What is a Demonstration in Military Terms?

A couple weeks ago some guests at the Emerging Civil War Symposium beckoned to me. “We have a question,” they said in low, confidential terms. “We really enjoyed the last presentation, but we’re not military historians and we’re confused. What is a demonstration?”

It was such a great question, and we had a fun couple of minutes talking about the answer and some examples. The next day I asked the guests if it would be okay if I wrote about our discussion for the blog. They happily agreed!

So…what is a “demonstration” in military lingo? Such as: “The general ordered a demonstration in the front, followed by the main attack toward the flank.”

First, here’s what it’s not in military terms…though a little imagination can be a delightful thing:

  • It is not a protest with signs and flags waving at the enemy
  • It is not a how-to program provided for the enemy’s entertainment
  • It is not sending a lawyer to explain the truth of the situation.

According to the definition provided by the United State’s Department of Defense, a demonstration is “an attack or show of force on a front where a decision is not sought, made with the aim of deceiving the enemy.” (See Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, 1987.)

That day at the symposium I described a “demonstration” as “a military action to deceive.” It’s like saying to the enemy “look over here, look over here” but instead of waving signs or throwing a party, it’s usually done with an observable troop movement or skirmishing (at least during the Civil War era). Typically, that demonstration keeps the enemy’s focus while the main attack forms – like Anderson and McLaws’s men had to do on May 2 at Chancellorsville while Jackson’s corps marched to the flank of the Union army. Or the demonstration might be part of a concealment strategy – Magruder’s Confederates marching all over the Peninsula in 1862 to look and sound like they were numerous is a good example. Those are large scale examples of demonstrations. It happened on the smaller scale, too. A company might be sent to demonstrate while the regiment formed, or perhaps a regiment might be sent one direction toward the enemy line while the rest of the brigade maneuvered toward the flank, etc. etc.

We had such a good time clarifying the military meaning of demonstration that I started thinking of other terms that have a specific military meanings. “Engagement” would probably be one of the funniest to take out of context. “And so at half-past noon the engagement began. The result was 20 casualties.” THAT is not a marriage proposal gone really wrong… It’s “to bring the enemy under fire.”

I really appreciated the question and the conversation. Not only was it fun, but it was a good reminder of why I love public history. Helping to bridge that gap – or that language barrier – between traditional military history or academic history with an audience that is willing to learn and wants to appreciate and understand the history and its details. A challenge and the reward is remembering to break or bridge the language barrier! Communication, communication, communication.

10 Responses to What is a Demonstration in Military Terms?

  1. The US Army publishes a Field Manual, known as FM 1-02, “Operational Terms and Graphics.” That FM is the Bible for definition of operational terms. FM 1-02 (2004) defines “demonstration” as “A form of attack designed to deceive the enemy as to the location or time of the decisive operation by a display of force. Forces conducting a demonstration do not seek contact with the enemy.” So, the mission is to attract attention of the enemy without an actual assault, The definition today says you can fire at the enemy, but only without making actual contact. The commander assigned the mission of making a demonstration must then determine how much, or if any shooting he needs to do, in order to attract the attention of the enemy. Simply marching around, re-positioning artillery might suffice.

  2. Recall Lee’s orders to Ewell on Day 2 at Gettysburg. Lee instructed Ewell to provide a “demonstration” or diversionary attack to assist Longstreet’s main assault and convert to a full assault as circumstances warranted.

  3. It was a wonderful conference, Sarah. Some “demonstrations” can get totally out of hand, like the over exuberant S.D. Hill around Atlanta!

  4. Thanks for writing up the question and explanation. This helps me better understand passages in letters I have from Civil War ancestors. I have found quite a few letters with the word “demonstration,” and the context fits well with your explanation. The comment by Troy fits with a couple of letters in 1865: the troops from SC feared Sherman’s advance:

    From Capt Henry Jeffers of the 7th SCC, outside of Richmond. He was distressed to realize that Sherman was poised to march through South Carolina, and that “demonstrations” by Grant would prevent the 7th SCC regiment from going to the defense of SC:

    “Camp 7th Regt SCC, January 4th 1865
    My dear Pa,
    . . . .
    I cannot bear the thought of your being subjected to the insults of the enemy and when I hear of the treatment some of the females of Georgia met with my heart quakes. I doubt much whether we go to South Carolina. The Gov of SC has called for this Brigade and Conners. I hear that Conners has gone.

    Butlers vessels are again in the “James,” having returned from Wilmington, where he made such a failure. Grant may make some demonstrations, to keep us from sending troops South.”

    Here is another excerpt, from Lt Thomas Jeffers, of the 2nd SCC, after the first Battle of Fort Fisher, with some wishful thinking that the first battle was just a “demonstration” and that another would not happen:

    “Wilmington No Ca, January 11th 1865
    Dear Sister Annie
    . . . .
    We have some thirty miles of the coast to Picket and as two of the companies from the Regiment have been sent to another point our duties are quite heavy.

    Since the departure of the Butler and Porter expedition we have been comparatively quiet. Hoke’s Division of Infantry is still here and we are yet on the “Qui Vive” in anticipation of another attack, as Rumor says the Fleet has again sailed for this place. I do not look for any further demonstration however, believing that recently made to have been only a feint, and think that it is the intention on the part of the enemy to reinforce Sherman.”

  5. Longstreet sniffs out an attack based on a “demonstration”:
    Confederate lines outside Petersburg north of the James, Oct, 1864 –
    “Oct 27th Butler pushed a skirmish line up in our front, from the New Market to the Charles City Road, supported by Gen. Terry & a portion of the 10th Corps, while Weitzel, with a considerable force from the 18th Corps, by a circuitous route, marched to surprise our line at the crossings of the Williamsburg Road and the York River Railroad. Gen. Longstreet soon noted that Terry’s skirmishers were merely demonstrating, & suspected an attempt to surprise our left, & he ordered Field’s division to extend itself in that direction. They did so, some of our artillery going along also, & were just in time to meet Gen. Weitzel’s attack. It was quickly repulsed with a number of killed & wounded & a half dozen colors left on the ground. … About 4 P.M. Gen. Terry pressed his demonstration in front of the new part of our line, but soon found out its qualities & retired…”
    From “Fighting for the Confederacy” by CSA Artillery General Edward Porter Alexander

  6. Thanks to Sarah Kay Bierle for an insightful read.
    Not only is terminology military-use dependent; technology can outpace original military/ naval application and cause a weapon system to evolve into something… else. For example, consider the naval torpedo. During the Civil War it was an anchored explosive charge, designed as anti-ship weapon, detonated either by mechanical contact fuse or an electric signal sent by an observer activating an electric battery connected to the explosive by a wire. Today, the Naval Mine most resembles a Civil War torpedo; and “torpedo” has evolved into a self-propelled explosive weapon.
    Another example is the mortar. Everyone has seen images of today’s mortars being fired: an almost upright tube angled towards the enemy, with heavy base plate has a high- explosive projectile dropped into its muzzle; the projectile slides down the tube and engages the firing pin at bottom; the propellant charge ignites [often with a “whoomp”] and the projectile returns up the tube at speed; leaving the muzzle of the mortar, the projectile traces a high arc, returning to earth 100 – 6000 yards away; the contact fuse detonates upon striking the ground and the mortar round explodes, causing injury due to blast and fragmentation effect.
    The largest mortars used during the Civil War were 13-inch mortars. The combined weight of the mortar and its carriage was 17,000 pounds, resulting in its transport (and operation) via railroad flatcars, sturdy river barges, and specially reinforced ocean-going schooners. The round projectile, larger than a bowling ball, weighed 226 pounds. It was a hollow sphere of cast iron, filled will explosive, that was detonated by a “timer” (Bormann or wood/paper) set to explode after a desired number of seconds following launch from the mortar. Ideally this “bursting of the mortar shell” occurred slightly up-range and perhaps 200- 500 feet above the target: the resulting “shrapnel” fell as iron chunks weighing as little as an ounce, and some could weigh several pounds. Bursting mortar shells were designed to demoralize enemy soldiers, forcing them to seek cover whenever a mortar shell was in the air, not knowing where the deadly fragments would fall. The Civil War mortar had no contact fuse.
    A valuable reference, “The Ordnance Manual for use of Officers of the United States Army (1861)” is on file via HathiTrust https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo1.ark:/13960/t2q535z1t&view=1up&seq=9&skin=2021

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