A skirmish line typically consisted of one or two companies, sometimes an entire regiment, deployed in extended open order. Each man was spaced five paces apart and organized in groups of four, or "comrades in battle" which consisted of two files in the two-rank line of battle. Each group was spaced 20 to 40 paces apart. The men were allowed to fight from any position they felt comfortable - standing, kneeling, lying down - and duck and dodge behind what cover they could find, all while maintaining the ragged line.
The essential role of the skirmish line is to advance ahead of the main line of battle, fan out and cover a large area of ground in order to detect the whereabouts or movements of the enemy, and/or screen the main line in the rear. Their place was not only in the front, they could also cover the flanks or serve as a rear guard in a retreat. In an attack, the skirmishers would usually be in the lead, driving back the opposing skirmish line and harassing the enemy's main line of battle. Skirmish lines were also utilized for tasks such as silencing an enemy battery from a safe distance or raiding the enemy picket line.
Early in the war, most regiments had two flank companies to serve as its designated skirmishers. As the war progressed there were more efforts to organize sharpshooter units, mainly for the purpose of having an experienced and highly-trained body of men who could readily serve as skirmishers or pickets for their brigade or division. The art of skirmishing was something not cut out for every soldier; anyone could learn skirmish drill, but to actually fight as a skirmisher effectively they had to be quick, nimble, reliable, and be able to think and act more on an individual basis. Unlike when fighting in line of battle - often firing blindly into the smoke in the general direction of the enemy - skirmishers had to be good shots because they had to fire at individual targets, sometimes at greater ranges than that between two battle lines. That is one reason why most sharpshooter units trained in range estimation and were made up of hand-picked men.
Skirmishers didn't only fight in major, fluid battles of manuever. While the lines were static, both armies opposite each other, the skirmishers would usually be in no man's land, taking pot shots at the opposing skirmish line or other targets on the field. They were often under fire for long periods of time. Sometimes these fights would get pretty intense, to the point where it was almost a regular battle with advances, retreats, and counter-attacks. The Atlanta and Overland campaigns saw this fighting on almost a daily basis.
There is nothing in this world that is more exciting, more nerve stirring to a soldier, than to participate in a battle line of skirmishers, when you have a fair field and open fight. There it takes nerve and pluck, however, it is allowed each skirmisher to take whatever protection he can in the way of tree or stump. Then on the advance you do not know when to expect an enemy to spring from behind a tree, stump, or bush, take aim and fire. It resembles somewhat the order of Indian warfare, for on a skirmish line 'all is fair in war.'
- D. Augustus Dickert, History of Kershaw's Brigade, 421-22.
Skirmishing, as it became reduced to a science, depended on two general rules: every man must keep concealed as much as possible behind trees, logs, fences, buildings, or what not, and each party must run upon the approach of its opponent with anything like determination. If a skirmisher should show himself unnecessarily he stood a great chance of getting hit, and if he waited until the enemy came within forty or fifty yards, it was exceedingly dangerous either getting away or staying. The skirmish line was conducted on principles that looked to personal safety in a great degree, and was the favorite position of the experienced soldier. If however the holding of the position was essential, which was seldom the case, the men knew it intuitively, and the skirmish line required a battle line to drive it.
- Aldace F. Walker, The Vermont Brigade in the Shenandoah Valley, 56-7.
The sharp shooters have a very peculiar duty in action. They are the skirmishers who go ahead and "kick up the muss" as they say. In fact it is almost a new branch of service. . . . We have some fancy movements in skirmish drill. . . . I was always fond of skirmish drill, but never more so than at the present time. . . . They understand skirmish calls on the bugle so well that it is rare sport to drill the battalion.
- Philip Racine, ed., Unspoiled Heart: The Journal of Charles Mattocks of the 17th Maine, 111, 126.
This kind of fighting gave excellent opportunities for the display of individual bravery and address, and the manoeuvering of the boys to get good shots at times created considerable amusement. When some enterprising “Confed.” was well posted and annoyed us much, two or three would arrange their plans to knock him over, and creeping up cautiously from different directions, one of them would draw his fire, while the other on his flank would shoot him.
- E.M. Woodward, Our Campaigns, 270-71.
At the battle of Corinth, Oct. 4, 1862:
Day finally broke, and soon after the sun rose bright and clear, while the artillery thundered from the town, and ours replied in deep and muttering peals. Skirmishing began now between us and the enemy's sharpshooters. Both parties kept well concealed behind trees and other shelter, at the distance of seventy-five or a hundred yards apart; but the woods were overgrown to such an extent with high weeds, trailing vines and other foliage, that an occasional glimpse of a blue-coat shifting his hiding place, or the flash and smoke of the guns, were all that was discernible. Now and then, their line would advance rapidly fifteen or twenty paces, firing as they came, to feel our position and ascertain the exact situation. Whenever visible, they were subjected to a well-directed fire, and never showed themselves but a moment at a time.
- Ephraim M. Anderson, Memoirs: Historical and Personal: Including the Campaigns of the First Missouri Brigade, 235-36.
This thread is to compile any and all information on skirmishing in the Civil War. Any other good first hand accounts, images, etc., are welcome.