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American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman - Life On Campaign XI

Updated on July 22, 2018
garytameling profile image

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).

Now let us review the combat tactics of the day for Infantry, along with those of the supporting Artillery and Cavalry arms.

Tactics, in layman's terms, can be defined as the specific steps to be taken to achieve a desired result. They are the next step below the Strategy echelon.

If the Strategy calls for the seizure of an enemy-held position, the Tactics are those steps to be taken to secure that seizure. Of course, for very specific Strategies, very specific Tactics are needed, and that goes beyond the scope of this article. However, there were several "broad-spectrum" Tactics that were utilized by each of the three arms of the Army. These Tactics were incorporated within specific Strategies and revised where needed. We will review these "broad-spectrum" Tactics here.

Sketch - The Firing Line at Lee's Mills, April 1862
Sketch - The Firing Line at Lee's Mills, April 1862

Infantry

Infantry tactics varied throughout the war. First and foremost, the line of battle needed to be formed so the units could fight effectively. Often, each Brigade formed a Front Line of half of its Regiments, and the remaining Regiments formed the Rear Line. In cases where Brigades had an odd number of Regiments (ie. five Regiments), a third Line of one Regiment was often formed.

A possible formation of a Brigade with five Regiments
A possible formation of a Brigade with five Regiments

Infantry Attack

For the attacking units, the common tactic was for the men to march with arms at shoulder or right shoulder shift at the normal quick-step (a measured walk) in the first interval of the advance. Then the units halted within firing range of the enemy line and delivered two volleys. A volley, as explained in the Drills series, was the deliverance of fire in unison throughout a unit. The breadth of the volleys (in other words, the size of the units that fired in unison), whether they were fired By Company, By Battalion, etc., was dependent on the commanders. At least one officer, in a Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment, asserted that only once did they fire By Battalion; all other times they fired By Company. By contrast, an Illinois Infantry Regiment in the Western Theatre was particularly noted for its fire By Battalion almost exclusively. In extremely rare situations, entire Brigades fired in unison, but this was probably more by accident than by design; most likely, troops in one Regiment fired, and its neighboring units continued the fire without specific orders to do so, which gave the illusion that the entire Brigade fired one, long volley. In short, it can be assumed that most volley fire was delivered By Company.

After fire was delivered, the units were ordered to continue the advance. Arms were lowered to charge bayonets sometime during this second interval. As casualties were suffered, the lines closed the gaps and continued the charge. Gradually, the pace was increased to double-quick for enough momentum and inertia to ram into and break any enemy units still in position. Whether the enemy line was ruptured before, or during, any resultant hand to hand combat was immaterial. To penetrate the enemy line, and widen the breach, was paramount.

Tactics of attack eventually evolved into the practice of “columns of attack”. Several lines were “stacked”, one behind the other, which provided successive lines of support and enabled the attackers to significantly outnumber the enemy at the point of contact. Instead of a halt to fire, the lines continued to advance all the way to the targeted position at the double-quick. Musket cones were left uncapped to prevent the troops’ ability to fire before they reached the enemy line. At that point, close-range fire and hand to hand combat was expected to commence and lead to a breach in the enemy line, which would be widened as the other lines reached the objective.

Painting - Irish Brigade, at Antietam, advances toward the enemy position; firearms are at Right-Shoulder Shift
Painting - Irish Brigade, at Antietam, advances toward the enemy position; firearms are at Right-Shoulder Shift
Painting - Union infantry (background) prepares to fire upon the enemy position
Painting - Union infantry (background) prepares to fire upon the enemy position
Living Historians fire a volley during their attack
Living Historians fire a volley during their attack
Painting - Maine troops, at Charge Bayonets, continue the attack on the enemy position
Painting - Maine troops, at Charge Bayonets, continue the attack on the enemy position
Painting - Union troops, at the double-quick, hit the enemy line
Painting - Union troops, at the double-quick, hit the enemy line
A possible Column Of Attack for an Army Corps
A possible Column Of Attack for an Army Corps

Infantry Defense

For defense, the troops stood in line of battle in their assigned position and were ordered to hold it “at all hazards”. If attacked, they delivered fire on the advancing enemy as rapidly and accurately as possible. If the enemy advance was brought to a halt, both lines often traded fire for a while. However, whether the attackers were halted or not, the common tactic at the time was for the defending units to eventually counterattack: to leave their position, drive back the enemy, and end the threat to the position. Since the attacking units were often somewhat disordered and damaged by the defenders’ fire during their advance, these counterattacks were often at least partially successful. However, if the attacking units were still in good order, or still heavily outnumbered the defenders, counterattacks were often ill-advised. Counterattacks, in such cases, often put the defending units at a disadvantage as they then suffered as much, or more, damage and disorder as did their enemy shortly beforehand. If a counterattack was deemed unwise for any reason, the defenders were expected to remain in position and to fight hand-to-hand with the attackers if they reached the position.

In actual practice, in defense or in a failed attack, the men very soon realized they were conspicuous targets while they stood. As a result, the men often took to the ground and laid flat or kneeled, and sought cover behind trees, rocks, buildings, fences, etc. whenever possible. They also soon began to construct mini-fortifications. They dug up the earth with their bayonets, tin cups, plates, and even their hands, and piled up the dirt in front of them. They then laid or knelt behind these little earthen hills for protection. Already fallen trees and any other reinforcing materials were added when possible to make the improvised works stronger. If they had time and were unmolested, they felled nearby trees, stacked them in front, covered them with earth, deepened the shallow depressions into ditches, etc. The longer the men stayed in position, the stronger they made their earthworks.

Painting - Union troops maintain their defensive positions at Gaines Mill in VA
Painting - Union troops maintain their defensive positions at Gaines Mill in VA
Sketch - Union troops fire from a low hilltop upon attacking enemy troops
Sketch - Union troops fire from a low hilltop upon attacking enemy troops
Painting - the 1st MN Volunteers launch a counterattack at Gettysburg in PA
Painting - the 1st MN Volunteers launch a counterattack at Gettysburg in PA
Union troops occupy a trench outside of Fredericksburg, VA
Union troops occupy a trench outside of Fredericksburg, VA
Painting - Union troops fire from behind a breastwork of stones and logs / fence rails at Chickamauga in GA
Painting - Union troops fire from behind a breastwork of stones and logs / fence rails at Chickamauga in GA

Artillery

As mentioned in The Weapons and Ordnance, artillery supported the infantry with their cannon and other large-bored weapons. When they reached their chosen or assigned locations, the artillery units “came into battery”, which means they took positions in which to fire. They chose locations that were as concealed from enemy detection as possible, in order to forestall enemy attempts to disable or destroy it. They then fired upon targeted enemy positions in order to pave the way for the ultimate success of the infantry.

A posed photograph of Union artillerymen as they load their cannon outside of Fredericksburg, VA
A posed photograph of Union artillerymen as they load their cannon outside of Fredericksburg, VA

Artillery Attack

The goal for artillery, in an attack, was to blow apart any defense structures, beat down and suppress any enemy artillery spotted in the area, and inflict enough damage and disorder on enemy infantry to give the attacking infantry greater odds of success. Other artillery pieces were often limbered up to follow the infantry. When they approached an advantageous location, the artillery came into battery and helped the infantry with close-range supporting fire on the enemy. If the enemy position was taken, the artillery came into battery at the newly won positions and helped hold them in case of enemy counterattack.

Painting - Union artillery fires upon Kennesaw Mountain, GA as infantry begins its advance
Painting - Union artillery fires upon Kennesaw Mountain, GA as infantry begins its advance
Living Historians fire their howitzer at Fredericksburg, VA
Living Historians fire their howitzer at Fredericksburg, VA
Sketch - an artillery battery limbers up and advances to support the infantry
Sketch - an artillery battery limbers up and advances to support the infantry

Artillery Defense

In defense, the artillery inflicted as much damage as possible on the attackers to hopefully stop them before they caused significant damage to the defending infantry, or to the artillerymen themselves. If under bombardment, the defending artillery often engaged in “counterbattery” fire to suppress the enemy artillery. It was difficult to locate enemy batteries, however. As already mentioned, artillery was often placed in concealed locations. This fact, combined with smoke from battle, helped to render enemy batteries nearly invisible.

Sketch - an artillery battery fires over its infantry lines to strike the enemy at Malvern Hill, VA
Sketch - an artillery battery fires over its infantry lines to strike the enemy at Malvern Hill, VA
Painting - artillery fires upon enemy attacking infantry at Shiloh, TN
Painting - artillery fires upon enemy attacking infantry at Shiloh, TN
Living Historians engage in counterbattery fire against enemy artillery
Living Historians engage in counterbattery fire against enemy artillery
Tube of a cannon that was dented by enemy counterbattery fire
Tube of a cannon that was dented by enemy counterbattery fire

Cavalry

At War’s outset, the cavalry was often relegated to minor combat roles, which included its use for reconnaissance, to guard supply and transportation lines, and to picket roads and bridges in advance of the army. Cavalry assumed a moderately combative role when used to raid enemy supply and communications lines. However, to disrupt enemy activity and to gather intelligence, not prolonged combat, were the goals of such raids.

Painting - a cavalry orderly
Painting - a cavalry orderly

Cavalry Attack

Combat tactics for cavalry early in the war usually included a massed charge, with drawn sabers, on the enemy to put him to rout. Fortunately for the cavalry, this didn’t occur often. It was recognized that the larger infantry units, with greater firepower, would have decimated the cavalry that attempted such a feat, unless the infantry was already severely disorganized, demoralized, or otherwise damaged. As a result, combat activity for cavalry in the War’s early years was often limited to combat with enemy cavalry and/or small unit actions.

As the War progressed, skillful and innovative cavalry commanders were recognized and weaponry improved, so Cavalry units evolved to become rapid and powerful combat forces.

The cavalry arm’s combat tactics evolved as well. In combat, attack or defense, the cavalry rode to the targeted location and dismounted to fight with rifles and carbines. If the enemy needed to be broken and/or driven off, a mounted charge was made with pistols and sabers. As was mentioned in The Weapons and Ordnance, to switch weapons, from shouldered firearm to pistol or saber, was often time-consuming and awkward while in combat. Thus, some cavalry Regiments’ Companies were retained as “Saber” Companies - armed with sabers or pistols for mounted charges - while the other Companies were armed with rifles or carbines for dismounted combat. This enabled the Regiment, as a whole, to fight dismounted AND mounted, dependent on the situation and urgency.

Painting - a cavalry saber charge upon enemy infantry at Gaines Mill, VA
Painting - a cavalry saber charge upon enemy infantry at Gaines Mill, VA
Sketch - a cavalry trooper with pistol
Sketch - a cavalry trooper with pistol
Painting - dismounted cavalry with repeating carbines engage enemy infantry at Gettysburg, PA
Painting - dismounted cavalry with repeating carbines engage enemy infantry at Gettysburg, PA

Afterword

What were considered state-of-the-art tactics at the beginning of the war were often proven to be obsolete as the conflict continued. It is a tribute to the innovative commanders on both sides that new Tactics evolved that were proven successful in the war and for years afterword.

The next article in this series is called American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman - Life On Campign XII.

Sketch - recent aftermath of battle
Sketch - recent aftermath of battle

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    • garytameling profile imageAUTHOR

      Gary Tameling 

      4 years ago from Islip, NY

      I would be honored if you would forward my articles to my followers. Thank you! :-) And, as always, thank you for your kind words. They are always appreciated.

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      CJ Kelly 

      4 years ago from Auburn, WA

      Another great chapter. Voted up. I need to start forwarding this to all my followers. Keep up the good work.

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