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.