The Civil War was a war fought mainly in the Napoleanic tradition, except with more powerful weapons and more difficult terrain. During the Napoleanic Wars, “tactics” simply meant maneuvering and massing more men in a frontal charge at the enemy. However, in the Civil War, such attacks could easily be broken up with new canister artillery shot and rifles that could kill half a mile away. Sadly, generals did not realize this until many men had been lost. Below are some of the better (and more costly) examples of such attacks:
Perhaps the most famous example of such an attack is Pickett’s Charge. On July 3, 1863, (the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg), Robert E. Lee decided that victory for the Army of Northern Virginia lay in a direct frontal assault across 1 mile of open grassland at the strong Union center. He sent 12,000 men from 3 of his divisions, under the loose direction of General Longstreet, forward in a long orderly line a mile long. The line moved forward against musketry and artillery fire from Cemetery Ridge. Many of the men were killed as they marched towards the crest. Of the men that reached the Union line, many were either pinned down and killed, or pinned down and captured. Lee’s army was shattered by this attack, in which he lost almost 6,000 men.
A less-known example of such an attack happened at the Battle of Franklin. General John Bell Hood’s Confederates were pursuing a Federal detachment under General Schofield. When Hood caught up with Schofield at the town of Franklin, Schofield entrenched into a strong defensive position. Hood ordered a frontal charge across 2 miles of open land. This was twice the distance that Pickett had to attack. At about noon on November 30, 1864, about 20,000 Confederates began to charge across the open ground parallel to the Columbia Pike at 17,000 Federals entrenched south of Franklin. There, despite heavy casualties suffered during the charge, Confederates broke through momentarily, but were forced to retreat. Hood’s army was shattered at this battle. Most of his generals were killed or wounded, including the "Stonewall of the West", Patrick Cleburne. However, he continued pursuing Schofield until his army was completely destroyed at Nashville by General Thomas.
The Union army was also (a lot more) capable of such blunders. On June 3, 1864, during the Battle of Cold Harbor, Grant assaulted strong Confederate fieldworks with his tired men. Some of the Federal troops went into battle with identification numbers pinned on their backs, in anticipation of death. In fierce fighting, entire trees were whittled away by the incessant musket fire. In less than an hour, 7,000 men were casualties. That night, Grant ordered a second assault, but the sensible Hancock refused to pass it along to the men.
A final example of stupidity happened in the Battle of Fredericksburg. On the afternoon of December 13, 1862, Ambrose Burnside launched a third of his army towards extremely strong Confederate positions on Marye’s Heights. Confederates entrenched 5 lines deep on a sunken road (acting as a trench) behind a stone wall mowed down attacking Federals. Burnside lost almost 8,000 men in this colossal blunder. However, none of these mistakes were heeded in the frequent infantry attacks in World War I.