Military Terms

Military Terms

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Military Unit Sizes

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Infantry Tactics

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Artillery Tactics

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Cavalry Tactics

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Fortifications

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Ironclads

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Effective Range of Firepower

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Military Unit Sizes

Most units in the field were between 20% to 40% of their full strength. When a company was recruited it contained 100 men. However, by the company reached the army the unit would be down to around 60. Casualties after the first battle would lower the size to around 40. Also, unlike today's military, replacements were not added to existing units.

Unit Type

Union Army
(men)

Confederate Army
(men)

Rank of
Commanding Officer
Company 30-40 35-40 Captain
Regiment 350-400 350-400 Colonel
Brigade 800-1,700 1,400-2,000 Brigadier General
Division 3,000-7,000 6,000-14,000 Major General
Corps 12,000-14,000 24,000-28,000

Major General (Union)

Lieutenant General (Confederate)

Source: Civil War 101, Donald Cartmell, p. 56. and Formations and Ranks in Civil War Units, http://www.angelfire.com/wv/wasec5/formations.html

Unit Type Army of the Potomac Army of Northern Virginia
Platoon 5 Squads (1 officer & 50 men) 5 Squads (1 officer & 50 men)
Company 2 to 3 Platoons* (100 officers & men) 2 to 3 Platoons* (100 officers & men)
Regiment 10 Companies (1,100 officers & men) 10 Companies (1,100 officers & men)
Brigade 4 to 5 Regiments 4 to 6 Regiments
Division 3 Brigades 4 to 5 Brigades
Corps 3 Divisions 3 Divisions

Source: Army Organization During the Civil War by the National Park Service.

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Infantry Tactics

Infantry were the largest military force during the Civil War. They were responsible for seizing and holding ground. The basic infantry tactic was to rapidly move men to a position where they could direct their fire on an enemy target. This tactic was based the slow firing muzzle-loading muskets that were capable of being loaded and fired a maximum of three times a minute. Therefore to produce concentrated fire power the infantrymen had to move and shoot together. The individual soldier could affect the battlefield by combining his fire with that of other infantrymen. Although spreading out made them less vulnerable, infantrymen very quickly lost the ability to combine their fire effectively if they did so. Even more critically, their officers rapidly lost the ability to control them.

Infantry tactics were outlined in the Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics for the Exercise and  Maneuvers of Troops when Acting as Light Infantry or Riflemen by Lt. Col W, J. Hardee. You might also want to consult Infantry Tactics by Major General Winfield Scott.

The regiment, consisting of 300-600 men, was considered the smallest tactical unit on the battlefield. In order to move as a unit, its members had to be able to understand and carry out the spoken orders of their colonel and subordinate officers. Unfortunately, in the noise and confusion of battle only a few soldiers could actually hear any given command and most of the regiment carried out their orders by conforming to the movements of the men immediately around them. Maintaining "touch of elbows“ via the prescribed close interval was indispensable for this crude but vital system to work. In addition, infantrymen were trained to "follow the flag" and the unit and national colors were always conspicuously placed in the front and center of each regiment. Thus, when in doubt as to what maneuver the regiment was trying to carry out, soldiers could look to see the direction in which the colors were moving. That is one major reason why the post of color bearer was given to the bravest men  in the unit. It was not just an honor; it was insurance that the colors would always move in the direction desired by the colonel. Regiments typically moved in a column formation, four men abreast, en route to a battle area. This was an efficient way of moving troops to a battlefield location. Once in position, the regiment would change from this column to line of battle to maximize firepower. Regiments attacked the enemy by moving in a line of battle composed of a front and rear line.

Attacking units rarely "charged" in the sense of running full-tilt toward the enemy; such a maneuver would promptly destroy the formation as faster men outstripped slower ones and everyone spread out. Instead a regiment using orthodox tactics would typically step off on an attack moving at a "quick time" rate of 110 steps per minute (at which rate it would cover about 85 yards per minute). Once under serious fire the rate of advance might be increased to a so-called "double-quick time" of 165 steps per minute (about 150 yards per minute).

Only when the regiment was within a few dozen yards of the defending line would the regiment be ordered to advance at a "run" (a very rapid pace but still not a sprint). Thus a regiment might easily take about ten minutes to "charge" 1,000 yards, even if it did not pause for re-alignment or execute any further maneuvers en route. In theory an attacking unit would not stop until it reached the enemy line, if then. The idea was to force back the defenders through the size, momentum, and shock effect of the attacking column. (Fixed bayonets were considered indispensable for maximizing the desired shock effect). In reality, however, the firepower of the defense eventually led most Civil War regiments to stop and return the fire--often at ranges of less than 100 yards. And very often the "charge" would turn into a stand-up fire fight at murderously short range, until one side or the other gave way.

  • Frontal Assault - The tactic of frontal assault is a direct, hostile movement of forces towards enemy forces in a large number, in an attempt to overwhelm the enemy.  This style of combat was used heavily in the Civil War. The type of militaries used as well as the terrain lent themselves to direct frontal assault, and most of the battles of the Civil War were fought in this manner. However, this style of combat was rapidly becoming out-classed due to the increased accuracy of rifles.  Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg demonstrated just how disastrous frontal assaults against fortified positions could be.

  • Flanking - A flank attack is to attack an enemy or an enemy unit from the side. There are several variations to this basic military tactic. One type is employed in an ambush, where a friendly unit performs a surprise attack from a concealed position. Other units may be hidden to the sides of the ambush site to surround the enemy.  Another type is used in the attack, where a unit encounters an enemy defensive position. Upon receiving fire from the enemy, the unit commander may decide to order a flank attack. Part of the attacking unit "fixes" the enemy with suppressive fire, preventing them from returning fire, retreating or changing position to meet the flank attack. The flanking force then advances to the enemy flank and attacks them at close range.  The most effective form of flanking maneuver is the double envelopment, which involves simultaneous flank attacks on both sides of the enemy. This tactic was used extensively in the Civil War as commanders tried to outflank their opponent and bring concentrated fire or enfilade the enemy by firing along the long axis of the unit. For instance, a trench is enfiladed if the enemy can fire down the length of the trench.

  • Skirmish - Skirmishers are infantry or cavalry soldiers stationed ahead or alongside of a larger body of friendly troops. They are usually placed in a skirmish line to either harass enemy troops or to protect their own troops from similar attacks by the enemy. During the  Civil War it was common for cavalrymen to dismount and form a skirmish line in order to delay enemy troops advancing towards an objective. One example is the  actions of the Federal cavalrymen on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

References: Infantry in the American Civil War - Wikipedia

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Artillery Tactics

The artillery was the second most important unit on most battlefields.  Artillery's primary mission was to fortify defensive positions.  Cannon fire could break up an infantry attack or dissuade enemy infantry from attacking in the first place. With long-range shells and close-in canister, artillery became crucial in repulsing enemy attacks. But long-range shelling to support ones own attack had minimal effect, and artillery assaults were soon abandoned as suicidal. Throughout, artillery depended almost entirely on direct fire against visible targets. Its mere presence could also reassure friendly infantry and so exert a moral effect that might be as important as its physical effect on the enemy.

The battery was the basic artillery unit and consisted of a group of between 4 and 6 fieldpieces commanded by a captain. Early in the war, batteries were attached to infantry brigades. Eventually, artillery was found be most effective when grouped together. Both armies maintained extensive concentrations of artillery at corps-level or higher --- 1 battalion assigned to a Confederate infantry division and 1 brigade to a Federal infantry corps.

Coordinating the fire of twenty or thirty guns on a single target was not unusual, and occasionally (as in the bombardment that preceded Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg) concentrations of well over hundred guns might be achieved. In fact, however, Civil War artillery was quite modern in two respects. First, advances in metallurgy had resulted in cannon barrels that were much lighter than their predecessors but strong enough to contain more powerful charges. Thus, whereas the typical fieldpiece of the Napoleonic era fired a 6-pound round, the typical Civil War era fieldpiece fired a round double that size, with no loss in ease of handling. Second, recent improvements had resulted in the development of practical rifled fieldpieces that had significantly greater range and accuracy than their smoothbore counterparts. Civil War fieldpieces could fire a variety of shell types, each with its own preferred usage. Solid shot was considered best for battering down structures and for use against massed troops (a single round could sometimes knock down several men like ten pins). Shell--rounds that contained an explosive charge and burst into fragments when touched off by a time fuse--were used to set buildings afire or to attack troops behind earthworks or under cover. Spherical case was similar to shell except that each round contained musket balls (78 in the case of a 12-pound shot, 38 for a 6-pound shot); it was used against bodies of troops moving in the open at ranges of from 500 to 1,500 yards. At ranges of below 500 yards, the round of choice was canister, essentially a metal can containing about 27 cast-iron balls, each 1.5 inches in diameter. As soon as a canister round was fired, the sides of the can would rip away and the cast-iron balls would fly directly into the attacking infantry. In desperate situations double and sometimes even triple charges of canister were used.  In theory the greater range and accuracy of rifled cannon might have offset this a bit, but rifled cannon fired comparatively small shells of limited effectiveness against infantry at a distance. The preferred use of artillery on the offensive was therefore not against infantry but against other artillery--what was termed "counterbattery work." The idea was to mass one's own cannon against a few of the enemy's cannon and systematically fire so as to kill the enemy's artillerists and dismount his fieldpieces.

References:

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Cavalry Tactics

Cavalry composed about 8 to 10% of Civil War armies. The expense of maintaining the cavalryman’s horse was a large factor in the limited use of cavalry. A single horse could cost ten times the monthly pay of a private and required saddles, bridles, stirrups, and other gear and specialized clothing and equipment for the rider. Horses required about 26 pounds of feed and forage per day, many times the requirement of an infantryman. Remounts were needed to replace worn-out horses. More training was required to make an effective cavalryman than an effective infantryman.

Military experts believed that the heavily-wooded terrain of America would limit opportunities to use cavalry on the battlefield. Therefore, cavalry was mainly used for scouting and raiding. During major engagements cavalry’s mission was to screen the flanks and control the rear areas. By 1863, however, the North was beginning to create cavalry forces sufficiently numerous and well-armed to play a significant role on the battlefield. At Gettysburg, for example, Union cavalrymen armed with rapid-fire, breach-loading carbines were able to hold a Confederate infantry division at bay for several hours.

At Cedar Creek in 1864 a massed cavalry charge late in the day completed the ruin of the Confederate army, and during the Appomattox Campaign in 1865 Federal cavalry played a decisive role in bringing Lee's retreating army to bay and forcing its surrender.

Sources: Cavalry in the American Civil War - Wikipedia

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Effective Range of Firepower

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Revised 03/15/2013