How to Read a Civil War Battlefield

Mark Grimsley

Copyright 1997, 2006 by Mark Grimsley
ll rights reserved. Readers are free to make copies of this essay for personal use, but not to publish or distribute it.

Each year millions of people visit Civil War battlefields. Although the majority are content just to spend a couple of hours wandering among the monuments and cannon, thousands come with a keen interest in the events that took place there and a hunger to learn more. Yet these more committed Civil War enthusiasts often do no more themselves than wander among the cannon and monuments. That is because they have not yet learned to read a Civil War battlefield.

Reading a battlefield has six components:


Each army (40,000-100,000 men) typically consisted of two or more corps (10,000-25,000 men). An army was usually commanded by a full General on the Confederate side and a Major General on the Union side.

Each corps typically consisted of two to four divisions (3,000-5,000 men). A corps was usually commanded by a Lieutenant General on the Confederate side and a Major General on the Union side.

Each division consisted of two to four brigades, usually three (1,200-2,500 men). Divisions were usually commanded by major generals.

Each brigade consisted of three to five regiments (300-800 men). A brigade was usually commanded by a Brigadier General.

The authorized strength of each regiment was about 1,000 men, but in practice they rarely maintained their full strength for very long. Regiments were usually commanded by colonels.


In combat environments, the duties of Civil War leaders divided into two main parts: decision-making and moral suasion. Although the scope of their decisions varied according to rank and responsibilities, they generally dealt with the movement and deployment of troops, artillery, and logistical support (signal detachments, wagon trains, and so on). Most of the decisions were made by the leader himself. While his staff assisted with administrative paperwork, in combat they functioned essentially as glorified clerks who did almost nothing in the way of sifting intelligence or planning operations.

Once made, decisions were transmitted to subordinates either by direct exchange or by courier, with the courier either carrying a written order or conveying the order verbally. More rarely, signal flags were used to send instructions. Except in siege operations, when the battle lines were fairly static, the telegraph was almost never used in tactical situations.

Moral suasion, simply put, was the art of persuading troops to perform their duties and dissuading them from a failure to perform them. This was often done by personal example, and conspicuous bravery was a vital attribute of any good leader. It is therefore not surprising that 8 percent of Union generals--and 18 percent of their Confederate counterparts--were killed or mortally wounded in action. (By contrast, only about 3 percent of Union enlisted men were killed or mortally wounded in action.)

Although any commander might be called upon to intervene directly on the firing line, army, corps, and division commanders tended to lead from behind the battle line, and their duties were mainly supervisory. In all three cases, their main ability to influence the fighting, once it was underway, was by the husbanding and judicious commitment of troops held in reserve.

The commanders below were expected to control the actual combat--to close with and destroy the enemy:


Civil War armies basically had three kinds of combat troops: infantry, cavalry and artillery. Infantrymen fought on foot, each with his own weapon. Cavalrymen were trained to fight on horseback or dismounted, also with their own individual weapons. Artillerists fought with cannon.


Infantry were by far the most numerous part of a Civil War army and were chiefly responsible for seizing and holding ground. The basic Civil War tactic was to put a lot of men next to one another in a line and have them move and shoot together. By present-day standards the notion of placing troops shoulder-to-shoulder seems insane, but it still made good sense in the mid-19th century.

There were two reasons for this: First, it allowed soldiers to concentrate the fire of what were still rather limited weapons. Second, it was almost the only way to move troops effectively under fire. Most Civil War infantrymen used muzzle-loading muskets capable of being loaded and fired a maximum of about three times a minute.

Individually, therefore, a soldier was nothing. He could affect the battlefield only by combining his fire with that of other infantrymen. Although spreading out made them less vulnerable, infantrymen very quickly lost the ability to combine their fire effectively if they did so. Even more critically, their officers rapidly lost the ability to control them.

For most purposes, the smallest tactical unit on a Civil War battlefield was the regiment. Although theoretically composed of about 1,000 officers and men, in reality the average Civil War regiment went into battle with about 300-600 men. Whatever its size, however, all members of the regiment had to be able to understand and carry out the orders of their colonel and subordinate officers, who generally could communicate only through voice command.

Since in the din and confusion of battle only a few soldiers could actually hear any given command, most got the message chiefly by conforming to the movements of the men immediately around them. Maintaining "touch of elbows"--the prescribed close interval--was indispensable for this crude but vital system to work. In addition, infantrymen were trained to "follow the flag"--the unit and national colors were always conspicuously placed in the front and center of each regiment.

Thus, when in doubt as to what maneuver the regiment was trying to carry out, soldiers could look to see the direction in which the colors were moving. That is one major reason why the post of color bearer was habitually given to the bravest men in the unit. It was not just an honor; it was insurance that the colors would always move in the direction desired by the colonel.

En route to a battle area, regiments typically moved in a column formation, four men abreast. There was a simple maneuver whereby regiments could very rapidly change from column to line once in the battle area; i.e., from a formation designed for ease of movement to a formation designed to maximize firepower. Regiments normally moved and fought in line of battle--a close-order formation actually composed of two lines, front and rear.

Attacking units rarely "charged" in the sense of running full-tilt toward the enemy; such a maneuver would promptly destroy the formation as faster men outstripped slower ones and everyone spread out. Instead a regiment using orthodox tactics would typically step off on an attack moving at a "quick time" rate of 110 steps per minute (at which rate it would cover about 85 yards per minute). Once under serious fire the rate of advance might be increased to a so-called "double-quick time" of 165 steps per minute (about 150 yards per minute).

Only when the regiment was within a few dozen yards of the defending line would the regiment be ordered to advance at a "run" (a very rapid pace but still not a sprint). Thus a regiment might easily take about ten minutes to "charge" 1,000 yards, even if it did not pause for re-alignment or execute any further maneuvers en route. In theory an attacking unit would not stop until it reached the enemy line, if then.

The idea was to force back the defenders through the size, momentum, and shock effect of the attacking column. (Fixed bayonets were considered indispensable for maximizing the desired shock effect).

In reality, however, the firepower of the defense eventually led most Civil War regiments to stop and return the fire--often at ranges of less than 100 yards. And very often the "charge" would turn into a stand-up fire fight at murderously short range, until one side or the other gave way.

It is important to bear in mind that the above represents a simplified idea of Civil War infantry combat. As you will see whenyou visit specific battlefields, the reality could vary significantly.


Second in importance to infantry on most Civil War battlefields, was the artillery. Not yet the "killing arm" it would become during World War One, when 70 percent of all casualties would be inflicted by shellfire, artillery nevertheless played an important role, particularly on the defense.Cannon fire could break up an infantry attack or dissuade enemy infantry from attacking in the first place. Its mere presence could also reassure friendly infantry and so exert a moral effect that might be as important as its physical effect on the enemy.

The basic artillery unit was the battery, a group of between 4 and 6 fieldpieces commanded by a captain. Early in the war, batteries tended to be attached to infantry brigades. But over time it was found that they worked best when massed together, and both the Union and Confederate armies presently reorganized their artillery to facilitate this. Eventually both sides maintained extensive concentrations of artillery at corps-level or higher. Coordinating the fire of twenty or thirty guns on a single target was not unusual, and occasionally (as in the bombardment that preceded Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg) concentrations of well over hundred guns might be achieved.

Practically all Civil War fieldpieces were muzzle-loaded and superficially appeared little changed from their counterparts in the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, however, Civil War artillery was quite modern in two respects.

First, advances in metallurgy had resulted in cannon barrels that were much lighter than their predecessors but strong enough to contain more powerful charges. Thus, whereas the typical fieldpiece of the Napoleonic era fired a 6-pound round, the typical Civil War era fieldpiece fired a round double that size, with no loss in ease of handling.

Second, recent improvements had resulted in the development of practical rifled fieldpieces that had significantly greater range and accuracy than their smoothbore counterparts.

Civil War fieldpieces could fire a variety of shell types, each with its own preferred usage.

As recently as the Mexican War, artillery had been used effectively on the offensive, with fieldpieces rolling forward to advanced positions from which they could blast a hole in the enemy line. The advent of the rifled musket, however, made this tactic dangerous--defending infantry could now pick off artillerists who dared to come so close--and so the artillery had to remain farther back.

In theory the greater range and accuracy of rifled cannon might have offset this a bit, but rifled cannon fired comparatively small shells of limited effectiveness against infantry at a distance. The preferred use of artillery on the offensive was therefore not against infantry but against other artillery--what was termed "counterbattery work." The idea was to mass one's own cannon against a few of the enemy's cannon and systematically fire so as to kill the enemy's artillerists and dismount his fieldpieces.


"Whoever saw a dead cavalryman?" was a byword among Civil War soldiers, a pointed allusion to the fact that the battlefield role played by the mounted arm was often negligible. For example, at the Battle of Antietam--the single bloodiest day of the entire war--the Union cavalry suffered exactly 5 men killed and 23 wounded. This was in sharp contrast to the role played by cavalry during the Napoleonic era, when a well-timed cavalry charge could exploit an infantry breakthrough, overrun the enemy's retreating foot soldiers, and convert a temporary advantage into a complete battlefield triumph.

Why the failure to use cavalry to better tactical advantage? The best single explanation might be the fact that for much of the war there was simply not enough of it to achieve significant results. Whereas cavalry had comprised 20 to 25 percent of Napoleonic armies, in Civil War armies it generally averaged 8 to 10 percent or even less.

The paucity of cavalry may be explained, in turn, by its much greater expense compared with infantry. A single horse might easily cost ten times the monthly pay of a Civil War private and necessitated the purchase of saddles, bridles, stirrups, and other gear as well as specialized clothing and equipment for the rider. Moreover, horses required about 26 pounds of feed and forage per day, many times the requirement of an infantryman. One might add to this the continual need for remounts to replace worn-out horses and the fact that it took far more training to make an effective cavalryman than an effective infantryman, as well as the widespread belief that the heavily-wooded terrain of America would limit opportunities to use cavalry on the battlefield.

All in all, it is perhaps no wonder that Civil War armies were late in creating really powerful mounted arms. Instead, cavalry tended to be used mainly for scouting and raiding, duties that took place away from the battlefields. During major engagements their mission was principally to screen the flanks or to control the rear areas. By 1863, however, the North was beginning to create cavalry forces sufficiently numerous and well-armed to play a significant role on the battlefield. At Gettysburg, for example, Union cavalrymen armed with rapid-fire, breach-loading carbines were able to hold a Confederate infantry division at bay for several hours. At Cedar Creek in 1864 a massed cavalry charge late in the day completed the ruin of the Confederate army, and during the Appomattox Campaign in 1865 Federal cavalry played a decisive role in bringing Lee's retreating army to bay and forcing its surrender.


The whole point of a battlefield tour is to see the ground over which men actually fought. Understanding the terrain is basic to understanding almost every aspect of a battle. Terrain helps to explain why commanders deployed their troops where they did, why attacks occurred in certain areas and not in others, why some attacks succeeded and others did not.

When defending, Civil War leaders often looked for positions with as many of the following characteristics as possible:

When attacking, the concerns of Civil War commanders were different:

Making the best use of terrain was an art that almost always involved trade-offs among these various factors--and also required consideration of the number of troops available. Even a very strong position was vulnerable if there were not enough troops to defend it. A common error among Civil War generals, for example, was to stretch their line too thin in order to hold an otherwise desirable piece of ground.


When touring Civil War battlefields it's often helpful to have a general sense of distance. For example, estimating distance can help you estimate how long it took troops to get from Point A to Point B or to visualize the points at which they would have become vulnerable to different kinds of artillery fire. There are several easy tricks to bear in mind.

1. Use reference points for which the exact distance is known. Locate such a reference point, then try to divide the intervening terrain into equal parts. For instance, say the reference point is 800 yards away. The ground about halfway in between will be 400 yards; the ground halfway between yourself and the midway point will be 200 yards, and so on.

2. Use the football field method. Visualize the length of a football field, which of course is 100 yards. Then estimate the number of football fields you could put between yourself and the distant point in which you're interested.

3. Use cars, houses, and other common objects that tend to be roughly the same size. Most cars are about the same size and so are many houses. Become familiar with how large or small such objects appear at various distances--300 yards, 1000 yards, 2000 yards, etc. This is a less accurate way of estimating distance, but can be helpful if the lay of the land makes it otherwise hard to tell whether a point is near or far. Look for such objects that seem a bit in front of the point. Their relative size can give you a useful clue.



Before visiting a Civil War battlefield, spend some time reading up on it. But do so in a very directed way. Don't pay much attention to the endless anecdotes that clog many Civil War battle books. Concentrate instead on the key events, when they took place, who was involved, and what each side was trying to accomplish. Don't try to learn everything that occurred. It is better to get a good, solid handle on a few pivotal engagements than to get a hazy feel for many.

In particular, try to reduce the battle to a pattern that you can easily keep in your head. For example, the Battle of Antietam is usually reduced to three phases: an early morning phase in the northern part of the battlefield; a midday phase in the center; and an afternoon phase in the south.

You will find that it helps a lot to have plenty of maps of the action that took place. Buy books that contain good battle maps and photocopy the maps so that you can bring them with you on the battlefield without having to fumble through (and perhaps ruin) the book. If you can purchase a good battlefield guide, so much the better.

At the same time, have at least one good map of the present-day battlefield, especially the road system. This is usually no problem because the National Park Service brochures are excellent for this purpose. But don't just refer to this map. Try to memorize the road grid and the location of major landmarks, especially those visible from a long distance. This will help you get and keep your bearings.


General guidance will only get you so far. Time for some practical illustrations.


Coggins, Jack. Arms and Equipment of the Civil War. Reprint edition. Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot Books, 1990 [1962] The best introduction to the subject, engagingly written, profusely illustrated, and packed with information.

Griffith, Paddy. Battle Tactics of the Civil War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989. Argues that in a tactical sense, the Civil War was more nearly the last great Napoleonic war rather than the first modern war. In Griffith's view, the impact of the rifled musket on Civil War battlefields has been exaggerated; the carnage and inconclusiveness of many Civil War battles owed less to the inadequacy of Napoleonic tactics than to a failure to properly understand and apply them.

Jamieson, Perry D. Crossing the Deadly Ground: United States Army Tactics, 1865-1899. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994. The early chapters offer a good analysis of the tactical lessons learned by U.S. army officers from their Civil War experiences.

Linderman, Gerald F. Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War. New York: Free Press, 1987. A thoughtful, well-written study of how Civil War soldiers understood and coped with the challenges of the battlefield.

McWhiney, Grady, and Perry D. Jamieson. Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1982. Although unconvincing in its assertion that their Celtic heritage led Southerners to take the offensive to an inordinate degree, this is an excellent tactical study that emphasizes the revolutionary impact of the rifled musket.

Nosworthy, Brent. The Bloody Crucible of Courage: Fighting Methods and Combat Experience of the Civil War. New York: Carroll & Graff, 2003. A very good, richly detailed recent treatment of Civil War tactics.

Return to the OSU Military History Home Page
Return to Civil Warriors