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American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman – Drills I: The Linear Maneuvers

Updated on October 7, 2016

Introduction

As mentioned in previous series’ articles, for command and control purposes, the armies of the American Civil War were drilled in linear formations to maneuver and fight. This was not a simple task. Lines of battle, usually two ranks deep, elbow to elbow, required that each infantryman know his place and, to a certain degree, the places of his comrades in the line. He needed to know how he must move as his unit maneuvered, and he needed to learn to follow orders by voice, bugle or fife, or drum.

The units were well-controlled by the officers when in level, grassy fields and in static positions: the officers could see their units clearly, from flank to flank, and communication of orders was fairly uncomplicated. However, combat in the mid-nineteenth century United States was not often in open farmlands. Heavily wooded areas, hills, ridges, swamps, creeks, and rivers, etc. all proved to be major impediments to order in the ranks. Officers could not see the entirety of their units as they disappeared in the folds of land or within the trees, so units often fragmented as they moved. When the smoke and din from hostile fire in combat was added to the equation, which further hindered sight and communication, it was little wonder that chaos soon reigned supreme over nearly every unit. Only the knowledge and discipline, imparted to the troops on the drill grounds, enabled units to maintain enough cohesion to continue to fight effectively throughout any engagement.

The Linear Maneuvers

This following guide to some of the most common infantry linear maneuvers will, I hope, bring to light the complicated nature of American Civil War combat tactics, and remind readers that there was nothing simple about the jobs of the infantrymen in the ranks.

Height Order

The first order of business was to position the men in order of height, which will be explained in more detail later.

Command: "Fall-In, Company," “Fall-In, In Height Order,” or equivalent.

The tallest man to the smallest man, from the right of the line to the left, stand one behind the other in a single line, and face to the right.

Command: “Front.”

All men now turn to face to the front.

The commander often needed to align the men more exactly, or to adjoin the unit with a neighboring unit, so his next order was to “dress” (properly align) the line.


Command: “Right, Dress.”

All men move to align on the indicated man or position that denotes the right flank of the line.


Command: “Left, Dress.”

All men move to align on the indicated man or position that denotes the left flank of the line.


Command: “Center, Dress.”

All men move to align on the indicated man or position that denotes the center of the line.

Form Company - The Line of Battle

In order to properly fight, the men needed to be formed into a line of battle. As mentioned, during the American Civil War, the combat formation for each company (the smallest operational unit) was a line of two ranks. In other words, two parallel lines, one behind the other, were known as the ranks, and the formation as a whole was called the line of battle. The rank that was in front was called the front rank, and the other was the rear rank.

Both ranks needed to be able to fire their weapons. Therefore, the rule to form the line of battle was to make sure that each man in the rear rank was slightly taller than the man immediately before him in the front rank. This enabled the rear rank men, safely, to aim their weapons without interference from the front rank men. That was why the aforementioned height-order procedure was carried out. I will go into detail about the usage of firearms in a future article.

A proper, and fully functional, line of battle required each of these components:

1) The men in each rank needed to have their elbows to lightly brush against those of their neighbors.

2) The rear rank needed to be no more than 13 in. / 33 cm behind the front rank. This was roughly the length of a man’s forearm and hand. This distance allowed the weapons to be fired by the rear rank without undue hazard, from the muzzle blasts, to the men in the front rank.

There were at least two methods to form the company line of battle. Here is one method:

Command: “In two ranks, form company. Left, face.”

The men turn to face to their left. They are currently in one rank.


Command: “March.”

The man on far left of the line (A) “marks time” as the others “double” the files. The man behind him (B) moves to the left and aligns himself with (A). The next man (C) closes up to (A), and the man behind him (D) moves to the left to align with (C). This process continues until the line has formed into two ranks.


Command: “Front.”

The men turn to again face to the front. There are now two ranks, separated by 13in. / 33 cm.


Command: “In each rank, count two’s.”

From the right to the left, each file calls out “one” or “two”.

After the count, each Corporal in the rear rank will switch with the man in front of him so that all Corporals are now in the front rank.

The company is now fully formed.


Here is another method to form the company's line of battle:

Command: “Count Two’s.”

The men in the single rank will, from right to left, call out “one” or “two”.


Command: “In two ranks, form company. Left, face.”

The men face to the left. Those assigned one will step to the left and align themselves next to the men, assigned two, which were just in front of them.


Command: “Front”

The men turn to again face to the front. The line is now in two ranks, separated by 13 in. / 33 cm, though the line is a bit spread apart. The men should now forget their numbers as a re-number exercise will soon occur.


Command: “Right, dress.”

The men in each rank close upon those to their right until they lightly brush elbows with each other.


Command: “In each rank, count two’s.”

In the two-rank line, from right to left, each file calls out “one” or “two”.

After the count, each Corporal in the rear rank will switch with the man in front of him so that all Corporals are now in the front rank.

The company is now fully formed.

When the line of battle is formed, each pair, of front rank men and rear rank men, is called a file.



Each pair of one files and two files was called comrades in battle.




Once the line of battle was established, the next procedure was often for firearms inspections. For the commander to properly inspect firearms, he needed more space than the 13 in. / 33 cm between the ranks to safely do so. Therefore, he commanded the unit to form in open order.

Command: “Rear rank, in open order, march.”

The rear rank marches backwards five paces. Officers now have space in which to conduct inspections of arms and equipment.




After all inspections were completed, the commander commanded the unit back into close order.

Command: “Close order, march.”

The rear rank marches back to its position, 13 in. / 33 cm in rear of the front rank.




Maneuvers in Line of Battle

Now, we will look at some of the maneuvers conducted while the unit was in line of battle and faced to the front.

Command: “Right about face.”

Each man turns 180 degrees to the right, and maintains his position in his rank and file. He now faces to the rear.


Command: “Front.”

Each man turns 180 degrees to the right, and maintains his position in his rank and file. He now faces, once again, to the front.


Command: “Forward, March.”

The line of battle marches forward, and each rank and file maintains proper alignment and distance. This movement stops at the command “Halt.”





Command: “Right Oblique, March.”

The line of battle maintains its position, but marches at a bit of an angle toward the right. Each man will turn slightly in the direction of the march, and maintain his position in the rank and file. The commander can resume a straight-ahead movement by the command “Forward, march,” or he can command “Halt.” The men will then face directly to the front.


Command: “Left oblique, march.”

The line of battle maintains its position, but marches at a bit of an angle toward the left.

Each man will turn slightly in the direction of the march, and maintain his position in the rank and file. The commander can resume a straight-ahead movement by the command “Forward, march,” or he can command “Halt.” The men will then face directly to the front.


Command: “Right about, march.”

The company moves forward when the command to right about, march is given.

Upon the command, each man will pivot on his right foot to face to the rear and will not halt. The entire company thus faces to the rear.

The company will continue its movement to the rear and will not pause in its march.

The commander can then cause the company to halt (“Halt”, followed by “Front”) or he can resume the frontal movement by the command “Right about, march.”


Command: “Backwards, march.”

The entire company, which still faces to the front, will march backwards. Each rear rank man may guide his front rank man by the waist belt or cartridge box sling. The commander can then command “Halt” to stop the movement.


Command: “Right wheel, march.”

The company may be at a halt, or it may move forward, when the command to right wheel, march is given.

Upon the command, the entire company will maintain its rank and file alignment in line of battle, and turn to the right until the line of battle faces in the desired direction. Each man will maintain contact with the file-mate to his right and look to the files on his left in order to maintain the rank’s alignment. The files to the far right must shorten their steps and slowly make their turns so that the other files can maintain alignment. The files on the far left must lengthen their steps and turn more rapidly to maintain alignment.

When the line of battle reaches the point where the commander believes it properly faces the correct direction and should resume, or begin, its forward movement, he will command “Forward, march.” This example shows a 90 degree right wheel, but the commander should continue the company’s wheel, from 1 degree to 360 degrees, until it faces the proper direction.


Command: “Left wheel, march”

The company may be at a "Halt," or it can be in a forward movement, when the command to "Left wheel, march" is given.

Upon the order, the entire company will maintain its rank and file alignment in line of battle, and turn to the left until the line of battle faces the desired direction. The procedure is similar to that of the right wheel, only the men will now look to the right and maintain contact with the left.

When the line of battle reaches the point where the commander believes it properly faces in the correct direction and should resume, or begin, its forward movement, he will command “Forward, march.”



Maneuvers While Faced by the Flank

When about to march along a road or path, the line of battle was commanded to "March by the Flank." This enabled a more efficient use of the roads as well as made it easier to keep the unit intact.

The assigned ones and twos denoted which men needed to move as the line of battle faced by either flank (right or left).

Command: “Right, face.”

The line faces to the right. The twos step to the right and move up alongside the ones just in front of them. The ones in the rear rank will need to yield a bit to their right to allow the twos from the front rank to insert themselves into this formation. The line now faces, and will march, by the right flank.


Command: "Forward, march"

The company marches forward by the right flank.



Commands: "Halt. Front."

At "Halt," the company stops its march, but continues to face by the right flank. At "Front," the line reverts back to its line of battle formation, to face to the front. The twos resume their places and the rear rank closes back up to 13 in. / 33 cm of the front rank.



Command: “Left, face.”

The line faces to the left. The ones step to the left and move up alongside the twos just in front of them. The twos in the rear rank will need to yield a bit to their left to allow the ones from the front rank to insert themselves into this formation. The line now faces, and will march, by the left flank.


Command: "Forward, march."

The company marches forward by the left flank.




Commands: “Halt. Front.”

At "Halt," the company stops its march, but continues to face by the left flank. At "Front," the line reverts back to its line of battle formation, to face to the front. The ones resume their places and the rear rank closes back up to 13 in. / 33 cm of the front rank.


Command: "By files right, march."

The company will be in a march by either flank (this example shows a march by the right flank) when the command is given.

Upon the command, each file will wheel to the right when it reaches the proper mark. All files must maintain proper distance and alignment, and the company will continue its march by the flank. Each file’s turn should be executed in the same way as a right wheel.


Command: “By files left, march.”

The company will be in a march by either flank (this example shows a march by the left flank) when this command is given.

Upon the command, each file will wheel to the left when it reaches the proper mark.






At times, a countermarch was necessary to face and front the company in the opposite direction.


Countermarch from a march by the right flank.

The company will be in a march by the right flank, or simply faced to the right, when the countermarch is to begin.

The first step in a countermarch is to get the first two files of the company to turn about 45 to 60 degrees to the right. This command is "Break two files to the rear, march." One of the sergeants will be posted at this mark to guide this maneuver.

The next step is to march the company around this posted sergeant by the command: "By files left, march." When the first files of the company reach the point where they face exactly the opposite way they faced before this command, they will march straight ahead.

The march by the flank will now continue in the opposite direction until the company is halted and commanded to front. The company's front is now in the opposite direction of their original front.


Countermarch from a march by the left flank.

The company will be in a march by the left flank, or simply faced to the left, when the countermarch is to begin.



The first two files of the company must turn about 45 to 60 degrees to the left. This command is "Break two files to the rear, march." One of the sergeants will be posted at this mark to guide this maneuver.

The next step is to march the company around this posted sergeant by the command: "By files right, march." When the first files of the company reach the point where they face exactly the opposite way they faced before this command, they will march straight ahead.

The march by the flank will now continue in the opposite direction until the company is halted and commanded to front. The company's front is now in the opposite direction of their original front.


Transition Maneuvers: From Line of Battle to March by Flank

There were many instances when there was no time to halt the company before it needed to transition from the line of battle formation to the "March by the flank" formation. We will now look at some of these immediate transitions.


Command: "By the left flank, march."

The company will be in a forward march when this command is given.

Upon the command, without pause, the company will face to the left; the ones move to their left and move up one file.

The company continues its movement and now marches by the left flank.





Command: “By the right flank, march.”

The company will be in a march forward when this command is given.

Upon the command, without pause, the company will face to the right; the twos move to their right and up one file.

The company continues its movement and now marches by the right flank.





Transition Maneuvers: From March by Flank to Line of Battle

There were also many instances where an immediate transition from a "March by the flank" to a line of battle was needed. Here are examples of these transitions.


Command: "By the left flank, march."

This next command will bring the company that is currently in a "March by the left flank" back to the line of battle to face to the front.

Upon the command, the ones move back into their respective files in the line of battle, all without pause.

The line of battle marches forward again.








(March Forward) Command: "By the right flank, march."

This next command will bring the company, currently in a "March by the right flank," back to the line of battle to face the front.

Upon the command, the twos move back into their respective files in the line of battle, all without pause.

The line of battle marches forward again.









(March By Right Flank) Command: “By company, into line, march.”

The company will be in a march by the right flank when this command is given.

Upon the command, the twos will quickly move back to their places in the line of battle as the company continues its march. All will continue to face to the right, which will soon become the front.

As the twos move back into position, the entire company begins to swing. It pivots on its right flank, to face in the same direction as it marches. This movement is accomplished, at the double-quick step, as the company moves forward. However, if the commander wishes to halt the company as it continues its movement, he will substitute “Halt” for “March.”

The company continues its forward movement, but it now marches in line of battle and faces the new front.


(March By Left Flank) Command: “By company, into line, march.”

The Company will be in a march by the left flank when this command is given.

Upon the command, the ones will quickly move back to their places in the line of battle as the company continues its march. All will continue to face to the left, which will soon become the front.

As the ones are move back into position, the entire company begins to swing. It pivots on its left flank, to face in the same direction as it marches.

The company continues its forward movement, but now marches in line of battle, and faces the new front.




(March by right flank) Command: “On the right, by file, into line, march.”

The company is in a "March by the right flank," or simply faced to the right, when this command is given.

This command is meant to get the company to front, in as expeditious a way as possible, in the opposite direction from which the front is currently located for the company.

So that the company may come to the proper front, the front rank must deploy in the front of the line of battle. In the current "March by the right flank," and the location of the “new” front, the front rank is in the rear. The front rank must, therefore, first be brought up to face the new front’s direction.

Upon the command, the front rank continues, or begins, its march while the rear rank halts or remains in place. At the designated mark (an NCO or an officer will stand there), the two front files wheel 90 degrees to the right and march forward until they reach the designated position (again indicated by an NCO or officer) in which to form the line of battle, and to face to the new front. Shortly before they reach this mark, the one man will cross over in front of the two man. This allows the one man to reach the line first. The two man will cross behind the one man and join him next on the line. This process is repeated until the entire front rank is in the line of battle and faces to the front.

After the first two files of the front rank are in place, the rear rank begins its movement. It will follow the same procedure as the front rank, and will come onto the line behind the front rank.

The line of battle now properly faces in its new direction of front.


(March by left flank) Command: "On the left, by file, into line, march."

The company is in a "March by the left flank" or simply faced to the left when this command is given.



Upon the command, the front rank continues, or begins, its march while the rear rank halts or remains in place. At the designated mark (an NCO or an officer will stand there), the two front files wheel 90 degrees to the left and march forward until they reach the designated position (again indicated by an NCO or officer) in which to form the line of battle, to face to the new front. Shortly before they reach this mark, the two man will cross over in front of the one man. This allows for the two man to reach the line first. The one man will cross behind the two man and join him next on the line. This process is repeated until the entire front rank is in the line of battle and faces to the front.

After the first two files of the front rank are in place, the rear rank begins its movement. It will follow the same procedure as the front rank, and will come onto the line behind the front rank.

The line of battle now properly faces in its new direction of front.

Afterword

There are a few other linear maneuvers, but these, shown above, were the most common and the most-taught.

As can be seen, to maneuver in linear formations was, indeed, so much more complex than just to stand or walk in a line. Positions within the line needed to be maintained, and movements within the unit needed to be timely and accurate. None of this was easy in a smoke-shrouded, noise-filled, and projectile-strewn battlefield. Perhaps now, it will be easier to understand how certain events took place in battle that could not otherwise be fully understood without knowledge of the linear maneuvers of the time.

The next article in this series is called American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman - Drills II - Manual of Arms.

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