By Austin Williams, 5th VA Co. A
Once a battalion is formed in line, its commander may wish to change his battalion’s formation from line into a column depending on terrain and the tactical situation (see School of the Battalion: Forming the Battalion for a description of forming the battalion into line). While columns can also be formed by divisions or platoons and can be formed with the left-most company taking the lead (left in front), we will deal here with a column of companies, right in front (i.e. the rightmost company of the battalion when in line will form the head of the column), at full distance (the width of a company is the same as the distance between that company and the company in front of it). There are two ways to form this column, either by breaking to the right via a wheel or by breaking to the rear. Both accomplish the same objective, but one or the other may be more appropriate depending on whether there is a terrain feature to the front or rear of the battalion line. For instance, if there is a fence line in front of a battalion, breaking to the rear may be the best option, while a battalion formed just in front of a wooded area may want to break by the right. We will start with breaking by the right.
To Break by the Right Into Column
With his battalion formed in line, the colonel will order By company, right wheel (1). At this command, each captain moves to the center of his company and cautions them to prepare to right wheel. The first sergeant replaces the captain in the front rank. The colonel then commands MARCH, the first sergeant does not move and the front rank man to his left (usually the first corporal) right faces to the left elbow of the first sergeant. The captain moves quickly to the point where they estimate the left flank of their company would rest 90 degrees from their initial position, facing towards the immobile first sergeant. As soon as the company has wheeled enough for the second sergeant to leave the rank of file closers, he takes his place on the left flank of the company.
Figure 1. Just after the order MARCH, with each company captain placed where they estimate their left flank will lie and the second sergeant covering the left flank of the company.
When the second sergeant is three paces from the captain, each captain will individually command [1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc..] Company—HALT. As the company is halting, the second sergeant immediately moves forward and places his left arm lightly against the breast of the captain. The captain will confirm that the second sergeant is aligned with the front rank man of the first file (usually the first corporal), who had previously faced to the left elbow of the first sergeant as discussed above. The first sergeant now takes his post to the right of this front rank. Once satisfied with the alignment, each captain will command Left—DRESS.
Figure 2. Just prior to Left—DRESS, with the left flank of each company three paces from the perpendicular and the second sergeant with his left arm lightly against the captain’s chest.
Once the company is fully dressed, each captain commands FRONT and takes his place two paces in front of the center of the company.
Figure 3. A completed column of companies, right in front.
The column is now fully formed and is prepared to begin marching. As the column is right in front, the guide will habitually be to the left. If the captains have not correctly judged their wheeling distance or if the companies are not of similar size, the left guides (second sergeants) may not be aligned immediately upon starting the march. The left guide of each company other than the first company will therefore need to march at an angle to the left or right until properly aligned. A column can be formed left in front according to the same principles, simply inverting the previous commands.
To Break to the Rear Into Column
We turn next to breaking to the rear into column (2). With his battalion formed in line, the colonel will order By the right of companies to the rear into column. Each captain will move to the center of his company and caution them to prepare to face to the right. The colonel then commands Battalion right—FACE. Each captain moves quickly to the right of his company and orders his men to break to files to the rear. The captain then places himself so that his breast is touching the left arm of the front rank man of last file of the company to the right of his own. The captain of the first company places himself as if there were another company to the right and aligns himself off the other captains. Each company’s first sergeant breaks to the rear as well, taking his place in front of the front rank man of the first file.
Figure 4. Just after breaking files to the rear, each captain next to the last file of the preceding company and the first sergeants preparing to lead each company by the flank to the rear.
The colonel next commands MARCH and the men of each company begin marching, following the front two files perpendicularly to the rear and wheeling at the same point.
Figure 5. Each company marching to by the right flank, with each file wheeling at the same point as the first two files and proceeding to the rear, led by the first sergeant.
When each captain sees the last file of his company march past him, he commands [1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc…] Company—HALT. FRONT. As soon as the company fronts, the second sergeant places himself so that his left arm is lightly touching the breast of his captain. Each captain then orders Left—DRESS.
Figure 6. Just prior to Left—DRESS, with each company faced to the front and each second sergeant aligned with his captain.
When each captain is satisfied with his company’s alignment and taking care that it is perpendicular to the original battalion line, the captain then commands FRONT and takes his post two paces in front of the middle of his company. Once all companies have dressed, the column is fully formed. As with breaking to the right, these same principles can be used with inverse commands to form a column of companies with the leftmost company at the head of the column (i.e. left in front).
Figure 7. A completed column of companies, right in front. Note the column’s relationship with the original battalion line and how this might affect whether a commander wishes to form column by breaking to the right or by breaking to the rear.
- 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. Volume II – School of the Battalion, Part Second, Article First, para 68-73; Gilham, William. Manual of Instruction for the Volunteers and Militia of the United States. Philadelphia: Charles Desilver, 1861. Article VI School of the Battalion, Section 300. The texts of Hardee’s and Gilham’s manuals are identical on this topic other than section numbering.
- Hardee, Tactics Volume II, Part Second, Article Second, para 87-93; Gilham, Manual of Instruction, Article VI School of the Battalion, Section 301. The texts of Hardee’s and Gilham’s manuals are identical on this topic other than section numbering.