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American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman – Drills V: Skirmish Drill

Updated on July 26, 2018
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I'm a Sr. Financial Analyst from Long Island, NY and am an American Civil War buff and Living Historian (Company H, 119th NY Volunteers).

Introduction

Skirmishers were the “early warning system” for the army. They were posted well in advance of the army’s main line and were the first to encounter any enemy activity. Their dispersed formation and usage of terrain for cover and concealment enabled them to closely approach the enemy, or hold against them for short periods of time. Then they sent back word to the main body of the army of any dangers to expect.

Two Companies of each Regiment, under the commands of the two most senior Company commanders, were specifically detailed for Skirmish duty and, as such, needed to learn the somewhat complicated and precise Skirmisher evolutions as I will now describe.

Photo of a Skirmish Drill. The dispersed troops in the foreground are the Skirmishers. The Line of Battle behind them is the remaining eight or so Companies of the  Battalion
Photo of a Skirmish Drill. The dispersed troops in the foreground are the Skirmishers. The Line of Battle behind them is the remaining eight or so Companies of the Battalion
Photo of a Skirmish Drill
Photo of a Skirmish Drill

Deployment

The first procedure for each Skirmisher Company was to deploy into the dispersed Skirmish formation. This could be performed via the Company’s left flank, right flank, or even both flanks.

Deployment By The Right Flank

Command: “As Skirmishers, By The Right Flank, Take Intervals, March.”

Each group of files, 1's and 2's, is called Comrades In Arms (CIA). The leftmost CIA stays in place. The other CIA's face to the right AND DO NOT DOUBLE

As the leftmost CIA stays in place, the remaining CIA's March By The Right Flank. After 20 paces, the rearmost CIA will halt. The remaining CIA's continue to march. After another 20 paces, the next rearmost CIA will halt, and so on.

Company Line of Battle
Company Line of Battle
Take Intervals To The Right
Take Intervals To The Right

Each CIA will Deploy As Skirmishers upon its halt. The Front Rank #2 (FR2) Man will face to the front and stay in place. The Rear Rank #2 (RR2) Man will move 5 paces to the left of FR2, face to the front, and come into line with him.

FR1 will move 10 paces to the right of FR2 and face to the front. RR1 will move 5 paces to the right of FR2, face to the front, and come into line with him. Each CIA will now be in line, from right to left, as FR1, RR1, FR2, RR2, and each will be five paces away from the other.

The now-single file will be re-numbered, from right to left, 1, 2, 1, 2, and so on.

Deploy
Deploy

Deployment By The Left Flank

Command: “As Skirmishers, By The Left Flank, Take Intervals, March.”

The rightmost CIA stays in place. The other CIA's face to the left AND DO NOT DOUBLE.

As the rightmost CIA stays in place, the remaining CIA's March By The Left Flank. After 20 paces, the rearmost CIA will halt. The remaining CIA's continue to march. After another 20 paces, the next rearmost CIA will halt, and so on.

Company Line Of Battle
Company Line Of Battle
Take Intervals to the Left
Take Intervals to the Left

Each CIA will Deploy As Skirmishers. The Front Rank #2 (FR2) Man will face to the front and stay in place. The Rear Rank #2 (RR2) Man will move 5 paces to the left of FR2, face to the front, and come into line with him.

FR1 will move 10 paces to the right of FR2 and face to the front. RR1 will move 5 paces to the right of FR2, face to the front, and come into line with him. Each CIA will now be in line, from right to left, as FR1, RR1, FR2, RR2, and each will be five paces away from the other.

The now-single file will be re-numbered, from right to left, 1, 2, 1, 2, and so on.

Deploy
Deploy

Deployment From The Center (By Both Flanks)

Command: “As Skirmishers, By The Right And Left Flanks, Take Intervals, March.”

The center CIA stays in place. The other CIA's face to the left or right AND DO NOT DOUBLE.

As the Center CIA stays in place, the left-facing CIA's will March By The Left Flank and the right-facing CIA's will March By The Right Flank. After 20 paces, the rearmost CIA's will halt. The remaining CIA's continue to march. After another 20 paces, the next rearmost CIA's will halt, and so on.

Company Line Of Battle
Company Line Of Battle
Take Intervals to the Left and Right
Take Intervals to the Left and Right

Each CIA will Deploy As Skirmishers. The Front Rank #2 (FR2) Man will face to the front and stay in place. The Rear Rank #2 (RR2) Man will move 5 paces to the left of FR2, face to the front, and come into line with him.

FR1 will move 10 paces to the right of FR2 and face to the front. RR1 will move 5 paces to the right of FR2, face to the front, and come into line with him. Each CIA will now be in line, from right to left, as FR1, RR1, FR2, RR2, and each will be five paces away from the other.

The now-single file will be re-numbered, from right to left, 1, 2, 1, 2, and so on.

Deploy
Deploy

Engagement With The Enemy

Whether in attack or defense, the Skirmishers will engage the enemy with musketry. The following sections will explain the procedures for each case.

To Fire and Advance

If the army was ordered to attack the enemy, the skirmishers were thus ordered to probe forward. They needed to engage and drive back any enemy skirmishers, determine the strength of the enemy about to be attacked, and alert the main force of any obstacles and surprises it might face during its assault.

Command: “Advance, Commence Firing.”

Front Files (1's) fire.

Ones fire
Ones fire

Rear Files (2's) advance five paces beyond the Front Files as the #1 men begin to load their muskets. Each #2 man then waits for his corresponding #1 man to finish the loading.

Twos advance, Ones load
Twos advance, Ones load

When The #1 man’s musket is loaded, he will say "Ready" to his #2 man.

The #2 man then fires.

Ones ready, Twos fire
Ones ready, Twos fire

The #1 man advances five paces beyond his #2 man (10 paces total from his original position), then waits for the #2 man to complete the loading of his musket.

Ones advance, Twos load
Ones advance, Twos load

When the #2 man’s musket is loaded, he will say "Ready" to his #1 man.

The #1 man then fires.

Twos ready, Ones fire
Twos ready, Ones fire

This "leapfrog" process continues until the Skirmishers are commanded to halt.

Upon the Halt, from the Advance, the files that were in the rear will come up on-line with the advanced files.

Command: “Halt.”

1's and 2's come up to the line.

Halt - Ones or Twos come up to the Line
Halt - Ones or Twos come up to the Line

To Fire While Stationary

If no attack was ordered, the skirmish line was expected to hold its position. If the enemy was within small arms range or initiated an attack, the skirmishers were commanded to fire. The command for this was simply: “Commence Firing”. Each man then fired and loaded independently, very similar to Fire By File. They were neither to Advance nor Retreat until they received the command to do so.

To Fire and Retreat

If the enemy’s main force attacked, the skirmish line was rarely strong enough in numbers or position to repulse it. The skirmishers needed to hold their positions at least until they could ascertain the strength and intentions of the attackers. At the same time, they also needed to alert the main force of the threat, and provide any details on the enemy, so it could make itself ready to receive the attack. The skirmishers could then Retreat, but were to continue to fire on the enemy.

Command: “Retreat, Commence Firing.”

Front Files (1's) fire.

Ones fire
Ones fire

The #1 men retreat five paces to the rear of the Rear Files (2’s) and begin to load their muskets. Each #2 man waits for his corresponding #1 man to finish the loading.

Ones retreat, then load
Ones retreat, then load

When the #1 man’s musket is loaded, he will say "Ready" to his #2 man.

The #2 man then fires.

Ones ready, Twos fire
Ones ready, Twos fire

The #2 man retreats 5 paces to the rear of his #1 man (10 paces total from his original position) and loads. Each #1 man waits for his #2 man to complete the loading.

Twos retreat, then load
Twos retreat, then load

When the #2 man’s musket is loaded, he will say "Ready" to his #1 man.

The #1 man then fires.

Twos ready, Ones fire
Twos ready, Ones fire

This "leapfrog" process continues until the commander orders a Halt.

Upon the Halt, from the Retreat, the files that were in advance will go back on-line with the rear files.

Command: “Halt.”

1's and 2's go back to line.

Halt - Ones or Twos go back to the Line
Halt - Ones or Twos go back to the Line

To Assemble Into The Company Line Of Battle

Whether in Advance or Retreat, the skirmishers eventually needed to assemble again into the Company line of battle and then rejoin the Regiment.

Command: “Assemble on the reserve.”

Each CIA will return to the formation it held before it deployed as Skirmishers.

Left Deployment - CIA's reform
Left Deployment - CIA's reform
Right Deployment - CIA's reform
Right Deployment - CIA's reform
Left and Right Deployment - CIA's reform
Left and Right Deployment - CIA's reform

The CIA's will now march by the left or right flank (the opposite of the March by the Flank to which they deployed and, again, they do not double) to dress upon the CIA that anchored the line.

Left Deployment - Close Intervals
Left Deployment - Close Intervals
Right Deployment - Close Intervals
Right Deployment - Close Intervals
Left and Right Deployment - Close Intervals
Left and Right Deployment - Close Intervals

The Company line of battle is now reformed. At this point, the Company will march, most likely in About Face alignment, back to the Regiment. It will halt a short distance behind the Regiment, face itself to the front once more, then dress itself upon the Regiment’s line of battle in its proper flank position.

Sketch, in Harpers Weekly newspaper, of Skirmisher Drill
Sketch, in Harpers Weekly newspaper, of Skirmisher Drill
Sketch of Skirmishers' advance on Yorktown, VA
Sketch of Skirmishers' advance on Yorktown, VA
Painting - Skirmisher clambers over a fence
Painting - Skirmisher clambers over a fence
Sketch - Skirmishers fire and advance
Sketch - Skirmishers fire and advance

Afterword

There are several other maneuvers that were taught in this School of the Skirmisher – Rallies, for example, which were primarily used in order to oppose enemy cavalry attacks – but the maneuvers mentioned above should give a fair idea of the skirmishers’ duty and expectations.

Like Guard Mounting, Skirmish duty was one of the rare times in which a soldier was in a dispersed formation and, thus, was more of an Individual. As combat in that period was performed in close-order ranks, such dispersal often caused a measure of discomfort. One felt more “singled-out” and, as a result, the subject of greater (and unwanted) attention by officers and, unfortunately, by the enemy, whereas one felt a bit more anonymous and secure within the line of battle.

However, Skirmish duty was a very real necessity. Battlefields in North America, at the time, were often in somewhat untamed wilderness regions, not in cleared farmlands as was often the case in Europe, so there were plenty of areas where neither side saw the other until the last moment. Skirmishers, when deployed and used properly, allowed commanders to know what they were about to encounter when there was still enough time to prepare for it.

This is the final article in this series, American Civil War Life - Drills.

My next series is American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman - Life On Campaign.

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