The infantry in the American Civil War comprised foot-soldiers who fought primarily with small arms, and carried the brunt of the fighting on battlefields across the United States. Historians have long debated whether the evolution of tactics between 1861 and 1865 marked a seminal point in the evolution of warfare. The conventional narrative is that generals and other officers adhered stubbornly to the tactics of the Napoleonic Wars, in which armies employed linear formations and favored open fields over the usage of cover (whether constructed or natural in origin). Presumably, the greater accuracy and range of the rifle musket rendered that approach obsolete, and the Civil War armies' transition to longer battles in 1864 is taken by numerous scholars as proof of the new technology's transformative impact. More recently, however, academics have begun to reject this narrative. Earl J. Hess judges the tactical training of the Civil War as critical to the armies' success, and maintains that the dearth of overwhelming victories during the conflict was actually consistent with the infrequency of such battles throughout history. Allen C. Guelzo contends that rifle muskets did not revolutionize land warfare due to a combination of inadequate firearms training and the poor visibility caused by black powder. This debate has implications not only for the nature of the soldier's experience, but also for the broader question of the Civil War's relative modernity. Williamson Murray and Bruce Wayne Wei-Siang Hsieh argue that the conflict was resulted from "the combination...of the Industrial Revolution and French Revolution [which] allowed the opposing sides to mobilize immense numbers of soldiers while projecting military power over great distances." The Civil War involved a number of other recently-introduced and new technologies, including military balloons, repeating rifles, the telegraph, and railroads.
At the start of the war, the entire United States Army consisted of 16,367 men of all branches, with infantry representing the vast majority of this total. Some of these infantrymen had seen considerable combat experience in the Mexican–American War, as well as in the West in various encounters, including the Utah War and several campaigns against Indians. However, the majority spent their time on garrison or fatigue duty. In general, the majority of the infantry officers were graduates of military schools such as the United States Military Academy.
In some cases, individual states, such as New York, had previously organized formal militia infantry regiments, originally to fight Indians in many cases, but by 1861, they existed mostly for social camaraderie and parades. These organizations were more prevalent in the South, where hundreds of small local militia companies existed.
With the secession of eleven Southern states by early 1861 following the election of President Abraham Lincoln, tens of thousands of Southern men flocked to hastily organized companies, which were soon formed into regiments, brigades, and small armies, forming the genesis of the Confederate States Army. Lincoln responded by issuing a call for 75,000 volunteers, and later even more, to put down the rebellion, and the Northern states responded. The resulting forces came to be known as the Volunteer Army (even though they were paid), versus the Regular Army. More than seventeen hundred state volunteer regiments were raised for the Union Army throughout the war, with infantry comprising over 80% of the manpower in these forces.
The typical infantry regiment of the early Civil War consisted of 10 companies (each with exactly 100 men, according to Hardee's 1855 manual, and led by a captain, with associated lieutenants). Field officers normally included a colonel (commanding), lieutenant colonel, and at least one major. With attrition from disease, battle casualties, desertions and transfers, by the mid-war, most regiments averaged 300–400 men. Volunteer regiments were paid by the individual states, and officers at first were normally elected by popular vote, or were appointed by the state governors (particularly the colonels, who were often the men who had raised and organized the regiment). As the war progressed, the War Department and superior officers began selecting regimental leaders, and the regimental officers normally selected the NCOs (non-commissioned officers) based on performance and merit, although the individual states retained considerable influence in the selection of the regimental officers.
Often, and always, according to Hardee's 1855 manual, large regiments were broken into two or more battalions, with the lieutenant colonel and major(s) in charge of each battalion. The regiment may have also been divided into two wings, the left and right, for instructional purposes, only. The regimental commander exercised overall tactical control over these officers and usually relied on couriers and staff to deliver and receive messages and orders. Normally positioned in the center of the regiment in battle formation was the color guard, typically five to eight men assigned to carry and protect the regimental and/or national colors, led by a color sergeant. Most Union regiments carried both banners; the typical Confederate regiment simply had a national standard.
Individual regiments (usually three to five, although the number varied) were organized and grouped into a larger body (a brigade) which soon became the main structure for battlefield maneuvers. Generally, the brigade was commanded by a brigadier general, or senior colonel, when merit was clearly evident in that colonel and a general was not available. Two to four brigades typically comprised a division, which in theory was commanded by a major general, but theory was often not put into practical application, especially when an officer exhibited exceptional merit or the division was smaller and trusted to a more junior officer. Several divisions would constitute a corps, and multiple corps together made up an army, often commanded by a lieutenant general or full general in the Confederate forces, and by a major general in the Union forces.
Below is charted the average make-up of the infantry for both sides.
|unit type||low||high||average||most frequent|
|corps per army||1||4||2.74||2|
|divisions per corps||2||12||3.10||3|
|brigades per division||2||7||3.62||4|
|regiments per brigade||2||20||4.71||5|
|unit type||low||high||average||most frequent|
|corps per army||1||8||3.71||3|
|divisions per corps||2||6||2.91||3|
|brigades per division||2||5||2.80||3|
|regiments per brigade||2||12||4.73||4|
Commands were typically issued via voice, (rarely) drum (infantry only), or bugle call. Soldiers were drilled in infantry tactics, usually based upon a manual written before the war by West Point professor William J. Hardee (Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics: for the Instruction, Exercise and Maneuver of Riflemen and Light Infantry, published in 1855). Another treatise commonly used was from Winfield Scott, entitled Infantry Tactics, or Rules for Manoeuvers of the United States Infantry. Originally published in 1835, it was the standard drill manual for the U. S. Army. Other popular instruction manuals were issued early in the Civil War, including McClellan's Bayonet Drill (1862) and Casey's Infantry Tactics (1862).
Traditionally, historians have stated that many generals, particularly early in the war, preferred to use Napoleonic tactics, despite the increased killing power of period weaponry. They marched their men out in tightly closed formations, often with soldiers elbow-to-elbow in double-rank battle lines, usually in brigade (by mid-war numbering about 2,500–3,000 infantrymen) or division (by mid-war numbering about 6,000–10,000 infantrymen) strength. This large mass presented an easy target for defenders, who could easily fire several volleys before his enemy would be close enough for hand-to-hand combat. The idea was to close on the enemy's position with this mass of soldiers and charge them with the bayonet, convincing the enemy to leave their position or be killed. At times, these soon-to-be outdated tactics contributed to high casualty lists.
However, historians such as Allen C. Guelzo reject this traditional criticism of Civil War infantry tactics. Casualty estimates compared with expended ammunition from battles indicate 1 casualty for every 250–300 shots discharged, not a dramatic improvement over Napoleonic casualty rates. No contemporary accounts indicate that engagement ranges with substantial casualties between infantry occurred at ranges beyond Napoleonic engagement ranges.
To explain this seeming contradiction between technology and tactical reality, Guelzo points out that even when laboratory tests indicates accuracy with a rifled musket from 600 yards, in an actual battlefield situation, the lack of smokeless powder quickly would obscure visibility. The gunpowder of the time produced a great deal of smoke when fired. Thus, in larger battles, battles began with artillery firing for some time, and skirmishers had been firing at each other for some time. By the time the main lines of infantry began approaching each other, visibility was significantly obscured. Once the infantry began the main engagement, visibility quickly was reduced to almost nil. With the lack of visibility, only massed infantry fire was effective, and this reality is reflected in the tactics of the time. Guelzo argues that rifling only truly benefited the sharpshooters on the skirmish line, who fought before their visibility was obscured, but the main line of infantry could not take advantage of the benefits of rifling.
In Gettysburg, the Last Invasion, Guelzo also points out the technical difficulty of aiming a rifled musket at longer ranges. While rifling improved overall accuracy of muskets, the rifling also formed a trajectory that caused the bullet to quickly "drop" from where it was aimed (in contrast to the flat trajectory of smoothbore muskets fired at close range). Thus to hit a target at distances beyond 40–50 yards, the rifleman would require knowledge of trajectory and distance, aiming the rifle at a precise angle above the target. In actual battlefield situations, such precise aiming was virtually impossible. Under the stress of battle, virtually every infantryman asked about aiming on the battlefield replied that in practice, the best one could do was "simply raise his rifle to the horizontal, and fire without aiming." (Guelzo p. 37).
An additional limitation on unlocking the potential of the rifle was the availability of gunpowder, and the pursuant lack of training. Prior to the development of industrialized chemical plants producing copious amounts of gunpowder, in the mid-19th centuries, armies simply could not expend large amounts of gunpowder for training. As a result, the average infantryman simply did not have extensive firearms training beyond simple maintenance and loading drills. The infantryman simply did not know how to aim his rifle at long distances—eyewitnesses report entire companies aiming their rifles at a 45 degree angle facing the sky and discharging their rifles at Bull Run (Guelzo p. 59). Such untrained soldiers could not be expected to engage an enemy much further than point blank range with any level of accuracy.
Thus Guelzo doubts that contemporary military leaders blatantly ignored technological advances. Rather, Guelzo argued that in actual battlefield conditions, until the development of smokeless powder, the benefits of rifling were largely nullified. Therefore, generals did not alter their tactics not due to ignorance, but because the battlefield had not changed substantially from the Napoleonic era.
Of particular tactical importance was the usage of skirmishers, usually small bodies of advanced troops which were often spaced several yards apart, and more specifically, five paces per man, according to Hardee's manual. They screened a defensive line from oncoming enemy soldiers, harassed attackers, probed enemy strength in preparation for an attack, and screened the assaulting columns. However, the skirmish formation was forfeited in most cases, for a line of battle was of preference. Skirmish formation would be used to take up large distances of an open front, which rarely occurred at the larger scale battles. Nevertheless, it was drilled into the recruits, should the opportunity to take skirmish formation arise in a combat scenario.
Attacks were carried out in several manners, including single or double rank battle lines with individual regiments side-by-side in a line of battle, assault waves (with multiple regiments or brigades in successive waves spaced out loosely one behind the other), brigade columns (all regiments of a brigade in line one behind the other in close formation), and other formations.
Trained in the era of short-range smoothbore muskets, such as the Springfield Model 1842, which was issued to many units immediately prior to the war, many generals often did not fully appreciate or understand the importance and power of the new weapons introduced during the war, such as the 1861 Springfield rifled musket and comparable rifles which had longer range and were more powerful than the weapons used by the antebellum armies. Its barrel contained several rifled grooves that provided increased accuracy, and fired a .58 caliber Minié ball (a small conical-shaped ball). This rifle had a deadly effect up to 600 yards and was capable of seriously wounding a man beyond 1,000 yards, unlike the previous muskets used during the American Revolutionary War and Napoleonic Wars, most of which had an effective range of only 100 yards.
However, as stated above, historians like Guelzo argue these benefits were largely nullified by the lack of visibility on a Civil War battlefield. Engagements necessarily took place with massed lines of infantry at ranges of around 100 yards, for the simple fact the enemy could not be seen at longer distances since neither side employed smokeless powder in their weapons. In many engagements, unless there was a strong wind on the battlefield, the first volley from each side would obscure the enemy's line for a considerable time in gunsmoke. Hence, the standard doctrine on both sides to close with the enemy and fire at point-blank range for maximum effect.
Even smoothbore muskets underwent improvements: soldiers developed the technique of "buck and ball," loading the muskets with a combination of small pellets and a single round ball, effectively making their fire scattergun-like in effect. Other infantrymen went into combat armed with shotguns, pistols, knives, and assorted other killing instruments. Very early in the war, a few companies were armed with pikes. However, by the end of 1862, most infantrymen were armed with rifles, including imports from Great Britain, Belgium, and other European countries.
The typical Union soldier carried his musket, percussion cap box, cartridge box, a canteen, a knapsack, and other accouterments, in addition to any personal effects. By contrast, many Southern soldiers carried their possessions in a blanket roll worn around the shoulder and tied at the waist. They might have a wooden canteen, a linen or cotton haversack for food, and a knife or similar sidearm, as well as their musket.
One primary account of the typical infantryman came from James Gall, a representative of the United States Sanitary Commission, who observed Confederate infantrymen of Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early in camp in the occupied borough of York, Pennsylvania, in late June 1863, sometime after the Second Battle of Winchester.
Physically, the men looked about equal to the generality of our own troops, and there were fewer boys among them. Their dress was a wretched mixture of all cuts and colors. There was not the slightest attempt at uniformity in this respect. Every man seemed to have put on whatever he could get hold of, without regard to shape or color. I noticed a pretty large sprinkling of blue pants among them, some of those, doubtless, that were left by Milroy at Winchester. Their shoes, as a general thing, were poor; some of the men were entirely barefooted. Their equipments were light, as compared with those of our men. They consisted of a thin woolen blanket, coiled up and slung from the shoulder in the form of a sash, a haversack swung from the opposite shoulder, and a cartridge-box. The whole cannot weigh more than twelve or fourteen pounds. Is it strange, then, that with such light loads, they should be able to make longer and more rapid marches than our men? The marching of the men was irregular and careless, their arms were rusty and ill kept. Their whole appearance was greatly inferior to that of our soldiers... There were not tents for the men, and but few for the officers... Everything that will trammel or impede the movement of the army is discarded, no matter what the consequences may be to the men... In speaking of our soldiers, the same officer remarked: 'They are too well fed, too well clothed, and have far too much to carry.' That our men are too well fed, I do not believe, neither that they are too well clothed; that they have too much to carry, I can very well believe, after witnessing the march of the Army of the Potomac to Chancellorsville. Each man had eight days' rations to carry, besides sixty rounds of ammunition, musket, woollen blanket, rubber blanket, overcoat, extra shirt, drawers, socks, and shelter tent, amounting in all to about sixty pounds. Think of men, and boys too, staggering along under such a load, at the rate of fifteen to twenty miles a day.
While thousands of repeating rifles and breechloaders, such as the 7-shot Spencer and 15-shot Henry models, were fielded to Union cavalry in the war, no significant funds were allocated to furnish Union infantry with the same equipment. With the exception of some volunteer regiments receiving extra funding from their state or wealthy commander, the small numbers of rapid-fire weapons in service with US infantrymen, often skirmishers, were mostly purchased privately by soldiers themselves.
Despite President Lincoln's enthusiasm for these types of weapons, the mass adoption of repeating rifles for the infantry was resisted by some senior Union officers. The most common concerns cited about the weapons were their high-cost, massive use of ammunition and the considerable extra smoke produced on the battlefield. The most influential detractor of these new rifles was 67-year-old General James Ripley, the US Army's ordnance chief. He adamantly opposed the adoption of, what he called, "these newfangled gimcracks," believing they would encourage soldiers to "waste ammunition." He also argued that the quartermaster corps could not field enough ammunition to keep a repeater-armed army supplied for any extended campaign.
One notable exception was Colonel John T. Wilder's mounted infantry "Lightning Brigade." Col. Wilder, a wealthy engineer and foundry owner, took out a bank loan to purchase 1,400 Spencer rifles for his infantrymen. The magazine-fed weapons were quite popular with his soldiers, with most agreeing to monthly pay deductions to help reimburse the costs. During the Battle of Hoover's Gap, Wilder's Spencer-armed and well-fortified brigade of 4,000 men held off 22,000 attacking Confederates, and inflicted 287 casualties for only 27 losses. Even more striking, during the second day of the Battle of Chickamauga, his Spencer-armed brigade launched a counterattack against a much larger Confederate division overrunning the Union's right flank. Thanks in large part to the Lightning Brigade's superior firepower, they repulsed the Confederates and inflicted over 500 casualties, while suffering only 53 losses.
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