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L’étude de tactique (Study of Tactics)
Napoleonic & Civil War: Attacking Artillery Batteries

During the Napoleonic Era
A frontal assault against enemy artillery in position was one of the most difficult tasks that infantry could be called upon to perform. Generally, whenever possible officers sought to avoid a straightforward attack in battalion line at a controlled and steady pace. The casualties would be too high and the likelihood of success unacceptably low. As a result, by the late 1700s, a number of specialized procedures had evolved. The Russian Marshal Suvarov, for example, would order his infantry to advance at the double until they were 80 sazhens (200 paces) from the artillery. There, they were ordered to quickly run forward 10 to 15 paces. The idea was to momentarily confuse the enemy gunners. The sudden rapid advance removed the advancing infantry from the center of the artillery's target zone and forced the artillerists to re-sight their pieces giving the infantry an opportunity to momentarily advance relatively unopposed. Once within 60 sazhens (150 paces), the infantry would charge their bayonets and the final bayonet charge was delivered when the attacking infantry had closed to within 30 paces.1

The Scots and irregular infantry of central and eastern Europe, like the north African Zouaves of a later period, sometimes relied upon a much more audacious method of attack. The attackers would quickly advance. However, as soon as they noticed the flash of the artillery pieces, they immediately prostrated themselves on the ground. The relatively slow moving cannon balls of the day took one or two seconds to reach their position and harmlessly passed over their heads. They repeated the process of throwing themselves on the ground and getting up until they reached the battery.2

Of course, as time passed, the defenders figured out ways to improve the artillery's defense. The easiest and usually the most effective was to position infantry "supports" on either side of the battery. A frontal assault of the guns would be counteracted on its flanks and easily driven back. This forced commanders of the attacking force to first concentrate their efforts on the nearby infantry, since if the supports were repulsed, the enemy artillery would have to either retreat or be captured or destroyed by an assault from its flank or rear.

By the Napoleonic wars, tacticians had devised several methods to attack artillery supports. The most common method, referred to as the en herse order, was generally used when cavalry was required to capture enemy artillery, although infantry sometimes employed the same tactic. In either case, the attacking force was divided into two parts: the first and larger portion was directed against the supports, while a smaller force advanced in skirmish order against the artillery. The skirmishers stopped about 250 paces in front of the guns and took cover behind broken terrain if available. In the ensuing exchange of fire, the artillery fired canister, which was relatively ineffective against the spread out skirmishers. The skirmishers' fire was chiefly designed to preoccupy the artillerymen without making them aware of their imminent danger. Nevertheless, the skirmishers attempted to aim and shoot at the gunners and the battery's horses.3 Many artillery officers felt that once the horses were killed or disabled the guns would be inevitably taken since losing their mobility they would be more susceptible to the vicissitudes of the battle.4

However, if at any point during the fusillade the enemy artillerymen showed any disorder or hesitancy, the skirmishers immediately rushed in with a bayonet charge. Meanwhile, the remainder of the attacking forces as stealthily as possible continued to advance in column, working their way to one or both flanks of the enemy battery. If the battery continued to fire at the skirmishers pestering them in front, the attacking columns would rush in and overpower the battery, while even if they discovered the trap and began firing at the attackers on their flanks, it would be difficult to fend off all three assaults simultaneously.

In an en tenaille attack (a.k.a., an advance en conversant), the skirmishers and some troops in closed order in the center were "refused", i.e., held back. The main assault consisted of two pincer-like movements by infantry in column on the flanks. The troops in the center only advanced once the enemy artillery began to try to retire or was captured by the friendly forces attacking its flanks.

During the Civil War
Although these techniques were fairly well known in the French and Prussian armies during the 1840's and 50's,5 it is difficult to determine how familiar American artillerymen were familiar with these methods prior to the Civil War. Several American military scientific treatises published around the outbreak of hostilities discussed how artillery was to be handled and various measures to be taken in its defense. At West Point, Captain John Gibbon had taught that in open terrain artillery was best supported by cavalry. Positioned on both sides of the battery, the cavalry could charge the advancing enemy as the opportunity presented itself. However, if the battery was subject to a "hot and lively" fire, the cavalry was better placed about 100 yards behind the battery. Of course, if the artillery was positioned on rough ground, it would fall to the infantry to support the artillery instead. Gibbon suggested that such infantry be kept in squares on both flanks of the artillery and to the rear of its center.6 During the course of Civil War, such precautions were not always taken. As often as not, the artillerymen were leave to their own devices to ward off any enemy threat. Near the close of the second day of fighting at Gettysburg, for example, Battery "B", Fourth US Artillery, assisted by Reynolds and Stevens batteries had to beat back a determined frontal assault by two Confederate brigades in column. This scenario was played out enumerable times during the four years of fighting.7

It is less clear what formal methods were used to carry an artillery position during the Civil War. There is no mention of the matter in either John Gibbon's The Artillerist's Manual or Captain Joseph Robert's The Handbook of Artillery, both originally published before or during the war. The British captain, Lewis Nolan, did provide a description of en herse method of attack in his well read Cavalry: Its History and Tactics, which went through at least three editions during the late 1850s and was reprinted in South Carolina during the war.8 Some Union officers were clearly familiar with the en herse technique by early 1862, since this was essentially the method that General Buell recommended in his April 15 instructions after the battle of Shiloh. An infantry regiment required to attack an enemy battery was to detach its flank companies as skirmishers, which would then advance straight ahead. The remaining companies would advance in two groups on either flank of the skirmishers in a column by division at half distance. The skirmishers meanwhile would attempt to cut down the gunners with a carefully aimed, deliberate fire. Buell believed that usually the skirmisher fire would be sufficient to drive the gunners from their pieces. However, this failing, the two columns where to quickly rush around the flanks of the skirmishers, deploy and deliver a deadly crossfire at the enemy artillerymen. If the enemy still proved obstinate, they were then to rush in with lowered bayonets. Whenever this technique was used, it was important to have another regiment present that could be quickly brought in as a support as soon as the enemy battery had been captured. 9

However, in the overwhelming majority of cases during the war, the attackers, whether Union or Confederate, elected to perform straightforward frontal assaults against enemy artillery positions. The following account taken from my newly released The Bloody Crucible of Courage: Fighting Methods and Combat Experience of the Civil War tells of just such an occurrence during the battle of Battle of New Market Cross-Roads (June 30, 1862) as recollected by John Urban, a Union infantryman:

"The First Regiment Pennsylvania Reserves with which Urban served initially withheld its fire as the artillery pummeled the Confederate infantry in its front. Finally, the regiment was ordered to fire. Crowding between the guns, the men immediately directed a lively fire at the common enemy. The Confederate forces vainly struggled to take the position with desperate frontal assaults for almost two hours, but the "slaughter was horrible in the extreme." Each time, the Confederates managed to advance to within forty to fifty "steps," pushing forward over their fallen comrades and making a heroic effort to remain oblivious to the carnage surrounding them. The Union infantry were firing so quickly that their rifle barrels started to heat up and their hands began to blister. Despite these efforts, the enemy kept advancing and for a moment, it appeared that the defenders would be overrun. But, just at this crisis, the Confederates succumbed to the beating inflicted by both infantry and artillery, and broke, leaving behind the dead, the dying and those desperately struggling to survive.

It was at this point fortune seemed to be smile on the Confederate cause. In spite of Captain Kern's frantic efforts to resupply his battery, the Union artillery finally ran out of ammunition and this officer had to order his guns to withdraw out of the line. It was quite natural that the attackers (Confederates) confused this tactical withdrawal with a general retreat and redoubled their efforts to overrun the position. The defending infantry itself had sustained substantial losses and the situation now appeared desperate. Colonel R. Biddle Roberts, the regimental commander, redressed his thinning and broken ranks. Sure of impending victory, the attackers came on one last time with a loud cheer. Roberts forbade his men to fire and yelling "First Regiment, Forward, Charge Bayonets!" ordered his men forward. After one loud preparatory yell, they advanced without firing a shot. Astounded by this unexpected move, the enemy completely broke. In a text book move of which even Frederick the Great would have approved, the Union infantrymen stopped their pursuit and delivered a murderous fire in their enemy's backs.10 This incidentally was the most murderous of all small arms fire. The victorious infantrymen, no longer threatened, were no totally free to aim properly and could "take much cooler aim at a man's back than at his breast." 11

The reasons for relying upon these straightforward but bloody frontal assaults probably arose from the nature of the two combatant armies. The stubbornness of the fighting meant that both sides had to raise an extremely large force compared to the 16,000-man regular army that had existed prior to the war. By 1862, a majority of the officers and NCOs were volunteers with little or no previous military training. More sophisticated tactical techniques would only become possible after the accumulation of sufficient practical experience. In the meantime, they had to rely upon sheer determination and undaunted courage.

1 Suvarov, Art of Victory, pp. 25-26.
2 Decker, pp. 167-168.
3 Decker, p. 167.
4 Maxims, p. 132.
5 Decker, p. 168.
6 Gibbon, Artillerist's, p. 356<--?; Roberts p. 52.
7 Buell, pp. 82-83; Report No. 22, pp. 97-98. Note: Although Buell attempted to pass this very informative work off as an "autobiography," modern research has shown that it was a compilation of oral history from Pvt. Frank McCormick, Pvt. Peter Andrews, and a veteran of the 7th Wisconsin. Nevertheless, its content appears highly detailed and accurate and remains a valuable source for anyone studying the Civil War, Felton, p. 39.
8 Nolan, Lewis, Cavalry: Its History and Tactics, S.C., 1864, p. 143.
9 ? OR I 52 (1), p. 239.
10 Urban, pp. 156-157.
11 Hill, A.F. p. 307; see also Shaw, p. 130.
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