Drill books and rifles

by Gustav Person

Co. H, 4th U.S. Infantry, Sykes Regulars

December 2003

     The American Civil War has been called the first modern war through the use of railroads, telegraphy, submarines, trench warfare and a host of other innovations. It was also the last of the old wars since outmoded tactical practices were still very much in vogue, at least in the first two years of the war. This article in two parts will examine the various drill manuals utilized during the war years, and how the tactics and doctrine changed as a result of the introduction of rifled weapons. Unfortunately, this revolution in tactics was not fully realized by the writers of tactical manuals, and did not completely come to fruition until 1867, two years after the war ended.

     This study must begin prior to the Mexican War of 1846-48. The tactics used at that time were similar to those employed in 18th and early 19th Century warfare. Infantry marched in columns and deployed into lines to prepare for battle. The infantry volleyed with the enemy, then advanced in closely ordered lines, hoping to get near enough to the defenders to break their lines with a concentrated volley and then charge with the bayonet.

     Tactics are usually based on weaponry and the main infantry weapon was the smoothbore flintlock musket. The great limitation of the musket was its inaccuracy and short range. A few units used rifles which had greater accuracy and range than muskets. The most famous rifle of the war was the Model 1841 or Mississippi Rifle. Rifle units were used for skirmishing or to cover the flank of a larger unit.

Scotts Manual

     The musket and bayonet were the basis of tactical theory of the period. The authorized tactical manual of that time was Major General Winfield Scotts three-volumeInfantry Tactics. This highly regarded manual followed French tactical theory and represented the work of the foremost American soldier of the first half of the 19th Century. In the War of 1812 Scott had used his own translation of the French 1791Reglement to drill his brigade, and had presided over several boards on tactics in 1815, 1824-25 and 1826. Scott was the chief proponent of adopting the French system over that of the British. As an author of tactics he was, even in the words of his chief army rival, the man best qualified for the job.

     In 1834, Scott translated and adapted the latest French manual, the Ordonnances of 1831. The following year Scotts three-volume Infantry Tactics was adopted as the drill for American infantry, a position that it held for over twenty years. In general, the tactics were slow-moving and relied on the massing of troops as opposed to rapid movements and firepower. Scotts Infantry Tactics stressed close-ordered lines of either two or three ranks (Scott assumed that the three-rank formation would be the most common, but it was suspended by the War Department in 1835). Scotts Infantry Tactics was more concerned with maintaining order than with creating lan. He did not want attackers to make a rapid advance. Men advanced with a direct step of 28 inches at a common time rate of 90 steps per minute. He also allowed the quick time rate of 110 steps per minute. Scott discouraged the use of any step-rate faster than quick time. He believed that the double-quick time and the run were unnecessary for line infantry in ordinary circumstances.

     Scotts Infantry Tactics sought a disciplined close order and allowed loose order only in skirmishing tactics, which were covered in Volume II of his manual. Skirmishers were deployed in advance of the main lines to cover their own troops and to develop the enemys fire. His manual assumed that each regiment would have one company of rifles or light infantry that would skirmish for the remainder of the regiment. Skirmishers were a feature of the Mexican War, but they were only deployed in small numbers. American troops, utilizing these tactics, were usually reacting to terrain and circumstances. In the American system, the only real difference between light and heavy infantry was that light infantry would be deployed in dispersed order.

     When taken as a whole, Scotts Infantry Tactics was eminently suitable for the fighting in Mexico. It proved so popular that it was even utilized by many units, mostly volunteers or state troops, in the early years of the Civil War. But times and weaponry were changing, and the introduction of the two-banded Model 1855 Springfield percussion rifle (49.4 inches overall) with saber-bayonet, and the three-banded Model 1855 Springfield rifle-musket (56 inches overall) with socket triangular bayonet were to begin the revolution in tactics.

     In his annual report for 1854, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis directed that a new manual of rifle tactics be prepared to replace Scotts smoothbore musket tactics. Davis was quite familiar with the rifles efficiency. As colonel of the 1st Mississippi Regiment, armed with the Model 1841 Mississippi Rifle, he had provided distinguished leadership at the battle of Buena Vista (22-23 February 1847) in Mexico. Davis knew of the extensive studies being conducted in Europe in both weapons and tactics, and especially of the experience of the French Army in Algeria where untrained French skirmishers had been picked off by Moorish cavalry, and exhausted infantry had been subjected to repeated ambushes.

     To head a board of officers to write a new manual of tactics, Davis selected Major William J. Hardee who had trained at the French Army Cavalry School at Saumur in the early 1840s. He had also rendered distinguished service in the Mexican War. Hardee began his new duties with a trip to the Harpers Ferry Arsenal in late December 1853 to confer with the superintendent and to examine the new rifle designed for the i>mini bullet which had been invented by a French Army captain. He spent most of the Spring of 1854 meeting with his board at the Washington Arsenal, analyzing, testing, translating and adapting the French tactics manual, Ordonnance du Roi sur lExercise et les Manoevres des Bataillons de Chasseurs Pied, which had been published in 1845.

     By July 1854, Hardees new manual was completed. He submitted it to the Adjutant General who in turn forwarded it to the Secretary of War. Davis gave his approval at once and directed that a testing board be assembled. This board convened at West Point in August, and Hardee joined the board to furnish information and to make suggestions. Davis put the Corps of Cadets at Hardees disposal, thereby providing an intelligent, well-disciplined group for use as an experimental unit. By late October, the board felt that the cadets had mastered the drill well enough to display it before the Secretary of War. The cadets had a mixed opinion as regards the new drill. Many referred to it as the Shanghai Drill because they felt that it made them look like a bunch of Chinamen, shuffling along at double-quick time.

     The most significant changes over Scotts previous manual were the quicker marching rates, comrades in battle (soldiers in skirmishing tactics operating in groups of four), doubling (forming columns of four files quickly and efficiently), and a more natural method of moving by the oblique.

     Hardee introduced a double-quick time step of 165 paces per minute, and the run. Henceforth all foot drill movements could be executed at the double-quick. Modern American soldiers would recognize the double-quick as the airborne shuffle. The troops were trained by regulations to cover five miles in one hour in full marching order with rifle and knapsack to condition them to react promptly in combat and to deploy and maneuver quickly.

     Additionally, all troops were to be trained in skirmishing tactics, not just the regimental flank companies, and Hardee devoted a considerable section of his manual to skirmishing since it was assumed that all soldiers would be armed with the rifle. Hardee still assumed that battalions and companies would form in two ranks, thirteen inches apart, the same distance proposed by Scott. Hardee also used Scotts method of aligning by the touch of elbows.

     Nevertheless, Hardees Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics had some notable deficiencies. Firstly, the manual or arms as outlined was for soldiers armed with the shorter rifle, while the vast majority of American infantry were still armed with the musket or rifle-musket. This caused a number of problems until the introduction of the U.S. Infantry Tactics in 1861 provided a manual of arms for the rifle-musket. Secondly, Hardees manual was only two volumes, the second volume ending with the school of the battalion. The War Department believed that commanders could use Hardees Tactics to drill units smaller than a brigade, and use Scotts third volume for brigade and larger units. The attempt to use Scotts third volume as a third volume for Hardees work failed when the outbreak of the Civil War made massive drilling and training necessary. Scotts third volume confused commanders because it occasionally referred to Scotts first two volumes which were now obsolete.

     Many officers found Hardee confusing and difficult to interpret, but Ulysses S. Grant, writing his memoirs in the 1880s, commented on his first introduction to HardeesTactics in 1861 while still the colonel of the 21st Illinois Volunteers:

     Up to this time my regiment had not been carried in the school of the soldier beyond the company drill, except that it had received some training on the march from Springfield to the Illinois River. There was now a good opportunity of exercising it in the battalion drill. While at West Point the tactics used in the army had been Scotts and the musket the flintlock. I had never looked at a copy of tactics from the time of my graduation. My standing in that branch of studies had been near the foot of the class. In the Mexican war in the Summer of 1846 I had been appointed regimental quartermaster and commissary and had not been at a battalion drill since. The arms had been changed since than and Hardees tactics had been adopted. I got a copy of tactics and studied one lesson, intending to confine the exercise of the first day to the commands I had thus learned. By pursuing this course from day to day I thought I would soon get through the volume.

      We were encamped just outside of town on the common, among scattering suburban houses with enclosed gardens, and when I got my regiment in line and rode to the front I soon saw that if I attempted to follow the lesson I had studied I would soon have to clear away some of the houses and garden fences to make room. I perceived at once, however, that Hardees tactics a mere translation from the French with Hardees name attached was nothing more than common sense and the progress of the age applied to Scotts system. The commands were abbreviated and movement expedited. Under the old tactics almost every change in the order of march was preceded by a halt, then came the change, and then the forward march. With the new tactics all these changes could be made while in motion. I found no trouble in giving commands that would take my regiment where I wanted it to go and carry it around all obstacles. I do not believe that the officers of the regiment ever discovered that I had never studied the tactics that I used.

1      Grady McWhiney and Perry D. Jamieson,  Attack and Die, Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage (Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 1982), 27-31.

2   Dom Dal Bello and Geoff Walden,  Manual of Arms for Infantry: A Re-Examination, Part III,Camp Chase Gazette (July 1996), 35; Winfield Scott, Infantry Tactics, Vols. I-III (New York: Harper & Bros., 1835, 1840, 1859, 1861), I:29, 82, 132; McWhiney  and Jamieson, Attack and Die, 31-32.

3   Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Jr., General William J. Hardee Old Reliable (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1965), 44.

4   William J. Hardee,  Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics, Vols. I-II (New York: J.O. Kane, Publisher, 1862), I:76.

5   McWhiney and Jamieson, Attack and Die, 53.

6   Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982), 128-129.