Napoleonic Linear Tactics: American Civil War

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Napoleonic Linear Tactics and the American Civil War

The Infantry Tactics

Napoleonic Tactics in Line of Battle
line of battle.jpg
Company of infantry standing in two rank line of battle

American Civil War battles were fought using the same tactics that were used during the Revolutionary War nearly a century before.  The primary infantry formation was the line of battle and was used primarily in the attack.  To form into the line of battle, the men stood shoulder to shoulder in two lines called ranks.  The two ranks were 13" apart, or the distance from the back of the front-rank man to the chest of the rear-rank man.  The front-rank man and the man standing directly behind him formed a file.

(Right) A company of infantry standing in a line of battle during the Civil War. Units such as this were rarely at full-strength, primarily due to illness. Photo courtesy National Archives

The formation relied heavily upon the bayonet. The line of battle would advance, with bayonets fixed, to about 50 - 100 yards from the enemy and would fire a volley (each man firing at the same time) into the enemy's ranks. This way, the attacker was able to compensate for the smoothbore musket's short range and poor accuracy by concentrating the maximum amount of lead into the enemy to ensure that some of the bullets would hit. Without reloading, the attackers would then rush towards the enemy's lines and fight them with the "cold steel" of the bayonet.   

Usually, one or more companies were placed in a single line forward of the regiment as skirmishers. If the regiment was attacking, the skirmish line prevented the regiment from being ambushed and showed the commander where the enemy was located.  If the regiment was defending, the skirmishers would force the enemy to deploy, slowing them down and disrupting their attack.

Napoleonic Tactics in the Civil War
Napoleonic Tactics in the Civil War.jpg
Napoleonic Tactics in the Civil War. Don Troiani. Courtesy National Guard

Napoleonic Tactics, Firing by Line
Firing Line 400.jpg
Photo courtesy Mr. John Terry

By the start of the Civil War, however, the new weapons had made the old Napoleonic linear tactics obsolete.  The tactics were created when the best longarm was the flintlock smoothbore musket, with its 50-100 yard range, and the artillery was short-ranged and inaccurate at best.  In the intervening years, artillery had improved so that attackers were under fire for nearly a mile.  The increased ranges of the new rifles and rifle muskets meant that the defenders could begin firing at 200 to 400 yards.  Many times, bayonet charges stalled or were repulsed before the attackers could get within range to charge (see also Battle of Gettysburg, Gettysburg Campaign, and Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania).  If the attack stalled, a stand-up fight would ensue, with the two lines trading volleys at a distance of  100 - 400 yards .  Only when the attackers had overwhelming numbers, or they caught the defenders moving, were bayonet charges successful (Chickamauga & Chattanooga).  

Commanders were slow to adapt to the new technology, since they had used the tactics successfully during the Mexican War.  They did not understand the new weapons and refused to dispense with the tried-and-true tactics of Napoleon.  Military leaders held so tightly to the idea of the massed bayonet charge that during the First World War they advanced shoulder-to-shoulder, with fixed bayonets, just as Napoleon did 100 years earlier at Waterloo, even though they were facing an enemy armed with modern repeating rifles, machine guns and airplanes.  


Why did the armies fight in those long and exposed lines and not seek cover in the woods? It seems illogical to us, and many  historians remark that it was practically murder for the commanders to expose their soldiers with such tactics.  

But there were factors that forced the 19th Century battlefield commanders to apply those tactics. Three of the most decisive factors were the smoothbore musket, type of powder used, and lack of modern communications.

As previously stated, the infantry of the 18th and first half of the 19th Century was armed with the smoothbore musket. This weapon was short ranged and terribly inaccurate. In order to ensure some hits on the enemy's ranks, commanders were forced to group their men in the compact formations and fire point-blank volleys.

Muskets firing at night
Night Fire.jpg
Photo courtesy Mr. John Terry

All weapons of the period, both shoulder arm and artillery, fired black powder which created huge clouds of white smoke.  Depending upon the amount of wind and the terrain, a battlefield could quickly become obscured and visibility could drop to virtually zero.  This was the case in Morgan's Woods and Tanyard Hollow at Pea Ridge. As well as being obscured by smoke, battles were incredibly loud affairs.  Witnesses reported hearing the Battle of Pea Ridge as far away as Springfield, MO (80 miles away).  Some battles could be heard between 100 and 150 miles away.  

If a battle could be heard 100 miles away, imagine how loud it was 100 feet away!  Try to put yourself in the place of a regimental commander trying to order his unit into battle!  You can barely see from one end of your line to the other.  You have to shout just to be heard a few feet away.  Since modern battlefield communications are 70 years in the future, you have to rely on runners, drum or bugle calls to communicate.  If you spread your troops out, they will get lost in the smoke and will never hear the orders to advance or retreat.  If you put them in the woods, the smoke will never clear out and you won't be able to see the enemy.  Your only chance is to stand in the open, in a tight, compact formation, where you can control your troops and where the wind can clear the smoke away from your troops. See also Napoleonic Tactics at the Battle of Gettysburg.

"My God, what a slaughter! No one appeared to know the object of the fight, and there we stood for one hour, the men falling all around..." Captain George Fairchild, 7th Wisconsin, after the Battle of Second Manassas.

(Video of Napoleonic Tactics applied during the American Civil War.)

(Sources and related reading listed below.)

Recommended Reading: The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth (Modern War Studies) (Hardcover: 288 pages) (University Press of Kansas: September 9, 2008). Description: The Civil War's single-shot, muzzle-loading musket revolutionized warfare--or so we've been told for years. Noted historian Earl J. Hess forcefully challenges that claim, offering a new, clear-eyed, and convincing assessment of the rifle musket's actual performance on the battlefield and its impact on the course of the Civil War. Continued below...

Drawing upon the observations and reflections of the soldiers themselves, Hess offers the most compelling argument yet made regarding the actual use of the rifle musket and its influence on Civil War combat. Engagingly written and meticulously researched, his book will be of special interest to Civil War scholars, buffs, reenactors, and gun enthusiasts alike.

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Related Studies:

Recommended Reading: Shock Troops of the Confederacy (Hardcover) (432 pages). Description: Fred Ray's Shock Troops of the Confederacy is primarily focused on the "sharpshooter battalions" of the Army of Northern Virginia. In a Civil War context, "sharpshooter" was usually more akin to "skirmisher" than "sniper," although these specialized battalions also used innovative open order assault techniques, especially late in the war. Continued below...

Ray includes, however, a detailed study of Union sharpshooter battalions and Confederate sharpshooters in the West. Remarkably, little has been published about such organizations in the past, so Fred Ray's book offers a unique study of the evolution of Civil War infantry tactics, revealing a more complex, sophisticated approach to the battlefield than is usually understood.

Recommended Reading: Battle Tactics of the Civil War (Yale Nota Bene) (Yale University Press). Description: Was the Civil War really the birthplace of modern battlefield tactics? Paddy Griffith argues that despite the use of new weapons and of trench warfare techniques, the Civil War was in reality the last Napoleonic-style war. Rich in description and analysis, this is a book of interest both to military historians and to Civil War buffs. "Belongs on the shelf of every historian, Civil War buff, and military tactician." -- Maj. James T. Currie, Army. "Provides a fresh and provocative appraisal of the [Civil] War. . . . An essential read for anyone interested in the subject." -- Military History Illustrated. Continued below...

About the Author: Paddy Griffith, formerly a senior lecturer in war studies at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, England, is the author of several other books on military subjects, including Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army's Art of Attack, published by Yale University Press.


Recommended Reading: The 1863 U.S. Infantry Tactics: Infantry of the Line, Light Infantry, and Riflemen (Hardcover: 608 pages). Description: Written in 1861 at the direction of the War Department and copiously illustrated, this was the book used to train, lead, and maneuver U.S. Infantry units on Civil War battlefields. It contains the school of the soldier, the company, and battalion or fielded regiment, along with all-important instructions for skirmishers. Continued below...

More than 15 pages of field music, the articles of war in use at the time, and a dictionary of Civil War military terminology complete this extensive work. The work was authorized and adopted by the Secretary of War on May 1, 1861. This is the second edition issued in 1863.


Recommended Reading: Warman's Civil War Weapons. Description: The weapons of the Confederate and Union Armies, a commanding presence 140 years ago, are among today's most revered collectibles. Warman's Civil War Weapons offers Civil War enthusiasts a listing of more than 100 weapons and military vehicles, featured in 400 stunning full-color photos, and covers the effectiveness of each weapon in battle. Continued below...

From the early battles that relied on muzzleloaded weapons, to the introduction of submarines, handguns, shoulder arms, edged weapons and more, this book chronicles the history of an innovative age of weaponry. Weapons including the Butterfield Revolver, Sharps Model 1859 and Confederate short sword are shown in detail, with a performance summary. This unmatched reference provides the information needed for a historical study and collecting. 


Recommended Reading: Civil War Firearms: Their Historical Background and Tactical Use. Description: The popular Civil War News columnist has written a unique work, combining technical data on each Civil War firearm, an often surprising treatment of their actual use on the battlefield, and a guide to collecting and firing surviving relics and modern reproductions. About the Author: Joseph G. Bilby is a popular columnist for the Civil War News and a veteran of the current 69th Regiment.


Recommended Reading: Civil War Collector's Encyclopedia: Arms, Uniforms and Equipment of the Union and Confederacy. Description: This comprehensive and exhaustive reference identifies and describes the use and application of more than 800 items. Arranged alphabetically by topic, subjects range from artillery accouterments and boats to tools and patriotic sheet music. "Everything an interested reader would want to know . . . A must-have book." — Antiques & Auction News. Over 350 rare illustrations. Continued below...

The Civil War buff and even serious collector of Civil War arms, uniforms and equipment should purchase the Civil War Collector's Encyclopedia: Arms, Uniforms And Equipment Of The Union And Confederacy as an indispensable reference and core guide in this specialized area of military antiques and collectibles with noted authority Francis A. Lord covering almost everything to do with Civil War memorabilia--from equipment to Union and Confederate uniforms.


Recommended Reading: Brigades of Gettysburg: The Union and Confederate Brigades at the Battle of Gettysburg (Hardcover) (704 Pages). Description: While the battle of Gettysburg is certainly the most-studied battle in American history, a comprehensive treatment of the part played by each unit has been ignored. Brigades of Gettysburg fills this void by presenting a complete account of every brigade unit at Gettysburg and providing a fresh perspective of the battle. Using the words of enlisted men and officers, the author-well-known Civil War historian Bradley Gottfried-weaves a fascinating narrative of the role played by every brigade at the famous three-day battle, as well as a detailed description of each brigade unit. Continued below...

Organized by order of battle, each brigade is covered in complete and exhaustive detail: where it fought, who commanded, what constituted the unit, and how it performed in battle. Innovative in its approach and comprehensive in its coverage, Brigades of Gettysburg is certain to be a classic and indispensable reference for the battle of Gettysburg for years to come.

Sources: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; National Park Service: American Civil War; Walter Clark, Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-1865; National Park Service: American Civil War; Weymouth T. Jordan and Louis H. Manarin, North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865; D. H. Hill, Confederate Military History Of North Carolina: North Carolina In The Civil War, 1861-1865; Library of Congress; North Carolina Office of Archives and History; North Carolina Museum of History; State Library of North Carolina; and National Archives and Records Administration.

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