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.”