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Close Column by Division (En Masse)

Discussion in 'Battle of Gettysburg' started by Tom Elmore, Mar 20, 2017.

  1. Tom Elmore

    Tom Elmore First Sergeant

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    One of the oddest and most unwieldy formations to be seen at Gettysburg must have been the "close column by division." At least portions of three Eleventh Corps brigades (Von Gilsa, Kryzanowski and Ames) went on to the battlefield using that formation, as attested by members of the 119th New York, 26th Wisconsin, 153rd Pennsylvania and 17th Connecticut.

    The formation seems to be bad for either offense or defense. A regiment would present a front of only two companies, with the remaining eight companies being blocked and unable to fire. Such a mass of men would also make a nice target for an artillery solid shot, like pins in a bowling alley, or else to receive concentrated infantry fire from a standard two-rank enemy line. Fortunately for the Union cause, there were no recorded instances of a direct artillery strike, but the 26th Wisconsin barely had time to deploy into a line formation before being set upon by Doles' Georgia brigade.

    It took a review of Hardee's Rifle and Infantry Tactics to determine what the formation probably looked like. The term "division" in this formation does not mean the standard definition of a division (comprised of two or more brigades), but rather just two companies side-by-side, in a column, like this:

    F-A (First Division)
    I-D (Second Division)
    H-C (Third Division - Color Division)
    K-E (Fourth Division)
    B-G (Fifth Division)

    "En Masse" or "In Mass," from what I gather, meant contracting the space between the Divisions, which resulted in an even tighter and more compact formation.

    Lt. J. Clyde Miller of the 153rd Pennsylvania (Bachelder Papers 3:1025) helped confirm what the formation looked like, and he described a particular problem that occurred on July 1 as his regiment was trying to move forward from near the Alms House to Barlow's Knoll. For some reason, Companies F and A were in the rear and the Color Division was in front that day. So when Capt. Henry Oerter gave the command for the "First Division" to deploy as skirmishers, the Color Division obeyed by moving forward. When Col. Von Gilsa saw the colors moving out toward the skirmish line, he rode up to the regiment and demanded to know (with an expletive) why the color division was deploying. Lt. Miller exercised quick leadership to fix the problem. He ordered Companies F and A to march to the left and right respectively, followed by a forward movement, and concluding with a right and left oblique respectively to place Companies F and A back out in front of the regiment as skirmishers.

    Did the Eleventh Corps really need to burden itself with an infantry formation that seemed better suited to a parade ground than a battlefield?
     

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  3. Carronade

    Carronade 2nd Lieutenant

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    This reminds me of the similar mass/vulnerable formation in which D'Erlon's corps (three of its four divisions) made the initial attack at Waterloo, resulting in its repulse with heavy losses.

    The French also used "division" in the same two ways mentioned here. Some historians have suggested - and others disputed - that there may have been a mixup in the ordered formation - "divisions in column by battalion" when it should have been "battalions in column by division".
     
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  4. novushomus

    novushomus Corporal

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    Columns like these originated with the French (where Scott, Hardee, and Casey ultimately derived their tactical manuals from). According to the French school of thought, the mass of men (usually covered by a cloud of skirmishers) in a column would have enough momentum and would be able to close with and strike the enemy line, either breaking through the line or otherwise carrying the point of attack. While columns like this could and did succeed on occassion, I think that most close columns by division lacked the discipline to maintain formation and close with the enemy under heavy fire (which is ironic considering the close order and mixed order columns emerged in the French Revolutionary Army as a formation which conscripts from the Levee En Masse could easily learn, unlike the evolution of the line).

    Three days after the Eleventh Corps brigades used close columns by division at Gettysburg, at the Battle of Helena, Arkansas, Confederate Brig. Gen. Mosby Parsons's and Brig. Gen. Dandridge McRae's brigades of Sterling Price's division used column of divisions at half distance with a battalion and a company skirmish screen in their assault on Graveyard Hill. Owing to the rough nature of the terrain, Parsons reported that he to halt multiple times to ensure that the troops remained in formation going forward and even then the formation still came apart. Parsons and McRae were able to carry Graveyard Hill but were unable to exploit their breakthrough and suffered a near complete breakdown in formation after they carried the initial Union works.
     
    Last edited: Mar 20, 2017
  5. rpkennedy

    rpkennedy Major

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    It was a particularly stupid formation in the relatively open fields north of Gettysburg. It left them vulnerable to artillery fire but also was rather unwieldy when attempting to form a line for the infantry fight.

    Ryan
     
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  6. infomanpa

    infomanpa Sergeant

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    I have to admit that I've never completely understood what "marching by columns" meant. For example, in your above example, how exactly are the 2 companies, F and A arranged? How many men across for each company? One? Does that mean in the front row, I would see a single soldier from company F next to a single soldier from company A? That would mean 2 mean across. I've never been able to make sense out of the manuals or found a good source online explaining such things as columns consisting of regiments, brigades, etc. If anyone could point me to the right direction, I would appreciate it.
     
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  7. rpkennedy

    rpkennedy Major

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    The companies would be in line formation with a 2 company front.

    Ryan
     
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  8. novushomus

    novushomus Corporal

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    Earl J. Hess has a handy book on Civil War infantry tactics that you might find useful.
     
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  9. AUG351

    AUG351 Captain Forum Host

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    The column of division (aka double column) was used in Hancock's May 12 assault on the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania. It worked out well there, at least initially, because the column was concentrated on the tip of the salient, so fire couldn't be concentrated on the flanks as effectively. But of course they couldn't maintain the formation once they broke through; the fact that every regiment was in double column rather than in line probably added to the confusion after the breakthrough.

    It was also used on June 3 at Cold Harbor by Baldy Smith's Corps' attack on Kershaw's position, however that failed miserably because it was a the exact opposite - advancing down a narrow ravine into a converging fire. IIRC, it was also used in the attack on Cheatham Hill at Kennesaw Mountain but without success, even though they were attacking a salient in the line.
     
  10. novushomus

    novushomus Corporal

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    Hess in his Civil War Infantry Tactics (Chapter 8 is devoted specifically to columns) actually argues that while the column was useful for maneuver, units being held in reserve, and non combat functions such as reviews, he argues that it was of limited function for assault and that attacking in line was better, especially over rough ground, as it could handle obstacles better and more men could fire (again, an irony since the column was envisioned by French military thinkers as much more suited to attack). He also states that the double column (column of division) was probably the most popular form of column in combat because it was a compromise between the line and simple column.

    From Hess, here are a few examples of columns and their uses in combat.

    Battle of Fort Donelson, February 15, 1862
    Col. William Baldwin's brigade, Brig. Gen. Gideon J. Pillow's division, Confederate Fort Donelson Garrison, formed simple column and column of platoons. Maj. W.L. Doss's 14th Mississippi (Brown's brigade, Buckner's division) formed in double column before deploying into line during assault.

    Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862
    Numerous examples of Union forces using column to approach Confederate line before deploying into line, including Maj. Gen. Joseph K. Mansfield's Twelfth Corps, Brig. Gen. John Gibbon's Iron Brigade (First Division, First Corps), Twenty-Sixth New York (Second Brigade, Second Division, First Corps), and Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick's Second Division, Second Corps. Mansfield, fearing his green and untrained troops would not perform evolution of the line under fire, ordered his two division commanders to approach the Confederate line in column. Brig. Gen. Alpheus Williams (First Division) objected and wanted to use a line to approach, but Mansfield overruled on the grounds that the green troops would "run away." Likewise, Sedgwick's column was hit in the left flank by McLaws's counterattack in the West Woods and smashed.

    Battle of Honey Springs, July 17, 1863
    Maj. Gen. James G. Blunt's Union District of the Frontier, used columns to deceive Confederates to the size of Blunt's force and make it appear smaller than it actually was. Infantry regiments in column of companies, cavalry in column of platoons, and artillery in column of sections. Formed into line for actual combat.
     
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  11. 67th Tigers

    67th Tigers Sergeant Major

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    Firstly, companies were equalised; that is men were shuffled from one company to another each morning so the tactical companies ("platoons" in Europe) all had the same number of men. This was very important for drill to function and there are even accounts of units reequalising mid-battle whilst under fire.

    The battalion (the tactical body of a regiment) maneuvered by divisions; that is each (equalised) company was paired with another and under the command of the senior captain. Tactically there were really only three formations a battalion in the field, and they had different purposes:

    Line - for engaging in fire combat
    Close column by divisions (occasionally columns were by company or open columns) - for movement
    Square - to defend against cavalry

    It is very difficult to move in line, but more difficult to move from line to column under fire. Highly drilled armies in Europe moved in close columns, and ployed into line just outside musket range. There was a debate going on in Europe at the time as to the effect of the rifle-musket on these tactics.

    The reason the column was used was to move around the field. Normally the battalion should form line to engage in combat. Close column of division was the norm because it's the form that is quickest to move between line and column from and to.
     
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  12. Pvt.Shattuck

    Pvt.Shattuck Sergeant Major

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    It stands to reason that if you have been successful punching a hole in the enemy line, that a narrow force with depth could be used to flow in and exploit the opening, no?
     
  13. novushomus

    novushomus Corporal

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    Columns by division, especially those at half distance or greater spacing, also allowed a ploying into line much easier than a close column. However, the closer the column to the enemy (and the more fire and pressure you are under) the greater it was that a column unraveled rather than came into line.
     

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