Union Army Infantry Battle Tactics

This entry is part 3 of 10 in the series The Organization of the Armies

First Manassas paintingThe Union Army used very prescribed infantry battle tactics for advancing and attacking in the early years of the war. These battle tactics were practiced relentlessly so the troops understood and obeyed the commands immediately. After all, they were advancing against the enemy in the open without cover in formations that were targets for artillery and aimed rifle fire.

At the start of the war each regiment had 10 companies of 100 men each. Generally a regiment advanced with most of their companies abreast in a wide double line of men. Depending on the situation, one or more companies were assigned as skirmishers who were forward of the main line by as much as 400 to 500 yards. Companies might be assigned to guard either or both flanks to protect against enfilade attack.

The role of skirmishers was most important in Civil War combat. They moved forward of the main line in open order. They sought to locate the enemy main line in order to give their forces the number and position of the enemy that they faced. Initially, they used the same rifled muskets as their compatriots and were assigned as skirmishers on an ad hoc basis.

Eventually, skirmishing companies became specialists as scouts and sharpshooters for their regiments and brigades. They trained as skirmishers and were used in that role in every action. They eventually acquired repeating rifles for increased firepower and some used high-powered long range sharpshooter or sniper rifles with scopes in order to disrupt the enemy by wounding or killing enemy officers.

Union Army regiment advanced at a prescribed rate as laid down in the army manuals. In a minute’s time they were expected to advance 70 yards or 90 steps in what was called common time. Quick time was 86 yards or 110 steps per minute. Double-quick time was 109 yards or 140 steps per minute. The pace of every attack was different with factors such as the distance of the advance, the ground covered, the temperature, etc. governing the rate of advance.

Civil War infantry attacks were often made in waves of advancing lines of regiments or brigades. There was usually 250-300 yards between units Line of Battlewith 25 yards separating internal lines within a unit. The second line was more or less safe from musket fire but not from plunging cannon fire. The wide spacing allowed for following units to maneuver in order to reinforce a weak point in the forward line or take advantage of a breakthrough. It also allowed the following lines to maneuver right or left to prevent a flank attack.

Infantry battle tactics in the early war gave way to more innovative tactics in the later years of the war. The tactics and formations in the early years were holdovers from the days when a musket was only accurate up to 100 yards. These tactics made for some terrible slaughters on the battlefield once rifled muskets came into almost uniform use.

Colonel Emory Upton pioneered the attack by column after witnessing the horrific slaughter of frontal assaults. His initial use of the new attack tactic was at the Mule Shoe Salient at Spotsylvania. Upton devised a tactic wherein columns of massed infantry would swiftly assault a small part of the enemy line, without pausing to trade fire, and in doing so attempt to overwhelm the defenders and achieve a breakthrough.

On May 10, 1864, Upton led twelve regiments in such an assault against the Confederate’s Mule Shoe salient. His tactics worked and his command penetrated to the center of the Mule Shoe, but they were left unsupported and forced to withdraw in the face of enemy artillery and mounting reinforcements. Upton was wounded in the attack, but was promoted to brigadier general on May 12. On that same day, Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock adapted Upton’s columnar assault tactic to the entire II Corps to break through the Mule Shoe.

Emory UptonAs the green troops evolved into veteran soldiers, the common sense necessary to survive on the battlefield came to the fore. Troops learned to take cover whenever possible rather than stand in the open exposed to enemy artillery and musket fire. Troops on both sides became proficient in the art of building field fortifications and entrenchments whenever and wherever possible.

Troops generally were not issued any type of digging tool, so they used whatever was available. They often borrowed shovels and axes from neighboring artillery batteries. Otherwise they use bayonets, knives, plates and tin cups to build entrenchments.

One of General Sherman’s officers wrote the following description about the building of entrenchments before Atlanta. “The front rank take all the guns and remain on the line, while the rear rank goes off in double-quick to collect rails, logs, rocks, any thing that can assist in turning a hostile bullet. These they place on the front of the front rank, and in five minutes there is a hasty barricade, bullet-proof and breast-high, along your whole line; not a mere straight work, but one varied with its salients and re-entering angles, taking every advantage of the ground, and cross-firing on every hollow.”

Veteran troops turned to new tactics to avoid full frontal assaults. More than once, veteran troops refused to advance in the face of overwhelming enemy fire, leaving these type of assaults to “green” regiments. Veteran troops would advance in short rushes, taking advantage of all available cover. They laid flat on the ground between volleys and learned to load their weapons while prone. “The soldier would comply with a reasonableEntrenchments order, but he did so because it was reasonable, not because it was an order.”

To the disgust of innovative officers like Emory Upton, some generals continued to hurl masses of troops against prepared positions. After Cold Harbor, which General Grant said was his greatest mistake as a commander, Upton wrote to his sister: “I am disgusted with the generalship displayed. Our men, have in many instances, been foolishly and wantonly sacrificed. Assault after assault has been ordered upon the enemy’ intrenchments, when they knew nothing about the strength or position of the enemy. Thousands of lives might have been spared with the exercise of a little skill.” The Union Army suffered 12,737 casualties at the Battle of Cold Harbor.



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