Bull Run to Boer War: How the American Civil War Changed the British Army by Michael Somerville

Published by Helion & Company, LTD, available from Casemate Publishers

Michael Somerville examines the popular and long held belief that the American Civil War revealed the lessons of modern, industrialized warfare to the Western world (see Hagerman’s The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare, Indiana University Press, 1988). This argument goes on that European armies failed to study these campaigns throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, resulting in high casualties and shocking reverses in the wars of the early twentieth century (see Luvaas’ The Military Legacy of the Civil War: The European Inheritance, University of Chicago Press, 1959) . Somerville elects to conduct his study through the lens of the late Victorian British Army, which provides him with a rich vein of primary sources to mine. His analysis covers the traditional combat arms of artillery, cavalry, and infantry, but also delves into discussions of engineering and fortification, the emerging art and science of aerial observation, strategic movement via railways and the raising and maintenance of volunteer troops as an element of national defense. Somerville’s study reveals that the British officers thought broadly and deeply about the campaigns of the American Civil War to prepare for future conflict. Despite this study, they sometimes reached conclusions that ran did not withstand the test of combat, as the British Army learned in combat against the Boers in South Africa at the dawn of the twentieth century.

Somerville directly tackles the issue of author Jay Luvaas’ influence on the historiography of European interpretations of the American Civil War experience. The opening pages of Bull Run to Boer War address the American historian Jay Luvaas’ thesis that British military professionals initially expressed interest in military developments in the United States in the 1860s, but quickly switched focus to the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian wars that led to the establishment of modern Germany. Luvaas did note that one significant British military theorist, G.F.R. Henderson did study the civil war, and exert influence over a generation of British officers training at the Staff College in the late nineteenth century. Henderson’s efforts, Luvaas contended, while extensive gave too much weight to the operations of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the eastern theater and thus did not cover organizational, doctrinal, or operational developments in a comprehensive manner. Moreover, student officers did not make a systematic study of Henderson’s work, but rather absorbed only enough to pass competitive examinations for Staff College matriculation.

Luvaas drew his conclusions from an analysis of the work of significant 20th century military theorists, Basil Liddell-Hart. Liddell-Hart built a significant reputation as a military analyst in the aftermath of the First World War. He served as British Army officers during the war and developed strong opinions that the technical sophistication evidenced on the Western Front had its origins in the American Civil War. The Union Army’s operations in the Eastern Theater in the period 1864-65 illustrated how an army equipped with modern weapons and supported by an industrialized logistics base could effectively grind an enemy into submission through attrition. Liddell Hart particularly believed the British senior commanders, had mishandled operations during World War 1 by misapplying the concept of attrition. In the years after the war, he became a proponent of the principles of bypassing enemy strengths, attacking vulnerabilities and actively deceiving the enemy as to one’s intentions. Combined, these elements comprised what Liddell Hart termed “the indirect approach”. He believed that the American Civil War provided a glowing example of this concept in the operational art of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman.

As a graduate student Luvaas contacted Liddell Hart to seek his opinions on how British officers of the late 19th century studied the Civil War. Liddell Hart responded and the two established a long-term correspondence. Luvaas became a proponent of Liddell Hart’s views, particularly the idea that the British army failed to study or misapplied the lessons of the Civil War, disregarded the consequences of fighting a war of attrition and failed to apply a strategic indirect approach to break the deadlock on the Western Front.

By analyzing Luvaas’ correspondence with Liddell Hart, Somerville determined that Liddell Hart greatly influenced Luvaas’ assumptions and research about how the British Army considered the Civil War, the conclusions drawn and the impact of those conclusions on British military thought. Somerville’s own research illustrates that British neither shunned study of the American Civil War nor misunderstood the lessons its lessons. Rather, they looked at the war in a broader context of the defense needs of Britain’s Imperial Empire, observations gleaned from the wars of continental European powers, and the rapidly evolving technological landscape of the late 19th century. Somerville paints a picture of a thoughtful, professional officer corps who viewed the Civil War with an eye to trying to discern trends that would influence the future of warfare. He concludes with the observation that British officers learned a great deal regarding the development of tactics, doctrine, and material from a study of the Civil War but missed the larger strategic concepts governing how to fight a large, prolonged land war. He attributes this lapse to 19th century Britain’s strategic position that focused on naval supremacy for home defense, short overseas expeditions to maintain the Imperial Empire and a focus on diplomacy to maintain the balance of power in Europe.

The great strength of Somerville’s book is the depth of his primary research. He dug deeply into contemporary British War Office records, army drill regulations and pamphlets as well as articles and books written by serving officers regarding a variety of tactical aspects of the civil war. Equally impressive is the scope of secondary sources consulted. The level of research, along with the synthesis and presentation of ideas make the book a pleasure to read and is enumerated in a comprehensive bibliography. The book is lightly illustrated, using period photographs or sketches to emphasize the author’s points, but the focus in on the text and developing Somerville’s thesis.

Bull Run to Boer War is engaging history, analysis and writing in one package. Michael Somerville delivers with a scholarly, yet readable book that worthwhile reading for students of the British Army and the American Civil War alike.

Book review by Ben Powers


Readability- four stars

Historical Accuracy- five stars

Historical Value- five stars

Details- five stars

Overall Rating – four and a half stars

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