How common were these formations in the American civil war?
You ask an interesting question. Clearly troops were drilled in a number of formations, there are even a few rare pictures of squares! BUT, these were so rare as to be safely ignored. Infantry generally fought in line - even during massed assaults such as at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg.
Personally, I would not permit attack columns or squares.
Pretty dim idea really. With modern weapons they would be shot to pieces. I think they tried with lines first with skirmish screens and then as the war progressed the skirmishers became the larger proportion.
A similar topic about their use in the AWI was going on last week I think. The Napoleonic idea of the attack column would, as Zed rightly says, have been a suicide job with the accuracy and, later in war, speed of small arms fire, not to mention artillery. I think they were used once or twice during attacks on fortifications, to flood men into weak spots, but this was done at the double without men stopping to fire. Risky, but effective if the defence was unprepared or thin on the ground. The term 'column' was sometimes used by chroniclers to describe a body of men attacking in waves of line in more open battles.
This is a fascinating topic, especially with the "modern" weapons. The fact is that whilst "rifles" could range out to 800 yds the average firefight, even those in the open, only took place at about 100 yds up to '63. By wars end this had increased to about 120 yds. You repeatedly read of officers telling their men to hold their fire and even one Confederate order not to fire until the men could read "US" on the Union belt buckles!!!
The popular myth is of an open battle populated by skirmishers. Generally speaking not so. Cold Harbour was a close order assault against an enemy in close order - no skirmishers, since they tended to go to ground and do their own thing. Control was lost as soon as you scattered them out. If someone wanted to carry a position by assault it was done in a formed up body! The enemy would then open fire with small arms at about 100 yds - perhaps a bit more. How very Napoleonic!
'Dim' and 'suicidal' as the idea was, in 1866 the Austrians used attack columns (fifty fiiles wide) when attacking Prussians armed with the needle-gun. Their doctrine called for the advance of several battalions in columns to be covered by a Jager battalion in skirmish order.
I think the formations and tactics in the ACW had to do with how troops were trained as well as the the probability of survival.
For ACW BP games, you could decide to limit formations based on what the troops were trained for (which is usually my choice), or you could let players experiment with formations to see what might have worked (at least under the BP rules).
Can anyone cite sources that would tell us what formations ACW infantry were trained to use, or how that changed through the war? I know that Jomini (Art of War) was a common reference for ACW officers. He advocates various column formations (Article XLIV), but that part of his work may have been considered out of date.
Jomini's 'Summary of the Art of War' was standard text at West Point, so you can imagine that officers on both sides would have followed his doctrines closely, certainly in the early period. One observer quoted 'many a Civil War General went into battle with his sword in one hand and Jomini's 'Summary of the Art of War' in the other'. But one would also expect (or hope) that as troops and officers became more experienced throughout the war and saw the destruction of maintaining rigid Napoleonic formations in the face of modern weapons, they would have adapted the lessons from the classroom to the battlefield.
In 'Battles and Leaders of the Civil War' there are first hand accounts in just about every chapter of how the battles were fought and what tactics were used, although sometimes it is infuriatingly vaguely about specifics. My impression, and I stress it is no more than that, is that Confederate commanders, certainly in the East, were able to fight more imaginatively than their Union counterparts due to the superior quality of their soldiers and their familiarity with their weapons, horses and the rigours of campaigning in the early years. It seems that Union tactics were crude, often relying on blunt, massed, bludgeoning assaults and poor manoeuvering, their raw troops (and perhaps 'political' officers) being unreliable in subtler or more imaginative actions. However, in the second half of the war this pendulum had swung back in the Union's favour as their soldiers and officers became veterans of more than one campaign or battle and were able to match or even outshine their opponents whose heavily eroded armies were being made up more and more of kids and old men. Still, I have not read of any actions where an attack column, in the manner we understand from Napoleonic warfare, was used except in an assault on a fortified position.
It is worth reinforcing the point that poorly trained or inexperienced soldiers cannot be relied on in certain formations, the column (march or attack) being easier to control and maintain morale, at the cost of greatly reduced firepower and greatly increased vulnerability to enemy fire. As a rough rule of thumb, the 'thinner' the formation, the better trained troops have to be to effectively carry it out, because they can be relied on to do the right thing even when not under direct local control of their CO. Hence skirmishers often being classed as elite troops. For the ACW, think the crack 'Sharpshooters' employed by both sides.
i really like the idea of commanding an army as you flick through 'How to win battles for dummies' - just like the English civil war - everything seems so pleasingly amateur!
'Says here we should open the battle with an artillery barrage, we don't have enough guns or powder, but if is says we should in the manual...!'
"It has also been noted that you can use raw troops to do attacks that veterans will not do – the veterans know better."
This is very true, especially if the rookies are well motivated instead of well trained. One of the reasons for the high casualty rate in the ACW without a doubt.
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