Tuesday, July 8, 2008

"By the Old Soldier it is Readily Understood"

Adding some weight to Chris's Post a while back on fighting on the ground, here are some more quotes from vets here at Chickamauga:

“The citizens of today will doubtless wonder how any man could escape such a rain of shot and shell, but by the old soldier it is readily understood. While ninety per cent of these shots were being fired the men were lying flat on their faces and were overshooting each other when suddenly one or the other would spring to his feet and with a bound and a yell rush at a double-quick upon their foe, giving him time to fire one or at most two rounds when his ranks would be broken and compelled to retire.”
-- Lt. Lot D. Young, 4th Kentucky, CSA

Reminiscences of a Soldier of the Orphan Brigade, 1918. Online here.

“Facing the fire, the line pressed forward on the full run, keeping the ranks tolerably well…at the top of the ridge, they encountered a withering fire, halted and laid down and fired a few rounds. Then once more they moved forward, running & yelling… The advance was suddenly checked. ‘Lie down’ ran along the line…
By lying close to the ground, the men were somewhat protected. Most of the cannon balls and shot flew over us… [we] made good use of our Enfields – firing, turning upon [our] backs and reloading while still lying down…
…when the enemy’s fire seemed to slacken, the men instinctively began to get upon their feet, and, with a rousing cheer, were about to dash forward in another charge. They were then met by fiercer and hotter firing than ever. ‘Lie down’ was the word.”

-- Joseph Whitney, 96th Illinois

Kiss Clara for Me: The Civil War Letters of Joseph Whitney, 96th Ill, 1969.

“We went forward in the (face) of an awful fire from the batteries and musketry. We went on till we were directly under the cannon mouth when we were so tired out that the whole line was compelled to stop. We lay down and loaded and fired and gave them the best we had while the grape and shell and rifles of the rebels tore great holes in our ranks.”
-- Orson Young, 96th Illinois

96th Ill. unit file, Chick-Chatt NMP

“Pretty soon we were brought to a halt, close by where the writer was lying down….The rain of lead that the Federals poured into our line was terrific. Our loss in officers and men for the first few minutes was alarming in the extreme. Capt. Jack Leonard, later banker at Dallas, Texas, commanding Company ‘E,’ lost in killed and wounded twenty-eight men, out of a company of about fifty. This seemed to be a key or the turning point in the great battle, and we were ordered to lie flat down and hold it….We went in search of Gen. Deshler and found him on the line to our right, down on his hands and knees, as if trying to see below the smoke and discover the position of the enemy.”
--Lt. Robert M. Collins, 15th Texas

Chapters from the Unwritten History of the War Between the States, 1893

“We are so flat on the ground that we don’t make much show. They shoot at us, but we do not return it….the fireing is very heavy on our right and left, and the Yank are blazing away at us like fury. Some heavy pine timber here – While lying down here today one man is shot in the head and killed so dead that the man next to him did not know it until we had to move, and moving here was an awful bad piece of business; bullets fly like the wind you can hear them zip zip – zip but you cant see them.”
-- Capt. Samuel T. Foster, 17th/18th Texas

One of Cleburne's Command, The Civil War Reminiscences and Diary of Capt. Samuel T. Foster, Granbury's Texas Brigade, CSA, 1980.

I particularly love Joseph Whitney's description of short, rushing advances that gain a few yards and then take cover again. Moving from cover to cover is something we expect from soldiers today, but I find it fascinating when otherwise well-read visitors to Chick-Chatt still expect Civil War units to march on like little toy soldiers. Notice also what the 96th Ill. fellows, Lot Young, and the 15th Wisconsin in the painting above are doing, they're advancing to close the space between them and the enemy. They're not looking for a fire-fight, but are instead taking the fire until they build up the nerve to rush on the enemy with the bayonet. Here we get to another common misconception among many. As Brent Nosworthy would have us remember, the "Napoleonic tactics" that the Civil War armies used were not the plodding lock-step of Bonaparte (which would best be reflected Scott's US tactics), but instead the adaptation of Napoleon III's use of daring rushes on the enemy -- relying on elan and the bayonet to counter the "scientific fire" of the new rifle musket. Civil War infantry were not trained to be 1812 line companies, but instead as Chasseurs a Pied, quick moving light infantry intended to close the rifle musket's elongated "deadly space" and take advantage of the long reload time to drive the enemy away at the point of the cold steel. The old "tactics didn't evolve with technology" line -- like most traditional Civil War interpretations -- doesn't seem to have much weight under scrutiny of primary sources.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the post. I am greatly interested in tactics, especially at Chickamauga. I have many sources that talk about unconventional tactics, or at least deployments that don't reflect the parade-ground image.

It is interesting to note that the 96th Illinois, for one, was green, entering combat for the first time. This same regiment apparently formed square in response to Forrest's appearance on their march south: an interesting mix of old and new. By the end of the fight, they were so disorganized that when Champion reformed the command he ordered them to "fall in anywhere, never mind your companies," strongly suggesting that during their action atop Horseshoe ridge.

Similarly, there are some good accounts from Gracie and Kelly's men describing how those troops (Anderson and Kershaw) who attacked before them were fighting - all sense of line gone, with knots of men loading and firing at will, searching for cover, etc.

The biggest problem with these tactics is also apparent in the primary source descriptions: Accounts from Fulton's brigade describe the huge number of stragglers (mainly from Deas and Manigault, according to them, but I suspect that there were a fair share of Tennesseans from Fulton and Sugg mixed in) huddled out of the line of fire on the back slope of the hills around the Vittetoe House.

One thing: I don't recall seeing Samuel Foster's account before. Where is it from?

I have all the other accounts you quote, some very good stuff in those sources. Young's account is considerably distant from the event, IIRC, but the 96th accounts are all very fresh.

Dave Powell