Colors: Wag the Dog?

Colors, Part Two

Advancing the colors

This week we’ll tackle the color guard’s role in moving an infantry battalion. To briefly reiterate: The color guard is part of the color company, the members are assigned one or a two, and do everything rank and file does in terms of doubling and undoubling, up to the point when a battalion front is formed. This is what it looks like when the battalion is formed in line of battle:

This may look a little odd, what with the third rank of the color guard made up of two second sergeants and a sergeant major. Read on to understand the concession to reenacting reality.

At some point it becomes time for the battalion to move forward.  There is a tedious process for laying out the points on the desired direction of march, for drilling purposes, in Casey’s. Rather than get bogged down in that – bog yourself down this spring at battalion drill if you want, it’s good exercise – we’ll just take the practical example of the Confederates on the third day at Gettysburg:  Most of the battalions were aimed at the clump of trees on Cemetery Ridge. When the command came for a regiment to advance, several things happen at once:

  1. The first half of the command is “Battalion, forward”. Casey (School of the Battalion, 653.) says that with this command, the front rank of the color guard – three men, a color sergeant and two color corporals, step out six paces to the front, while the rear rank corporals in the color guard move into the front rank and the three who were file closers, in the manuals, step into the rear rank.  The color sergeant has been given his target by a field grade officer – ie., the battalions colonel, lieutenant colonel or major; he knows where the battalion is to go and the battalion will guide on his flag.
  2. The rest of the rank and file DO NOT MOVE YET.
  3. The next command is “MARCH.”  Now, and only now, does the entire battalion steps forward and march, in step. Dress is to the colors, that is, “center dress”.
  4. This is where the color guard comes into its own.  The front rank is out there, with the color sergeant keeping his eyes on the clump of trees, the barn, the road junction: whatever he was told. The second rank of the color guard MUST stay directly behind them. This can be a tough job, as a battalion not used to moving in line, or a battalion trying to cover rough ground going across lots, will twist and turn and shift left or right. This is usually the time when someone who just doesn’t get any of it shouts out to the color guard front rank “Hey, you’re too far to the right! (left!)”  That guy is trying to wag the dog, the dog being the color sergeant.  That guy is going to put the battalion into an unredeemable condition of exflunctification. Don’t be like that guy. If you’re a noncom, shush that guy, quietly, remind him he is marching to the step so his job is to keep his place in line, stay in step, and BE QUIET.  Not so the corporals in the color guard; they can call out what needs to be done for them to stay directly behind the color guard.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many assertive corporals.  I know corporals who are diligent and who are hard workers and who know drill, but not many who are the kind of confident, assertive extrovert you actually need at this time and place.

We can compensate for that, but it won’t be a period solution. It will be an expedient solution.

We often get by with six in the color guard instead of nine; in fact, the third rank seems to be a vestigial remnant of the days when regiments were in line of battle three ranks deep.  However, immediately at hand, we have the second sergeant for the color company.  A few feet away we have another second sergeant behind the next company on the right; with our small companies, it’s only a few yards.  And down at the end of the battalion, really not far away if you have the typically small reenacting battalion, you have a sergeant major who probably doesn’t have much to do if the company noncoms on that end are keeping the alignment. So when the rear rank of the color guard steps up and becomes the front rank, one way to usefully refill the rear rank of the rank and file would be for the sergeant major take the center spot in the rear rank, flanked by those two second sergeants.  I know a lot of quiet corporals, but no quiet sergeant majors. It simply isn’t done. And that’s what we need. We need a sergeant major with a voice that carries like a bullwhip and a vocabulary like a mule driver, someone who will immediately shut down all the random and contradictory chatter and reassure the quiet corporals they do, indeed, stay behind the colors.  It looks like this:

With this arrangement, the battalion might look like it has a battle flag in front and a bright blue pulsing light and doomsday thunder in the line right behind it, but the odds are good the battle line will be straight and true. I have, when assigned as sergeant major at this or that event, moved to this spot as a de facto expediency, assessing the color guard as the inevitable center of all possible woe on an otherwise happy afternoon, and taking the initiative, as the chief noncom, to put myself at the point of confusion, sort it out, and make sure the battalion is doing what the colonel needs to have done.

Remember the discussion about some ranks deciding what needs to be done and others making sure it gets done properly?  This is that, on a regimental scale. This is the dictum that you have as much authority as you need to get the job done. It is not according to Hoyle or Casey, but Hoyle and Casey weren’t dealing with weekend warriors. The end result is one Casey would approve: A straight battle line moving in the right direction, with every musket capable of being brought to bear when the shooting starts.

(Caveat:  The sergeant-major ploy is just reenactment expediency. And if you don’t need that ploy, great!)

FYI, There is much more that needs to be done, all available in Casey’s School of the Battalion, Part V, starting Section 652 with “Battalion, forward”.  Among other things, the captains on the left wing shift from the right end of their companies to the left, so they can look to the center and make sure their company is on line.

The  color rank, out in front of the battalion by six paces, should have a major to one side or the other to direct them if things get wacky. That bring home this guiding principle:  The colors have become a battalion tool.

And none of this needs to be loud. Case tells us, “If openings be formed, if the files crowd each other, if, in short, disorder ensues, the remedy ought to be applied as promptly as possible, but calmly, with few words and as little noise as practicable.” Section 681

The other discussions we’ve had about the absolute necessity of communication? Here it is coming up again: The colonel must tell both the color bearer and the sergeant major, and the major if there’s going to be one out there near the color guard, what the target is. And the colonel must be comfortable with the sergeant major asserting himself with overseeing implementation while the colonel focuses on what the battalion is going to have to do next and what the battalions on each side are doing.  Otherwise this is for naught.

So, there it is: Don’t wag the dog. Wag the dog and the sergeant major will bite you.

Next week: Yikes! What happens when the battalion halts? First hint: Patience becomes a virtue.

Meanwhile: Am I ever going to write about civilians and food and camping and stuff?  Yes. Patience is again a virtue. The blog is published every Tuesday at 9:22 a.m.; when we get into the active season, it may come out more frequently to include stuff relevant to the upcoming or just past event.

Color Guard: Not a band front!

Colors, Part 1

Our underlying theme is always how to make the reenacting experience better by making it more realistic. This week we tackle the colors, the regiment’s flags, specifically how they are used to maneuver. We’ll touch on the some of the ways this is done improperly, also.

First, as per the title, we are dealing with a Civil War regiment, not a high school band, a modern military color guard, or an American Legion honor guard. That means you can take all the flag etiquette that has developed since World War I and set it aside for the duration of the time you are wearing Civil War uniforms. It doesn’t matter and in fact conflicts with period-correct practice, especially when you’re trying to juggle two flags.

Which is the first observation: Why would you go out there with two flags?  You know what happens in battle when you have two flags in your color guard?  They get separated. And half the regiment goes with the national flag and the other half goes with the regimental flag.  So just don’t do that. Yes, some regiments 1861-1865 put two flags out there. Practically speaking, not historically, you’d better have a very well drilled battalion if you use two.

The second observation: The color guard is not a separate group. It’s an organic part of the color company until such time as a regimental battle front is formed. It doesn’t pivot around the flag, either, it just does whatever the company is told to do.

That means – really, it actually does mean, for those taught differently long ago by one of the many mythical hobby figures who had good intentions but didn’t read the manuals – that the color guard forms with the color company and each member “counts off” just like the rest of the company, with twos then stepping up for a right face and ones stepping up for a left face, whether they are carrying a flag or not.  Yes, this means that when marching by the flank (what some call “a column of fours,”) the United States flag will sometimes be held by a Number Two, who will step up and to the right and be second in a file of four men, at the end of a company and in the middle of a battalion.  That is perfectly correct and if your desire is to show the public what a Civil War battalion looked like on the march, this is it.  It is also the position necessary for the flag to be used as a tool, which was, third observation, what it was, a tool for maneuver and alignment.

Let Silas Casey help some of you wrap your minds around that: Casey’s Infantry Tactics:

“Formation in Order of Battle,

43. In each battalion the color guard will be composed of eight corporals and posted on the left of the right-centre company, of which company, for the time being, the guard will make a part.

44. The front rank will be composed of a sergeant…the color bearer, with the two ranking corporals, respectively, on his right and left; the rear rank will be composed of the three corporals next in rank; and the three remaining corporals will be posted in their rear, on the line of file closers.  The left guide of the color company, when these three last named coporals are in the rank of file closers, will be immediately on their left.”

That’s the ideal, nine in a color guard.  Practically speaking, we have problems with that and often have to make do with six.

A five-company battalion formed as a column of companies. The colors are with the second company, front rank, near the end of the company. Hard to see because the color bearer moved the flag when the exposure was taking place!

Note that the color guard is part of the company until a battalion formation is adopted.  At that point it becomes subject to the direct control of the battalion commander.

Here’s what it looks like in a diagram:




That’s a 36-man unit in company front, as a company would appear coming up to the battalion line, with everyone counted off in ones and twos. As you can see, the CS, the color sergeant with the flag, the blue square, is a Number Two. The green squares are the color guard corporals, also designated ones and twos.   If the company must move to the right,  the command “Right FACE” is given, and the twos step up and to the right. The company now looks like this, ready to move to its right (your left, looking at this):





End of lesson for today. Next week we’ll talk (I’ll talk) about what the color guard does in a battalion battle line, and the accommodations I think are acceptable to acknowledge and compensate for our unavoidable weaknesses as reenactors. I know, heresy, burn me at the stake, but sometimes you just have to deal with our reality, like having one flag out there rather than two.

Meanwhile, a good link if you want to pursue this independently, always a fine thing to do:

47th Pennsylvania

Colors and color guards got shot up a lot, because bringing down the colors cost a battalion its primary battlefield guide.


New Year Resolutions for company commanders

Want to be a better living history officer in 2017? Here’s some tips, in no particular order. (And every one will be the topic of a blog post in 2017, with additional documentation and insight. This is pretty much just a checklist.)

  1. I will no longer echo battalion commander commands unless I see my company did not hear/did not respond.
  2. I will no longer do the first sergeant’s job.
  3. I will no longer micromanage my company. I will tell the first sergeant what the expectations are and insist he report back when tasks are finished to his satisfaction.
  4. In battalion formation, I will spend more time focused on the battalion commander and his intentions than on whether my company line is straight. I will let my lieutenants and noncoms worry about that.
  5. I will concentrate on learning the manual and organizing and drilling my company around the manual, so that my company will be capable of successfully falling in with any similarly organized and drilled company for purposes of forming an ad hoc battalion at events.
  6. I will seek out events that provide my company with more of the experiences of the soldiers of the Civil War.
  7. I will insist that our camp not have any visible anachronisms. It should look like a Library of Congress photograph from the Civil War, not like a flea market on crack. Thank you, Chris Anders, for that one.
  8. I will instruct the noncoms to put five feet between tents whenever possible.
  9. I will try to have the unit avoid “tent porches” in the military camp. I will invest the energy in having the company build a large bower instead, because I can see such structures in Civil War photographs and anyway it will keep them too busy to waste their money on funnel cakes and made-in-China frock coats on sutler row.
  10. I will seek to identify relevant reenacting tasks for noncoms.

And for those really wanting to go the extra step:

  1. I will make myself known to Scout troops, youth groups, church groups, Kiwanis, Rotary, and the Odd Fellows (fit right in), to offer living history sessions that will also serve as recruiting moments.
  2. I will make myself and my unit known and available to anyone putting on a community fair, parade or other event in my area, for the same reasons.

All that and a bag of grapes will make 2017 a lot better for a lot of folks. 🙂


Eat, drink, be merry, get sick, die?


One of the reasons I do living history is to find out how much alike and how much different people were in the 1860s, compared to now.  Since it’s the holiday season, this post is about food and health.  Some of the stuff those folks thought they “knew” was pretty darn dangerous.

Cooking by the U.S. military railroad in City Point, VA., 1864-65. It took me a long time to figure out the cook was using Sibley tent pole holders as tripods to support his camp kettles. More on cooking techniques themselves this spring, as we get closer to campaigning season.

Take this, from August V. Kautz in “Customs of Service,” the comprehensive book of what every volunteer needed to know about the army he just joined:

“Drink as little as possible of even cold water. Experience teaches old soldiers that the less they drink on a march the better….”

Yes, and this is not the only place in old literature where you’ll find this advice, which is great if you want to pitch over dead on the fast march to Gettysburg.

Sometimes they got things right, but for the wrong reasons.  Soup, for instance, and diarrhea.  Kautz, quoting Winfield Scott:

“Bread and soup are the great items of a soldier’s diet in every situation; to make them well is an essential part of his instruction.  Those great scourges of camp, scurvy and diarrhea, more frequently result from want of skill in cooking than from any other cause whatever.”

There’s everything in this photo, a cool table, mess kettles with lids, tin cups and a coffee pot. I even think there’s a sugar bowl.

Bacteria and microbes were yet to be understood. The oxymoron here is that boiling soup is likely to kill the disease microbes picked up from horse droppings (from horse to ground to shoe to fingers to food, more on this in a future post about reenacting today) and inadequate personal hygiene, so Winfield got it right even if he manifestly didn’t know what he was talking about.  Kind of like draining swamps to eliminate the “miasma” everyone thought spread yellow fever simultaneously eliminated the mosquitoes that were the actual disease vectors. To be fair, Kautz in another section recommends boiling water per se as a defense against cholera, so there was some idea that something unseen was going on.

One thing they did know a great deal about was alcoholic beverages, apparently through extensive personal experience.

“If you will drink spirits, it is incomparably safer to do so after an effort than before, for it gives only transient strength, lasting but a few minutes. As it can never be known how long a given effort is to last, and, if longer than a few minutes the body becomes more feeble than it would have been without the stimulus, it is clear that the use before an effort is hazardous and is  unwise.”

Obviously there are examples of generals who were cashiered for having tried to fight battles with a brick in their hat, despite the soundness of this advice.

There’s some odd stuff in Kautz’s recommendations on healthy living for Union soldiers:

“Fire low – a bullet through the abdomen … is certainly more fatal than if aimed at the head or heart.”

Nice guy. And he did get some stuff right smart – daily washing to keep disease at bay, including jumping in any lake or stream for that purpose “for personal cleanliness works like a charm against all diseases.”  And advice still good today: Rub bar soap on the inside of your socks wherever they begin to chafe against the skin, rub bar soap on your feet before the march even begins, wash your feet each night, wash your unmentionables at least once a week.  And the veteran’s advice, still repeated in the military today: Never stand when you can lie down. But never lie on the cold ground without something under you, especially if you are overheated from a march.

When you get down to life’s basics, as the prisoners AND the guards did at Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Ga., your kit begins to look like this. Note the utensils punched with holes: These were critical to eating the corn ration, which came in whole dried kernels. The backside was a grate, then it was used as a sieve to try to get the corn down to a size where the limited amount of water available could soften it. Late in the war the Confederacy was struck by shortages of odd things we usually don’t think about, including bolting cloth for grinding mills, to separate out the hard shell from the rest of the kernel.. Without that, which was imported from England and the North, the corn ration became a source of torn innards, and then a source of infection, for dysentery-stricken prisoners. Grating and sieving was the only choice available and it was done by the prisoners themselves.

Footnote for all those who think Beau Brummel hair styles were all the rage: “Keep the hair of the head closely cut, say within an inch and a half of the scalp….”

Footnote for all those who want us to pitch our tents stake-to-stake on the company line: “The tents for the men should be placed as far from each other as the Regulations and the dimensions of the camp permit (never less than two paces). Crowding is always injurious to health.”  Two paces is five feet, guys, two 30-inch standard steps.  Refer back to the post on camps for some photos showing this admonition in practice.

Remember, August V. Kautz is telling us what to do if we want to be using the “standard best practices of the military”, so to speak, for the 1860s.  He’s a career soldier out to make a buck from his book while at the same time providing a useful tool for volunteers that will improve their readiness and adaptation to military life. It’s good stuff, and it’s available online. That copy is on the Web site of Company E, 64th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, yet another unit striving to hit the authenticity nail on the head through research.

Now, go, eat, drink, be merry, the new year is upon us. And drink lots of water, it’s good for you. And wash your damn hands.

Featured image (at the top): drawing by Alfred Waud, titled “Heres a health to the next one that dies“.  If you figured that out, give yourself a glass of mead. If you know Waud’s middle name without looking it up, give yourself another.

First sergeants: Initiative is a good thing

Merry Christmas!

All of us in the living history community have seen what often happens when a first sergeant gets promoted to company commander – he keeps on being sergeant and doing sergeant stuff, making his replacement miserable and generally not minding his actual business (which we will cover in a future post). So the premise of this piece is that there’s already a problem within the unit that needs to be solved, inadvertently dueling leadership posts. Even if that problem doesn’t exist in your unit, this is still good information for first sergeants.

A great many reenacting first sergeants  seem to think they are limited to doing only those things the company commander orders done. Nah. Not only doesn’t that make sense, it’s not born out by period sources.

So what’s a first sergeant?  It’s a ranking where duties are split between deciding what things need to be done, organizing to get them done, and supervising to make sure they’re done right. That will become clearer as we move through the post.

There’s all kinds of drill and maneuver stuff to be mastered, and we’ll hit some of it in future posts.  This time we’re going to focus on my favorite, The Big Picture. For that we draw on Old Reliable, August V. Kautz, and “Customs of Service.”

421. He has the immediate supervision of the company. He gets his orders from the … officer commanding the company and sees that they are performed in the company.  He is, in fact, the foreman; he lays out and superintends the details of the work which the captain has directed to be executed.  …

437. He makes all the (duty) details from the company, and sees that a record is kept on the roster.

Kautz tells us sergeants, like corporals, are supervisors. They are usually given more complex or responsible duties, including fatigue details.

A sergeant, for instance, may be directed to “get the company kitchen running” or he may figure out on his own that a company kitchen is obviously required, and not wait for an order.   That might require several different work groups: One to dig the fire pit, a second to find and assemble something from which the kettles can be suspended, a third to gather and process wood, a fourth to bring water, and a fifth to prepare the food itself, or even to go get the food from the commissary. Again, we have moved slightly up the chain and there’s a shift in attitude and activity. While sergeants are still quite involved in “making sure people are doing things right,” you’ll note that there’s now a new element:  “I must identify the right things to do.”

A reenacting sergeant will take the instructions given him and run with them, assuming as much authority as is needed to meet the responsibilities put on his shoulders. He will use corporals to oversee the most critical work functions, and he will check to see that all the work details on a bigger project are actually working in support of each other, rather than at cross purposes. He may need to shift resources, change plans or otherwise intervene.  He will need to identify crucial elements, and focus on those. It might not matter whether the firewood is one foot long or two feet long; it matters very much that the poles used to suspend mess kettles over the fire pit are stout enough to do the job and are fastened securely.

A key thing reenacting sergeants need to remember:  Make a report.  That is, when the company kitchen is up, the fire is going and it is ready for use, tell the person who set you that task that it is completed. (If you believe a company kitchen or anything else will be needed, you can of course run that past your officer before making assignments, just to confirm you are in the right place on site and this is where the unit will be for the time being.)  Reporting is another of the under-exploited activities in reenacting. A functioning company and regiment will have a lot of communicating taking place, not just in one direction, but back and forth.  Reporting status, condition, situations — that all goes to help create an informed decision-making core up at the levels where the job is almost exclusively “What are the right things to do?” rather than “Are people doing things right?”  Informed decisions are possible only when there’s a steady flow of information up through the ranks.

Sergeants, like corporals, must bear responsibility for the preparedness of the men. Dirty weapons, unsecured kit, uncooked food, bad drill habits — all of that is something the sergeant must observe and correct.

Awaiting the Confederate attack at The Coaling, Shenandoah Valley, Va.

The first sergeant has an additional perspective. He is responsible for making sure the company, as a company, is prepared for duty. That means he must have the company ready in every conceivable way. It must be ready to execute the commands of maneuver; it must be capable of processing its rations; it must be efficient in the mundane duties of setting up a bivouac; its individual members must be prepared for any duty assigned them, including guard. He must assure that, when it is time to turn the company over to the company commander for his use in movement, drill or battle, the company commander has a cohesive, accomplished entity with which to work. He must be able to account for the physical whereabouts of every man in the company at all times. And ideally he should have a company that can go from being at rest to being in line, in full marching order, in five minutes. That won’t happen if the bivouac looks like a frat house.

Photograph from the main eastern theater of war, Meade in Virginia, August-November 1863.
Bealeton, Va. Noncommissioned officers’ mess of Co. D, 93d New York Infantry].

The first sergeant is the man who must make sure the other noncommissioned officers are looking to the real-world health of each other and of the rank and file. That doesn’t mean they repeatedly go among the men and loudly ask “Everybody OK?”  They’ll all say yes, and all you did was intrude. That’s not the best way to find out what’s what. What has to happen: the noncommissioned officers must observe the men quietly, looking for signs of distress large and small. A pasty color, a man who is too quiet, someone who appears to not know where he is, a marked change in the behavior of an individual — these are the signs that the sergeant or corporal needs to take that person aside and find out what’s up. Nobody wants to be a drag on everyone else; not uncommonly, guys will push themselves farther than they should and try to hide their distress.  The best way to deal with this is to quietly be alert. Be aware how people normally act; pay attention when there’s a departure from their norm. (Personal aside: I follow my own advice. At a small event this summer I felt ‘wrong’ after going about a hundred yards in light marching order. Since I’d had other minor symptoms of “wrongness” in the weeks preceding the event, when the company was asked if everyone was all right, I said “No, actually,” and sat down and sat it out. Within five days I had a stent placed in the widow-maker artery to deal with what turned out to be a 90 percent blockage.  Everything is better than fine now, btw, but as much of the hobby ‘matures,’ it’s smart to pay attention to this crap.)

The first sergeant maintains the company’s duty roster, making sure each man performs a fair share of the work and guard details. The roster makes it easy to see who’s next.

There are times when some men will be on detached duty. If some of a company’s men are on guard duty when there is a ration issue, their shares must be collected by the company and either kept for them or, if possible distributed to them. There is no moment that says “the moment” like the one when a detail from your company finds you at the guard support and serves up hot, dripping, salty, fresh-cooked beef on soft bread, with a mug of coffee. Men on detached duty are, in any event, still the responsibility of their own noncommissioned officers for all obligations like food.

On the line

When the company is maneuvering, the various sergeants have different functions and positions. We’ll get to it.  It is enough to say that this stuff is important, and that a truly informed soldier can often tell what evolution a company is carrying out just by the position of the noncommissioned officers.  It is also important to note that sergeants are heavily involved in “making sure people are doing things right” when a company is maneuvering. So are corporals. The advice to corporals that correction of things like alignment and position need to be swift, specific and quiet also holds for sergeants. The audibility should be the minimum necessary to fix the problem. If it interferes with the subsequent giving of additional commands by officers, it’s too loud. Again, as with corporals, judge the need for intervention. If the formation isn’t going to collapse, it may be best to let it go and just make a note to work on it some more during drill. For first sergeants, especially, it is important to stay calm. Your calmness is the signal for everyone else to be calm as well. If you get excited, things are going to become confused, rather quickly. Don’t be that guy!

The effective reenacting first sergeant will, on the line, split his focus. He must make sure his men are executing things the right way; it helps if he can anticipate what’s coming next, and the way he does that is by giving an eye and an ear to what’s taking place between the company commander and the battalion commander. If you know what’s coming, you can think through the known trouble spots in executing that set of commands and be ready to quietly stop them before they happen.

Pre-dawn march up the mountain at McDowell, 2005

When a company is firing, the sergeants again have a new thing to supervise. No sergeant is on the line. All are behind the company, for good reason:  They are the men charged with making sure the rank and file are putting down fire as effectively as possible. It was a big job then.  We change it slightly now. The reenacting sergeant in an engaged company is first and foremost supervising the SAFE firing of the weapons. That the safe way is also the precise way embraced in the manuals is our good fortune. It means that to be safe we need only be historically accurate in our loading drill.

This is an important function, worth more discussion.

First, the number of reenactors with no real-world experience with firearms is considerable. Some of them regard the weapon as a movie prop, not aware that it is capable of causing injury even without a projectile.

Second, the number of reenactors who have been improperly instructed on firing, especially firing from the rear rank, is also considerable. It is a vein of error that runs deeply through our hobby, and one that has potential for harm. The two great consequences are discharge too close to the front rank’s head, caused by the wrong foot position, and injury caused when a round “cooks off” in a musket that is not precisely held in the correct loading positions, burning someone’s ear, neck or chin. Both are corrected simply by embracing the positions described, in great detail, in the manuals. The excitement of engagement, however, is the time when even men who know better suddenly revert to the way they were (improperly) taught when they first joined up, and so it is the time when sergeants come into their own.

McDowell, 2005, noncoms in place for an uphill dawn assault.

It is important during firing to actively supervise, to direct rear rank foot position and loading positions to the correct stance. (Follow the link for a good, solid discussion of how to do it correctly, from the 124th NY.)  It is also important that if someone is just too excited, the sergeant must pull them out and sit them down. By no means let that man remain behind as a “wounded” man; he’ll be up and doing it wrong again as soon as the company falls back, only now there is no one to supervise. That man needs supervision through the end of the engagement, and then he needs to have a serious chat with a group of noncommissioned officers at the first opportunity.

The sergeant may also be called upon to deal with a balky weapon. I consider it good form for the sergeant to simply hand over his own weapon to the soldier to use while the problem piece is being examined. And if it takes more than a few seconds to clear the problem, forget it; supervising the firing line is far more important. Let it go until later.

McDowell, 2007

The first sergeant should expect to run a roll call soon after the end of every engagement and at halts during a march. The officer will often call for this, but no intelligent officer will object if the first sergeant suggests it. Some will not object if the first sergeant simply does it. Obviously it is important to know if everyone is accounted for, that is, real-world accounted for, not having a heart attack in a quiet corner of the field.  Those “dead on the field” due to the scenario must, at some events, be noted.  While they will, at the event level, be whisked away to come back as a new unit, for the company’s purposes paperwork can immediately be generated and any belongings need to be accounted for, etc. If a sergeant is lost to enemy fire, brevet promotions may be needed to keep the company functioning.

First sergeant: It’s a Real Big Deal, not a gaudy sinecure. These are the things the first sergeant does; we’ll go into the duties and opportunities of a company commander in a future post.



Camps: What they really looked like

Like drill, our camps often fail to depict the reality of the Civil War. Often they even fail to project the illusion of the Civil War. But we are doing some things right, and we can get a better visual for ourselves and visitors without much expense.

The detail in the high resolution scan on this in the Library of Congress shows the writing on the tents to be “100th NYV.” They were on Morris Island, SC, where this photo was taken, between July 1863 and April 1864. There’s a wealth of detail here; you can see cords strung from tent to tent on two streets, with clothing hanging from it, plus shirts and blankets drying out on top of tents. A couple of tents feature “hitching pole” arrangements between them, for the sam purpose – note there’s at lest a foot between the tents. And not a “porch” in sight, plus aside from that which is hanging out to dry,and a couple of muskets, gear is squared away inside tents.
These are early war Confederates (Ninth Mississippi) in Florida. Note all the large tents in the background, almost all with large flies over them and NO PORCHES! The men are drilling without jackets. Think it’s hot?
A winterized Union camp
Second Vermont at Camp Griffin, a mustering point, in 1861
Early war Confederates, more large tents with large flies
Painting, early war Confederates. Note the mixture: Large wall tents, huge flies serving as tents, Sibley tents, and some brush shelters for shade. Finally, something akin to a “porch.”

That’s the  100th Regiment New York Volunteers in the top photo above and the Ninth Mississippi next.

Lots of photos today, lots of simple ideas. I’ve linked the photos back to the media file online, so they’ll open in a new tab with, I hope, more detail. All these are Library of Congress, where, if you dial up the Civil War photos and search for “camp,” you’ll find hundreds of photos, many in huge scanned files that produce incredible detail. Here’s a link, if you’ve got the time right now.

Here’s a major difference between a reenactor camp and an original camp:  In perusing more than 50 photos of original camps, I found two of a small tent fly held aloft by poles on the edge. One was some kind of odd arrangement in the middle of the color line of stacked muskets. In the other, the Pamunkey picture here, the “porches” were on Sibley tents.  In no instances were there flies erected as “porches” to wedge tents.

The Pamunkey camp photo also shows one large tent with a fly extension.

Federal encampment at Cumberland Landing on the Pamunkey

The stand-alone flies were usually quite large, with quite tall poles in the center and usually none on the sides. There are a number of photos of Confederate camps with big tents, big standalone flies, and no wedge tents at all.

The simple truth?  What we use as tentage is in large part a product of carrying our gear to events in cars and trucks not really big enough to carry long poles or bulky bundles of thick canvas. And our “porches” are a way to accommodate non-military gear and dining arrangments that the original actors were simply not troubled with. As shown in the photo of the 100th NYV above, they had their gear stowed away. My usual admonition in the field is, “This is not a college dorm nor a youth hostel.”


Often, in original photos, you can see a lot of tent flies – and they are over tents, not in front of them.  The reasons are simple: It keeps tents dryer and cooler. We tested it one summer; the difference in temperature of a tent standing naked to the sun and a tent with a fly over the top, trapping an insulating blanket of air, is ten to 15 degrees. And the fly sheds water so you never have to worry about objects inside the tent touching wet canvas and drawing water inside as a result.  Properly fitted, a fly over a tent directs the water farther way from the base of the tent, as well.

We do have “the mix” right.  Apparently the armies had a variety of wedge and wall tent sizes, and they all ended up distributed willy-nilly.  There are photos showing a total mix from shelter halves to wedges, walls, and even a Sibley, all in one 1862 camp.

Can we do better? Sure.  Reenacting clubs large enough to have some shared equipment can buy, at least, some really big flies. For “home” events doing living history and such, the long poles and long ropes needed for putting these up in the fashion shown in the photographs can be wrestled to the sight.  For events farther away, some thought to moving the stuff will be necessary, and maybe the poles won’t be needed if the unit can camp in a wooded area where a couple of tree trunks can be used to stretch a stout line and get a fly aloft.

The details in the photos – brush shelters, cords between tents to dry out blankets, “hitching posts,” etc. – are all doable. Just don’t put your polyester sleeping bag on display.  Don’t be that guy. Be these guys!


Present Arms: Why do so many do this wrong?

If you know how to do Present Arms correctly in Civil War fashion, seeing it done by the typical reenacting unit is painful.   This is probably one of the most frustrating arms positions for the authentic living historian, because even very good units were taught some kind of reenacting shortcut about “keep the middle band at eye level and that’s how to achieve uniformity.”  Wrong. Wrong. So wrong.  And yet it’s been passed down, in some units, from fathers to sons as if it were inscribed in stone after being uttered atop Missionary Ridge.

This, despite an abundance of photos, drill diagrams, and plain English instruction that doesn’t seem to vary from manual to manual.

Let’s look at the manuals, and let’s use Casey.

We start at Shoulder Arms.

Present – ARMS.

One time and two motions

present-arms-caseu150. (First motion.) With the right hand, bring the piece erect before the center of the body, the rammer to the front; at the same time seize the piece with the left hand halfway between the guide sight and lower band, the thumb extended along the barrel and against the stock, the forearm horizontal and resting against the body, the hand as high as the elbow.

151. (Second motion.) Grasp the small of the stock with the right hand, below and against the guard.

Anybody see anything at all in there about keeping the middle band at eye level?  No, because it’s not there. It is a reenactorism, and it produces a company front that looks like nobody ever drilled, because every gun and every hand and every damned thing is in a different position.

The key elements: 1. The left hand is halfway between the sight and the lower band, with the thumb touching both the barrel and the stock; 2. the forearm is horizontal and touching the body.  Horizontal – parallel to the ground. In case you don’t get that, Casey is even more helpful: 3. “The hand as high as the elbow.”  The left hand and the left elbow are both at the same height.

correct-present-armsWhen done correctly, a company front looks like these early war South Carolinians.

Here’s a closeup, below. It’s quality isn’t great and my ancient version of Photoshop won’t let me clean it up too much, but you can see some important details, like left thumbs sticking up and lying against the metal and the wood, right below closeup-correct-present-armsthe first band; left forearms parallel with the ground; right hands all below the guard, with, by necessity, an angle of 45 degrees in the right forearm.  Note that those old guys duplicated the sketch in the drill manual perfectly (it’s the same position in both armies, and all manuals, so far as I can tell.  And if there is another version out there, for cripes’ sake leave it lie!

wrong-present-armsI don’t know who these guys on the left are, and it doesn’t matter, because you can see this at every event. The first sergeant is actually pretty close to “correct,” except the weapon is too far from his body, but his squad has somehow decided the left hand should be almost at shoulder height. And they are all pushing the weapon forward, as if someone is supposed to come along and take it from them. Note also that the sergeant is among the one in ten or so men for whom the “second band at eye level” accidentally happens to be about where it should be when Present Arms is done correctly. Lawyers (they have their uses) tell us exceptions make bad law. So it is with drill.

wrong-present-arms-3Here’s one that perfectly illustrates the slipshod appearance resulting from “middle band at eye level.”  I’ve blurred out the faces, because it’s not their fault – it’s the fault of whoever trained them. Looking at the book might be cheating when taking your state insurance adjuster test, but looking at the book when your men expect you to tell them how to do things the way they were done in 186x is not. It is a virtue.

Looking over both photos again, I’m struck by how reenactors have almost managed to reverse what the drill manual shows: Instead of left hand parallel to the ground and right hand pointing down at 45 degrees, we have left hand pointing up at 45 degrees and right hand almost parallel to the ground.  This strange phenomenon is apparent elsewhere in reenacting, almost like one dyslexic reenactor read the manual shortly after the first large event at Gettysburg in the 1960s and immediately trained a “seed corn” group of men in exactly the reverse of what is spelled out, and it is now part of the training genome.  We’ll revisit this in a future post when we look at how reenactors, over the years, have injected elements of “support arms” into “right shoulder shift” and vice versa.

For now, though, spend your time figuring out how you are politely going to explain to your noncoms and officers that their version of “Present arms” is wrong.  And if you’re a noncom or an officer, go forth and sin no more.



Corporal punishment

corporal-1The first requirement to be a corporal is to be a good teacher.  Often that’s the last consideration when reenactors become corporals – and it shows.

This isn’t an opinion.  It’s what the manuals and regulations all expect. And if more people read the manuals and regulations, we’d all know that, and not make Good Old Jim a corporal just because he voted for Good Old Ezekiah to be captain, or because he always shows up.

Here it is: We’ll use Casey’s, but it’s pretty much universal.

“Every commanding officer is responsible for the instruction of his command … Captains will be held responsible for the theoretical and practical instruction of their noncommissioned officers … The noncommissioned officers should also be practiced in giving commands. “

Instruction of Corporals

66. Their theoretical instruction should include the School of the Soldier, with a knowledge of firing.

68. As the instruction of sergeants and corporals is intended principally to qualify them for the instruction of privates, they should be taught not only to execute, but to explain intelligibly every thing they may be required to teach.

If you’re one of those corporals who got promoted for other than the best corporal-3possible reason, do not despair: All you need to do is know how to read.

To that end, there’s Casey’s infantry tactics, available on line.  But there’s much more, like August V. Kautz’s “Customs of Service.”  While Casey’s and other drill and tactics manuals were carefully written by very clever, intelligent men in order to quickly create functional military officers and units out of raw farmboys, mill workers and bank clerks, manuals like “Customs of Service” were not official. They were works by entrepreneurs, encouraged by the Army, intended to familiarize civilians with what was expected of them in the military, so they could fit in. If you were appointed corporal, you might buy “Customs of Service” on your own initiative, to make sure you did the right thing, didn’t make a fool of yourself and, above all else, didn’t let your comrades down by not knowing your role, duties, and the army’s expectations. Quite a concept.

Here’s Kautz on corporals:

323. Corporal should be living examples for the soldiers in the neatness and cleanliness of their clothing, arms and accoutrements. They should be the first to fall into ranks at roll calls and should have their tents or bunks, wherever their quarters, always systematically in order.

corporal-6324. They should be familiar with the “School of the Soldier” and capable of instructing the recruits in the elementary principles of tactics (what we reenactors usually call “drill”).

Corporals are also expected to take charge of fatigue details for wood, water, and other work. They draw rations for their mess and are in charge of having their messmates keep their quarters “systematically in order.” They getting the largest responsibility when they function as corporal of the guard, which amounts to overseeing an entire shift of security – pickets, guard mount, knowing what to do, so much stuff that it’s going to be the subject of two future columns.

But you get the idea.

Being corporal gives you almost no privileges, but does convey responsibility, even in a reenacting group. Nothing is more disappointing to an officer or sergeant than a corporal unable to, on his own initiative, see what needs to be done and do it. Nothing warms the heart of officers and sergeants more than a corporal who, seeing new people in the group, takes them aside whenever there is a spare moment and instructs them in the manual of arms or other items. Or who sees the woodpile is down and rounds up three or four men and takes them to the woodpile.

Corporals have one important additional duty in formation: Make sure the soldiers near you in the rank and file understand what they are to do and actually do it.  Rather than have an officer shout from somewhere in the rear ‘dress that line!’, which nobody can execute because, really, wtf does corporal-8it mean? the corporals should notice when men are ahead, behind, or pulling apart, or bunching together, and quietly, with only enough noise to be heard by those in need of help, tell them specifically what to do in terms that are immediately applicable: “Joe and Ralph, move up.”  “BillyBob and Phineas, slow down.”  “Harry, dress is to the right, not left, move right, move right, move right, and close that hole.”

Why quietly?  Because others are listening for commands from various levels. Many times a company commander has missed an important command from the bugle or the colonel because his men were hollering out corrective commands to each other, plus the usual suggestions and debate about the right thing to do.

So you’re not an ornament in formation, you’re an organic part of making things turn out right.

So there’s some food for thought. Here’s some more, for when we talk about sergeants:  Whose company is it, really?


FUBAR command #1: “By company, into line”

A command  that often turns an orderly, marching column of reenactors into headless chickens or Keystone Cops is “by company, into line.”   There is usually much confusion, people unsure where to go, finger-pointing, red-faced noncoms, recriminations, and a general sense that the company has let down the side.

But all you have to do is read the manual, look at the diagrams, and then do what it says to do. It’s really a simple process to get from the flank march, with files of four, to a perpendicular battle front of two lines moving in the same direction.

Instruction this week is Casey’s Infantry Tactics, School of the Company, Lesson IV.

Let’s cut to the secret: There’s an unspoken command in there, apparent in the diagram above: “Undouble files.”  Look at the company formation on the right in the diagram.  The company commander has told his marching column of files of four to go “by company, into line,” and at the  command of execution, “MARCH!”, the men have undoubled their files, and only then started moving to form the company front. To undouble files, the men who moved up when the command was given “right face” or “left face” to form files of four for the flank march simply move back.

So file partners are already where they belong. At that point it’s just a matter of briskly facing in the appropriate direction and executing a “turn into line,” which is like a segmented wheel – you don’t have to maintain contact on each side, just take care to stay in your lane when you trot up to the company front.

Here’s the text:

“The company being in march by the right flank, the instructor will order the captain to form it into line. The captain will immediately command: 1. By company, into line; 2. MARCH.  At the command MARCH, the covering sergeant will continue to march straight forward; the men will advance the right shoulder, take the double quick step, and move into line by the shortest route, taking care to undouble the files and to come on the line one after the other.”

Trotting up to the line is not done in cadence; it’s double quick and the cadence is quickly broken. But when each front-rank man comes up on the line, he is supposed to look to his right, at the first sergeant, and match his step. The rear rank men are not supposed to stay right on the heels of their file partner, but simply get where they belong quickly and without disordering the line.

It’s a lot simpler than dissolving into a herd of bawling steers content to try to sort out their proper spots after the mob overtakes the sergeant.

So, you walk through it once or twice, and if you are the company commander you will probably, until this is done at several events in a row, have to issue the command as “By company into line (undouble files now!) MARCH. But when you get good at it, you can use it to come up to the battalion color line at dress parade by a flank march and then simply throw your company into line with some snap and flash and in absolute silence after the command is given, none of that noisy argument about who’s in the wrong place.  There are reports of battalion commanders (the originals, now, not us!) commending captains who used such flair with comments like “Elegantly done, sir!”   You may hear “That’s the style, Lo!”  But that’s OK.  Few things boost morale like a company that can do its drill and maneuvers with confidence; “by company into line” is a great way to show what the boys can do when they have careful, thorough instruction from good leaders.


The Demystification of Wheels

I promised to do “Company into Line” this week, without realizing Remembrance Day is coming up and the spectacle of screwed-up wheel after screwed-up wheel down the streets of reenacting’s holy city is looming. So “Company into Line” is next week and here’s some maneuvering demystification that can be put into immediate use.

We’ve spent a lot of time doing wheels improperly. There’s a lot of reasons. A lot of it is handed down at training in spring, passed along from generation to generation. A long time ago someone read a drill manual and got lost in the weeds; never read the sections of the manual that head each evolution called “Principles of the ————“. Those are pretty important, because they give context for all that follows.  Also, some fellows in the early years just read paragraphs of the manual, not chapters.  Admittedly evolutions of the division probably don’t have much practical application for any of us, but at least read each chapter in its entirety.

So, back to basics:  Casey’s School of the Soldier, Lesson IV, “Wheelings,” Part III. The introduction says men need to be taught the principles of the touch of the elbows in marching to the front, the principles of the march by the flank, wheeling from a halt, wheeling in marching, and the change of direction to the side of the guide.”

There’s an epiphany for some of us in that paragraph: Wheeling from a halt and wheeling in marching are different.  Who knew?  Not everyone, for sure. And “the change of direction to the side of the guide.”  Oh, the guide, you know, when you come to a fork in the road and you want your men to go left, you yell “Guide left!”  NOT!  That’s a total misunderstanding of what “the guide” is, a substitution of another meaning by well-intentioned reenactors sometime in the past 50 years.  The guide is a within-the-unit tool designating which side of the company sets the alignment. It has nothing to do with forks in the road. So stop using it that way! When you shout “Guide left!”, you SHOULD be telling your men that whatever else is going on, you want them to take the touch of the elbow to their left side, to align to the left.

(Aside: Nobody should have to give a bellowed command, that company commanders echo, at a turn or fork in the road. Whoever is in charge just tells the first sergeant of the lead company what to do, the first sergeant makes the turn, and, since he’s the person the battalion’s rank and file are guiding on, the whole battalion turns the corner. No fuss.)


Now, on to Lesson IV, “Wheelings.”  The very first section is “Principles of Wheeling.”

393. In wheels from a halt, the pivot man only turns in his place, without advancing or receding.

Generally, we get this. But:

394. In the wheels in marching, the pivot man takes steps of nine or 11 inches … so as to clear the wheeling point … for the next company in line.

Oh.  Next epiphany: the pivot man in a marching wheel does not whirl in place and jackrabbit off on the new direction of march, with everybody else in line running to keep up. I know, not all units do this, but I get around, and I see it a lot.  Long ago someone got “turn into line” mixed up with the verbiage of “wheeling”, and this is what happened, a hybridized understanding that incorporates the worst of both maneuvers.

395. The man on the wheeling flank will take the full step of 28 inches, or 33 inches, according to the gait.

Now we come to the real smack-your-head moment for a lot of folks who have simply been taught the wrong thing since forever: You “lean in” to the pivot point ONLY when wheeling from a halt.  When the company is marching and a wheel is ordered, you take the touch of the elbow to the outside of the wheel, not the pivot.


Wheeling from a halt: Lean in, look out.

Wheeling on the move: Lean out, look out.


Wheeling from a halt: look out to the moving end, touch in to the fixed pivot. You look out to keep from moving ahead of the line. You touch in to keep from moving away from the fixed pivot.

That’s section 397 and 398, and the reasoning is in “Remarks on the Principles of the Wheel from a Halt”, sections 405-407.  You can look it up on Silas Tackitt’s drill page, link in the right-hand column of this page.

Now, wheeling from a moving column, section 409: The pivot man is taking small steps, the man on the outside of the wheel is taking 28 or 33 inch steps (normal steps), and the guide is to the outside of the wheel – you take the touch of the elbow to the outside of the wheel. The touch of the elbow will be toward the marching flank (or side of the guide) instead of the actual pivot; … the pivot man will conform himself to the movement of the marching flank.”

If  you are the company commander, you are allowed to quietly remind your men of this, but given the state of reenacting right now, you are probably better served by telling them “keep the touch of the elbow to the right (or left)” rather than “guide right” or “guide left.” If you remain silent,  on a marching wheel, you are inevitably going to get someone who was taught improperly earnestly shouting “lean in, look out” when you really want them to “lean out, look out.”  And if anyone listens, the company will split at some point, with half the men going with the pivot man and half going with the “true” guide, the outside man.

There you go.  See you at Remembrance Day!

Meanwhile, next  year: Some good events shaping up, with “On to Richmond!” topping my list right now. The link is at the top right corner of the page.  Early registration deadline is upon us.  Note that this is a high-quality, history-heavy event, BUT BUT BUT there will be a camp for “campaigners” and a separate camp for “heavy campers.”  I’m acknowledging the corn: At my relatively advanced age (67), with one mechanical knee and one damaged knee plus a stent, I’m now reluctantly going to do most events as a heavier camper. I mention this to decompress those who think events like this are all about the hardships. 🙂

Meanwhile #2: I’m adding links to useful sites. Feel free to recommend some.