Book Review: Soldiers from Experience: The Forging of Sherman's Fifteenth Army Corps, 1862–1863


by Eric Michale Burke

Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2023. Pp. xiv, 338. Maps, notes, biblio., index. $50.00. ISBN: 0807178098

The Rise of an Outstanding Fighting Corps

In Soldiers From Experience, U.S. Army Veteran Eric Burke presents a provocative thesis, that Sherman’s Fifteenth Army Corps between 1862 and 1863 developed a unique tactical culture based on the battles that the units of the corps fought during that period. The tactical tendencies forged in that harsh crucible provided the template for XV Corps operations for the remainder of the Civil War in Burke’s opinion.

According to Burke, the Fifteenth Army Corps’ tactical culture included predilections for skirmishing, flanking attacks, and a disdain for frontal assaults. Burke explores the role of certain regiments in shaping that culture. For example, he points to several “Zouave” regiments, copying the French-style colorful Zouave uniforms and skirmish tactics from the early 19th-century, as having forged the tendency of the corps to rely on clouds of light infantry deployed as skirmishers before their front line.

Burke also compares the Fifteenth Army Corps to other corps in the Union Army, noting that the corps consisted of 80% American-born soldiers, mostly from the Old Mid-West. Beyond a few regiments of German-Americans, there were no foreign-born units in the XV. Burke argues that this made for a uniform culture in the Fifteenth Army Corps because most of the soldiers had a similar background built from a base of hardy frontier farmers.

But what Burke spends most of his book on is the experience of the Corps in a series of frontal assaults from 1862 to 1863, from Chickasaw Bayou, through the Siege of Vicksburg, to the Battle of Ringgold Gap. His main argument is that due to the repeated failure of the corps in frontal assaults of dug-in Confederate troops led to the Fifteenth Army Corps being leery of frontal attacks, so the soldiers of the corps developed tactics to turn the enemy flank instead, in response to the heavy losses they had suffered in frontal assaults.

The thesis seems plausible, and Burke provides a number of soldier accounts that point to the regiments of Fifteenth Army Corps having learned lessons in these battles that influenced how it fought in later battles to prefer flanking tactics to frontal assaults. The problem arises when the author tries to argue that the corps’ tactical culture was unique to it, without having tried to examine the tactical culture of the other corps in the Army of Tennessee for comparison.

Burke therefore has proven to my satisfaction that a tactical culture existed in the Army of the Tennessee, and probably existed in the other armies of the Union side in the Civil War. I do not believe he has proved that distinct tactical cultures existed in the different Corps of the Army. It seems to me that the Union armies in the West had a different culture from the armies in the East, dominated by the Army of the Potomac when it came to the latter group of course. Further research into tactical culture at the Corps level of the Union Army is necessary to prove the larger thesis.

With its attention to lessons that the XV Corps learned in battle, Soldiers From Experience, a volume in the LSU series "Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War, is worth a read from discerning scholars of the Civil War. I hope Burke will continue his work exploring Civil War tactical cultures of other Corps on both the Union and Confederate sides in the future so he can confirm his larger thesis.




Note: Soldiers from Experience is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Alexander Stavropoulos   

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