Attention, Battalion! Advance, Firing!

Christmas is over. I lived. Not as hectic a season, even, as I have seen in the past. Thanks for your forebearance, and now, back to 1863…

The cliche, of course, is that the Civil War was fought with modern weapons and Napoleonic tactics.

The reality, of course, is a bit more complex.

I won’t spend a lot of time discussing the evolution of infantry tactics, the rifle-musket range problem, and all the attendant side-streams those discussions lead into – at least all in this one post. In fact, the pre-war theorists thought they had largely solved the problem of the rifle-musket through adaptations in tactics, using both looser, more flexible formations and the simple expedient of speed. March faster, get shot at less over the same distance.

But we know that by 1863, tactics were adapting from the bottom up as much as from the top down. Like all wars, the men on the ground reacted to match the conditions they faced, sometimes at the expense of any book.

One aspect of Chickamauga that I find really fascinating is when I turn over documentary evidence of tactical evolution in the primary sources. Often it’s just a casual, off the cuff reference: easily missed if one weren’t watching for it. Private Henry Dillman of the 31st Indiana, for example, restricted his discussion of his regiment’s fighting on September 19th to one line: “The 31st fought in her accustomed way,” he noted the next day, “lying down.”

Prone, that is – not a formation called for much in Casey or Hardee. But Dillman tells us that not only did the 31st fight that way on that fateful Saturday afternoon, that’s the way they usually fought. In fact, there are lots of references to troops going prone in other regiments, and on both sides, as well. Perhaps it seems obvious today – when folks are shooting at you, it pays to keep your head down, but going prone put men with muzzleloaders at a disadvantage when it came time to reload, and it was not a technique favored on the drill field.

We also have Brigadier General William B. Hazen’s observation in his OR report, noting the difference in casualties his brigade suffered in the fights on September 19th and 20th. On the 19th, they stood in the open, slugging it out with Cheatham’s Rebels in Brock Field. On the 20th, his men piled up rocks, dirt and fence rails into breastworks. On Saturday, he lost nearly 400 men. On Sunday? 13. Guess who would be fighting from works from now on.

But I mention these things only in passing.

In addition to the above pragmatism, there were some folks in the army who were thinking more deeply about the interrelationship of firepower, formation, and movement. And I believe they were allowed to pursue those ideas in the Army of the Cumberland because William Starke Rosecrans was open to new ideas. Two of these men were John T. Wilder and a man whom I’ve already discussed, August Willich. I intend to discuss Wilder at a later date. This essay is really about Willich, and something called “advance firing.”

Advance Firing was Willich’s own solution to the problem of advancing over contested ground. Typically, stationary infantry could fire 3 rounds a minute. Advancing troops had to cross the killing ground quickly and close with the enemy. When smoothbore ranges really limited infantry fights to 50 or 100 yards, defenders might rip off one good or two ragged volleys before that moment of closure. Rifles opened the range, and theorists, in turn, increased the rate of closure for advancing troops by doubling the pace.

Willich found this answer unsatisfactory. Instead, he decided that it would be better to incorporate fire and maneuver while advancing. In the spring of 1863, having returned from Libby Prison, he brought with him a new idea, described here by a member of the 125th Ohio:

’Advance, firing.’ In that movement, the files doubled up, making four ranks, leaving intervals through which the rear rank passed, running rapidly forward a few paces, halting, firing and dropping to the ground to load, the next rank meantime passing still farther to the front to deliver its fire, and so on in succession.”

The result was a methodical advance combined with a wall of fire, delivering a volley from one quarter of the attacking force every ten or fifteen seconds while still sustaining a measured forward progress. The result, if executed properly, must have disrupted defenders, interfered with their own reloading, and likely was devastating, especially against an unprepared opponent. Willich claimed to have invented it, though it is possible that he instead adapted it from some German technique learned in his youth. I have found no reference to it in other armies, except for one interesting notation: German Jaegers in the American Revolution apparently had a specialized street-fighting drill that also used four ranks advancing in succession. I’ve never found an actual description or manual outlining the Jaeger drill, however – just hints.

Another odd thing about this formation is that it was used (as far as I have discovered) in only two brigades in the Army of the Cumberland – Willich’s 1/2/20, and Harker’s 3/1/21. I can’t find a reference as to where Harker’s men might have acquired the skill, but acquire it they did, and used it to rout Robertson’s Texans on September 20th. Willich’s men used it most prominently at Liberty Gap, in June, 1863, and in driving Cheatham’s line on September 19th. In all three cases it was a great success, at least on the immediate tactical level.

So why didn’t this formation catch on to other commands? One reason: Rosecrans lost his job as a result of the defeat at Chickamauga, and George Thomas took over. In the fall of 1863 Willich was ordered to stop employing or training “Advance Firing” and go back to the standard Casey’s manual. Thomas was a great commander, in my opinion, and a superb soldier – but not an innovator, at least in things like tactics.

Interestingly enough, after the war, when a number of army officers were seeking a new tactical paradigm incorporating the increasing use of breech loading rifles among the infantry, they also went to looser lines and successive ‘waves’ of advance, alternately firing and moving forward – all reminiscent of Willich’s idea, though also, obviously, based on the idea of reinforced skirmish line movement.

Advance firing remains a footnote in the history of the war, but to me, an intriguing one. In a future post, I intend to discuss some other aspects of the way the two armies fought at Chickamauga, either by or in spite of “the book.”

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9 Responses to “Attention, Battalion! Advance, Firing!”

  1. badgervan Says:

    Very interesting. I was thinking about this very same thing last night, as I finish up the excellent “The Maps of Chickamauga” by Powell and Friedrichs. As I read about Willich’s and Wilder’s men were being so successful, I couldn’t help but wonder why in the name of smart the rest of the Union troops weren’t taught Willich’s method of advance…. and, more importantly, weren’t all supplied with the repeating rifles that Wilder’s men used so successfully. Scarcity of ammo? Less range? Conservative pencil pushers? Politics? Kick-backs?
    When you read about the results of Wilder’s troops, you can’t help but wonder how long the war would have lasted if the entire army of the Union had been so armed, and trained, as Wilder’s men were. Fascinating, and sad as hell when you think about a war that should never have lasted four years.

  2. davidpowell334 Says:

    At least with Wilder and new weapons, production was an issue. It would take a great deal of time to ramp up production for breechloaders and repeaters, all at the expense of arming troops with existing, proven weapons. I think the Federals did a reasonably good job in choosing as they did. By 1864 repeating rifles were appearing in large numbers.

    But yes, Willich’s tactics intrigue me. I wonder how they would have done if employed on a divisional or corps scale.

    Dave

  3. D. W. Plezia Says:

    badgervan said:

    “When you read about the results of Wilder’s troops, you can’t help but wonder how long the war would have lasted if the entire army of the Union had been so armed, and trained, as Wilder’s men were. Fascinating, and sad as hell when you think about a war that should never have lasted four years.”

    An interesting question. I suspect that cost was an important factor. I remember Halleck berating Rosecrans for his equipment and animal demands before Chickamauga. I imagine Rosecrans departure from the Army would be drastically increased if he put through a request for repeaters for his whole Army or even a Corps.

  4. Darryl Says:

    Hello,
    I am a living historian and the group my fellow historians and I portray are the 49th Ohio Volunteers. We have long looked for detailed information on “advance firing” and your blog has the most detailed firsthand account of it that we have been able to find. Our goal is to reproduce this tactic on the field for demonstration purposes and we intend to do it as accurately as possible. Would you be willing to share some of your sources on this topic with my group and I?

    I am, sir, your most humble and obedient servant,
    1st Sgt. Darryl Hutchinson
    Co. E, 49th OVM (living history and reenactment group)

    • Dave Powell Says:

      Darryl,

      It took me a couple of days to look up the sources I have for “advance firing.” I know of two descriptions of it. One is in Alexis Cope’s history of the 15th Ohio, pp. 279-280, and one is in Charles Clark’s History of Opdyke’s Tigers, the 125th Ohio, see page 107. Both descriptions are remarkably similar, though I have yet to figure out where the 125th might have learned the drill.

  5. Darryl Says:

    Dave,
    Thanks so much! I appreciate your taking the time to help us out. When we get to perform the maneuver and can get it on film, I will post it to our company website so that you can enjoy your fine contribution to our very grateful group!

    Best Regards,
    Darryl

  6. Darryl Says:

    As promised, though long overdue, here is a video of the 49th OVM reenactment group’s attempt to recreate the “Advance Fire” on a battlefield. Given the circumstances of this tactic and the amount that is left undocumented, we took liberty–in a military/historic manner–and filled in the commands that were void from the accounts in order to piece together the puzzle. Since the maneuver was so quickly learned by the men, it stands to reason that many of the commands they were already familiar with were employed to get them into position, we used that which we knew to complete that which we did not. It must be understood that until we find further information–this is not a complete and 100% historically accurate recreation, just the best attempt using all the historical knowledge we had at hand. I hope you enjoy!

    Best Regards,
    Darryl

  7. Barbara Hemmingsen Says:

    My g, g grandfather,Joseph Bruff, Captain Co. A 125th OVI described Advance, firing at Dyer’s field in his letter of 27 Sep 1863. “After we had been deployed about an hour we were called in. W]e found our regiment with others drawn up in line of battle where we left them and holding their position under an exceedingly hot fire. I formed on the right of the regt and we lay down loaded and got up fired and lay down and so continued. [T]wo lines formed in our rear and when we had fired and layed down the first line raised up advanced and fired over us then fell back and lay down to load and the third line advanced fired over us retired and so we alternated delivering an almost constant and overwhelming fire.” I find it interesting that he mentions three lines of men rather than four. Barbara Hemmingsen

    • Dave Powell Says:

      Wow. Very nice, Barbara. Is this letter in your family, or in a repository? I don’t recall running across it before. That’s an outstanding (and thought-provoking, with three ranks) description.

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