"Fire and movement/maneuver" infantry tactics?

SeaTurtle

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Jun 14, 2021
When we think of infantry during the Civil War probably the first image that comes to mind is guys lined up in ranks on opposite sides of the battlefield, standing, shooting and reloading Napoleonic-style. Were there any instances of infantry being broken down into smaller squads for more modern style "fire and movement/maneuver" tactics?

The Civil War brought about a lot of military evolution, one of which was the more widespread use of breech-loading and repeating firearms (which would have been better suited to this kind of fighting than the old muzzleloaders), so I just thought it was worth asking.
 
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thomas aagaard

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When we think of infantry during the Civil War probably the first image that comes to mind is guys lined up in ranks on opposite sides of the battlefield, standing, shooting and reloading Napoleonic-style. Were there any instances of infantry being broken down into smaller squads for more modern style "fire and movement/maneuver" tactics?

The Civil War brought about a lot of military evolution, one of which was the more widespread use of breech-loading and repeating firearms (which would have been better suited to this kind of fighting than the old muzzleloaders), so I just thought it was worth asking.
There was nothing Napoleonic about civil war infantry tactics as it was practiced.

Napoleonic infantry tactics was all about very large numbers of skirmishers and quick movements in columns...
And by 1815 this was practices by everyone. (yes, the brits preferred to stick to the line, but still used huge numbers of skirmishers)

And this is still at the core of the French drill book translated by Hardee. But None of this is done to any real extent during the civil war.
Both sides used slow moving lines and few skirmishers.

Sherman mention in his book that his men late in the war did start to fight in a heavy skirmish line. But unfortunally he don't expand on it.
But this was just following the development in Europe over the 1850ties where a number of armies have started using some sort of extended lines as the main formation for fighting. And here we do start to se fire and movement ideas for the main formations, and not just for skirmishers. (where it had been normal since the 18th century)

And no, the civil war did not bring on a lot of evolution.
What drove the change from muzzleloaders to breechloaders in the wider world was the two first wars of German unification in 1864 and 1866. Not their rather limited use in north america.
 

SeaTurtle

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There was nothing Napoleonic about civil war infantry tactics as it was practiced.

Napoleonic infantry tactics was all about very large numbers of skirmishers and quick movements in columns...
And by 1815 this was practices by everyone. (yes, the brits preferred to stick to the line, but still used huge numbers of skirmishers)

And this is still at the core of the French drill book translated by Hardee. But None of this is done to any real extent during the civil war.
Both sides used slow moving lines and few skirmishers.

Well regardless if "Napoleonic" is the right term, I think you get my point. The way armies often seem to have operated during the Civil War was more focused on large firing lines than squad maneuverability. I was curious if there were any instances during this conflict of more mobile, low-level infantry tactics. American-Indians had already been fighting that way for generations (when they weren't on horseback), and the Boers would use small unit "fire and maneuver" methods against the Brits about 20 years later in the First Boer War.

And no, the civil war did not bring on a lot of evolution.
What drove the change from muzzleloaders to breechloaders in the wider world was the two first wars of German unification in 1864 and 1866. Not their rather limited use in north america.

I was speaking within the American context, not the wider world. This is an American Civil War forum after all...

EDIT: That last remark wasn't meant to sound defensive by the way, sorry if it came across like that. I always welcome perspectives from around the world, I was just trying to explain that I wasn't under the impression it was the ACW that introduced breech-loaders to the world.
 
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Tom Elmore

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When I think of fire and movement as pertains to the Civil War, I think of Federal cavalry. Namely instances where troopers dismounted, and took up a firing position with their breach-loaders, while a fourth of their number held all the horses to the rear. For instance, at Gettysburg, on the afternoon of July 1, Devin's men anchored the left of the Union First Corps infantry line on Seminary Ridge and held off the right wing of Perrin's South Carolina brigade. When the infantry in their right front finally collapsed, Devin's troopers quickly mounted and departed, probably before Perrin's men realized they were gone.
 

SeaTurtle

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When I think of fire and movement as pertains to the Civil War, I think of Federal cavalry. Namely instances where troopers dismounted, and took up a firing position with their breach-loaders, while a fourth of their number held all the horses to the rear. For instance, at Gettysburg, on the afternoon of July 1, Devin's men anchored the left of the Union First Corps infantry line on Seminary Ridge and held off the right wing of Perrin's South Carolina brigade. When the infantry in their right front finally collapsed, Devin's troopers quickly mounted and departed, probably before Perrin's men realized they were gone.

I hadn't really thought of cavalry fighting dragoon-style (dismounting to shoot) when I first posted this, but that's an interesting example. Thanks for sharing.
 

Red Raider

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Napoleonic and Jominian Tactics were used during a lot of the Civil War due to the fact that nearly every General and Senior Officer on both sides learned this style of fighting from Mahan during his tenure at West Point. Napolean relied on superior numbers and the ability to utilize all of his assets, Infantry, Cavalry, and Artillery. A simple three-pronged attack began with an Artillery Bombardment, a frontal attack/charge from the Infantry, and a final blow to the flanks and rear from the Cavalry. The linear attack was an effective fighting style during the CW to drive an enemy from the field.

@Tom Elmore spoke of Devin's men on Day 1. I would also include the 6th WI with that group during their fight at the Railroad Cut.

When I think of "Squad" level maneuvers, I think of 6-10 soldiers. If there were any instances of this small of a scale engagement, it would most likely have been a unit that had been detached from the main Army or one that was sent on a special raid. Advance Guards, Flankers, and Skirmishers are probably the closest you will see conducting those types of maneuvers. You have to remember that Companies were designed and trained under the thought that they would have 100 men, though they usually only had 50. Breaking a unit down into smaller elements to conduct maneuvers does not seem feasible.

There is one instance I know of that could fit your narrative, and that would be the beginning stages of Fredericksburg. The 7th, 19th, and 20th Massachussettes would be cross the Rappahannock, form into Skirmish Lines, and begin the first major instance of urban combat in American Warfare. I spent 13 years in the Army Infantry and some of those tactics are still used today.

So you have an example from Tom with the Cavalry, and an example from me with the Infantry. What about the Artillery? Well, funny enough, Fredericksburg did it again. Pelham's Virginia Heavy Horse Artillery was able to maneuver their two guns onto the flank of Abner Doubleday's Division and rake them with shells. Pelham mastered the use of "Flying Artillery."

Going back to your mention of rifled muskets. The CW was impacted by the advancements of technology including rifling and field fortifications. These advancements forced both sides to adapt and create new tactics.

I am working on my Master's Thesis to finish my degree as a Civil War Historian. I will contact some of my professors and keep an eye open for any other instances of this. Definitely, something to look into.

Joe
 

thomas aagaard

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I was curious if there were any instances during this conflict of more mobile, low-level infantry tactics. American-Indians had already been fighting that way for generations (when they weren't on horseback), and the Boers would use small unit "fire and maneuver" methods against the Brits about 20 years later in the First Boer War.
When we look at light infantry/skirmishers fire and movement in pairs had been around since the 18th century.
Here the fighting in north america during the 7 year war (or French and Indian war as it is called in north America) did have a clear influence on the development of light infantry in British service. (and this went on during the war of independence)

But some conservative officers thought it was only relevant in the less developed terrain of North America. So the brits was actually slow to take light infantry/rifles serious when talking use in Europe.

After the war of independence Hessian Johan Ewald (who had commanded light troops against the colonists) ended up in Denmark becoming both a noble and a Major general. And was basically the father of light/rifle infantry here.
So I would say the two wars in north America in the 18th century was important to the development of fire and movement tactics... for skirmishers in Europe.

Indian way of fighting
Funny note, I got a source from a danish soldier from spring of 64 when facing the prussian.
He wrote that the danish position was being bombarded by more than 100 cannon and they all expected a "storm" to happen.
But it did not, quiet the contrary, in the evening the Prussian infantry attacked "paa fuldkommen indiansk vis" (in a complete Indian manner) the Danish picket line and broke it.
Taking cover and making quick rushes to the next cover make a lot of sense when you got a breechloader and we are talking a fight between a Danish 200 man company on picket duty and a prussian company of maybe 180 men attacking it.

And it is not the only example of the use of "Indian" when descripting the prussian way of fighting in unofficial sources.


But when looking at how the main formation did things during the civil war.
If we are talking one company fire and another move in a ordered and coordinated way... then no, this was not really done.
The regiments was so small that it was very rare for a company to do anything on its own. And the company was really not set up to be split up since the captain also commanded one of the platoons.
(but you might find examples of one regiment firing and another moving?)

What did happen was the formations opening up a bit and the men moving forward and firing in the own time.
So the unit was both moving and firing at the same time.
And in that way of fighting I do think you can find examples of similar use of cover and rushes and mentioned with the Prussians.


In Europe you do see a change to a system where a subunit move and another fire.
This is the way fighting in a heavy skirmish line is done in the Danish system.
The danish "kjæde" got close to 3 times the weapons for the same frontage as a US skirmish line since it is still done in two ranks. And was suppose to be the main way of fighting.
And a unit (200man company/ 50 man platoon or 12 man section) was to move or fire... but not both at the same time.

And the prussians basically did it the same way...
 

Jantzen64

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Aug 10, 2019
I think Thomas Aagard is right, although I recall reading of a few instances of "zouave tactics" and "Indian-rushes" that were attempted at a regimental level. E.g., 8th Missouri and 11th Indiana of M.L.Smith's brigade at Ft. Donelson. In his work, Battle Tactics of the Civil War, historian Paddy Griffith attributes the lack of use of such tactics to the relative lack of formal training and the requirement of energetic leadership necessary to keep troops moving after going to ground/taking cover.
 

RedRover

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Dec 16, 2019
The answer to your question is yes, they did use something like modern rifle squad tactics, but different given the weapons, etc. As was mentioned in previous post, it is encoded in the "Instructions for Skirmishers" in the infantry tactics. All infantrymen were instructed in both the close and skirmish order tactics during the war.

When a company, or regiment, deployed as skirmishers, the company's two platoons were divided into two sections each on the skirmish line. The captain remained in the rear of the skirmish line, and the platoons (half-company) divided into two sections (quarter-company) under lieutenants or NCOs who were very much in charge of their sections when on the skirmish line. More, in deploying as skirmishers each two files from the 2-rank line (four men), or group of four, acted as "comrades in battle." No matter the extension or gap called for between these groups, the four men always remained five paces from each other, always alternated their fire, between front and rear ranker...
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And when firing while advancing each pair of front and rear rankers were to alternate their fire and movement... First the front rank man of every file halts, fires, and reloads before "throwing himself forward." The rear rank man of the same file doesn not stop but continues to march, and passes 10-12 paces beyond his front rank man, halts, comes to a ready, selects his object, and fires when his front rank man has loaded (throws himself forward).

When firing in retreat they fire and move alternately in a similar manner. By this at least half of the skirmishers were to be loaded at any given time...

1. The movements of skirmishers should be subjected to such rules as will give to the commander the means of moving them in any direction with the GREATEST PROMPTITUDE.
2. It was not expected that these movements be executed with the same precision as in closed ranks, nor was such considered desirable. Such an exactness would have materially interfered with their prompt execution of the movements.
3. When skirmishers are thrown out to clear the way for, and to protect the advance of, the main corps, their movements should be so regulated by this corps, as to keep it constantly covered. When not acting with a main corps; they are not regulated by such but by their own circumstances.
4. To that end, every body of skirmishers should have a reserve, the strength and composition to vary "according to circumstances."

To greater or lesser degree these tactics were employed throughout the war, even in the major battles. Pickett's charge, for example, had a "heavy" skirmish line advancing in front of it by the Union descriptions.

Most of the fighting in the Atlanta Campaign employed skirmishers on the picket lines of the armies...where they remained any period of time the men dug out foxholes for themselves, and connected them to the others of their groups to form what they called "rifle-pits" etc. At the Battle of Utoy Creek Sgt. Ives of the 4th Florida notes the skirmishers' rifle pits were 30 feet apart. These were always in front of the works constructed by their reserve, or the line of battle further in rear (which many rebs called "ditches")...

Historians generally ignore this skirmishing by not describing it, but many veterans memoirs have excellent descriptions of incidents on the picket lines... Attacks by the lines of battle can be more easily "imagined" and become the subjects of artwork and movies (skirmish lines being largely invisible when not shooting) but many veterans of the campaign noted the skirmishing between the picket lines in front was continuous, exhausting, and frequently deadly.

In line of battle, Civil war commanders would launch assaults by units in close order "en echelon" in order to fix the enemy defense and then moving another unit forward, etc. For example, in his division's attack on the Snodgrass hills at Chickamauga Sept. 20 afternoon, Gen. William Preston CSA advanced Gracies' brigade in front, and several minutes later Kelly's brigade on his flank to strike the enemy in front of Gracie in flank by obliquing right....

In fact, as i recall, Bragg's whole plan at Chickamauga on the 20th was a large scale, en echelon attack from right to left...
 

7thWisconsin

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Nov 21, 2014
The basic unit of maneuver for a Civil War commander was the regiment (or battalion). If you want to see a great illustration of fire and maneuver with regiments, look at the Iron Brigade at south Mountain, September 14, 1862. Here you will see one regiment laying down fire, while another maneuvers past it.
 

grognard

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Oct 12, 2018
This is really a very old debate. It's been a number of years since I read his books, but Brent Nosworthy (who compared generations of drill books and "tactical systems") traced it at least as far back as the early eighteenth century. He identified two basic methods of attack: the "French method" and the "Dutch method".

The French school of thought held that concentrated fire was most effective. It could be more effectively "directed", since the smoke had a chance to clear between volleys. Plus, once troops began firing it was very difficult in practice to get them to stop; and because muzzle loading weapons are hard to load while moving, they usually stopped moving. For these reasons the French preferred to attack without firing or even with weapons unloaded. Or, firing could be reserved for one massive volley at close range followed by a rush with the bayonet.

Nosworthy credits the Dutch with developing "platoon firing". Using this method, a line would advance "as slow as foot can fall", while small platoons of men would rush forward, halt, fire, then reload and advance when the line caught up with them. This allowed some fire to be delivered without halting the whole line - which if firing became general would never start moving again. Some British drill manuals contained versions of this technique as well. This was a very complex drill since the platoons were to advance and fire in a set order, and would have required a high degree of training and discipline to bring off.

The US Army at the time of the Civil War used French tactical manuals (translated into English), carried weapons derived from French models and wore French style uniforms - so it's not surprising that French ideas dominated tactical thinking. With the exception of German-trained officers (such as Willich) there was probably little exposure to other European tactical ideas.
 

Rhea Cole

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John Wilder, to take advantage of of the fire power of the Spencer repeating rifle, deployed his men in a single line spaced six feet apart. This novel formation not only increased the length of his line, it also greatly reduced the size of the target his men presented. Because they did not have to stand up & reload between shots, the members of the Lightening Brigade could avail themselves of cover.
 
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