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School of the Battalion: Forming the Battalion

By Austin Williams, 5th VA Co. A

Before a reenactor infantry battalion can be marched the drill field or battlefield, its various component companies must first be formed into a cohesive single unit. Soldiers during the Civil War likely formed their battalions thousands of times over the course of their service, rendering it a habitual action after only a short time. However, reenacting battalions are frequently comprised of companies with little experience drilling together as a single battalion. It is therefore important for reenactors, particularly those filling the roles of company officers and non-commissioned officers, to understand the principles of forming the battalion and their role in this foundational evolution before advancing onto other evolutions of the infantry battalion.  

Unfortunately, several period drill manuals say little about how a battalion is formed. Hardee’s drill manual, used by so many reenactor units, opens its School of the Battalion by stating only: 

“The color-company will generally be designated as the directing company.  That, as soon as formed, will be placed on the direction the colonel may have determined for the line of battle.  The other companies will form on it, to the right and left, on the principles of successive formations which will be herein prescribed.”(1)

Thankfully, as with several other maneuvers so basic that other period manuals don’t cover them in detail, Major William Gilham’s 1861 manual for volunteers and militia goes through this maneuver step by step. Gilham’s description is consistent with Hardee’s instructions to follow the principles of successive formations, suggesting that Gilham is a solid foundation upon which to build our understanding of how to form a battalion regardless of the specific drill manual being used by a battalion. The following is derived from Gilham’s manual unless specified otherwise. (2)

Prior to the formation of the battalion, company officers and NCOs form their companies at their company’s individual company streets. Upon the adjutant’s call, each company commander will march his company to the location designated to form the battalion. The color company should be the first company formed, with the color guard on the company’s left flank marking the center of the desired battalion line. Battalion officers will place two markers to designate where they wish the color company to form, with one marker in front of the right corporal of the color guard and the other approximately where the right flank of the color company would rest, facing towards the first marker. The color company is halted by its captain three paces behind these markers and then dressed to the line of markers by its captain with the command Left—DRESS. Note that the captain stands on the left flank of his company for this order, which will be discussed in further detail later in this article. Gilham’s has no further instructions for the color company, but Hardee’s instruction to follow the principles of successive formations suggests that the captain of the color company (and those which follow) should order Support—ARMS after the company that forms after it is properly dressed.   

 

Figure 1. Immediately following the order Left—DRESS by the captain of the color company. (3)

The company to the left of the colors forms next. Its captain marches the company to the left of the color company and three paces behind their line. The company’s second sergeant is then placed in line with, and facing towards, the original two markers, roughly in front of the three left files of his company. The battalion Adjutant assists with aligning the second sergeant. The captain then places himself to the left of the color company and orders Right—DRESS. As mentioned above, after this captain commands Front, the captain of the color company orders Support—ARMS for his company. 


Figure 2. Just prior to the order Right—DRESS by the captain of the company to the left of the colors.

Of note, the captain of the color company stood on the left of his company to order them to dress to the left, while the captain of the company to the left of the color company stands on the right of his company to dress them to the right. These two captains must therefore occupy the same captain’s interval, since the captain of the color company will return to his usual spot on the right of his company only once the battalion is fully formed. Gilham does not address this issue. The solution, as laid out in Dominic Dal Bello’s excellent modern manual Parade, Inspection, and Basic Evolutions of the Infantry Battalion, is for the captain of the color company to move to the rear rank of the captain’s interval (to the position which would normally be a first sergeant) when the company to his left arrives at the battalion front. (4) Additionally, despite widespread and incorrect reenactor practice, the color company’s second sergeant is not posted on the left flank of the color company. His proper post is in the rank of file closers. 

 

Figure 3. Just prior to the order Left—DRESS by the captain of the company to the left of the colors.

Next, the company to the right of the color company forms. Its captain marches his company to the right of the color company, halting them three paces to the rear of the forming battalion line. The company’s first sergeant then joins the line of markers, facing towards the colors and roughly aligned with the right three files of the company. The battalion Sergeant Major assists with aligning the first sergeant. The company’s captain then places himself to the right of the color company and orders Left—DRESS, aligning his company into the battalion front. After the captain of this company orders Front, the captain of the company to the left of the color company orders Support—ARMS. 

All subsequent companies continue to form using these principles, one company at a time and alternating to the left and right of the color company. Companies to the left of the colors place their second sergeant out as a guide and their captains stand on the right side of their companies. Companies to the right of the colors send their first sergeant out as a guide and their captains stand to the left of their company, in the captain’s interval of the company to their left. All guides face towards the colors. After the following company has properly dressed, the preceding company takes the position of Support—ARMS. 

 

Figure 4. A battalion with all its companies in position, but with guides still in place.

Once the battalion is fully formed, the battalion adjutant commands Guides—POSTS, upon which all sergeants who are posted as guides will pass through the nearest captain’s interval to reach their usual spot behind their captain for first sergeants or in the rank of file closers for second sergeants (with the exception of the left flank company of the battalion, whose second sergeant stands on the left flank of the battalion as the left general guide of the battalion). Captains of companies to the right of the colors, including the captain of the color company, will move to their usual spots at the right of their companies, in front of their first sergeants.  The battalion is now formed and may be inspected, drilled, or marched to battle.

 

Figure 5. A fully formed battalion. As this battalion has only three companies, the second sergeant of the 3rd Company serves as the left general guide of the battalion.

 


Footnotes

(1) Hardee, William J. Hardee’s Rife and Infantry Tactics for the Instruction, Exercises and Maneuvers of Riflemen and Light Infantry. New York: J.O. Kane Publisher, 1862. Title Fourth – School of the Battalion, Section 2.

(2) Gilham, William. Manual of Instruction for the Volunteers and Militia of the United States. Philadelphia: Charles Desilver, 1861. Article VI, Section 297.

(3) Please note that only three companies are shown in these diagrams for the sake of simplicity. If this battalion consisted of only three companies, the first company, rather than the second, would properly be the color company.

(4) Dal Bello, Dominic J. Parade, Inspection and Basic Evolutions of the Infantry Battalion. Santa Barbara: Army of the Pacific Press, 1998. Page 62.

Drill Videos from Liberty Rifles

Winter is a great time to work on improving your impression. A big part of our ability to accurately portray veteran soldiers from the Civil War era is to ensure our drill appears as accurate and as practiced as possible. We’ll never get as good as the men who practiced and drilled for hours and days on end, but a wealth of videos now available can help ensure our individual movements are as close to the manual as possible. Check out these great videos from our friends in the Liberty Rifles that demonstrate portions of the School of the Solider from Hardee’s Revised and Casey’s. Spend some time practicing at home before an event to make sure you’re not the one fumbling around to remember a command during our next drill demonstration!

 

Drill Bits: Building a Company Front

By Brad Ireland, 4th Virginia, Co. A

When a battalion is marching in a column of fours (for sake of discussion, by the right flank), the battalion commander has the ability to build a company front to the left, right, and straight ahead of the column of march. Each scenario requires a different command, and the rank and file must be able to understand the command and execute it in an organized and timely manor. Lets break each of these three scenarios down.

Building a company front to the left of the column
(While marching at the right flank)
If the battalion commander wishes to build a company front to the left of the line of march, he can do this in one of two ways. This is the easiest of the three scenarios to perform.

  1. Company – Halt.       Front.   Upon this command, the column will halt, and then front as usual.
  2. By the left flank –       March.       Upon this command, the column will front with out halting and continue marching as a battalion in line of battle.

(When marching by the left flank, the commands will be the same but this will cause the company front to be to the right.)

Building a company front to the front of the line of march.
If the battalion commander wishes to build a company front in the same direction as the column is marching, he will order Company into line – March. At this command, the company will adjust their arms to the right shoulder shift position, and build the company front on the left of the first sergeant. The men will stay in the right shoulder shift position until ordered to change or the company is halted. Fortunately there is a great demonstration of this on the internet found of the web page of the 10th Battalion, ANV (a mainstream reenactment organization)

http://www.10thbattalion.org/by_company_into_line.php

(When marching by the left flank, the command will be the same but the men will build the front on the right of the second sergeant)

Building a company front to the right of the line of march.
If the battalion commander wishes to build a company front to the right of the company, he will order On the right by file into line – March. This is the most difficult of these three scenarios to accomplish and requires much practice. Again, the 10th Battalion website has a nice diagram that demonstrates how this is accomplished.

http://www.10thbattalion.org/sos_148.php

(When marching by the left flank, the command will be On the left by file into line – March.)

Test Yourself
Now that we have established how to build the company front to the left, right, and straight ahead of the column of march, how might a company commander build the company front to the rear?

Drill Bits: The Oblique Firings

By Brad Ireland. 4th Virginia, Co. A

The Right Oblique
What the manual says: “192. The oblique firings will be executed to the right and left, and by the same commands as the direct fire, with this single difference—the command aim will always be preceded by the caution, right or left oblique. Position of the two ranks in the oblique fire to the right. At the command ready, the two ranks will execute what has been prescribed for the direct fire. At the cautionary command, right oblique, the two ranks will throw back the right shoulder and look steadily at the object to be hit. At the command aim, each front rank man will aim to the right without deranging the feet; each rear rank man will advance the left foot about eight inches toward the right heel of the man next on the right of his file leader and aim to the right, inclining the upper part of the body forward and bending a little the left knee.”

What this means: The command given will be “At the right oblique, ready, aim, fire

  • For the men in the front rank, they will simply throw back his right shoulder so that his musket will aim to the right. We are looking for about a 35 Degree angle of fire to the right. It is important that the front rank man does not move his feet. They must stay in the proper “T” formation.
  • The man in the rear rank, in order to place his muskets on target, 35 degrees to the right, will need to adjust his foot position and throw back his right shoulder. To do this, he will advance his left foot about eight inches toward the right heel of the front rank man to the right of your file partner. The musket will, as always, be off the right shoulder of your file partner. You are looking to advance the musket to a point where your file partner’s ear is somewhere between the middle and rear barrel bands.

The Left Oblique
What the manual says: “At the cautionary command, left oblique, the two ranks will throw back the left shoulder and look steadily at the object to be hit. At the command aim, the front rank will take aim to the left without deranging the feet; each man in the rear rank will advance the right foot about eight inches toward the right heel of the man next on the right of his file-leader, and aim to the left, inclining the upper part of the body forward and bending a little the right knee. In both cases, at the command load, the men of each rank will come to the position of load as prescribed in the direct fire; the rear rank men bringing back the foot which is to the right and front by the side of the other. Each man will continue to load as if isolated.”

What this means: The command given will be “At the left oblique, ready, aim, fire

  • For the men in the front rank, this is executed exactly the same as the right oblique but now to the left. They will simply throw back his left shoulder so that his musket will aim to the left. We are looking for about a 35 Degree angle of fire to the left. It is important that the front rank man does not move his feet. They must stay in the proper “T” formation.
  • The man in the rear rank, in order to place his muskets on target, 35 degrees to the left, will need to adjust his foot position and throw back his left shoulder.   He will advance his right foot about eight inches towards the right heel of the front rank man to the right of your file partner. Again, you are looking to advance the musket to a point where your file partner’s ear is somewhere between the middle and rear barrel bands off his right shoulder.

Summary for the rear rank men: Remember you are always advancing your foot towards the right heel of the front rank man to the right of your file partner. Since that man is in his correct firing “T” foot position, his right heel will actually be a little to the left of his left foot. You are only advancing eight inches… you don’t need to step way up into the gap between the front rank men. The trick to remembering which foot to advance is to advance the opposite foot for the oblique you are executing. So a right oblique advances the left foot, a left oblique advances the right foot.

Drill Bits: Company, Right – Face!

By Brad Ireland, 4th Virginia, Co. A

Facing by the right flank is one of the most basic drill movements in the manual, yet is also the one that is almost guaranteed to cause mass confusion. Do I step up? Who should be on either side of me? Am I a one or a two? Every soldier must master at least the basics of the drill manual and right face is a good place to start.

Read the whole article here.

Drill Bits: Inspection of Arms

By Brad Ireland, 4th Virginia, Co. A

During the war it was necessary for officers to inspect the weapons of the troops under their command to insure that they are clean and in proper functional order. It is even more important for the inspection of arms at reenactments to ensure that the weapons are functioning, safe, and free of live ammunition (unloaded). Fortunately for us, Gilhams manual contains detailed instructions for this process. Here is what the manual has to say. I have included in red text some notes to translate “Gilhamese” into English.

Read the full article here.

Gilham’s Manual vs Hardee’s Revised Manual: A Primer to Differences

By Austin Williams, 5th Virginia

Note: This study compares the 1862 printing of Hardee’s Revised Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics to the 1860 printing of Gilham’s Manual of Instruction of Volunteers and Militia. Gilham’s offers portions for use of the musket as well as the rifle. The rifle portion closely resembles Hardee’s manual, which was not written for use with a musket. Therefore, when discussing differences between the manuals, we are really discussing differences between light infantry/rifle tactics and tactics for infantry-of-the-line.

Read the full article here.

Drill Bits: Ready… High or Low?

By Brad Ireland. 4th VA, Co. A

There has been much debate at our drill sessions on the use of the “High Ready” verses the “Low Ready”. Much of the discussion has centered around the statement “depends on if this is your first fire”. This statement is incorrect per Gilhams Manual. There are two ready positions in the book described as follows:

1. Readyfromthepositionofprime
2. Ready from the position of shoulder arms.

Read the full article here.

Drill Bits: Pictorial Description of the Gilhams Manual of Arms

By Brad Ireland, 4th VA, Co. A

Gilham’s manual is designed so that each command for the manual of arms is broken down into two part; a prepatory command and an execution command. The prepatory command lets the soldier know what he is to do. The execution command tells him to when to do it. Once the prepatory command is given, do not make any movements until the execution command is given. Do not anticipate the officers! For example, the officer will command “Shoulder – Arms”. Shoulder is the prepatory command that lets you know what to do. When the officer says “Arms”, then you smartly go to that position. There is one exception to this in the case of going to shoulder arms from the trail arms position which is discussed below. My notes in red below will hopefully add clarity to the “Gilhamese”.

Download the full article here.

Usage of Gilham’s Manual

By Erik Mink, 4th Virginia

Many articles have appeared in The Camp Chase Gazette concerning the usage of “correct” drill manuals by reenactment groups. These articles have down-played the importance, and even the utilization, of William Gilham’s Manual of Instruction for the Volunteers and Militia of the United States [Confederate States]. I remember being asked once, when filming the movie Gettysburg, if we ever had any concrete evidence that Gilham, instead of William Hardee’s Infantry Tactics, was used by the “Stonewall Brigade.” I was forced to reply in the negative, but it prompted me to start searching, what follows is some evidence that certainly suggests that we chose wisely.

The first account I came upon was found in Henry Kyd Douglas’ I Rode With Stonewall. Interestingly enough, his mention of the use of Gilham involves Jackson. The incident occurred around August 1861 when Douglas, as a junior lieutenant in the 2nd Virginia, was officer of the guard on a dark and wet night. Jackson had been stopped by the guard and asked the countersign, which he refused to give. He asked Douglas under whose authority he was acting, and Douglas replied: “My authority was Gilham’s Manual. He told me to quietly and apparently without any annoyance to reinstruct the sentinel and bring Gilham to his tent the next morning. I did both and he was very cordial in the morning reception, admitted Gilham’s authority, but had a copy of his order given to me.”[1]

Although Jackson may not have been completely familiar with Gilham’s content, he obviously recognized its use among his troops. While Douglas’ mention places Gilham in use by the 2nd Virginia, it does appear that some of the other regiments of the Brigade were also deferring to his authority. Gilham’s Manual was written with the militia in mind, thus it is quite possible that some of the prewar Virginia units may have secured copies in the short period between its publishing and the commencement of hostilities. The 5th Virginia was composed of some of the finest militia units in the Shenandoah Valley, one of which was commanded by Captain John H.S. Funk. In the summer of 1861, Captain Funk sent his brother, Sergeant Jefferson W.O. Funk, on recruiting detail to Winchester. In an undated letter to his brother, Captain Funk requested that his brother: “Go to Leiut. Mesmer’s house & tell his wife that Bud Newton said send him Gilums [sic] drill book.”[2] Lieut. John R. Mesmer was a member of Company K, 5th Virginia, while Capt. James W. Newton commanded Company E in the summer of 1861. The fact that Capt. Newton had a copy of Gilham’s Manual at his home would indicate that he may have acquired it while in the militia prior to the war.

While some in the 5th Virginia may have obtained their copies in the prewar Virginia military, the officers in the 33rd Virginia apparently had to wait to purchase their manuals from the Confederate publishers. Although Virginia had commissioned Gilham to author the drill manual, upon its completion they found it too large and too expensive for their uses. The prewar edition was published by Charles Desilver of Philadelphia, but upon Virginia’s secession, they were now unavailable. Nonetheless, the enterprising Richmond publishing firm West & Johnston decided to print their own edition which appeared for sale in the beginning of August 1861. In order to acquire copies of the manuals, the Virginia officers were forced to purchase their own, thus was the case with the 33rd Virginia. Captain Frederick W.M. Holliday of Company E apparently made a trip to Richmond around August 1861 and took orders for Gilham’s Manual, as well as Army Regulations – 2nd Edition. In his collected papers at Duke University is the list he made of 33rd officers wishing copies of Est & Johnson’s edition of Gilham’s Manual. The names listed are John Gatewood Co. C, George W. Allen Co. F, David H. Walton Co. K, and Lieut. Martin Strickler Co. B. Unfortunately, General Jackson is also listed, but he declined a copy of Gilham yet needed a copy of Army Regulations.[3]

The above documentation indicates that at least during the first year of the war, the “Stonewall” Brigade used Gilham’s Manual. What many reenactors do not understand is that it made very little difference what manual the different companies and regiments used. For the Confederacy, there was only one manual that went beyond the battalion level, Winifield Scott’s Infantry Tactics. The third volume of Scott addresses the “Evolutions of the Line,” which might explain why Francis B. Jones, AAG to Colonel Jackson, wrote to his mother on June 4, 1861: “Do tell Sue not to allow any book of tactics to go out of my house to any body who ever it may be . . . . let her send me a copy of the “Militia Law”, the 3d Vol. Of Scotts Tactic’s.”[4] So it might be perfectly reasonable for different regiments within the same brigade to be using different battalion manuals, yet all adhering to Scott’s “Evolution of the Line.” But for our impression, it appears that we have chosen correctly with regards to Gilham’s Manual.


Sources

[1]. Henry Kyd Douglas. I Rode with Stonewall. Chapel Hill:The University of North Carolina Press. 1968. P. 14.
[2]. Undated letter of J.H.S. Fund to J.W.O. Funk. Typescript in Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania NMP.
[3]. Undated inventory of F.W.M. Holliday. Special Collections Library. Duke University. Thanks to Brian Swidal of “Co. E, 33rd VA” for discovering this information.
[4]. Margaretta Barton Colt. Defend the Valley: A Shenandoah Family in the Civil War. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc. 1994. p. 70.