary purpose of troops paid for by condotte as the defence of their own states, could be reluctant to move far from home. In the later stages of the wars, Henry II, looking for friends and allies to help him keep a foothold in central Italy, placed great reliance on subsidies to Italian princes. The king could have all of Italy, if he would pay a million écus a year, his paymaster there, Dominique du Gabre, warned in 1556, but the trouble was that once such payments began they could not be stopped and seemed `an hereditary contribution’.
Italians looking for a military career would have found fewer opportunities to serve in units of men-at-arms, as these were no longer the dominant element in armies. (At the beginning of the wars, the strength of armies tended to be defined in terms of the numbers of men-at-arms; by the end, principally in terms of the number of infantry.) Those who did become men-at-arms would find themselves last in line for pay, with their French and Spanish counterparts. The expectation was that men-at-arms would have means of their own, and could support themselves unsubsidized for long periods. Many nobles still preferred to serve as men-at-arms, because of the social prestige attached to it – serving as infantry commanders was one thing, serving as rank and file infantrymen quite another – and their employment was to some degree a political as much as a military choice. By the mid-sixteenth century, the Venetians, for example, had `accepted the fact that the retention of heavy cavalry was primarily an exercise in maintaining good relations with powerful Terraferma families and a diversion of their chivalrous pretensions into a form of public service’. Italians did make a reputation for themselves during the war as light cavalrymen. But units of light horse tended to be hired or raised for specific campaigns, so many would be dismissed in peacetime. Mercenary infantry companies of the size and professionalism of the landsknechts and the Swiss pike companies did not develop in Italy. The arquebus rather than the pike became the weapon of Italian specialist infantry. Companies of Italian infantry could be raised for a campaign, but were generally less valued than other infantry units in field armies. Usually paid less, they were the first to be turned off when funds ran down. They were more valued as garrison troops, and it was acknowledged they could perform better under siege than the Swiss or Spanish.
As elsewhere in Europe, by the second half of the sixteenth century, some kind of military service in a militia was becoming a much more common experience for Italian men. It has been estimated that in the early seventeenth century one in fifteen Italian men was enrolled in a militia. In Venice in the mid-sixteenth century, of the 200,000 men on the Terraferma believed to be fit for active service, one in seven was a militiaman. Militias had fought in some of the campaigns of the Italian Wars – the Venetian militia in the War of the League of Cambrai, for example, and the Florentine during the last stages of the Pisan War, the siege of Florence and the War of Siena. Cosimo de’ Medici was proud of his Florentine forces, 23,000 strong, `a very fine band, all armed, some with corselets and pikes’, he told the Venetian ambassador around 1560; another 7,000 were raised in his new Sienese lands: `Sienese territory always produces good soldiers’. For him, as for Emanuele Filiberto, whose military reforms in Savoy and Piedmont in the 1560s attracted the interest of other rulers, a strong militia, well trained and well-armed, was an important element in the image of the strong and independent prince that they wished to project.
All the militias, theirs included, were intended to be primarily defence forces. For those in states with coastlines exposed to attacks from the Turks and Barbary corsairs, defence against raiders from the sea was their primary role. Venice had a separate galley militia, distinct from the forces in the Terraferma. The need to defend a long coastline was the primary reason for the formation of the militia in the kingdom of Naples in the 1560s; no permanent militia forces were raised in landlocked Lombardy until the seventeenth century. Service in the militia gave many civilians training in the use of military weapons, generally the arquebus and the pike. Permission to keep and carry arms was one of its main attractions. The cavalry unit formed in Naples in 1577 – initially 1,200, increased to 3,000 in 1520, alongside the 20,000-24,000 foot – seems to have been an exception to the general rule that militias tended to be infantry. Those selected for cavalry service were to serve at their own cost, and were to be expert horsemen already. The many barons of the kingdom provided an ample pool from which they could be recruited. The cavalry units Emanuele Filiberto aimed to raise alongside his infantry militia were to be provided by fief-holders, in accordance with longstanding obligations of the landed nobility of Savoy and Piedmont.
Mastering the skills of horsemanship necessary to fight on horseback was becoming part of a fashionable education for members of the urban nobilities who had no intention of ever going to fight in a war. Learning the art of handling a sword and a rapier was also an essential skill for those who affected a sense of personal honour to be defended and maintained by duelling, if need be, following a formal code of practice that developed among the military nobility and professional soldiers. Such social trends were evident in other parts of Europe too, but the adoption by many members of the civic nobilities of Italy of the ethos of the military nobility was a notable development. Although the military nobility had often had close ties to towns and close association with members of civic elites, there had been acute awareness of a social and cultural distinction between them, on both sides, and sometimes a measure of mutual disdain. Contact with the nobles and soldiers of other nations during and after the wars spurred on members of the civic elites to assert their right not only to be considered as nobles, but as gentlemen with personal honour to be respected and defended. For a member of a civic nobility, becoming a professional soldier – serving in the cavalry or as an infantry commander – could be seen as conferring or confirming aristocratic status. The old landed nobility, on the other hand, became less military in character. Their ability to raise large numbers of fighting men among their tenants and partisans and their possession of fortresses, which had been the foundation of their political power before and during the wars, counted for much less in the new, more pacific political system.
After the wars ended, there was much less scope in Italy for those who wanted to have a military career, or to spend some time soldiering to enhance their credentials as a gentleman. There was ample scope for military service elsewhere in Europe, in the Netherlands, for example, or in campaigns against the Ottomans on land and sea, and many Italians went to serve abroad. Most spent some time in the service of Spain. For many Roman barons, serving the king of Spain or France was preferable to service in the papal army – just as serving the pope had often not been the first choice of earlier generations of the military nobility of the Papal States. Neapolitan and Lombard nobles, who sought to win the favour of the king by military service, had to leave Italy to do so, even though Naples and Lombardy had a significant military function within the Spanish empire as bases and training-grounds for troops. Three of the tercios, the permanent infantry corps who formed the backbone of the Spanish army were based in Italy, in Naples, Lombardy and Sicily. Charles V had ordered that each tercio should be formed of men from one nation only, to pro- mote cohesion, but they were recruited in Spain, not Italy. Neapolitans could serve only in the militia, or abroad. In Lombardy, Italians were not supposed to serve even as garrison troops; fortresses were supposed to be manned by Spanish soldiers. In practice, some Italians could be found among the garrisons, if they pretended to be Spanish.
As the presence of foreign soldiers became a permanent fact of life for the people of Lombardy and Naples, and as a greater proportion of Italian men had undergone some form of military training as militiamen or as part of the education of gentlemen, so in many areas fortifications became a more dominant element of the landscapes and townscapes of Italy. Castles and fortified villages, walled towns and cities had been iconic elements of the medieval Italian landscapes portrayed in countless works of art, but the new principles of military engineering demanded radical changes to the appearance of the towns and cities provided with modern fortifications. These demanded broad swathes of cleared ground around fortifications and outside the lower, thicker city walls to provide clear sight and firing lines, and clear access to the walls inside the city, and the facility for defenders to move rapidly from one point to another. Older town walls were often integrated into the urban fabric, with buildings right up against them on the inside, and busy suburbs on the outside; often certain trades and industrial activities had become concentrated in the suburbs, where there was more space and less potential for annoying the neighbours. Building new fortifications could result in the levelling of many homes, business premises and religious buildings, and thriving communities would be swept away. It was easier for people to understand and tolerate such destruction in time of war; it was much more difficult to accept when there was no immediate threat.
Extensive programmes of fortifications, designed to be a coherent defensive system, were undertaken in several states. Some, like the fortresses and watchtowers built to defend the coasts of the kingdom of Naples, might well have been built even if the Italian Wars had never happened. But many were designed to strengthen defences whose weaknesses had been revealed during the course of the wars. In the duchy of Milan, the cities on the western frontier received particular attention, but other places such as Cremona and Milan itself, where Ferrante Gonzaga began the construction of new city walls when he was governor, were also given new defences. The Genoese initiated the building of a new circuit of walls and defences around their city after they came under threat from the French in 1536. In the city of Naples, the construction of a new fortress, Sant’ Elmo, in the form of a six-pointed star, on the hill of San Martino was intended by the viceroy Pedro de Toledo to dominate the city as well as strengthen its defences (and an entire quarter of the city was given over to be lodgings for Spanish troops). A new fortress at L’Aquila was intended to assert control over an area of rooted Angevin sympathies.
The Venetians had begun modernizing their fortifications in the Terraferma in the late fifteenth century, but the programme was extended and accelerated after the shock of the defeat at Agnadello in 1509. Two of their commanders, Bartolomeo d’Alviano and Francesco Maria della Rovere, had great influence over the planning and design of these works. As well as providing protection for the population and Venetian armies, the fortifications were intended to discourage invasion. `Fortifications and their garrisons provided the essential base from which to carry out Venice’s on-the-whole successful policy of armed neutrality’ – the policy adopted by Venice from the 1530s. A programme of fortifications was an integral part of Cosimo de’ Medici’s presentation of his new duchy as a strong state. Apart from the fortress in Florence itself, his major works were the fortified naval base he created on the island of Elba at Portoferraio, which he named Cosmopolis, and fortresses constructed to control routes through the Sienese, as at Grosseto, and the city of Siena itself, where near the ruins of the fortress begun by the Spanish, a huge quadrilateral fortress, with great angle bastions at each corner, was begun in 1560.
The famous city walls and ramparts of Lucca, begun in the 1540s and finally completed a century later, still convey an idea of how impressive and striking the appearance of cities enclosed by the new style of fortifications could be. Even with the ramparts planted with trees, and turned into a park running the length of the walls, they still sharply divide the city from its environs, and magnificent as they are, can still give an impression of constraining the city, although Lucca has now expanded beyond the walls, albeit at a respectful distance from them. When the new fortifications first went up around the towns and cities of Italy during and after the wars, their impact on the lives of the population was considerable. Apart from the destruction they entailed, these projects typically took decades to complete, with hundreds, even thousands, of (often conscripted) labourers toiling away. Often there would be fewer gates through the new walls, familiar routes would be cut, the sense of difference between the world inside and outside the walls greater than before. Many of these elaborate fortifications were never tested in war, and people must often have become more aware of how they inhibited urban expansion, rather than of their defensive purpose. For many Italians, the new fortifications remained the most tangible legacy of the Italian Wars.