Excerpt: With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other, by Carol Reardon

With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other: The Problem of Military Thought in the Civil War North, by Carol Reardon

[This article is cross-posted at UNCPressCivilWar150.com.]

When the Civil War began, Northern soldiers and civilians alike sought a framework to help make sense of the chaos that confronted them. Many turned first to the classic European military texts from the Napoleonic era, especially Antoine Henri Jomini’s Summary of the Art of War. As Carol Reardon shows, Jomini’s work was only one voice in what ultimately became a lively and contentious national discourse about how the North should conduct war at a time when warfare itself was rapidly changing. She argues that the absence of a strong intellectual foundation for the conduct of war at its start—or, indeed, any consensus on the need for such a foundation—ultimately contributed to the length and cost of the conflict.

Following is an excerpt from With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other: The Problem of Military Thought in the Civil War North.


“It has been said with good reason that many a Civil War general went into battle with a sword in one hand and Jomini’s Summary of the Art of War in the other,” wrote Marine Corps Brigadier General J. D. Hittle in 1947.[1] The subject of his observation, Swiss-born soldier and writer Antoine-Henri Jomini, enjoyed a lengthy literary career that spanned the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century. During that time, he became one of the most prolific and insightful chroniclers and analysts of the great campaigns of Frederick the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, and other major military figures of the previous two centuries. He remains far more famous, however, for his efforts to formulate a “scientific” approach to the art of war through the deduction and application of immutable principles that guide an army’s conduct on campaign and in battle. Jomini’s substantial literary outpouring fully established him in European military circles as one of his generation’s foremost authorities on war. His legacy in the United States, however, rests more specifically on the linkage of his ideas to the military conduct of the great sectional conflict of 1861-65.


Military theory is an intellectually sophisticated and complex form of cultural expression. At the start of the Civil War, the U.S. Army and the people it defended barely had begun to demonstrate an interest in developing a capacity to think about war as an element of national life. They had done little to institutionalize such study. As a consequence, when the Civil War broke out, Northerners had few resources to turn to for insights on an American way of war, and they had no choice but to look to the military classics from across a cultural divide for the intellectual authority they sought. The works of Jomini—and many other figures who will be introduced in these pages—rewarded the patience and effort of objective and thoughtful readers who worked their way through dense prose; obscure references to unfamiliar battles and generals; complicated diagrams; and, often enough, tortured logic, contradictions, and ambiguities. But the classic works of Europe did not always impart the lessons their authors intended or the wisdom that American readers needed most to understand. It proved to be a simple matter to misinterpret or misapply their great military lessons, twisting their meanings or applying the fine art of selective quotation to secure evidence in support of a predetermined conclusion. A few American interpreters rejected outright the utility of all theory; for them, victory required only grit and the application of common sense. Just as the U.S. Army entered 1861 lacking the manpower, organization, and logistical infrastructure to engage in a conflict of the scale and scope of the Civil War, the absence of a strong and shared intellectual foundation to give direction and substance to its plans and its conduct also contributed to the struggle’s duration and cost. For this reason, we must advance beyond Jomini to grasp the larger dimensions of this unappreciated element of the wartime experience. This book explores three important consequences of that lack of intellectual preparedness for war for which the army and the loyal North it defended paid a high price in lives and treasure.


Carol Reardon is George Winfree Professor of American History at Penn State University and author of With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other: The Problem of Military Thought in the Civil War North and Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory.

  1. [1]Hittle, Jomini and Hist Summary of the Art of War, 2.