The tactical legacy of the eighteenth century had 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 about eighty yards. The close-order formation was therefore necessary to concentrate the firepower of these inaccurate weapons. Bayonet charges might then succeed because infantry could rush the last eighty yards before the defending infantrymen could reload their muskets after firing a volley.
The U.S. Army's transition from smoothbore muskets to rifled muskets in the mid-nineteenth century would have two main effects in the American Civil War: it would strengthen the tactical defensive and increase the number of casualties in the attacking force. With a weapon that could cause fatalities out to 1,000 yards, defenders firing rifles could decimate infantry formations attacking according to linear tactics.
Later in the Civil War the widespread use of the rifled musket caused infantry assault formations to loosen up 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 would continue to the end of the war.
A typical combat formation of a regiment might be six companies in the main line, with two in reserve, and two out in front in extended skirmish order. During battle additional companies might be fed into the skirmish line, or the skirmishers might regroup on the main line.
Rapid movement of units on roads or cross country was generally by formation of a column four men abreast. The speed of such columns was prescribed as two miles per hour. Upon reaching the field each regiment was typically formed into a line two ranks deep, the shoulders of each man in each rank touching the shoulders of the man on either side. The distance between ranks was prescribed as thirteen inches. A regiment of 500 men (250 men in each rank) might have a front of about 200 yards. Both front and rear ranks were capable of firing, either by volley or individual fire.
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