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The Seven Classical Maneuvers of War

Hist 201

There are Seven Classical Maneuvers of War:


1)      Penetration of the Center

2)      Envelopment of a Single Flank

3)      Envelopment of both Flanks

4)      Attack in Oblique Order

5)      Feigned Retreat

6)      Attack from a Defensive Position

7)      The Indirect Approach


A commander often must employ more than one maneuver to achieve victory; he may try to penetrate the center but fail, feign a retreat and then envelop a single flank. Each has advantages and disadvantages while one may be more effective in some situations and less in others. These maneuvers were first listed by David Chandler in The Art of Warfare on Land.

Penetration of the Center


This maneuver involves concentrating superior force at the center of the opposing line in order to punch a hole and then to exploit the gap with a reserve force. This maneuver is usually attempted if flanks are protected by obstacles such as rivers. Advantages of this maneuver include the possibility of encircling parts of the opposing army, assaulting rear bases/supplies and the presence of alternative objectives to keep the opposing commander guessing. Disadvantages include the threat of being encircled by a calm commander who counters against weakened flanks and the prospect of a high casualty figure if the opposing commander makes good use of exterior lines to transfer forces to contain the attack.


If your mind does not immediately go to Pickett’s Charge or Franklin I am impressed. Full frontal attacks in the Civil War were rarely successful because of advances in weaponry. An attack launched frontally against a prepared enemy will be met with heavy losses if conducted poorly (or even if conducted perfectly). Any attack against a prepared enemy position should only be attempted with overwhelming numbers and close artillery support. Whenever possible a diversionary attack on a different part of the line is advisable to keep your opponent guessing and to, perhaps, syphon off reinforcements to another sector of the line. I also advise launching any major frontal attack at dawn while the cover of darkness still aids you. The less time your opponent has to muster his forces and ready his lines the easier the objective will be to attain.


The best chance a Confederate player has in succeeding in a frontal attack usually relies more on Federal ineptness than overpowering force. Federal infantry has, very often, a lower morale rating and thus is more likely to become Disrupted or Routed during combat. It is advisable to deliver as heavy a blow as you can against an enemy line in the hope that you can cause such panic and chaos that your opponent will have no choice but to yield ground. Speed is also important as the longer it takes to assault and disrupt the enemy lines the more time your opponent has to reinforce them and prepare a contingency plan.  

Envelopment of a Single Flank


This maneuver involves pinning attacks on the opposing center, sometimes a flank as well, while using mobile forces to try and turn the other flank and roll up the line towards the center. This maneuver is one of the most frequently used. Advantages include the possibility of enveloping a portion of the opposing army and usually offers less risk of disaster than other maneuvers. However, disadvantages still include the risk of a counterstroke against one’s weakened center and other flank.


The vast majority of battlefield maneuvers in the club involve this classic military strategy. It is not surprising as mimicking the success of a Stonewall Jackson or Ulysses S. Grant seems to be the goal of nearly all the commanders who enjoy our games. And there is a good reason for that – it is often successful! A good flank attack is easy to plan, exciting to launch, and usually can be done within the time constraints of the scenario regardless of its length. The pinning attacks are never to be underestimated or forgotten though as they can often be the difference between success and failure. Keeping your opponent distracted while moving to outflank them is crucial if you hope to take them by surprise or to strike a weakened flank. Also, remember, that a flanking attack doesn’t have to be grand in scale to succeed. Often a limited flanking maneuver (of any size from a regiment and up) can be enough to turn an enemy position despite being held by numerically superior forces. The psychological letdown of suddenly becoming outflanked and having their position turned is usually enough to force an enemy line back even before combat is initiated. Following up any withdrawal will help you to “keep the scare on,” as Nathan Bedford Forrest liked to say.

Ideally you should attempt to move out of the enemy’s line of sight for as long as possible while moving your men to the attack. Exposing the movement too early will allow the enemy to respond and shift forces to meet your new maneuver. Bringing enough artillery and supplies with you is another logistical necessity as an attack without proper support can only succeed for so long before supplies begin to run low and the attack starts to stall. Using your cavalry in support of the flank attack will also help to unhinge your opponent as the faster movement of cavalrymen will allow them to reach the rear areas more quickly. But do not rely, solely, on your cavalry as their combat ability against infantry is limited and the points lost, should they incur heavy losses, may make the entire attack too costly.


Envelopment of Both Flanks

This maneuver involves pinning attacks on the opposing center while attacking both flanks in order to encircle the entire opposing army. This maneuver is usually attempted – and should only be attempted – if one has a superior force or exceptional tactical skill. The obvious advantage of this maneuver is complete annihilation of the opposing force while the disadvantage is the danger of a counterstroke against strung out forces if the encirclement is not strong enough.


Launching an actual successful tactical maneuver as this is really the Royal Flush, Grand Slam, Hole-in-One, Slam Dunk of the Club. Seldom is it ever seriously attempted, that I have noticed, by Confederate players as their numbers just are not great enough to make it a feasible option in many scenarios. To keep a Federal army pinned in place long enough to dispatch two flanking columns is asking a lot. The trouble is that one flanking column is difficult enough to conceal while two concealed columns would be almost impossible. Also, the enemy will often realize a thinned out enemy line and counterattack while your army is scattered trying to pull off the maneuver. With your flanks widely separated and the enemy holding all the interior lines you will be susceptible to destruction in detail if an aggressive opponent attacks before the maneuver is completed. It is a maneuver much better suited to the Yankee side of the club.

But on a lesser scale it is very often used successfully, for example, to break up a smaller enemy position quickly. Pinning an enemy force in place while you outflank their position from both sides is an easy way to dislodge, for instance, a regiment or brigade, trying to block your way or defend an exposed position. But on any grand scale I have not seen it used very often with much success. 


Attack in Oblique Order

This maneuver involves steadily massing strength against an opposing flank while using secondary forces to distract and lure away opposing reserves. This maneuver is a good choice if the opposing force is superior. The advantage of this maneuver is the ability to concentrate force at the enemy’s weakest point while denying one’s own weakest point to attack. The disadvantage of this maneuver is that the imbalance of force can be disastrous if the enemy is in fact able to strike said weakest point.


This is, I feel, a popular movement that many players in the club use during their battles. In many shorter scenarios this is a preferred tactic as it is easy to organize and execute in a limited number of turns. The strategy will basically be to put pressure on your forces along the entire front and then apply overwhelming pressure to a single area. If you have already committed your reserves to bolster your lines all along the front you will be hard-pressed to stop the more powerful thrust on your flank when it lands. While lacking the surprise of a true flanking maneuver the tactic is still highly effective and it does have the added advantage of keeping your forces closer to your main line rather than separating them as a flanking maneuver might.


This was a also a popular tactic during the Civil War. Braxton Bragg’s plan for Chickamauga on day two included an attack en echelon to try to get Rosecrans to overcommit forces to one sector while weakening another. Through a series of poor communications and intrigue an entire part of the Union line was withdrawn just before Longstreet’s rolled forward. The resulting breakthrough led to one of the major Confederate victories in the war and, temporarily, save Bragg’s job. John Pope’s Federal Army of Virginia attempted this tactic as well at Second Manassas as they tried to place heavier pressure on Jackson’s flank while attacking all along the Confederate line in general. The unexpected counterattack by Longstreet nearly wrecked Pope’s army and should act as a warning to any Member to always keep an eye on their flank – no matter how quiet it may seem.


Feigned Retreat

This maneuver involves staging a retreat in order to induce the enemy to abandon its position and plunge ahead in an attack before turning to surprise the enemy with an ambush. This maneuver is useful if the enemy holds an exceptional defensive position that it must relinquish in order to be defeated. The advantage of this maneuver is the psychological impact the enemy has when being fiercely assaulted while advancing or attacking. The serious disadvantage is that a staged retreat can easily become a real one if morale and discipline are not at a high standard. Your opponent will also be able to utilize interior lines while your flanks and largely separated.

This is a very difficult strategy to pull off but also one that whose possible rewards make it worth the attempt. This is a personal favorite of mine that I have used successfully in past games – and, honestly, disastrously in others. Overly aggressive players, when they sense a weakness, can be easily drawn into such traps as this in many scenarios. Defending a line with a brigade while the rest of the division lays concealed is a good tactic to use in many cases. Once the enemy has become disrupted by their initial “success” you can launch a counterattack and drive them back with heavy losses if you're strong enough. But you must always take care that your feigned retreat does not become too exploited to where you can’t regain your footing or stop your men from routing. This is, by far, the biggest worry when doing this. Timing is crucial when executing this tactic.  


The Battle of Cowpens in the American Revolution is the best example I can think of where this tactic worked to stunning success. The British and the Tories were overly confident of driving the American militia back and charged wildly forward once they began to break in the center. Rather than fleeing, the Americans, led by Gen. Daniel Morgan, the Americans suddenly held firm in their center when the regulars joined the battle. On both flanks Morgan’s men successfully drove back the British leading to a stunning rout and victory against the enemy forces.


Attack from a Defensive Position

This maneuver involves luring the enemy to vainly attack a strong, well-chosen defensive position before counterattacking against the exhausted force. Expectedly, this maneuver is used if such an impenetrable defensive position is available or if a direct offensive is not viable. The advantages of this maneuver include the economic use of resources in the defensive mode and that the switch from defense to offense can produce a decisive result. One disadvantage is that the maneuver may become too passive and either be attacked from an unexpected direction or an attack may never come. Another disadvantage is that submitting to encirclement, which is sometimes required, may lead to total annihilation of one’s force.


This is my own personal favorite strategy to use in the games. Because of the limited size of the Confederate forces in many engagements you can almost always expect an aggressive attack by the Union forces against your own. By choosing a strong defensive position to receive that attack you can inflict heavy enemy losses before turning your army to the offensive and driving back the repulsed and disorganized forces before you. My usual recommendation is that once you see the enemy with multiple routed units and numerous others in a disrupted state that it is time to attack them and drive them back. Keeping a fresh force near at hand, but out of sight, can really help you drive them even harder as you won’t be relying on men who just fought off an attack and may be disrupted themselves.


One important note is that if your line is too strong than your opponent will probably never attack you where you were hoping that he would. This is tricky. By intentionally weakening your line you risk being driven back but if you make it impenetrable than the enemy may realize the futility of the attack and attempt to flank your position. Ideally the outcome would be something like Grant’s at the Battle of Shiloh. The natural strength of the Pittsburg Landing position helped save the day for Grant as the Confederates continued to assault strong positions after their early success. By the second day of battle the Confederate force was worn down and was eventually driven from the field by a determined counterattack by Grant.

The Indirect Approach

This maneuver involves distracting the enemy with secondary forces while using the main force to strategically envelop the enemy in rear and flank. This maneuver seeks to force the enemy to react and give battle on unfavorable terms for fear of being cut off from supplies or communications. This maneuver is usually attempted if an aggressive mobile force is available or if enemy supply and commun- ication lines are vulnerable. Advantages of this maneuver include the total victory if the enemy loses a battle while cut off from his base and the prospect of alternative objectives once in the enemy’s rear and flank. The disadvantage of this maneuver is that either force may be destroyed in detail if the movement is discovered.


This is another popular strategy, in theory, as it conjures up the images of a long stealthy march, massed ranks waiting in the trees, and a shocking thunderous charge into the deep interior of the enemy lines. The reality is, usually but not always, that the maps and scenarios we play don’t very often allow us the time or space for such grand maneuvers. But there are instances where this is possible and it can be an effective strategy in frustrating the plans of your opponent. Falling on the enemy’s lines of reinforcement and supply will usually cause your opponent to change their plans quickly or risk having their army divided and defeated in detail. There are also Objective Hexes which can be captured and used to help secure a victory in some scenarios. But the dangers of dispatching a large portion of your army to make a long flanking march should be equally obvious. If your movement is discovered before they reach their destination you can expect your opponent to adjust at once. You also sacrifice any interior lines you may have and open yourself up to a counterattack with divided forces.   


Nonetheless, using an Indirect Approach, even on a small scale of a thousand men, to get behind your opponent and cause some panic and havoc behind his lines may be infinitely beneficial. Your opponent, not knowing the size of the force in his rear, will usually overreact and send a larger force than needed to repulse your reconnaissance. This may lessen the odds on other portions of the field and open up other opportunities to maneuver or attack.

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