Book Review: The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare


The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare by Edward Hagerman is unlike almost any book written about the Civil War. This is a book about supply and tactics above all else and lays out the path to which the warfare of the Napoleonic era evolved during this conflict into a shadow of the wars to come. Three area are focused on: entrenchment, supply and signals.

The groundwork for the discussion of entrenchment is laid in the halls of West Point as the lessons of Jomini and Mahan and set in the minds of the future leaders of the coming conflict. Entrenchment is preached over frontal assaults as a method of defeating the enemy. The lessons are learned and held to differently by each of the leaders, some better than others. The devolution of maneuver to the eventual trench warfare is fascinating and well documented.

Supply is another major focus in this book. The depth that the author goes into to try to give a full picture of the supply issues faced in both armies is eye-opening and is provided in a detail that is rarely seen. This part of book explains many of the questions of why the armies didn’t move faster or farther. They couldn’t. At the same time the evolution of the supply system is shown from the development of the “Flying Column” to the focus of using mules for supply purposes instead of horses. These kind of details can easily overwhelm, but the author handles the facts and figures deftly, answering more questions than are asked.

In the title of the book the phrase “The Origins of Modern Warfare” is used. The one aspect of this title that is addressed in the book is the development of the Signal Corps on both sides. The telegraph is just coming into use as well as balloons, each have an effect of battlefield communication and give the commanders more options for controlling the battle. In other books these developments are normally simply footnotes, given short shrift. In this book they are treated as the integral components they are and seeing these new advancements come into their own in this book is refreshing.

The author takes each of these three aspects and walks the reader through the war, taking turns on both sides of the conflict. From start to finish he shows how each of the three aspects plays out and evolves. How each of these start at the beginning is a far cry from how the turn out at the end of the war. Never has this level of detail been seen in anything that I have read about the war and the perspective from which it is written can change the way the war is viewed.

At the time the book was published, Edward Hagerman was an Associate Professor of History at York University in Toronto Canada and the recipient of the Moncado Prize of the American Military Institute.