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Why Should I Study Military History?

Studying military history may not provide an exact blueprint for what to do in every situation. But the lessons learned from past experiences can encourage innovative thinking.

It is important that military professionals in today’s Army study military history. Studying military
history will not provide the military professional with an exact template on how to conduct warfare;
however, I believe that it does offer opportunities to explore the thought processes and the decisions of commanders faced with difficult circumstances. When a leader is confronted with uncertainty, it is important that he be capable of creative thought and ingenuity to defeat the enemy.

This article will explore the relevance of studying military history for the modern military professional and the vital role logistics plays in ultimate success or failure on the battlefield. Specifically, it will discuss the use of the railroad and the lessons learned from the Civil War that can provide valuable lessons for today’s logisticians.

The Lessons of the Past

Warfare requires innovative thinking and ingenuity. The enemy is always adapting to tactics used on the battlefield. It is important that the commander on the ground be perceptive and be able to apply critical thought not only to his actions but also to the enemy’s responses.

As Jay Luvaas noted in his article, “Military History: Is It Still Practicable?” in the March 1982 issue of Parameters, during World War II the Germans used lessons learned from the western front and applied them unchanged in the battle against the Soviet Union. Later, a German general remarked, “Not only did this misapplication of experience influence the operational plan against Russia, it also contributed to the final disappointment.” One can deduce that many factors influenced the lack of success of the same plan with a different enemy—factors that the commander on the ground did not take into consideration.

Many mission variables need to be considered when applying a lesson from history. Studying the events, situations, or circumstances facing the commander at the time is what provides the true lessons. How does that commander use the terrain or the weather to his advantage? The thought process or the events that led to the decision are important to understand.

Napoleon studied history and made use of its lessons. His application of those lessons is evident in his actions in 1806, when his army was in Italy. He had with him a history of a campaign conducted in the same theater by the French Marshal Maillebois over half a century before. In both cases, the object was to separate the allies and beat them in detail. In both cases, the same passes through the Maritime Alps were used. And in both cases, the first objectives were the same.

History served Napoleon well not so much because it provided a model to follow but because it offered ways to capitalize on what others before him had experienced. Napoleon saw the true benefit of studying history. He knew that he was on terrain that had been used to wage war in the past. If a commander is not well read or knowledgeable of events from the past, he may miss opportunities to use those lessons in the present. Napoleon capitalized on this concept in his campaign in Italy.

The Case of Railroads in the Civil War

As a logistician, I can learn a great deal from history. The process by which warfare has been sustained has changed drastically over the years. Armies no longer use animals with carts to transport supplies and troops across the battlefield. The pre-positioning of supplies and the ability to get those supplies stocked is vital to mission success. Applications of successful logistics can be found throughout history, as can the demise of armies unable to sustain their movements.

The use of the railroad during the American Civil War is an excellent example of using effective logistics to influence the outcome. The Union Army gained a significant advantage from its ability to capitalize on the use of railroads. In previous conflicts, the Army had to carry all that it would need for a campaign. The use of the railroad enabled the Union Army to carry more supplies and transport troops to designated locations.

The use of the railroad was not an easy process to master; conflicts had to be mitigated. The Union Army mastered this early on, and that success proved to be a tipping point for the successful employment of this critical asset. As Christopher R. Gabel observed in his study, “Railroad Generalship: Foundations of Civil War Strategy,” published by the Combat Studies Institute in 1983, most railroads in the 1860s were still small-scale, local enterprises, so movements typically involved coordination among multiple corporate entities. In order to establish priority and still allow the railroads to make a profit, the U.S. Government enacted legislation guaranteeing military priorities and concluded an informal agreement with the railroads allowing them to turn a fair profit.

This act was important, but the brilliance of this arrangement came from employing railroad managers to oversee and synchronize railroad operations. The Union realized the importance of using individuals who had a vast knowledge of the system and what it could do when employed effectively. The effectiveness of this strategy was realized on 25 September 1863, when the Union Army moved the XI and XII Corps from Virginia to Tennessee. The transportation department of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, not the War Department, planned and coordinated with the five other civilian railroads involved.

The Confederates were not as successful in capitalizing on the opportunities the railroad offered. The South did not assert itself as effectively as the North in establishing that the military had priority of movement. For most of the war, military traffic moved only at the discretion of civilian railroad managers. An example of the negative impact of this system was the support provided to General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Lee’s troops suffered from hunger because, even though they had a direct, 30-mile rail link to the national capital, where supplies were available, they were unable to get those supplies to the front.

During the Civil War, the railroad tended to restrict maneuver. Although the Army could move men and supplies in numbers that were unheard of before the use of the railroad, field armies tended to bunch up around their railheads. The new problem thus became secondary movement, and this was not taken into consideration.

The Union eventually defeated the Confederacy in large part because of its ability to manage the rail system to its advantage. The Union’s ability to synchronize movements and coordinate efforts early in its use of the railroad was key to its success. The Confederates’ inability to establish the priority of movements and then synchronize those efforts was their downfall. Successfully establishing logistics lines of effort is clearly evident when discussing the role of the railroad in the Civil War.

The use of the railroad is a valuable example to a logistician. The need to deconflict movement schedules, establish priorities, and understand the tactical picture are all applicable on today’s battlefield.

The tactician can also learn a lesson from the use of the railroad in the Civil War. Logistics can affect operational reach, either by reinforcing it or compromising it.

These are a few examples of how understanding the reasons for decisions or actions made by leaders in the past can provide valuable lessons for today’s military professional. History will not provide the military professional a playbook from which to conduct warfare but rather a lesson book that provides innovative solutions to complex problems. The military professional can analyze the context of the battle and the decisions that faced the commander on the ground at that time.

When history is used in this manner, it teaches the military professional how to think and not what to think. Ultimately, the commander needs to be capable of creative thought and ingenuity to defeat the enemy.

Major James J. Godfrey is the deputy division chief for Army and Marine Corps industrial support at the Defense Logistics Agency Land and Maritime in Columbus, Ohio. He holds a master’s degree from Webster University and is a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College.

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