A Prussian Observes the American Civil War

“Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke.” Wikimedia Commons.

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

This post is the second part in a series on Captain Justus Scheibert and international observation of the American Civil War. Read Part 1 of the series here.

Helmuth von Moltke, the elder of the two notable Generals von Moltke and who made his fame in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, is noted for allegedly describing the American Civil War as nothing but “two armed-mobs” running around the countryside and beating each other up, from which very little of military utility could be learned. While a proper source for this quotation cannot be pinned down, and it may never have even been uttered at all, it serves as a rather succinct description of how Prussians would ultimately view the military legacy of the Civil War. In his official observations for the Prussian military commander, Captain Justus Scheibert makes an effort to impart what he viewed as the importance of the conflict to military thought and tactics, though he often focuses his writings on the ways in which American warfare was inferior to Prussian methods.

On a grand tactical scale, Scheibert divides the progression of the war into three phases. He characterizes the first phase of the opening days of the war as being disorderly and confused, defined by haphazard skirmishes lead by men who had not yet truly come to grips with warfare (a rather von Moltke-esque description). The second stage, from roughly 1862 to Gettysburg in 1863, represented a maturation of tactics, with special emphasis now being placed on learned battle formations such as the offensive column, giving a sort of linear character to the fighting. The third phase, from Gettysburg to the end of the war, was one focused upon defensive, at least from the Confederate point of view that Scheibert takes. Grand retreats and movements were a thing of the past as advances were, as Scheibert observes, now made inch by inch as each army fortified and refortified across the landscape.

Modern analysis of Scheibert’s categorization concludes that, while essentially correct, he vastly oversimplifies the progression of tactics over the course of the war, and doesn’t account for inconsistencies in his generalizations as represented by specific battles that don’t fit his model. This is almost certainly a result of Scheibert’s lack of full observation—while he was only present in America for seven months in 1863, he attempts to summarize and analyze the entire war in his reports.

Scheibert ascribes his model of the progression of the war to the growth of both sides’ officer corps over time. Compared to the Prussian system, officers in both the Confederate and United States armies had received very little formal training before the war, and especially those at the lower ranks. This resulted in “stiffness in the lines and clumsiness in management and direction of troops” as large divisions of the army fully relied on their higher officers to direct all movement. “The loss of an upper-level commander,” Scheibert states, “Would cripple advance and retard again in battle.” This situation could have been remedied, he believed, with the improvement of training of low-level officers in peacetime to be able to act more independently should the need arise, as the Prussian army trained its own officers. While he concedes that both officers and soldiers in the later parts of the war became battle-tested and intelligent, he characterizes the development of defensive warfare focused upon the “use of shovel and axe, exploiting the skill every American has with these tools” as compensation for the inability for quick-decision making at the officer level. Defensive breastworks and other safeguards, he reasons, gave both troops and officers the time and conditions to think over their advances rather than making poor and risky decisions in the chaos of open battle. It is thus that, while Scheibert does make reference to the unique circumstances present in America not found in Prussia, such as cultural characteristics and much more rugged geography, he ultimately ascribes the differences between the American war and European wars as primarily being based on differences in the quality of training and preparation, a fundamentally elitist point of view which undermines the credibility of the American soldier and military leaders.

Despite this, Scheibert’s fondness for the Southern military leadership and cause as a whole saturates his observations, and quite possibly calls their legitimacy into question. Notably by the third, defensive phase of fighting, Scheibert concludes that Lee led “like Napoleon” and was able to “[shackle] his stronger foe in the chains of perfect tactics” and that his work “must go down in history in nothing less than golden letters.” Scheibert’s awe was mostly directed towards what he explained as Lee’s masterful use of interior lines to keep troops fresh and reinforced, which allowed Confederate soldiers to fight at a level of strength greater than their numbers. Despite these glowing terms, he attributes Union victory to the great unbalance of supplies, industry, and men between the two sides, which effectively allowed the Union to out-produce the Confederate army and defenses. With his cultural preferences on full display, Scheibert finally determines that it was the spirit and values of the Southern soldiers which allowed them to stand toe-to-toe against what he perceived as a morally degenerate Northern army for long so long, despite their disadvantages. Citing an “old truth,” he makes a simple declaration: “Good Christian, good soldier!”

Scheibert shows notably less bias in discussing technological developments used in the war, such as the role played by railroads and displays of new designs of artillery, in fact going so far as to declare the age of modern artillery as having begun at the siege of Charleston Harbor, which he bore witness to. He does not, however, suggest that much can be learned from the war for adoption in Europe, as most of what he saw was either believed to be inferior to contemporary European methods or a result of uniquely American circumstances. With a retrospective view, it becomes clear that the Prussians as a whole were ultimately disinterested in the war, both out of a sense of European elitism and their own preoccupation with European military affairs. Thus, for all of Scheibert’s passions and interest in the war as an honorary rebel, Prussia, and soon Germany, was not strongly impacted by the military developments of the Civil War.


Luvaas, Jay. The Military Legacy of the Civil War: The European Inheritance. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1959.

Scheibert, Justus. Seven Months in the Rebel States. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The Confederate Publishing Company, Inc., 1958.

Trautman, Federic, trans. A Prussian Observes the American Civil War: The Military Studies of Justus Scheibert. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2001.

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