Why Fight Elbow to Elbow?

on January 30, 2014 in American Civil War, Strategy and Tactics

So it was in 1778…

The other day I was asked on my Facebook group why soldiers ever fought in those elbow-to-elbow linear formations, standing in the open and exchanging fire. It seems very counter-intuitive, and especially so in the context of the minie ball and the rifle musket. Yet the reality is that whether the soldiers were armed with smoothbore or rifle muskets, the simple fact is that it was the muzzle-loading muskets themselves that determined the tactics.

Part of the explanation for why infantry were massed into lines of battle is that doing so concentrated their firepower. Following the Sharpe’s Rifles rule, a good foot soldier should have been able to get off three aimed shots per minute… until, that is, his musket barrel became fouled and his rate of fire declined. Compare that to the 30 shots per minute the highly trained professionals of the British Army were capable of (for a brief period of time) with their bolt-action Lee-Enfields in World War One.

Even though the minie bullet was more accurate at longer ranges than the smoothbore musket ball, the rate of fire for the two weapons was the same. In both defense and offense, massing fire on the enemy was the name of the game. If an army dispersed its troops, putting more air between them so as to allow those bullets to fly by, it would also be dispersing its firepower.

Some moves were made to opening up combat formations during the Civil War. By mid-war, it was common practice for a major assault to be preceded by thick clouds of skirmishers (“skirmishers three-deep”). But then again, this was standard practice for the French Army during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and that practice soon spread to other armies.

… so it was in 1863.

Imagine if one army dispersed all its troops into what would have essentially been thick skirmish lines, and tried to attack an enemy with conventional, elbow-to-elbow formations. Or visa versa. Leaving aside other considerations, the dispersed side would bring less firepower into the firefight, incurring a disadvantage. For the attacker, this would mean guaranteeing failure; for the defender, the reduced firepower would diminish their chances for success.

Even Emory Upton’s celebrated, storm trooper-style assault at Spotsylvania Court House relied on a column of linear, densely packed lines. The truth is that it wasn’t until the firepower of individual weapons increased to the point of making standing in the open, elbow-to-elbow, a matter of literal butchery and suicide that the dispersion of infantry was finally, truly necessary.

The Civil War showed hints of what was coming, when dismounted Union cavalry armed with breechloaders (nevermind repeaters) arrayed in a single rank, or even a thick skirmish line, proved capable of fending off heavy attacks by Confederate infantry. The increased rate of fire allowed a group of men to cover more ground without unduly reducing their overall firepower vis-a-vis their enemies. When both armies were armed with quick-firing firearms, as happened in the Franco-Prussian War, the costs of using dense, linear formations finally and conclusively came to far exceed the tactical benefits of massed, well-directed fire.

One Response to “Why Fight Elbow to Elbow?”

  1. Jim Walters says:

    When is the next book coming out?

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