Civil War Infantry Tactics

This is another excellent work by Professor Earl Hess.

He begins by discussing the system of linear tactics Civil War armies used. “The system involved shoulder-to-shoulder lines, columns, and a range of complicated maneuvers to take a unit from one formation to another. The idea was to wed tactics to the capabilities of the single-shot, smoothbore weapon that all major European armies used by the early 1700s. It had a range of about one hundred yards and involved a fairly complicated process of reloading. Officers needed to mass their men so as to control not only their fire but also their movement on the field. Linear tactics provided them the opportunity to accomplish those goals. In its purest form, the linear system involved an entire field army small enough to be personally controlled by the commanding general. This unitary army reached the peak of its development by the mid-1700s. The system worked well throughout the eighteenth century, but it had to be adapted to new demands by the late 1700s. French writers discussed the use of divisions as a way to add more flexibility and speed in moving armies toward battle and during combat. The unitary-army concept gave way to a flexible linear system by the time of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. The enlarged volunteer and conscript armies of that era also made the shift toward the flexible system feasible. There developed a greater emphasis on skirmishing and on organizing corps to operate as semi-independent units of a larger army. Generals also loosened up the extended line of battle into segments controlled by subordinates who had authority to conduct operations in their sector within the larger framework of operations set by the army commander. Civil War armies inherited the modified linear system of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic era. The biggest difference between the Civil War and previous conflicts was the introduction of the rifle musket. The only technical change, however, was the rifle’s effective range, five hundred yards compared to the one-hundred-yard range of the smoothbore. The increased range led contemporaries to predict revolutionary changes in warfare–higher casualties, greater power added to the side fighting on the defensive, and cavalry and field artillery becoming ineffective when confronting infantry armed with rifles.” [p. xi]

That idea became part of a standard interpretation of the Civil War, especially with the publication of Perry Jamieson’s and Grady McWhiney’s Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage. As he showed us in The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat, Dr. Hess shows again why this view is wrong. “Its only advantage over the smoothbore was longer range, but the great majority of soldiers did not use it at that distance. The rifle’s parabolic trajectory made hitting targets at long range a technical problem that even rifle enthusiasts of the day admitted was difficult to solve. Moreover, one had to see a human target at five hundred yards across a landscape cluttered with trees and obscured by undulating terrain in order to fire at it, much less hit it. The army did not train soldiers how to deal with these issues. More importantly, there was a very strong predisposition to fight at close range during the Civil War. Officers and men alike believed it was more decisive to engage the enemy at ranges of 100 yards or less, a belief proven correct by the experience of combat. Brent Nosworthy has argued that the decisive point at which an attack was repelled lay about 80-120 yards in front of the defending line. … The evidence is overwhelming that fighting usually took place at very close ranges during the Civil War, far less than is required to argue that the long-range capability of the rifle musket was felt in combat.” [p. xii]

While some enthusiasts believe linear tactics were obsolete by the time of the Civil War, Professor Hess argues differently. “My interpretation includes an assertion that the linear system was not obsolete; in fact, not only was it relevant to the reality of Civil War operations, it was also the correct system to be used with the rifle musket. No matter what rifle enthusiasts of the day thought about the effect of long-range fire on enemy formations, the reality was that its use did not develop into a widespread phenomenon during the war. The rifle musket’s only advantage over the smoothbore was its longer range. It could not be loaded faster, and there is no evidence that it was more accurate at short ranges. It did play a role in the sharp increase of effective skirmishing and sniping during the Civil War, when in the hands of men naturally adept at using firearms. But there was no need to alter the tactical system if the majority of soldiers were unable to use the rifle to fire effectively at long range. Volume of rifle fire might well have compelled a change in linear tactics, but the breech-loading and magazine rifles that were introduced during the Civil War were never issued in large enough numbers to make a difference.” [p. xiv]

The basis of tactical maneuvers at the time was the system of maneuvering the soldiers learned in their many hours of drilling. The tactics manuals of the time stressed the importance of drill and the officers knowing which commands to give to put their men into the correct configuration. “Civil War officers used an effective system of tactics. Most of them took the job of learning it seriously and imparted that earnestness to their men. Ironically, despite the lack of standardized training, Civil war soldiers trained more often and more intelligently than their counterparts had done in any previous American conflict. Second, the Civil War proved to be a huge, protracted conflict. It provided many opportunities for soldiers to practice in combat what they had learned on the drill field. The link between intensive training and repeated experience on the battlefield transformed raw recruits into seasoned and reliable soldiers. … In the Civil War, battlefield success started from the ground up. Small-unit tactics were the foundation. It is theoretically possible to win without solid proficiency on the primary tactical level if other factors strongly influence the course of battle. But if both sides are equally well trained and using similar weapons, performance on the primary tactical level becomes even more important in sustaining repeated efforts on the battlefield.” [pp. 226-227]

When most enthusiasts think of tactics, they think of how a commander planned and actually fought a battle, determining where to put his men, where to attack with them, how to use terrain to advantage, and so forth. That’s not what this book is about. This book is primarily about the use of commands to place troops in the formations the commander determines to be the best for his men. The vast majority of the time this involved placing them in a battle line. “Officers much preferred lines over columns for engaging in combat. Lines allowed for maximum use of a unit’s firepower and in most ways were easier to maintain than columns. But columns played a large role in Civil War military operations other than as attack formations. They were widely used to hold units ready for combat or to maneuver them on the battlefield before engaging the enemy. In this, Civil War officers followed established practice in European warfare, though they did not duplicate Napoleon’s preference for the ordre mixte. Rather than mixing line and column alternately within the same formation, American officers preferred to organize support units in columns within a multiple-line formation. Successive, or multiple, lines could be seen on almost every battlefield of the Civil War. This formation stacked reinforcements behind the first line at a distance of two hundred or three hundred yards, far enough away to lessen exposure to enemy fire. Columns became an important component of multiple-line formations, for they allowed supporting units the opportunity to rapidly move from point to point on the battlefield.” [p. 241]

Most enthusiasts look down on frontal attacks, but we learn frontal attacks were used by all commanders and were the type of attack most used in the war. “Civil War officers mostly conducted frontal attacks, not because of a Celtic disposition (among the Confederates) or lack of intelligence (among the Federals), but because it was the easiest way to advance against the enemy. This reason should not be taken lightly, for there were many difficulties associated with the attempt to make a flanking movement. Frontal assaults were not only easier to conduct but also had a real chance of success. The rifle musket did not render the defensive supreme on Civil War battlefields. Every attack in every battle of the four-year conflict had its own set of reasons for success or failure, as is true in every war. In fact, many commanders failed to attack at all. There was a strong tendency for Civil War units to advance within close range of the enemy, come to a halt, and engage in a prolonged firefight rather than press home the assault.” [p. 240]

This is really an excellent book and a great read. It provides a lot of information most students of the war haven’t gotten into yet. I can highly recommend it.


  1. Agree, Al. An important book for those of us that are not experts on tactics.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Dave. A great companion to this book is Paddy Griffith’s Battle Tactics of the Civil War.

  2. […] This is another excellent work by Professor Earl Hess. He begins by discussing the system of linear tactics Civil War armies used. “The system involved shoulder-to-shoulder lines, columns, and a range of complicated maneuvers to take a unit from one formation to another. The idea was to wed tactics to the capabilities of the single-shot,… — Read on […]

  3. Clint Geller · · Reply

    Thank you for calling my attention to this work, Al. I just ordered a copy of Hess’s book.

    1. You’re welcome, Clint. Another you might consider to go with this one is Paddy Griffith’s Battle Tactics of the Civil War. The US edition was published in 1989, so there should be some pretty good deals on it available.

      1. Clint Geller · · Reply

        Thank you again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: