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Subject: Were Napoleonic "assault columns" used in the American Civil War? rss

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Paul Aceto
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I just finished reading Gregory Wawro's "The Austro-Prussian War," and was struck by his point that the Austrians were still using Napoleonic assault columns in the war, suffering devastating losses from Prussian line-firing units equipped with their needle guns.

It made me think about the American Civil War. I've never played a tactical ACW game where a player had the option to use assault columns. Columns seem to be used only for movement.

Were there instances of assault columns in the war, or had it become so outdated by 1861 it wasn't even taught any more (except perhaps by the Austrians)?
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The term "assault column" appears pretty frequently in ACW reports. But most of the time, they weren't true columns in the Napoleonic-era sense.

For various reasons, ACW armies tended to just line up and shoot at each other for the most part. The long-standing argument is that the rifle-musket made it impossible to do anything else (I never entirely bought that; I'm waiting for that myth or exaggeration to be dispelled).

You can read about one notable instance of column tactics in this online article. Or in this Wikipedia account.

There was definitely a need for some way to break through an enemy defensive line. Some commanders tried ordering their men forward with fixed bayonets and unloaded rifles, hoping they'd close with the enemy. But the soldiers mostly balked at that.

Paddy Griffith's Battle Tactics of the Civil War gives some insights.


PS Assault columns didn't often work well even in Napoleon's day. The French kept trying them, right up to 1815, but it seems their disadvantages often outweighed their advantages.
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Michał M.
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And, from older things, Mahon, K, J., Civil War Infantry Assault Tactics, Military Affairs, vol 25., no. 2, 1961, pp. 57-68.



Patrick,

True, I've always have an impression, that "assault columns" were just standard two rank lines packed closer than usual, but their density was much lower (with some exceptions of course) than Napoleonic ones (as described by Henderson in his American Civil War)

BUT

Quote:
The long-standing argument is that the rifle-musket made it impossible to do anything else (I never bought that; I'm waiting for that myth to be dispelled).

I'm buying this to some extent - with much greater penetration power rifle-musket was more deadly than musket for large bodies of troops (There are accounts from Crimean War describing four or five Russians with one shot. This may be exaggerated, but there is a seed of truth in it)
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Scott G
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The Johnny Reb rules allows you to use assault columns. However in playing it for a few years I've never seen anyone try it.
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Rob Ryan
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I am not sure if this meets the Napoleonic definition but from the Battle of Chickamauga Wiki site: "When Longstreet was finally ready, he had amassed a concentrated striking force, commanded by Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood, of three divisions, with eight brigades arranged in five lines."

 
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Kent Reuber
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There's an excellent book published by Strategy and Tactics Press called "The Quest for Annihilation", which focuses on Civil War battle tactics. The book references attack columns in several places, but notes that this is not usually the attack "column of divisions (2 companies)" used in the Napoleonics wars.

The attack column of the ACW seems to be more of parallel lines of regiments.
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Randall Shaw
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Look at what the Union tried at Spotsylvania in the Assault on the Muleshoe/Bloody Angle. Upton's formation is very reminiscent of Napoleonic assault columns.

The attacks made experienced some success but, like Longstreet at Chickamauga, were also fortunate (cannon placed to support the area of the intended attack were removed due to faulty intelligence and were being re-sited only minutes before the attack struck). Still I don't recall this tactic used elsewhere but I could be mistaken.

Trying this in the face of massed rifles would be bad enough but add in supporting artillery? gulp
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Barry Kendall
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Rob Ryan wrote:
I am not sure if this meets the Napoleonic definition but from the Battle of Chickamauga Wiki site: "When Longstreet was finally ready, he had amassed a concentrated striking force, commanded by Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood, of three divisions, with eight brigades arranged in five lines."



This is probably the closest thing to a Napoleonic column in its effect, but the scale is changed. Longstreet learned from Pickett's disaster that a breakthrough can only be effected if the attack has sufficient depth behind the initial assaulting brigades. This is why he went with the column-of-brigades assault on Thomas.

I say "the scale is changed" because of the much greater range of rifle-muskets and the necessity to maintain some spacing between successive battle lines to decrease the impact of fire on the advance (and, in the case of Chickamauga, also to allow for the effects of the broken and partially-wooded terrain in that area of the battlefield).

Therefore Longstreet's attack cannot be directly compared to Napoleonic columns in terms of the physical deployment of the troops; but regarding the impact of a columnar attack, the effects are similar.

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Patrick Carroll wrote:


For various reasons, ACW armies tended to just line up and shoot at each other for the most part. The long-standing argument is that the rifle-musket made it impossible to do anything else (I never entirely bought that; I'm waiting for that myth or exaggeration to be dispelled).




http://www.amazon.com/The-Rifle-Musket-Civil-Combat/dp/07006...

This book is a good discussion of the Rifled Musket in the ACW. The subtitle is Reality and Myth
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I legally own hundreds of polyhedral assault dice!
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wryone wrote:
The Johnny Reb rules allows you to use assault columns. However in playing it for a few years I've never seen anyone try it.


I finally developed a personal doctrine when playing Johnny Reb games that used the Assault Column as an integral element in a brigade deployment.

Given a brigade with four or five regiments, I would deploy one regiment in skirmish order with two regiments in line behind it a couple inches. In a brigade of four, the fourth regiment would be deployed in assault column four inches behind the lines. In a brigade of five, the fourth regiment would be in line behind the other two while the fifth would be in an assault column behind the fourth. Sometimes the fourth and fifth regiments would be in assault columns behind the two regiments in line.

This worked well for several reasons:

1. There was a unit already in assault column if an enemy charge broke through the forward regiments or appeared on a flank.

2. The skirmish regiment would pin the enemy line and perform First Fire. If the enemy charged, the skirmish line would simply fall back, with two units in line to await the charge and fire as they came in.

3. Once the skirmishers and line regiments bloodied the enemy position, the assault column would go in to finish the job in compact formation at an advantage in melee.
 
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Dan Taylor
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Would Upton's attack at Spotsylvania be an example?
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Charles Lewis
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stove wrote:
Would Upton's attack at Spotsylvania be an example?


That certainly crossed my mind as a likely candidate to meet the OP's criteria.
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Randall Shaw
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How did your doctrine fare against good infantry supported by artillery, Brady?
 
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I legally own hundreds of polyhedral assault dice!
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As always with Johnny Reb, it comes down to passing morale checks. If my shooting is good and the good enemy infantry blow a morale test...too bad for them regardless of artillery. If my shooting is bad, theirs is better, and I fail my checks...too bad for me.

But the doctrine I employed was to maximize my chances on the attack and in reacting to being attacked. Things would go a whole lot better for me with my described deployment than to have everyone strung out in line.
 
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Jur dj
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Attack colums weren't used as much in the Napoleonic period as is sometimes thought, even by the French. Muir, Nosworthy and others have shown that this war not the preferred method of deployment in most cases, although often practical, unintended, necessary or unavoidable.
 
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Jeb
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I think the late ACW was very different then the early part of the war.

I understand that late war assaults/charges went to ground going forward in waves rather than maintain a ridgid line of battle as the fire from a distance was ugly which was not the case early on.
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