The tempo of operations in the age of steam

It was shame that Napoleon was not born ten or twenty years later, as he was very interested in new technology, installing the first semaphore system "le systeme Chappe" and inviting the American inventor, Robert Fulton to come to France. However he missed the first practical applications of these new inventions by just a few years, the first river steamer service started in 1807, with the first sea-going service starting in 1815 and the first trans-Atlantic crossing in 1819.

Similarly the first passenger-carrying public railway opened in 1807 was drawn by horses, followed in 1830 by the first railway drawn by steam engines and a railway boom in Great Britain during the 1840s. The expansion of the railway network in the 1840s created a demand for telegraph services, either the Morse or Cooke and Wheatstone systems, and later saw their expansion independently into the world of trade and commerce.

All these new technologies had different rates of uptake into civil society depending on a variety of factors and their further incorporation into military operations depended on these rates, coupled with a number of specifically military factors.

Dorian Gerhold's research shows that road transport improved between the early 17th century and 1820 with a doubling of the load pulled per horse, at the same time as the amount of provender (fodder and grain) was reduced by a quarter. This greater efficiency was achieved largely through road improvements by reducing gradients and better breeds of horses and there was only one increase in speed in the 1730s when carriers moved from pulling wagons with a single team of horses to 24 hour running using relays of teams which reduced a 6-7 day journey down to 4.5 days. Attempts at greater speed using lighter vans failed, as the same number of horses were needed to pull half the load even though the journey time was reduced from 108 hours to just 36 hours. The doubling in costs made the service uneconomic despite the greater speed. What destroyed the road carriers long distance services in the 1820s was the introduction of steamships, since coastal shipping had always been considerably cheaper than road transport with horses. The reason that long distance road transport thrived was that it was reliable at a time when sailing ships could be delayed for weeks at a time by contrary winds, however steamships were reliable, cheap and appeared at a time of extended peace across Europe that reduced insurance costs. Within a few years long distance road transport had disappeared leaving regional carrier services to service ports and internal traffic.

Steamships made a rapid change as the dominant form of long distance transport because they were essentially a new vehicle that could utilise the existing infrastructure of ports, wharves and shipping lanes and only needed new coaling facilities to operate. The technology took time to become established and operated alongside traditional sailing ships. Railways took much longer to become established, because they were a completely new technology that required extensive infrastructure to be built before they could operate. In addition, the infrastructure was highly capital intensive and although different countries used a variety of models to fund the expansion, progress was difficult until the benefits to the economy became apparent. Great Britain and America relied on private capital with government guarantees and experienced a series of railway 'booms' while the French government funded a higher proportion and stuck to planned development which saw slower growth but less duplication. Ironically the most extensive railway system in Europe was constructed in Belgium, which both promoted trade through the port of Antwerp but also attracted military interest.

Steamships were adopted as military transports quite early on, even though it took longer for navies to incorporate the technology successfully in warships. In the Crimean War in 1853, the initial landings were made by steamships which each towed two sailing ships behind them and their presence made the landings on the peninsula sustainable. Up to that point, armies had to be landed in settled areas so that they could support themselves and did not have to rely on the vagaries of wind-powered ships but the Crimean peninsula was not well developed and most of the supply of the Allied armies had to be brought over the Black Sea from Turkey. The ability of steamships to run a regular service between Allied rear area and the army in the field was crucial to support the siege of Sevastopol. By contrast the Russian Army found itself in great difficulties supporting its army on the Peninsula, as the settled part of the Russian Empire was hundreds of kilometers away and the sparsely populated Ukraine, lacking roads, could not not support an army relying on Napoleonic systems of supply. It required magazine supply of the type that had allowed Catherine the Great's armies to conquer the region in 1776-8 under Pyotr Rumyantsev.

The utilisation of railways in European military establishments was far slower, especially as they already possessed a good working model of operations from the Napoleonic Wars that would serve them for most of the nineteenth century. As a brand new technology, there was plenty of discussion in military circles about how best railways could be utilised, however all the initial practical uses involved mobilisation, for instance the carriage of Russian troops to put down a revolt in Bohemia in 1848, the French war in northern Italy in 1859 and the Prussian wars of 1866 and 1870. To find examples of railways being used to the full extent of their capabilities, one must look to the peripheries, the American Civil War and colonial wars where there was no existing established operational model.

The Americans faced a unique set of challenges at the start of the Civil War, not only was the theatre of operations huge, the opposing armed forces were large and the size of the individual armies over 100,000 men. However the principal obstacle was the fact that the population density across most of rural America was quite low, especially in the Southern States with only 7 inhabitants per km sq for Georgia and Alabama. A classic Napoleonic style of supply based on foraging alone would not be able to sustain a Corps unless it spread out to a dangerous extent. The United States had been an enthusiastic builder of railways and had some  48,000 km of track by 1860 and embraced their the military use to solve these problems. Trains were used to mobilise armies, transport troops long distances, conduct short tactical journeys, supply army depots from distant cities in the North, deliver supplies directly to the armies in the field, provide hospital trains, leave trains and armoured trains. Armies were connected with their rear bases in an entirely new way even though the track was made up of a variety of different gauges and was not fully connected into one network. There were often two stations on either side of town connecting separate companies railway lines, lines ended at rivers and connected with river boat services and the Southern States used a 5 foot gauge. Such was the importance of railways that the destruction, re-building and re-gauging of track and bridges assumed a dominant position in operational and tactical thinking but it became clear that it was very difficult to close a railway line for any length of time, provided your opponent had sufficient industrial resources to repair them.

Although railways made it possible to move and support armies at a great distance, the armies still marched and manoeuvred at the tactical and operational levels at the pace of a walking man and horse. One of the longest marches was in 1864 Sherman's Atlanta Campaign and subsequent March through Georgia and this was recorded by Charles Wills in his diary "An Army Life of an Illinois Soldier". From this day to day account we can establish the tempo of operations, although it became clear that the number of days fighting/skirmishing had increased since Napoleon's day (so another category was required, were as in previous measures this had been included with marching).

The changing tempo of war
  SYW Napoleon American Civil War
      1st Jan 1863 to 24th March 1864
  Prussian French Union
Garrison Days 107 192 115
Campaign Days 258 117 323
Marching Days 90 66 112
Fighting Days     82
Proportion march/fight days in campaign 34.9% 56.4% 60.1%
Distance marched (km) 1535 945 1826
Average march per day (km) 17.1 14.3 16.3
March/Fight 1 day in X Campaign days 2.9 1.8 1.7
Average days march/fight per week 2.4 3.9 4.2
Average distance covered per week 42 57 69

As before it is clear that the average days march remains at a constant however there is an increased tempo of operations, simply by spending more days a week marching and fighting than in previous generations. Also it was clear that the better climate in the Southern States allowed longer campaign seasons which was helped by the railways ferrying forward supplies from sources some distance away, right up to the fighting troops. The short, rapid, decisive campaigns of Napoleon's early years had been replaced by year round indecisive campaigns, more in keeping with the campaigns of 1813-14. The difference provided by steam power was to enable forces to be assembled quickly for campaigns, whereas Napoleon had taken months to march the troops into position and to assemble the necessary supplies. This was mirrored by the Europeans powers concentration on rapid mobilisation in the years leading up to the Great War. However in the American Civil War, the Union Army in particular, used steamships and railways to re-position and supply forces during campaigns, so during Sherman's March to the Sea, the army is met by steamships when it reaches the coast at Savannah and is re-supplied and re-fitted before it continues its march onward to Goldborough.

Further reading:

Christian Wolmar - Engines of War

Hagerman - The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare: Ideas, Organization, and Field Command