After revising an early draft of my book, I decided to put together a brief excerpt that sums of battle tactics of the war of 1812. Illustrated with wikicommons images, for the most part.
The American Army of 1812 and the School of Discipline
The popular imagination often presents conventional warfare during the 18th and 19th centuries as a ritualized, robotic and senseless mode of fighting. In America, stories of Indians and frontier marksmen have been passed down for generations about the wars of the Revolution and 1812. The core of this legend is that groups of individual riflemen, dispersed through the underbrush, won battles by tripping up and shooting down the inflexible formations of their European foes. When Americans tried to adopt linear tactics, according to this legend, they too were cut to pieces by Indians. In order to survive, the frontiersmen had to learn to fight the Indian way. The volunteer rifleman, with his firearm taken to war from the family hearth, became an enduring American archetype. The reality of warfare, however, was far more complex. Regular tactics during this period depended not on the rifle but on the inaccurate but powerful smoothbore musket. Even though the musket hardly changed during its period of dominance between 1650 and 1850, tactics continued to evolve, and any army that sought to master warfare had to keep up with the changes.
Infantry made up a vast majority of the armies during the War of 1812. Most soldiers were armed with a large caliber, smoothbore flintlock musket. Historians are fond of describing the inefficiencies of loading and the inaccurate fire of this type of weapon, but in truth they were reliable, quick loading, and versatile for the period. They were also cheap to produce, and standardized so that every musketman in an army could use the same ammunition (in a smoothbore firearm, smaller balls; buckshot; rocks or any other object that can fit down the bore can be loaded and fired: contrast this with rifles which require correct, tightly fitting balls). Soldiers in both the British and American armies could carry between 26 and 60 rounds of ammunition (a round lead ball wrapped in paper with a powder charge); officers expected trained men to be able to fire three such rounds every minute. With each shot, burning gunpowder coated the bore of a musket with soot, so that after several shots the balls became difficult to ram home. To counter this somewhat, armies issued smaller musket balls; .65 caliber for a .69 caliber bore for French pattern muskets, for example. The windage, or gap between ball and bore meant that the projectile bounced a little before exiting the weapon, and could not be counted on to fly directly at a target. In most situations this didn’t matter. The true infantry weapon of the period was a platoon of 60 muskets, or company of 120, firing volleys in unison and at point-blank ranges.
|Typical French-style musket used by the US Army.|
Muskets had another advantage over civilian rifles in that they could be fitted with socket bayonets. The bayonet of the period was a fearsome weapon—adding a foot or more to the length of a musket, it featured a triangular cross-section for more severe wounds. As with firing, the idea wasn’t to use the bayonet for single combat. Rather, a large and disciplined group of men so armed could put up a wall of steel to protect themselves from horsemen. In North America, disciplined infantrymen facing Indian war clubs, spears, and tomahawks often used this wall of steel with great effectiveness. Contrary to the legend of popular history, Indians always sought to shoot down and stampede a regular formation before daring to go hand-to-hand. Only a completely outnumbered or disorganized formation of musketmen would lose to Indians in hand-to-hand combat, as the battles of Fallen Timbers, Tippecanoe, and Fort Meigs would prove.
|General Anthony Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, 1794. The troops behind him are advancing in open order, screening a closed order line that can be glimpsed in the far background of the painting.|
Muskets were short-range weapons. Terribly inaccurate at long ranges, infantrymen depended on the two principles of shock and discipline to win battles. Discipline, which the infantry earned through long hours of parade-ground drill and pantomiming loading and firing, allowed them to march in compact formations. It allowed them to shoot quickly, simultaneously and on command. It conditioned them to put up a hedge of bayonets; above all to keep doing so despite leaders and mates being knocked down or mutilated in the noise and confusion of close combat. Discipline meant keeping a cohesive formation whilst knocking the enemy’s to pieces. Shock was the mayhem and disorder that a disciplined infantry unit could mete out to its opponent. It was maximized when greater numbers of troops were sent against weak points in the enemies’ line, when organized units appeared on the flank or rear of opposing formations, or when bayonet charges (ideally made at a steady, walking pace) closed with and broke a defensive position.
|French infantry in a cul-de-sac at Aspern-Essling, Austria 1809.|
From the 1790s the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon’s First Empire in Europe brought new shock tactics into prominence. The old regimes of Europe had relied upon small, tightly organized and disciplined professional armies during the Age of Reason, Napoleon was heir to military reforms and social upheaval that created a vast, flexible, and fast moving Blitzkrieg army made up of highly motivated conscripts. The old paradigm of set-piece battles, wherein infantry regiments were lined up like toy soldiers and sent against their opposing counterparts; while cavalrymen clashed on the flanks, was overturned. Napoleon raised large armies, and then deployed them in smaller armies termed Corps. Each corps had its own infantry, artillery, and cavalry. The innovations went far deeper than that, however. Infantry units, deployed in fast marching battalion columns, were often deployed at the discretion of the Corps or divisional commander. With the new flexible structure, a general might assign one of his staff officers or regimental colonels with one or two battalions of infantrymen, a battery of artillery, and a few squadrons of cavalrymen to tackle the objective. At other times, infantry and artillery forces were massed and concentrated against a single point in the enemy line, as smaller forces kept enemy reinforcements occupied elsewhere. Once the assault team made a breakthrough, elite reserves such as the heavy cavalry or the Imperial Guard were sent into the breach. Tactics like these could break the back of an army in a single afternoon.
American leaders sought to emulate the Napoleonic revolution in tactics. In 1812 two rival translators published editions of the official French drill manual. The War Department adopted first one, then the other for use by the United States Army. The American infantry in 1812 would be a strange hybrid of French tactics and British methods of organization. The Americans lacked conscription, and never had the numbers to implement a brigade-division-corps system of organization such as the French employed. They lacked the expertise and the money to field highly mobile forces, backed up by efficient baggage trains, engineers, pontineers, and other specialist troops. The American infantrymen trained and fought not in tightly knit divisions or brigades, but in regiments and companies. Often a single pre-war regiment, like the 1st or the 4th Regiments of Infantry, would be parceled out in one or two company-detachments around the frontiers. Its officers were awarded their commissions based on political connections. There was no systematic NCO school and no large-scale warfare to generate hard-bitten veterans who could whip recruits into shape (what the French artillerist Louis de Tousard called “this long war,” referring to Napoleon’s seemingly endless series of wars). A regiment or company was recruited in one season, trained as best as its amateur officers could manage, and then fought as well or as poorly as it might. In this respect the US Army was more similar to that of Great Britain, with its archaic system of regiments and separate artillery and commissary services.
Light Infantry Tactics and Elite Units
Light infantry was the formal answer to the challenge posed by warfare in North America as well as in Europe during the Seven Years War. The term refers to tactics as well as specialized infantry units. During the conflict in America, provincial militiamen and Indians fought in dispersed formations, grabbing whatever cover they could find. Using forest cover and individual marksmanship they could pick off the key personnel in a formal European formation and create disorder and panic. At General Edward Braddock's defeat in 1755, a French and Indian force used these tactics to surround and panic a close-order column of two British regular regiments. The result was a slaughter that cost Braddock his life. American militiamen (particularly the semi-professional minutemen companies of the Massachusetts militia) used similar tactics during the firefights that began the American Revolution in 1775. However, without the support of regular infantry, irregular forces had a hard time taking and holding ground.
It wasn't long before European-style regular armies began fielding specialized troops who could fight like Indians or irregulars. The key difference was that they used a specific drillbook and fought in a formation, albeit a loose one. Standing several paces apart, each file (or two to three men who stood one behind the other when in close order), would fight individually while obeying the commands of the officers and NCOs. While one man in the file reloaded, his file mate covered him with a loaded weapon ready to fire. The light infantry drill manuals emphasized speed and marksmanship, but light companies could reform and fight in close order. They could outmaneuver irregular troops because of their superior organization. The British column at Lexington and Concord survived being surrounded by superior numbers of minutemen in 1775 using their superior discipline.
Light infantry typically advanced into contact with the enemy first, as part of the vanguard of an army. When the main body arrived and went on-line, the lights withdrew and protected the flanks. If a retreat became necessary, it was the lights who were expected to stage rear-guard actions to delay enemy pursuit and give the rest of the army breathing room. During the War of 1812, detachments of light infantry were often called upon to form raiding parties. They were the "special forces" of the time, expected to operate independently and often between or behind enemy lines. They were also assigned to special missions, such as burning ships or key installations
Americans deployed two kinds of light infantry forces during the War of 1812: voltigeurs or light infantrymen; and riflemen. Light infantry were armed with the same musket and bayonet that the line infantry carried. Since the United States Army did not have an official light infantry organization, companies within the regular infantry regiments may have been designated as light companies by their colonels. In other cases, experienced line infantrymen would simply fight in open order when the situation demanded. The regular Army established a Regiment of Rifles before the war. Mid-war, three other regiments were established. The riflemen in the regular army were armed with the 1803 Harper's Ferry pattern rifle, a small caliber weapon owing more to the Pennsylvania or Kentucky hunting rifle than to the short, stocky Baker rifles carried by the British rifle regiments. These rifles did not have bayonets like the Baker rifles did, and American riflemen were typically issued axes or tomahawks for hand to hand fighting. Expected to fend for themselves, the regular Army issued riflemen fascine knives instead of tents.
Regardless of whether he served in a close-order line of three ranks, or a dispersed light infantry formation, muskets were loaded and fired by the same method. Each soldier carried his bayonet and cartridge box on leather belts. Generally, his bayonet was fixed and gun loaded before he ever went into combat. To load the musket, a soldier held his musket in one hand and flipped the frizzen open, exposing the priming pan. He then reached into his cartridge box and withdrew a cylindrical paper cartridge, with a ball tied into one end and the powder contained the other, which was folded over. Biting off the folded end, he pored a small amount of powder into the pan, and shut it. Dropping the butt to the ground, he poured the rest of the powder down the muzzle of the weapon, and then inserted the cartridge, ball first. Taking out the metal ramrod held within the muskets stock, he rammed the ball and paper to seat it in the bore. If a ball wasn't properly seated, the air spaces when the weapon was shot could blow out the back of the weapon, injuring or killing the soldier. Even though the ball was made smaller than the smooth bore, powder residue made it more difficult to ram home each time the weapon was fired, so that good officers understood the importance of holding the men's fire until it counted. Once the ramrod was secured and the musket ready to fire, the man leveled his weapon in the direction of a target and added his gun to the force of an infantry line's volley (some evidence suggests that line infantry were often permitted to fire at will, although this is awkward when in close quarters). Light infantry aimed their muskets at targets of opportunity, and in proficient hands a smoothbore weapon could be quite accurate at close range, especially when the user found some way of patching the ball to fit more closely in the bore (see below). The Army expected its soldiers to fire three times a minute. Officers carried swords and pistols, but generally speaking their primary weapon was the infantry volley, and all their parade ground drilling amounted to rehearsing how best to get their men into position to deliver it.
Youtube user stardust4022 uploaded this video of a 2009 reenactment at Fort Meigs, which illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of light infantry and line infantry pretty well.
A rifle took more time for a soldier to load than a musket, normally a minute compared to three times a minute for smoothbores. Each soldier carried a leather or cloth bag containing round lead balls and cloth or animal membrane patches, as well as a cow's horn filled with fine-grain powder. First, he would measure out a charge and empty it into the bore of the rifle. Secondly, he would place a greased patch on the muzzle of the rifle, and then the ball. Using a short rod called a "starter", he would push the tightly-fitting ball part way into the bore. Then he would use a longer wooden or metal ramrod to force the ball to the bottom of the bore and seat it firmly on top of the powder charge. Finally, the rifleman picked up his weapon and poured a small amount of powder into the pan of his firelock. Closing the pan, he could then pull back the hammer to full cock and discharge the rifle at a target. The rifle was accurate to perhaps 300 yards, but heavy brush or woods often meant that the more accurate rifles were used against larger bore muskets and fusils at short range. It wasn't until the expanding Minie ball allowed armorers to merge the musket and rifle into one weapon that rifled arms came to dominate the battlefield in the 1850s and 60s.
The regular regiments of the United States Army were outnumbered on the front lines by their counterparts in the state militias and volunteer units. Jefferson and other Republicans feared the power of a permanent standing army, and limited its growth as much as possible. Not without reason: they had before them the example of Napoleon Bonaparte in France, who had converted a republic into first a dictatorship, and then a monarchy in the space of a few years. The senior general of the United States Army, James Wilkinson, was an inveterate schemer who had seemingly been involved and survived every major conspiracy and scandal in the early Republic. To safeguard democracy, Jefferson and his successors elected to use the militia system. Each state and territory of the Union effectively had its own army, made up of all able-bodied citizens and armed and equipped either with the citizens’ own arms or arms from the state arsenals. Each governor was the effectively commander-in-chief of his militia, though he or the legislature could loan them to the Federal government for service provided it was legal to do so. Some state laws did not require militiamen to serve outside the borders of the state or the country, and commanders sometimes had to resort to peer pressure to keep them in the field. Militia were generally picked by draft and enrolled for six months. If in Federal service they were paid by the Federal government, and in 1813 the Secretary of War urged General Harrison to keep from calling out the militia in order to keep under budget.
During much of the war in the west, Volunteer militia regiments were raised from patriotic citizens and fulfilled most of Ohio and Kentucky’s militia quotas. The three Ohio regiments that fought in the first campaign, and the two Kentucky brigades savaged in the 1813 campaign were volunteer militia units. In the Western states militia units were normally clothed uniformly in civilian hunting or rifle frocks. They were armed with muskets from the state arsenal, though some companies carried rifles. Scouts, rifles, and voltigeur companies trained and fought as the regular light infantry units did, and the bulk of the militia companies sought to emulate the column-and-line tactics of the regulars. In practice, however, militia had a reputation of being poorly trained and disciplined. Their officers were often elected and had more political skill than military experience. Harrison claimed to have a unique understanding of western militia units. The Territorial Governor turned-warlord usually sought to exploit their numbers and spirit while posting them whenever possible behind cover or in situations where they could easily come to grips with the enemy.
The third, and often overlooked tier of the American military were the pure volunteer units. Enrolled into Federal service as “12 months volunteers,” units such as the Pittsburgh Blues and Petersburg Volunteer Infantry companies were made up of private citizens who joined the military equivalent of a social club. They provided their own weapons and uniforms (usually the best money could buy) and met regularly for drill when not mobilized. During the war these men soon earned a reputation as the elite units of the army, but like their six-month counterparts in the state militia they were often gone by the time combat had sharpened their instincts to a razors-edge. One of the key weaknesses of the American army was that it relied for continuity on a small core of hard-bitten veterans. Since the regular army did not often treat its soldiers well, the veterans often left when their enlistments were up, and deserted in droves even beforehand.
The regular US Army expanded from seven to 48 Regiments of Infantry during the War of 1812. They lacked the long pedigrees of the British foot regiments. They lacked the professional officers, crack NCOs, and common soldiers inured to hard campaigns that the British army could rely upon. They boasted only a fraction of the 48,000 men they were authorized, and the ranks were further thinned by desertion and sickness. Yet the American infantrymen fought bravely and with increasing effectiveness as the war went on. As a school of discipline, the War of 1812 can be identified as the real birthplace of the United States Army.
 As indeed, did the other powers of Europe. By 1815 hard-marching columns of German troops were outflanking and beating the French at their own game. The British Army, still made up of singular regiments organized in no particular way into brigades and divisions, was a notable exception among the great powers.