TACTICS

 

The tactical legacy of the eighteenth century emphasized close-order formations of soldiers trained to maneuver in concert and fire by volleys. These "linear" tactics stressed the tactical offensive. Assault troops advanced in line, two ranks deep, with cadenced steps, stopping to fire volleys on command and finally rushing the last few yards to pierce the enemy line with a bayonet charge. These tactics were adequate for troops armed with single-shot, muzzle-loading, smoothbore muskets with an effective range of roughly eighty yards. The close-order formation was necessary to concentrate the firepower of these inaccurate weapons. Bayonet charges had a chance of success because infantry could rush the last eighty yards before the defending infantrymen could reload their muskets.

The U.S. Army's transition from smoothbore to rifled muskets in the mid-nineteenth century had two main effects in the American Civil War: it strengthened the tactical defensive and increased the number of casualties in the attacking force. With weapons that could cause casualties out to 1,000 yards, defenders firing rifles could decimate infantry formations attacking according to linear tactics.

During the Civil War the widespread use of the rifle often caused infantry assault formations to loosen somewhat, with individual soldiers seeking available cover and concealment. However, because officers needed to maintain visual and verbal control of their commands during the noise, smoke, and chaos of combat, close-order tactics to some degree continued to the end of the war.

The smallest tactical unit employed individually on the battlefield was a brigade, usually consisting of four regiments. Units generally moved on roads or cross-country in column formation, four men abreast. Upon reaching the battlefield, each regiment was typically formed into a line two ranks deep, each man's shoulders touching the shoulders of the men next to him. Regulations prescribed the distance between the ranks as thirteen inches. Both front and rear ranks were capable of firing either by volley or individually. Two paces behind the rear rank was an open rank of "file closers," selected noncommissioned officers charged with preventing straggling and desertion. During a battle each regiment might send forward two companies

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in extended skirmish order, keep six companies in its main line, and hold two in the rear as a reserve. As the fighting progressed, additional companies might be fed into the skirmish line or the skirmishers might regroup on the main line. A regiment of 500 men might have a front almost 200 yards wide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Last updated 25 August 2006