Author: Minas Moth
Original Thread: American Civil War - Research&Essays



By definition skirmishers are/were infantry or cavalry soldiers stationed ahead or alongside a larger body of friendly troops formed in skirmish line to harass the enemy. The skirmish line is a battle formation used by rifle squads, platoons, and companies during an advance. In such a formation, troops are deployed in a single line along the front at intervals of 6–8 m (eight to 12 paces). An individual may move slightly forward or to the side to improve his fire position or to better adapt to the terrain, as long as he neither breaks the general continuity of the formation’s front nor hinders his neighbors.1

Skirmishers are known from ancient times, however, our point of interest are 19th Century skirmishers that were used in American Civil War period. In the 18th Century, development in gunpowder weapons enabled introduction of skirmishers armed with muskets. In 18th Century two conflicts were of paramount importance for development of skirmishing branch of infantry. Those were the Seven Years War (French and Indian War) and American War of Independence. What made these two conflicts great for development of such tactics was primarily enemy (especially in Seven Years War) and lack of trained troops (War of Independence).

In Seven Years War, British and their colonists faced French and their Indian allies forming Seven Nations of Canada (Mohawk, Abenaki, Huron and Onondaga). French relied heavily on their Indian allies who were very interesting fighters. They didn’t fight in European style of closely packed battalions of soldiers but were more inclined to act as individuals, using cover, ambush and other such tactics that will later be known as skirmishing. The way to fight such an opponent was to adopt his tactics and turn it against him. This was a process that took some considerable time but will be perfected in North America. British colonists were quick to adept such style of warfare. Even their militia battalions (Minutemen) excelled in such skirmishing duties and soon prominent shots and frontiersmen became widely known figures.
In Europe, situation was different. Except for Austrians, most of European powers didn’t use skirmishers as part of their armies, nor did they pay much attention to incorporate them in their fighting force. Most countries did organize militia units that did rely on skirmishing but they were often mistrusted by their own commanders. It is known fact that Friedrich the Great didn’t trust his Freikorps troops. He explained this by their lack of training he so highly admired. British, who could see potent force of this style of war first-handed, adopted it in their military system by seasonally drafting light infantry regiments as temporary units during field operations. However, when American War of Independence broke out, British still relied on line infantry deployment. Number of skirmishers used by British in their campaigns was confined to dragoon regiments, Indian allies and small number of skirmishers.

On the other hand, Continental Army relied heavily on units that performed skirmisher role. As mentioned above, Minutemen militia really excelled as such operations. There were some highly specialized units of skirmishers also; most known were Morgan’s Riflemen (a band of 96 excellent marksmen that specialized in picking off British officers). To say that skirmishers won the Independence War would be pompous statement at best. But we must acknowledge this tactic as a great contributor to United States independence. Conclusion for such a statement comes from contemporary military observers from Europe who, when witnessing French and Indian War, War of Independence, 19th Century Indian Wars and Mexican War, made term American way of fighting. This way relied more on loosely packed groups of men and didn’t follow European doctrine of tightly packed bodies of men.

When French Revolution broke out; French took skirmisher tactics to entirely new level by devising light infantry doctrine. French also divided light infantry into two categories: voltigeurs (skirmishers) and tirailleurs (sharpshooters). What made French system unique was adoption of living of the land which removed much of equipment from soldiers back and so he became more mobile and could perform light infantry duties. From 1804, each French line or light battalion formed one company of ninety of the best shots to perform role of elite skirmishers. Tirailleurs were part of Imperial Guard of Napoleon I Bonaparte and were organized in 16 regiments by the fall of French Empire. When it comes to equipment skirmishers of that period were sometimes equipped with lighter muskets, some were even rifled or were more accurate variations of general infantry muskets. However, there wasn’t some general supply of skirmishers with special weaponry en masse. It seems it mostly remained in hands of individuals or regiment patrons which weapons they will be equipped with.

In French Army organization skirmishers were part of organized force of line infantry, cavalry and artillery. Corps system allowed for every individual corps to act on its own as smaller fighting unit or to easily connect with other Corps. This system of mutual support between infantry, skirmishers and artillery proved extremely effective in most battles fought by Napoleon but it wasn’t invincible. If one part of this system was unable to do its job, other elements would loose support and were often exposed to heavy casualties. It is interesting to mention that several sources imply that more than once Napoleon used corps as base of skirmishers. This means that corps, which would be the first to come in contact with the enemy, immediately deployed large number of skirmishers to harass the enemy. Large numbers means more than one company of skirmishers per battalion, essentially making rest of the corps a pool from which skirmishers could be reinforced or replenished. This organization was maintained until rest of Army came in contact with the enemy.

So with this mentioned, we must ask ourselves following question: if light infantry doctrine (skirmishing) was highly evolved in early 19th Century and skirmishing was American way of fighting, what made Civil War generals to insist on line order of battle with tightly packed companies of men? General John Watts de Peyster in his treatise New American Tactics, advocated abandonment of European line order of battle and making skirmishing as main organization of United States Army. So, why wasn’t he listened?

One reason can be found in establishing military schools in United States in 19th Century, primarily West Point and Virginia Military Institute (VMI). Such establishments, although they were engineering schools before everything else, were founded on tactics that dominated in time of Napoleonic Wars. In that time, infantry line reigned supreme. In fact, British lines at Waterloo broke all French attacks and established belief that infantry columns can’t penetrate organized and synchronized infantry line. To achieve such outcome, line infantry was supposed to deliver volleys at steady rate. To achieve that all men in company must work as one. These were some of the ideals that cadets of West Point and VMI were taught. However, with appearance of rifled muskets, Napoleonic tactics became suicidal at best but syllabus of military schools didn’t follow technological advance. This discrepancy between technology and theory will ensure high casualties on both sides when Civil War broke out.

On the eve of battle both Union and Confederacy organized regiments in European style but on American way. There wasn’t enough time to properly train troops, so they were taught how to perform simple march orders and how to reload their muskets. Most of the time, this was the only training they received before being thrown into battle. However, Civil War period sources (especially histories of brigades and regiments by men who served in them) give us valuable information on skirmishers in this Conflict. Because of them we now know that every regiment (of 10 companies) would always used one of the companies as skirmishers in the preliminary of the battle. When battle commenced and two lines came in range, skirmishers were often absorbed by main line.

Skirmishers in Civil War were constricted to side duties; such as: picket duty, guarding, preliminaries of battle, scouting and counter scouting duty. It is paramount to say that skirmishers weren’t specialized companies in American Civil War Armies. As said before, they were men of line companies ordered to perform skirmish role.

Another question that comes into view is: why were skirmishers so ineffective? There in no Civil War battle which was decided by skirmishers, that is, where one force was stopped by skirmishers before even reaching opponent. Even locally (parts of battlefield) skirmishers didn’t manage to stop advancing enemies. Being 100men strong in loose formation, picking off individual soldiers and suffering small amount of casualties compared to those inflicted (skirmishers weren’t fired on by line infantry because volley couldn’t achieve its effect on loosely organized skirmishers) there should be some account of them stopping enemies advance. Reason why such accounts don’t exist can be explained by Civil War soldier’s willingness to take casualties. Civil War armies indeed had extremely high morale and they often pressed on even tough they suffered heavy casualties. In such case, skirmishing company could hope to fire 2 to 3 shots before enemy would close with them. Amount of casualties inflicted in that period could be high as 200 (at most) but even then enemy wouldn’t waver and rout. It would press on until it forced skirmishers to merge with main line. Often skirmishers would fire one shot and then rush back to their lines to form with their regiment.

All of this made skirmisher role under-presented in Civil War. There were some small encounters fought by skirmishers but they weren’t decisive ones. Even small scale battles (such as the Battle of Glorieta Pass of New Mexico Campaign) fought by less than 2,500men on both sides were fought in European fashion.
Things did change with establishment of sharpshooter units (Confederate armies deployed them in 1863) but there were never so much of them to make battle decisive impact. Sharpshooters could easily hit commanding officers and generals, but in Civil War, generals and officers fell quite often by fire from line infantry, so we can’t say that sharpshooters fulfilled even that role.
In the end, it is interesting to see how Americans, who developed system of skirmishing/light infantry, were more than willing to abandon it and suffer tremendous casualties inflicted on Civil war battlefields.

1 From The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Black, J., Waterloo - The Battle That Brought Down Napoleon (2011), Icon Books Ltd., London, UK
Keegan, J., The American Civil War - A Military History (2010), Vintage, London, UK
Caldwell, J. F. J., History Of A Brigade Of South Carolinians, Known First As "Gregg's," And Subsequently As "McGowann's Brigade" (1951), Continental Book Company, Marietta, Georgia - USA
Various Internet Sources