Officer Experience

“You are green, it is true; but they are green also. You are all green alike.”

-Abraham Lincoln in response to a message from Irvin McDowell shortly before the first battle of Manassas

The South’s seven military schools provided a large number of graduates that provided the South with a solid base of trained officers ready to be put to work at the start of the war. 7/8 military “colleges” in the entire country were in the slave states in 1860. 1/3 of the field officers of Virginia regiments in 1861 were alumni of the Virginia Military Institute. Most northern civilian officers had to learn to lead from experience, many paid for it with their lives. West Point professionals held most of the top commands in both the North and South – some of whom actually performed worse than political generals.

Amateurism and confusion could be used to describe the development, strategies and mobilization of armies. Most officers did not have much knowledge regarding strategic theory. West Point focused more on engineering, mathematics, fortification, army administration, and some tactics rather than strategy. Trial and error was the best teacher of Civil War strategy. The only experience any officers had was from the Mexican War but the two wars were fought in entirely different manners.

No officers had any experience leading large bodies of men. Prior to the civil war, most regiments served in detachments across the country in coastal fortifications, frontier forts, and recruiting and staff posts. Brigades were not combined into divisions until July 1861 or later, nor divisions into corps until the spring and summer of 1862. This means that no one, not even the officers had any experience fighting in such large numbers. Most of the officers commanded nothing larger than a company-sized unit, let alone a regiment, brigade, division, corps or army. Practical experience was lacking from all officers in both the Confederate and Union armies.

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