Lessons from the American Civil War in European Warfare?

by Rob Morgan

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George ponders on lessons learned in the American conflict which were applied by European armies in 1870?

It’s a big question, though many European nations sent observers to America while the war lasted. There were three substantial wars which could, arguably have seen the implementation of lessons learned in America: the rapid, pointless Seven Weeks’ War involving Austria-Hungary, Prussia and Italy in 1866, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, between the German states and the French Second Empire, and the Third Carlist War in Spain between 1872-1876, which perhaps bears more in the way of similarities, conflict, and encounters to the unequal struggle between the North and South.

The Second Schleswig War of 1864 took place between the Germans and Austrians and the Danes while the Confederacy was still an active combatant, but there perhaps may be a feature or two of that smaller war which indicates an influence? 

In the 1870 war, Germany, though a mass of small states, was Prussian led and the elite Prussian training experience of the Kriegspiel is well known. It was also a highly industrialised and militarily prepared country. The French had more problems, and a few are noted in Professor Michael Howard’s now old, but useful, The Franco-Prussian War, in which he deals with a number of the potential lessons from the American Civil War; some worked, some didn’t. His account of General Sheridan’s (the US government’s observer with the Prussians) views on crushing resistance are remarkable! The effects of the Franco-Prussian War, and the off-spin, the Civil War of the Communards, lingered to 1945. If Sheridan’s advice had been taken, they’d still be at war now!

Mind you, I always suspected that the main point learned to bring success in the American Civil War was fast and frequent raiding. Yet, the most important lesson of all, surely, was naval. The Federals acted consistently with vigour and thoroughness throughout their war, but the French, who in 1870 possessed a substantial, competent fleet compared to Germany’s handful of warships, did not use these with any spirit at all.

You’ll find a great deal of very valuable research material, battle reports, US assessments of European weapons, even including the odd ‘what-if’ in The Foreign Correspondent, quarterly newsletter of the Continental Wars Society.


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