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3c. Napoleonic Formations

Napoleonic formations versus survival

In addition to the overall organization and command of these armies, it seems imperative that we explore the general philosophy and organization of the battle formations of the era.

For any soldier who trained in the post-WW I era, the concept of infantry fighting in the 200 years prior must be absolutely frightening. Modern tactics involve individuals or small units maneuvering from protected points to the next place of cover while fellow soldiers provide cover fire.

What are generally referred to as Napoleonic formations actually pre-date him back into the 1700s. They involve soldiers moving in tight (shoulder-to-shoulder) block formations. In reality, such massed formations date back to Greek and Roman formations and they changed very little with the addition of the musket to the armament. Often these ancient formations had cavalry that started in the rear then moved to protect the flanks and finally rode forward to attack the flanks of the enemy formations. This proved an effective form of attack for centuries with various changes and additions – such as longer spears – that enhanced their effectiveness.

It wasn’t until the addition of the machine gun that a change was forced to these massed attacks that were still used during WW I. This weapon was just too efficient at mowing down groups of soldiers so the concept of cover and maneuver was invented. For well over 100 years, the cannon was the primary disruptor of such massed formations, but they continued to be used. The US Civil War was no exception. With only minor variations, soldiers would face off across fields in block formations. Companies (roughly 100 men) would build to regiments then brigades and finally divisions (now numbering in the thousands).

Volley fire was the order of the day. Again, for hundreds of years, the muzzle-loading musket was the only firearm available. Once fired, the weapon was useless except as a club, until it could be reloaded. A well-trained soldier could reload in 20-30 seconds. The primary formation was to align the unit (no matter what the size) in two or preferably three ranks, as one faced the enemy across a field of battle. The entire front rank would fire in unison = a volley. Those men would then kneel and begin to reload. The second rank would either fire over their heads or if an advance was in order, they would step forward between the men of the front rank and then fire their volley. If there was a third rank, they also would shift forward past the first rank and behind the second. This leap-frogging would continue until the two opposing forces were fairly close together, then a charge would be ordered and the two formations would merge. At least 2/3 of the men would have unloaded rifles. Those would be little more than clubs or if they were using bayonets more as spears. At this point in a clash, the fighting was hand-to-hand harkening back to ancient times when swords not guns ruled the battlefield.

Let’s pause and look more closely at the use of the muzzle-loading weapons. For most of their many decades of use the barrels were smooth inside. Placing grooves or rifling created a slightly more accurate weapon, but it wasn’t until this was combined with a true bullet that rifles became pin-point accurate weapons. For most of the lifetime of its use, muskets fired lead ‘shot’. ‘Shot’ was simply a ball of lead propelled out of the barrel by a small amount of gunpowder. So loading was a multi-step process. First the desired amount of powder was (very inaccurately) poured down the barrel, then compacted with the ram-rod. A ‘shot’ was then dropped down the barrel and similarly seated into place on top of the powder. Lastly, the ram rod had to be securely stowed under the barrel. Only then was the soldier ready to aim and fire that weapon.

But ‘aiming’ was a relative term. The precision of the shot fired came down to two factors: the amount of powder and the shape of the projectile. The ‘shot’ was a generally spherical ball of lead, but they were rarely perfect spheres. A lot depended on how they were made. Most soldiers made their own. They carried a small tool that looked like two-measuring spoons linked together. They would place solid lead in the spoons and melt them in the camp fire. Flipping one on top the other would create the spherical ‘shot’. But the shape was often far from perfect. The soldier could shave off any excess lead with a knife or grind it on a stone to try to ‘round out’ the shot. The problem was that any imperfection was liable to decrease the accuracy of the flight of the projectile.

If the soldier was lucky, he would be provided commercially-made ‘shot’. For over a hundred years, there were shot towers. These were tall chimney-like buildings. Lead would be melted in large vats at the top, often over charcoal braziers. It would then be poured and made to fall through a wire mesh screen. The molten lead would break into drops that would continue to fall and the simple physics would form it into spheres. At the bottom was a tank of water that would cool and stop the process forming a fairly uniform and spherical shot.

When the gun powder exploded in the bottom of barrel in the act of firing a musket, the resulting gasses would drive the projectile forward. Any space around the shot and the barrel would allow gas to escape and lessen the power of the projectile being pushed through the barrel. To try to dampen this effect, a ‘wad’ of cotton or cloth would sometimes be placed between the powder and the shot. This was an attempt to contain those gases trying to escape. It was only mildly effective. The more important factor was the size and shape of the lead shot itself. To avoid having the shot lodge itself in the barrel, the shot was intentionally made a bit smaller than the barrel diameter. Hence a space for the gas to escape. Any flat spots on the sphere would also cause the escaping gasses to spin the shot as it moved through the barrel. Grooving or rifling the barrels imparted a spin which generally improved the flight characteristics of the projectile, but a random spin would in effect have the shot bouncing around inside the barrel. Depending on the last contact with the barrel, the shot could exit the end headed in almost any direction, most often not exactly straight. At best, when all the factors fell into order, most men could only fire with reasonable accuracy out to about 50 yards.

The projectile could only fly was long as it had momentum provided by the exploding gasses. In modern terms, this is called range. IOW, even a modern bullet will fall to the ground after a specific distance. It will fly in an arc, not a perfectly straight line, falling a specific amount for each moment of flight. So hitting a target at a long distance requires one to aim high to correct for the arc of the bullet. For shot in a muzzle loaded weapon, this was more often a random event rather than a well-aimed shot. Overall, the saving grace was that volley-fire was the order of the day and that volley was aimed at a dense block of men. So the projectiles could often find a target if not the target that the soldier was aiming at.

Let’s use the infamous tactic known as Pickett’s Charge as an illustration of how this worked in a real battle. On that afternoon, some 11,000 Confederate soldiers emerged from tree line about a mile away from the Union line. Even as they paused to align themselves for the attack, they came under long-range Union artillery fire, this continued throughout their 20-25 minute march across the valley. Again, they were marching shoulder-to-shoulder in ranks up to 5 deep. Pickett had his division aligned with about half the men (Armistead’s Brigade) following two brigades abreast in the lead. This presented a huge square of men for the artillery to aim at so accuracy was not required, only range.

It wasn’t until the Rebels reached the base of Cemetery Ridge that they came within range of most of the Union muskets and could also fire back. But firing a muzzle-loader uphill with any accuracy at all was a severe challenge. All of the factors above were compounded by the fact that firing uphill usually resulted in the shot going high and over the intended target. This was further influenced by the fact that most of the Union soldiers was behind either a stone wall or some sort of protective barrier.

The noise and fear-factor of battle raging in a compact space added to the chaos. After the battle on 3 JUL 1863, muskets were collected from the battle field that has 3-5 pieces of shot in the barrel. In the confusion, soldiers were re-loading rifles that had not actually fired, but they had no way of knowing that except that the ram rod would not go the full length of the barrel. Some even loaded more lead without putting in the powder first. It took a lot of concentration to perform all the re-loading steps in the proper order. Panic intervened to lessen the effectiveness of the attack.

Various tribal entities over this time were somewhat successful at thwarting this tactic by what is generally known as guerilla or Indian tactics. The American Indians were particularly successful in launching attacks on units employing these Napoleonic formations. Once a soldier fired his musket, the Indians knew that they had 20-30 seconds to either attack that soldier directly or to get a bit closer to him before seeking cover. Many a soldier was killed by an arrow or tomahawk while he was reloading his weapon. Others survived such attacks by using a buddy system whereby the nearby soldiers would provide covering fire while a compatriot was reloading.

It is a marvel at how soldiers could be coerced into marching into artillery then musket fire with their muskets on their shoulders until ordered to fire. No consideration was given to protective cover. Often the enemy was entrenched somewhat behind a wall or breastwork, but the attackers just marched to confront them. It is almost inconceivable to the modern brain for this to happen. Yet it occurred thousands of times over hundreds of years, right up through World War I. 

A modern day Gettysburg ?

How might the Battle of Gettysburg be fought in the modern era of tanks and planes?

First of all, it would be unnecessary and even foolish to concentrate 70 – 90,000 men in a few square miles of territory. So any modern battlefield would cover a much larger area. The 3-mile Union defensive line would likely be held by a few company-sized units (maybe a Battalion) combining armor and infantry and a few strategically placed machine guns. In the mid-1860s, the effect of volley-fire by 500 men in succession had much the same effect as one modern machine gun. 19th century cannons would be replaced by tanks and mortar platoons.

One can almost envision the running skirmishes of 1 July 1863, being fought by M1 tanks and M2 Bradleys full of infantry hiding in the tree groves to avoid observation and air attack. Firing and repositioning; charging in echelon across open fields to drive the enemy back. No more marching shoulder to shoulder but tanks and APCs protecting each other as they sought out the enemy forces; dismounted infantry holding strategic positions to deny the enemy access and provide observation posts.

Once again, the city itself would be a trap to be avoided at all costs. Even today, no one wants a house-to-house fight if it can be avoided. Stay in the open ground, hide in the trees, occupy the high ground. The overall strategy would be the same; the specifics quite different.

On day 3, Lee unleashed perhaps the largest artillery barrage even seen in the Western Hemisphere. It was said to have been heard as far away as Philadelphia. He had aligned 120-130 cannons along Seminary Ridge. The Union had a similar number but not concentrated in one line. Around noon on July 3rd, 200+ guns exchanged fire across 1 mile of open territory. This duel lasted perhaps an hour. Firing at a rate of 3-4 shots per minute per gun, such an exchange was not to be seen again until World War I!

19th century artillery was all line-of-sight. On a 21st century battlefield, that role is played out by tanks. In the modern era, artillery units would be nowhere near the infantry, but on hilltops far to their rear; poised to support units in many different sectors of a large battlefield. Seminary Ridge might have provided a perfect modern-day artillery outpost. But those guns would not be aimed at the hills a mile away. The largest of them reaching out 18-20 Km; almost to the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mt range.

Cemetery Hill and its attached series of hills would still be desired ground, but in a slightly different manner. The interior or reverse slopes would be used to provide protection from artillery or aerial attack. Only a handful of sentries would be positioned on the tops of these ridges; not tens of thousands of men with muskets lying shoulder to shoulder. As in 1863, Big Round Top would likely be the domain of a Signal Corps unit, using the high, protected nature of the boulders to shelter them. From there they’d have commo with hundreds of units all the way back into Maryland. Just a bit to the north, the still existing Seminary building would provide the same superb observation (communication) point that both Buford and Lee found it to be. But, not unlike Italy’s Monte Cassino, it might not have survived a modern battle.

In their day, Lee and Longstreet stood on Seminary Ridge and watched the battle unfold at their feet. Modern commanders rarely have the luxury of ‘seeing’ their division in full. They need to depend on (now digital) maps and an understanding of miles of terrain to follow the course of the battle. Within a division of troops, modern sub-unit commanders would likely be engaged in very different terrain and circumstances and each has a much larger latitude and responsibility to accomplish his mission and objectives without direct observation or orders from above.

Following the 3 July artillery barrage, Pickett’s men charged the Union lines with a force of 12-15,000 men spanning an area of perhaps one mile north to south. Today, that is generally the size of a US Army division who’d hardly fit into such a tight box. They would be spread out over many miles, with tens of meters between advancing vehicles. 

A modern-day Battle of Gettysburg would more likely have stretched from Carlisle in the north back down to the Mason-Dixon Line. It would be fought by perhaps one Corps at most on each side. A total of perhaps 80,000 men; not the 140,000 that clashed in 1863. A modern Corps is no less than 2 divisions of 10-12,000 combat soldiers each, with another 20,000 in support.

In the 19th century, concentrated firepower was the rule of the day. They put as many rifles and cannons into as small an area as possible and had them battle it out. Today, because of the immense firepower of one tank or a platoon of infantry, the method of fighting is concealment and maneuver. Stay behind cover, hidden from the enemy and maneuver into an advantageous position to attack him. A single company (maybe two) of tanks and 100+ infantry might be responsible for ‘a front’ as wide as Pickett’s entire division!

Not unlike Lee’s plan of attack, a modern day (Pickett’s Charge) attack to dislodge the enemy from the high ground would be preceded by an artillery barrage and even aerial attack on such a fixed position. But it would not be carried out over such a limited space as a single mile. Multiple companies would attack from as many different directions as possible. As in 1863, infantry would eventually capture and hold the position, aided and guarded by armor; over-watched by artillery.

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