The tactical legacy of the eighteenth century had emphasized close-order formations of soldiers trained to maneuver in concert and fire by volleys. These “linear” tactics stressed the tactical offensive. Assault troops advanced in line, two ranks deep, with cadenced steps, stopping to fire volleys on command and finally rushing the last few yards to pierce the enemy line with a bayonet charge.

These tactics were adequate for troops armed with single-shot, muzzle-loading, smoothbore muskets with an effective range of about eighty yards. The close-order formation was therefore necessary to concentrate the firepower of these inaccurate weapons. Bayonet charges might then succeed because infantry could rush the last eighty yards before the defending infantrymen could reload their muskets after firing a volley.

The U.S. Army’s transition from smoothbore muskets to rifles in the mid-nineteenth century would have two main effects in the American Civil War: it would strengthen the tactical defensive and increase the number of casualties in the attacking force. With a weapon that could cause casualties out to 1,000 yards defenders firing rifles could decimate infantry formations attacking according to linear tactics.

A typical combat formation of a regiment might be six companies in the main line, with two in reserve, and two out in front in extended skirmish order. Additional companies might be fed into the skirmish line, or the skirmishers might regroup on the main line.

Later in the Civil War the widespread use of the rifle often caused infantry assault formations to loosen up somewhat, with individual soldiers seeking available cover and concealment. However, because officers needed to maintain visual and verbal control of their commands during the noise, smoke, and chaos of combat, close-order tactics to some degree would continue to the end of the war.

Rapid movement of units on roads or cross-country was generally by formation of a column four men abreast. The speed of such columns was prescribed as two miles per hour. Upon reaching the field each regiment was typically formed into a line two ranks deep, the shoulders of each man in each rank touching the shoulders of the man on either side. The distance between ranks was prescribed as thirteen inches. A regiment of 500 men (250 men in each rank) might have a front of about 200 yards.


Both front and rear ranks were capable of firing, either by volley or individual fire.


Throughout the war field artillery would generally be placed among infantry formations or on the flanks. Since Civil War field artillery was used for direct fire, guns might be placed a short distance in front of the infantry line, out of range of enemy small arms, to support offensive or defensive operations or to engage in “counterbattery” fire.

A popular prewar tactic was to have field artillery, with a typical range of 1,500 yards, advance with the infantry. The maneuver worked as long as the enemy was armed with the short-range smoothbore musket with a range of 100 yards or less. With the advent of the rifled musket in the mid-1850s, capable of a lethal range out to 1,000 yards, the tactic became obsolete. However, some were slow to grasp the implications of the effect of long-range small arms against artillery, and, when General McDowell ordered two batteries to within 400 yards of the Confederate line at First Bull Run, the decision quickly resulted in the loss of one battery and two other guns.


Traditionally, cavalry was considered the “eyes” of the army, scouting, guarding supply lines, and screening the army’s flanks from the enemy. When required, the cavalry could also disrupt enemy communication and supply lines, provide a mobile striking force, or defend key terrain.

Cavalry generally fought dismounted, with every fourth trooper holding the horses of his comrades. Either mounted or dismounted, troopers might advance in two ranks, the first rank firing and, while reloading, the second rank advanced through the first. The maneuver was repeated until the objective was obtained. If forced to fall back, the troops could reverse the maneuver. Prior to the Civil War, mounted cavalry charges against infantry were not uncommon, but with the widespread use of the long-range rifled musket such assaults were often suicidal.



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Last updated 13 July 2006