By Austin Williams, 33rd Virginia Co. H
The following is the first of a three part primer on skirmish drill, covering deployments and general principles, movement and firing, and reforming. These articles are intended to be a general introduction or refresher and should not be viewed as a replacement for reading the original manuals. Wherever possible, the original text from William Hardee’s revised Rifle and Infantry Tactics: Revised and Improved (Mobile, AL: S. H. Goetzel & Co., 1863), p. 171-207 is used, with rephrasing, reorganization, and additional comments to improve clarity. Topics covered by Hardee, but rarely utilized by living historians, are omitted.
A company deployed as skirmishers will be assembled when there is no longer danger from enemy fire; the assembly will be made habitually in quick time.
The captain wishing to assemble the skirmishers on the reserve, will command:
Assemble on the reserve.
At this command, the skirmishers will assemble by groups of fours; the front rank men will place themselves behind the rear rank men and each group of fours will direct itself on the reserve, where each will take its proper place in the ranks. When the company is reformed, it will rejoing the battalion to which it belongs.
It may also be proper to assemble the skirmishers on the center, or on the right or left of the line. If the captain should wish to assemble them on the center while marching, he will command:
Assemble on the center.
At this command, the center guide will continue to march directly to the front on the point indicated. The front rank man of the directing file will follow the guide and be covered by his rear rank man; the other two comrades of this group, and likewise those on their left, will march diagonally, advancing the left shoulder and accelerating the gait, so as to reform the groups while drawing nearer and nearer the directing file. The men of the right section will unite in the same manner into groups and then upon the directing file. As they successively unite on the center, the men will bring their pieces to the right shoulder.
To assemble on the right or left file will be executed according to the same principles. The assembly of a line marching in retreat will also be executed according to the same principles, the front rank men marching behind their rear rank partners.
To assemble a line of skirmishers at a halt, and on the line they currently occupy, the captain will give the same commands. The skirmishers will face to the right or left as needed, reform the groups while marching, and thus arrive on the file which served as the point of formation. As they successively arrive, the skirmishers will support arms.
Unlike the deliberate assembly, the rally is a rapid movement in response to tactical circumstances, such as a charge by cavalry or to clear the front of the advancing battalion to allow them to fire. The rally may be conducted by fours, by sections, by platoons, on the reserve, or on the battalion. Because the majority of these are in response to charges by cavalry, they are rarely used in the living history community and will not be covered here. Rallying on the battalion, however, is the most expeditious way of clearing the front of the main battle line the skirmishers are screening.
When one or more platoons are deployed as skirmishers, and the captain should wish to rally them on the battalion, he will command:
Rally on the Battalion.
At this command, the skirmishers and the reserve will rapidly unmask the front of the battalion, directing themselves at a run towards its nearest flank and then form in its rear. As soon as the skirmishers have passed beyond the line of file closers, the men will take the quick step and the chief of each platoon or section will reform his subdivision and place it in column behind the wing on which it is rallied, and at ten paces from the rank of file closers. These subdivisions will not be moved except by order of the commander of the battalion.