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.
Once skirmishers are deployed, they will generally only receive one of four commands, ordering them to advance, retreat, commence firing or cease firing.1 The order in which these commands are given, however, changes the action required. The order to advance, for instance, results in different actions if the men are already firing versus if they have ceased fire.
To Advance in Line, and to Retreat in Line
To order a line of skirmishers to advance, the captain will command:
- Forward. At this command, the sergeants will move briskly on the line to their posts in the right, left, and center of the skirmish line.
At this command, the line will move to the front, preserving their intervals. The guide will habitually be in the center, unless ordered otherwise. Lieutenants will march immediately behind their sections. To halt the advance, the captain will order:
At this command, briskly repeated, the line will halt. After rectifying any irregularities in the alignment and intervals, sergeants and lieutenants return to their positions behind the skirmish line.
To order a line of skirmishers to retreat, the captain orders:
- In retreat. At this command, the sergeants move to the line as described above.
At this command, the skirmishers will face about individually and march to the rear, maintaining their alignment and intervals. To halt the retreat, the captain orders:
At this command, the skirmishers will halt, and immediately face to the front.
Skirmishers will fire either at the halt or marching.
To Fire at a Halt
The line being at a halt, the captain will command:
At this command, briskly repeated, the men of the front rank will commence firing. They will reload rapidly. During this time, the men of the rear rank will come to a read and, as soon as their respective file partners have loaded, they will also fire and reload. The men of each file will thus continue the firing so that one or the other shall always have his piece loaded.
To Fire Marching
This fire uses the same commands as the fire at the halt. At the command Commence Firing, if the line is already advancing, the front rank man of every file will halt, fire, and reload before throwing himself forward. The rear rank man of the same file will continue to march, and after passing 10 or 12 paces beyond this front rank man, will halt, come to a ready, and fire when his front rank man has loaded. The fire will thus continue, the men alternating firing and advancing, so that the man nearest the enemy always has a loaded piece.
If the line is currently firing at the halt, at the command Forward—MARCH, it will be the men whose pieces are loaded, without regard to the particular rank to which they belong, who will move to the front. Those men whose pieces have been discharged will remain in their places to load them before moving forward, following the principles previously described.
If the line of march be in retreat, at the command Commence—Firing, the front rank of each file will halt, face the enemy, fire, and then reload while moving to the rear. The rear rank man of the same file will continue to march and halt 10-12 paces beyond his front rank man, face the enemy, come to the ready, and fire when his front rank man has passed him in retreat and loaded. He will then move to the rear and reload; the front rank man, after marching briskly to the rear, will halt at 10-12 paces from the rear rank man, face the enemy and load and fire his piece. The process will continue, with the men alternating firing and retreating, until ordered to halt or cease fire.
If the line is currently firing at the halt or in the advance, at the command In retreat—MARCH, the men whose pieces are loaded will remain faced to the enemy. Their file partner, whose piece is discharged, will retreat loading it and halt 10-12 paces to the rear. The man nearest to the enemy will fire after his partner has reloaded and begin moving to the rear following the principles previously described.
At the command Cease—FIRING, the captain will see that the order is promptly obeyed and the men who may not be loaded, will load. If the line is marching, it will continue the movement but the man of each file who happens to be in the front will wait until the man in the rear shall be abreast with him.
If a line of skirmishers be firing, advancing, at the command HALT, the line will reform upon the skirmishers who are in front; when the line is retreating, upon the skirmishers who are in rear.
- This obviously greatly over simplifies the matter, as skirmish lines can also be wheeled, marched by the flank, or have their intervals extended or compressed. These maneuvers, however, are infrequently used in the living history community. Those interested in these more advanced evolutions should consult Hardee’s original text.