Engaging the Enemy on the Battlefield

Capt. Tom Corll, Adjutant
9th Texas Infantry

As a young boy in school I remember my teacher talking about the Battle of Bunker Hill.  One of the stories related to that battle was the commander’s infamous directive to not fire any muskets until each soldier could see the white’s of the enemy’s eyes.  While this sounds heroic, many re-enactors realize the underlying truth for this statement.  The limited effective range of smoothbore muskets and the rate of fire from the militia were so poor, that the commander wanted to ensure maximum effectiveness was achieved with every shot fired.

During the years of 1861 through 1865, commanders faced similar situations.  Large groups of men were placed in companies and told to point and fire their rifles at the enemy.  For some men this was an easy task.  They were use to hunting game to feed their families.  For others, especially those from the city, the rifles were cumbersome and heavy.  The idea of holding this rifle horizontal with the ground, much less aligning the rear sight with the front site, was near impossible.  As a result many soldiers had a tendency to hold the rifle in an elevated, upward angle causing their shot to go over the enemy’s head.  It was not uncommon for an officer to direct his men to fire at the enemy’s feet.  The commander in 1861 had the same objective as the commander in 1775—to ensure that maximum effectiveness was achieved with every shot fired.

The use of Napoleon Tactics required every officer to become familiar with judging distances.  In his book, “The 1862 Army Officer’s Pocket Companion: A Manual for Staff Officers in the Field,” William Craighill provided directions on this subject in Article 31.—Action and Effect of the different Arms.  In this article Craighill provides the following insight:

“In forming a good marksman, the first and one of the most important steps is to instruct him how to estimate distances.”1

Craighill then provides guidance on how to estimate distances.  He explains, in simple terms, a method by which a commander could determine the best time to engage the enemy and a means for deciding when it would be best to assault the enemy.  Again, Craighill provides the following information:

On a clear day, and with ordinary light, at from 190 to 200 yards, every part of a man’s body can be seen.  From 400 to 480 yards, the face can no longer be distinguished, but the head, body, arms, and movements, as well as the uniforms and muskets can.  At 600 yards the head, and upper and lower parts of the body can be made out; and of the uniform, the accoutrements and white pantaloons only can be seen.  From 750 to 800 yards, the body appears of an elongated form.  Extended arms can be seen in profile, as also the legs of men in motion.  The uniform can no longer be distinguished at 900 yards, but the files can still be seen, as well as the movement of troops, and the dust thrown up by a projectile ricocheting on dry ground.  From 1,100 to 1,200 yards, the files can be scarcely distinguished, and the troops appear like solid masses, the movements of which can still be followed.2

For the line officer, who actually led his men on the field, judging distances was necessary knowledge, especially when assaulting the enemy.  A well trained infantryman could load and fire his rifle three times per minute.  According to Craighill “A foot soldiers travels in one minute:

Common time 90 steps =  70 yards
Quick time  110 steps =  86 yards
Double quick 140 steps =  140 yards

Craighill writes:

We may deduce from these facts the number of discharges of a body of infantry which is charging another body of infantry before it reaches it.”4

During the course of the war companies often shrank so small that there were barely one commissioned and three or four non-commissioned officers to command, say, 40 men.5 Presuming that there are ten companies in a battalion, there would be a potential of 400 riflemen on the firing line.  Under optional conditions, each rifleman firing 3 times per minute would send 1,200 minié balls per minute into the oncoming assault force.  In 1864, the U.S. Army would start firing into a confederate assault force once it came within 250 yards.  Thus, a confederate commander could estimate that in just 3½ minutes, 4,200 rounds of ammunition would be fired into his assault line.♣ Depending on the size of his command, a determination would have to be made on whether he could afford the risks of losing too many soldiers.6

As re-enactors our goal is two-fold.  First to experience first-hand the rigors and challenges faced by our ancestors during these years.  Second, to educate the public and provide first-hand opportunities for them to learn about this period of time.  Learning more about this era, and studying such areas as the battle tactics will enhance our knowledge and allow us to be better educators for the public.

1Craighill, W., “The 1862 Army Officer’s Pocket Companion: A Manual for Staff Officers in the Field,” Art. 31. Action and Effect of the different Arms., D. van Nostrand, 1862, pp. 71

2Ibid, pp. 71-72.

3Ibid, pp. 72.

4Ibid, pp. 72.

5Griffith, P., “Battle in the Civil War: Generalship and Tactics in America 1861-65, Field Books, 1986, pp. 22.

6Ibid, pp. 39.

♣Note: Average U.S. hits per round = 181 rounds per hit.  The confederate commander could anticipate losing 23 men wounded or killed if he assaulted.

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