Corporal punishment


Republishing this as a bonus column because golly gee willikers, fellas, do some people need to read it.


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.

The corporal as teacher 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 and which biological opening to plug with what kind of pointy thing.

So you’re not an ornament in formation, you’re an organic part of making things turn out right. Give it a try, your unit will be happier and better.



“O Captain! My Captain!”

“Rise up and hear the bells.”

Or at least the colonel. He’s been trying to get your attention for the last 15 seconds, because the rest of the battalion is changing front by the first company. And Captain? My Captain? You’re looking backward and talking to one of the rear rankers about the time you rolled 300 bowling. And we’re all standing here, 20 guys channeling Gomer Pyle, shaking our heads and saying “Gol-leee! Gollllleeee!”

So, yes, this week’s posting is about doing your job, at least for the few moments at every event where it really, really counts. (And I know Walt Whitman’s poem was about Lincoln’s assassination, but it was just so on the mark for this topic.)

Number One of “Watson’s Rules for Better Results“*:  In formation, company commanders pay very focused attention to the battalion commander. The first sergeant and noncoms pay attention to execution of the company commander’s orders.

Pay attention to the COLONEL!

Company commanders pay attention up the chain of command. Sergeants, down.

The very last thing a company commander should be doing is chatting. The next worst thing a company commander should be doing is fussing about the dress.

Gee, did one of these captains line up with the wrong army due to inattention? 🙂

Why?  Guys want to feel good about the time, energy, and money they’ve invested in this weird hobby of reenacting. You don’t feel good if your company is consistently slow off the line, always trying to catch up to the battalion, because there’s always a built-in delay while the first sergeant tries to herd the captain’s attention to the orders that were just given by the battalion commander.

The need for the company commander’s attention to be primarily on the battalion commander isn’t spelled out anywhere that I can find. It is, however, systemically unavoidable. The company commander must do one of two things when the battalion commander issues an order:

♦  He must see whether his men obey the command and repeat the command if they did not hear it or do not respond appropriately, on commands like “Forward, MARCH!” ;

♦   He must issue additional commands of execution to carry out his company’s responsibilities, in a command like “Change front forward on the first company.”

A company commander in 1861 would figure out very quickly, given daily battalion drill over a period of a month, that he had to stay on his toes and focused upward. Since we’re lucky to get in two battalion drills a year, it doesn’t sink in sometimes, especially when the focus of our reenacting is, de facto, primarily focused on recreating the company.  We also lack the more severely marked separation between officers and men that was sought by the Civil War armies.  That makes it harder to mark the line between having a good time with your pards with jokes and stories and needing to “get real”, shut up and pay attention to the colonel so the company will look good, and therefore feel good.

To help everyone remember, here’s an image, with the caution “Don’t be this guy.”  🙂

Captain Oblivious

Now, beyond that axiom, here’s a corollary that will really help: A savvy company commander will spend some time at battalion headquarters on Friday. He will ask what specific battalion maneuvers are known to be required for the weekend’s scenarios. He will explain that he wishes to know so that when he drills his company before breakfast on Saturday, the necessary moves can be rehearsed before they’re required at the battalion drill later in the morning.

Several things happened just then.

♦ He may have alerted battalion staff to the idea that they should figure out now what they might be doing with the battalion for the battle.  It’s pretty much never a surprise, but it’s surprising how often units don’t walk through stuff just to make sure everyone, including all the new captains since last year, know what to do.

♦ He planted the idea that his company will be prepping for its role before breakfast.  Since the battalion staff all came up from the various companies in the organization, and since there is at least some sense of competition going around, the savvy company commander also just pushed everyone else to do some company drill.  Before breakfast?  Yes, hungry guys will get it right quicker if they know breakfast comes as soon as they do.

“Wait – to the rear by the right of companies? What?”

One of the biggest complaints from the rank and file isn’t drill per se; it’s drill, at an event, that is on moves and evolutions that aren’t needed for the event.  A handful of us enjoy it no matter what; far more commonly, guys are riled up when they drill “on the right by file into line” for an hour in the hot late-morning sun, then are told to “forward into line” instead three hours later in the hot afternoon sun.  Both maneuvers require refamiliarization, especially in an era when just about every umbrella organization out there will cobble together companies with reenactors from different “clubs.

  • *”Watson’s Rules for Better Results” — soon to be an international best seller available through Amazon.
  • Footnote:  Got a Civil War living history topic you’d like researched? Let me know:

Here’s your period newspaper clip reward for this week: Where the Captain gets his clothes.

Dawson’s Fort Wayne Daily Times, January, 1862


Do the Hokey Pokey?

“You keep your left foot in, you put your right foot out.”

Yeah, well, firing from the rear rank should be a kind of a dance. It would be nice if we could all get in step. This one’s not just “let’s do it by the manual,” it’s “let’s do it so we don’t get hurt.” There are, unfortunately, some nuances. And today we commit reenactor apostasy, because we are going to move our left feet in firing.  Because that’s what they did.


(Text from manuals text is in italic for this post. Key words for the rear rank are in red. And remember, in all cases, “aim” comes after “ready,” that is, everybody’s feet in the “T” position.)


Winfield Scott’s Infantry Tactics (Pre-1855, for three-rank formation).


  1. (Pl. VIII, fig. 3.) The rear rank alone will, at the same time, carry the right foot about eight inches towards the left heel of the man next on the right.

The “rear rank” is the third rank. The front rank is kneeling. And the rear rank apparently has to bring its right foot slightly forward to truly move it towards the left heel of the man on the right.

Eight inches is about two-thirds of your foot. And from the “Ready!” position. It should pull  you into the gap and move your right shoulder slightly forward.

Hardee   (1855)


 One time and one motion.

  1. Raise the piece with both hands, and support the butt against the right shoulder; the left elbow down, the right as high as the shoulder; incline the head upon the butt, so that the right eye may perceive quickly the notch of the hausse, the front sight, and the object aimed at; the left eye closed, the right thumb extended along the stock, the fore-finger on the trigger.
  2. When recruits are formed in two ranks to execute the firings, the front rank men will raise a little less the right elbow, in order to facilitate the aim of the rear rank men.
  3. The rear rank men, in aiming, will each carry the right foot about ten inches to the right, and towards the left heel of the man next on the right, inclining the upper part of the body forward.”

Firing in four times:

  1. “The instructor will give the following commands:
  2. Fire by squad 2. Squad. 3. READY. 4. AIM. 5. FIRE
  3. LOAD.
  4. These, several commands will be executed as has been proscribed in the Manual of Arms. At the third command the men will come to the Position of ready as heretofore explained. At the fourth they will aim according to the rank in which each may find himself placed, the rear rank men inclining forward a little the upper part of the body. in order that their pieces may reach its much beyond the front rank as possible.

Remember, this manual was written for the “short” two-band .54 caliber 1841 rifle-musket and it’s 1855 replacement in .58 caliber. The little “lean forward” for the rear rank pushed the muzzle blast farther out, and the right foot moves 10 inches instead of eight.  Minutely different from the old Scott’s, tiny concessions to the change in geometry because of the shorter weapons. How much shorter? Six-and-a-half inches.

Hardee’s 1862

Hardee, now in Confederate service, revised his manual to account for the longer three-band rifle-muskets that were the mainstay of the infantries in the Civil War.

  1. When recruits are formed in two ranks to execute the firings, the front rank men will raise a little less the right elbow, in order to facilitate the aim of the rear rank men.
  2. The rear rank men, in aiming, will each carry the right foot about eight inches to the right, and towards the left heel of the man next on the right, inclining the upper part of the body forward.

So we’re back to the original Scott’s instructions of eight inches, but retained Hardee’s pre-1855 lean forward. Why? Have to ask Hardee, which won’t be easy.

Now let’s commit reenactor blasphemy: Let’s move the left foot. Just like it says in the manual.

Position of the two ranks in the Oblique Fire to the right.

  1. At the command ready, the two ranks will execute what has been prescribed for the direct fire.
  2. At the cautionary command, right oblique, the two ranks will throw back the right shoulder and look steadily at the object to be hit.
  3. At the command, aim, each front rank man will aim to the right without deranging the feet; each rear rank man will advance the left foot about eight inches toward the right heel of the man next on the right of his file leader and aim to the right, inclining the upper part of the body forward and bending a little the left knee.
Right oblique, Hardee

Position of the two ranks in the Oblique Fire to the left.

  1. At the cautionary command, left oblique, the two ranks will throw back the left shoulder and look steadily at the object to be hit.
  2. At the command, aim, the front rank will take aim to the left without deranging the feet; each man in the rear will advance the right foot about eight inches toward the right heel of the man next on the right of his file leader, and aim to the left, inclining the upper part of the body forward and bending a little the right knee.
Hardee’s left oblique. I think the left foot has to twist, but not move, or that might simply be something I have to do because my left knee is titanium and plastic. Your mileage may vary.

A couple of critical things here: In firing at the right oblique, the rear rank moves the LEFT FOOT. And it’s pretty dramatic, it’s eight inches toward the RIGHT heel of the man on the RIGHT of his own file partner.

And at the left oblique  the rear rank moves their RIGHT foot to exactly that same place, toward the RIGHT heel of the man on the RIGHT of his own file partner.

Casey’s manual is exactly the same.

Which shoulder is the rear rank firing over?  To me, it still feels like the right shoulder of the rear rank’s file partner, but here’s what you can do next time there are at least four of you: Try it out.  Bring a couple of eight-inch sticks and measure exactly where, when you put it where the manual says to put it, that brings your foot. Then decide for yourself.

Caveat: This is the manual. This is what they did.  We undoubtedly have more “sturdy” men in the ranks than they did, and we may need to adjust everything – distance of a sturdy rear rank man from his front rank file partner, where he puts his feet to fire, everything — to accommodate the vagaries of girth and spacing and safety. I’m just saying, “that’s what it’s all about.”

An aside:  1816, 1842 muskets: 58 inches long; 1841, 1855 two-banders, 48.5 inches long; 1853 Enfield rifle-musket, 55 inches long; 1861 Springfield, 56 inches long.

Here’s your period advertisement reward for this week: 1861 social media.

Oh snap! Rubber bands are period correct

Just don’t go wild with this, folks

Let’s not see multicolored rubber bands at events in every shade of the rainbow. Let’s use moderation. Let’s use plain brown rubber bands, and in modest numbers.

Because (brown) rubber bands have been around since the 1840s. Our clever ancestors figured there had to be something better than the red tape (no, really) used to tie up official documents.

So, Mayans. Yes, this really has ancient roots.

They were using latex sap from rubber trees for centuries to hold together stuff like hatchet heads and hatchet handles. They figured out, or stumbled onto, using the juice from morning glory vines to make the substance tougher and more durable, and got the first “rubber,” apparently about the consistency of a pencil eraser.

Joseph Priestley
Thomas Hancock

Mix all that with turpentine and you get something you can use to waterproof cloth. Sound like something we use? Yeah, rubber blankets and ponchos. Samuel Peale, England, 1791.  Englishman Joseph Priestley, who also furthered laissez-fair economics, discovered oxygen in the air, and gave us the many blessings of carbonated water, then did some chemistry stuff with the rubber and came up with the first eraser. In 1820 Englishman Thomas Hancock figured out how to incorporate stretchy rubber into clothing, giving us elastic for socks, suspenders, shirt cuffs, and shoes. The processing evolved, and the elastic material was used in bellows, machinery, everywhere.

Charles Goodyear
Stephen Perry

In 1839, thanks to some clumsy shop work that saw rubber, lead and sulfur dropped on a hot stove, Charles Goodyear of the United States stumbled into the process of vulcanizing rubber – which makes it stable, rather than getting a bit sticky when the weather turns hot.  And in 1845, Stephen Perry of the rubber manufacturing company Messers Perry and Co., London,  took vulcanized rubber and made the first rubber bands. They were specifically intended to bundle papers and envelopes.

How ubiquitous were they? Good question, needs more research. Have at it!

By 1875 we know the U.S. Congress was buying thousands of rubber bands every year from a familiar name to some living historians, the firm of Philp and Solomons. We know them because photos they took turn up in the Library of Congress. They were also stationers, supplying a variety of office supplies to businesses and government in the Washington area.

Additional information is harder to find and might require looking up vouchers from the war era in person, rather than online, to get a better handle on how widespread and everyday and common rubber bands were.  But you can certainly justify a few.  Just don’t use “ranger bands,” where you cut off sections of a bicycle inner tube and use them to secure your flashlight to your musket.  I get some mild criticism from folks who say legitimizing any use of some of these objects opens the door to serial material culture abusers, and if we start seeing red, yellow and blue neon rubber bands, ranger bands and striped bungee cords with hooks holding gear together on the field, it’s all my fault.  So here’s my thought on that:

Don’t do that.

My way of thinking is that if you’ve got a pile of morning reports to send to brigade headquarters and your kids used your really nice official red tape to build a kite tail, use a damned brown rubber band instead.  If someone gets in your face, just say what we know (well, what I know, anyway) at this point:  We know they had them, we know they were used to bundle paper, but we don’t know whether that was common or unusual.

Now, interesting and useful-to-us information: Most rubber bands were and are made from natural rubber, so the brown bands you can get in any supermarket are not just good, they’re good enough.The natural rubber has more elasticity than the synthetic stuff in tires.

Here is some interesting but useless information: Rubber stretches when it gets cold and tightens when it gets hot. Just the opposite of what common sense expects.

Who knew?

Some people always want more, and that’s a good thing. Here you go, rubber bands for the first link and all paper fasteners in about 1850 in the second.

History of Elastic and Rubber Bands

Office Museum

Next week: Do the Hokey Pokey (Firing from the rear rank.)


Malvern Hill

Everything went wrong

If you look above at the lovely map of the battle of Malvern Hill, courtesy of the Civil War Trust’s Malvern Hill web page,  you may be forgiven for thinking that this was a cohesive, thought-out, all-out-push by the Confederates that was simply not enough to budge massed Union artillery supported by tired-of-retreating infantry.  It was anything but. It was a lesson for Robert E. Lee on how many things can go wrong at once.

First, though, that map.  If all those units had indeed converged on the position at once, or just the 15 brigades designated for the assault had gone at once, they may very well have succeeded. However, most of them weren’t engaged, and the ones that were went in one by one, as a result of a series of blunders and miscommunications.

The plan for the battle went wrong when attempts to create two grand batteries, one on each side of the Confederate infantry, failed. They failed because:

♦ Batteries were sent in one at a time instead of all taking the position at once. The already-placed Union artillery simply concentrated fire on each Confederate battery as it took the field, and either demolished it or drove it off, sometimes before the Confederate batteries could get off more than a couple of rounds.

Union guns shredding one of the five separate assaults on Malvern Hill.



♦ Brigadier General William N. Pendleton, in charge of the Army of Northern Virginia’s artillery reserve, could not be located. The ANV was jammed up and attempting to pursue Union General George B. McClellan down the Peninsula. There was much confusion. But Pendleton, who could have taken charge of deploying the artillery, reported afterward he couldn’t find Lee and instead stayed in one place (undisclosed) to await orders. So did 13 if the 14 batteries in the artillery reserve.

That failure so badly upset the Confederate plans that it was pretty obvious to everyone there should be no attack, because the Union army was not pressured by  the few guns that did get into operation. However, a series of miscues took place, laid out most cogently, of all the authors studied, by Stephen W. Sears in “To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign.”

Lewis Armistead

♦ Lee’s chief of staff, Col. Robert H. Chilton, wrote the

Robert H. Chilton

orders for battle that day (July 1, 1862). He designated Lewis Armistead’s Brigade as the signaling brigade; when Armistead went in with a yell, all were to follow. And he did not put the time on the order.

“Batteries have been established to act upon the enemy’s line,” Chilton wrote. “If it is broken as is probable, Armistead, who can witness effect of the fire, has been ordered to charge with a yell. Do the same.”

John Magruder

♦  John Magruder, the Confederate division commander who was supposed to bear the load of the attack, was late getting to the field, because the ANV lacked accurate maps and there were three “Quaker Roads” locally to choose from. Magruder’s local guides chose the “wrongest” one.

♦  Armistead moved three of his regiments forward, but only to try to drive off Union sharpshooters. They did, but took heavy casualties and took cover in a low spot, unable to go forward or backward.

♦  Lee, on another part of the battlefield, received a report that Armistead had pushed forward successfully and was close to the Union line. He also received messages that Union infantry and artillery were pulling back; they were, however, doing no such thing. Infantry on the Union front repositioned to avoid Confederate artillery; the ammunition-short battery that left was being relieved by another. Lee, believing a Union collapse was imminent, sent a message to Magruder urging him to join the advance.

♦ Magruder arrived and found the three-hour-old written message from Chilton, not knowing it was now pretty much moot. He quickly received Lee’s second message, telling him the Yankees appeared to be getting off and he should press them.  He’d been reprimanded by Lee earlier in the campaign for “lack of aggressiveness” at Savage’s Station, he had acute indigestion, and he’d taken morphine for that.  Thinking he was being reprimanded, and his own units not yet up to the line, he ordered Armistead’s brigade forward, together with that of Rans Wright.  Their division commander, Huger, got in a huff and ordered his two remaining brigades, Ransom and Mahone, to obey no orders but his.  Ransom refused Magruder’s orders, while Mahone obeyed. Out of the 5,000 men immediately at hand, 1,500 in Wright’s brigade finally advanced, and the full weight of the Union’s massed artillery chewed them to pieces. Then Mahone’s brigade advanced and met the same fate.

One of the five assaults, in a depiction that shows, inaccurately, gunboats. They had no direct fire and attempts at indirect fire, with spotters and signalmen, put rounds into the Union lines, so the attempt was dropped.
Daniel Harvey Hill

D.H. Hill heard the attack go in; his men were in bivouac, believing the day’s plans had been abandoned. He sent his 8,200 men through swamps and thickets. He lost 1,756 of them.

The end result of all this was not one massive attack but five separate piecemeal attacks, with predictable results. The only surprise was that some of the attacks came close enough to drive off some of the Union batteries before faltering under the withering fire and crossfire.

James Longstreet

This was a costly lesson: 869 killed, 4,241 wounded, and 540 missing. Union casualties were much less, 314 killed, 1,875 wounded, and 818 missing. The man who most took this lesson to heart was James Longstreet.  Exactly two months later, at Second Manassas, he refused to launch an assault until it was completely coordinated, with more than 44 regiments with 28,000 men moving forward in an unstoppable mass that sent the Union army reeling back to Washington.   Lee also learned; his assault on the third day of Gettysburg was preceded by an hour of bombardment by more than 80 guns concentrated on the point of the attack, with 15,000 men sweeping forward at once.  That attack failed, despite the lessons learned, because of the strength of the Union position and Lee’s misunderstanding of enemy dispositions.  But the coordination and timing were there.

Footnote: This is the climactic battle of “On to Richmond” this weekend at Endview Plantation in Virginia.  There will be no gunboats at the reenactment. That’s OK, because despite beliefs to the contrary, there was no fire from gunboats during the Confederate assaults. They did fire earlier, but did not have direct fire; instead they fired over Malvern Hill using spotters and signaling. Since they were dropping some shells into Union troops, the effort was discontinued.

Footnote 2: While there will be no gunboats mounting 100-pound guns, there will be something worse at “On to Richmond!”:  There will be ticks. Many, many ticks.  They are a plague on the coast up and down the Atlantic this year and Virginia is definitely in their crosshairs. So are you.  Load up on permethrine.




Gaines Mill

Hood won. Hood wept.

(Double posts this week: Gaines Mill, then Malvern Hill. Done in conjunction with “On to Richmond!”, coming up June 2-4).

“Just look here, Major,” Hood stammered, “at these dead and suffering men, and every one of them as good as I am, and yet I am untouched.” 

John Bell Hood is one of the enigmas of the Civil War. He rose rapidly through the ranks, and his Texas brigade set the standard for grit early in the war. But he’s forever remembered for the attack at Franklin, Tennessee, in 1864 that ruined the Confederacy’s western army.

What happened?   People have debated that since the war ended. But it seems  a couple of factors were in play. First, he, like Erwin Rommel in another war, was a far better brigade and division commander than he was a corps or army commander. He led from the front. Second, he changed during the war. He hardened himself to losses, as army leaders had to do, to the point where he felt less concern than he should; at Gaines Mill, he wept at the losses. And third, he’d been wounded twice, lost a leg, and apparently resorted to laudanum for pain relief by the time of Franklin. Not a combination good for decision-making. Fourth, he aged, in every way imaginable, faster than normal – much the same as we see United States Presidents aging rapidly once they take office. It’s the relentless responsibility and the constant awareness of threats that ages them.

John Bell Hood, before wounds

But what was he like at Gaines Mill, in 1862?  First, he was 31 years old, had just had a birthday on June 1 – a young man with his first brigade command, full of energy, enthusiasm, and West Point skills. He was brilliant.  The weight of the army was put on his shoulders by Lee after repeated assaults during the day had failed to break the Union line.  He looked at the field, determined that the main problem with previous assaults was that the troops were halted for prolonged musket duels in the open and took staggering losses, and lost the ability and will to fight. He determined that the proper course was to get across the ground where the artillery held sway and grapple with the enemy.

We have an excellent account of Hood at Gaines Mill in “John Bell Hood and the War for Southern Independence, Richard M. McMurray,”  published in 1982.

“Hood realized that the failure of earlier attacks had stemmed in large part from the Southerners’ halting in the field west of the creek to return the enemy’s fire, thus breaking the momentum of the charge and making the Rebels easy targets. Once the assault began, Hood saw, there could be no stopping until the enemy gave way; otherwise the Texans would share the fate of their comrades whose attacks had faltered and whose bodies littered the ground from Hood’s vantage point to within a few hundred yards of the creek.”

DeHart’s battery pouring it in to advancing Confederates
Gaines Mill defenders

“The crucial moment came when Hood countermanded Warwick’s orders that the Fourth Texas halt its onslaught to return the enemy’s fire. Such a halt would have enabled the unseen and sheltered Federals to cut down the regiment, as they had slaughtered it’s unfortunate predecessors.”

When the Texas Brigade and other of Whiting’s fresh regiments started their attack, those still functioning from previous assaults joined in.

The Fourth Texas started in reserve; when a gap opened between Law’s rightmost regiment and the left of other units, Hood pushed the Fourth Texas into that gap.

“As soon as it came into the open, the line met a storm of artillery fire. Colonel Marshall, who alone among the officers had refused to dismount, was quickly killed. Bradfute Warwick succeeded to the command of the regiment, but the Fourth Texas was led by Hood.”

“The gray ranks went on, the pace quickening under the constantly increasing fire. Texans began to fall – some screaming and pitching forward onto their faces, others spinning crazily backwards of the ranks; still others  silently sinking to the ground, all life gone from their legs.  The survivors closed ranks and pressed on, stepping over the bodies of … casualties of earlier charges. Hood was shouting “Forward!” “Forward!” “Steady!” “Steady!”  They came to a slight depression where some Southerners were huddled to avoid the Federal fire.  A few of these men sprang to their feet and joined the advancing Texans; others remained on the ground calling out that it was death to go on.  Warwick picked up a battleflag abandoned by some other regiment. 

Final assault at Gaines Mill. Map from Civil War Trust..

“About 150 yards from the creek the Texans topped a small rise. The ground down to the stream was open and relatively flat; beyond that point few, if any, Southerners had gone that day. The full fury of the enemy’s guns now smashed into the advancing ranks. Still Hood led them on. As the line came over the rise, Warwick ordered the men to halt and return the Federal fire, but Hood immediately overruled him. “Don’t halt here!” he shouted above the roar of battle. “Forward! Forward! Charge right down on them and drive them out with the bayonet!”

When they neared the stream separating them from the Federals, , they fixed bayonets, fired, and charged.

“Yankees in the first line of works began to waver. Soon they broke for the rear, their flight making it impossible for men in the second line to shoot without hitting their comrades. The fastest of Hood’s men reached the second Union line at about the same time as the fleeing Federals; other Texans swarmed through the works , and Porter’s second line gave way and joined the retreat. Just beyond the second line Warwick fell, shot through the lung, mortally wounded.”

With the sun going down and twilight approaching, Hood’s men break through and the Union position is lost.

So the Union troops here fell victim to the same circumstances that cost the Confederates Missionary Ridge in a later battle: Failure to establish lanes of retreat from the forward works meant the retreating federals blocked the fire of their comrades farther back.  It is a heck of a way to lose a position.

Hood, late in the war

“Once the Yankees had gone, Hood turned his attention to the casualties. He spent the night helping supervise the treatment and removal of the wounded and was struck by the heavy losses. Years later a staff officer remembered Hood sitting on a cracker box weeping.

“Just look here, Major,” Hood stammered, “at these dead and suffering men, and every one of them as good as I am, and yet I am untouched.” 

Field hospital after battle
Sally “Buck” Preston

The Texas Brigade and Hood gained a reputation for bravery, but the cost was high: Hampton’s South Carolina Legion: 2 killed, 65 wounded; 5th Texas: 13 killed, 62 wounded; 1st Texas: 13 killed, 62 wounded; 18th Georgia: 14 killed, 28  wounded; 3 missing; 4th Texas: 44 killed, 208 wounded, 1 missing

The glory for Hood evaporated after Franklin, but the war was not kind to Hood in other ways. He’d expected to marry Sally Buchanan Preston, a South Carolina bell. But that was while he was recuperating from his Gettysburg wound; he was still a striking young man covered with glory. After his wounds and after Franklin, he was not considered a prize, but a decrepit failure. When he was stranded in York, South Carolina, along with refugees and other generals stuck there without commands, “Buck” Preston ended their engagement.

Tomorrow: Malvern Hill, where everything went wrong all day long.

Wood lice:  Yankees at Gaines Mill wrote home about the terrible affliction of wood lice.  You can, too, because that’s what we now call ticks.  They are worse now than they were in 1862!  If you’d rather not use your post-event Facebook time to complain about tick bites, Lyme disease and how you’re doing with Rocky Mountain spotted fever, here’s everything you need to know about Permethrin and why you need it this weekend.

Casey’s Redoubt

Theory meets reality: How’d the drill master do in battle?

He experienced the moment known as “no plan of battle survives the first shot.”

Silas Casey

Silas Casey is best known to us as the fellow who wrote “Casey’s Infantry Tactics,” the four-pound tome that covers everything from “order arms” to “Evolutions of a Corps”. In early 1862 he was busy training three raw brigades in camp outside Washington.  In March, they became a division within Erasmus Key’s Fourth Corps. The twelve regiments, all Johnny-come-latelies to the Army, for the most part did not have first class weapons; the 103rd PVI, for instance, had very old Austrian muskets.  The division was sent to the Peninsula where, on May 17, they took position a mile east of the Seven Pines crossroad. Casey ordered fortifications built; they stretched from the Williamsburg road south across the clearings to the “twin houses” located on the eastern edge of a field 800 yards across. He posted a picket line near the far side of the field and further fortified the area near the houses into a sturdy redoubt.  All the time, he was protesting to McLellan that he was too exposed. Most of the army was on the north side of the Chickahominy, which was passable only by bridges. His support on the south side consisted of Couch’s division and two divisions of Heinzleman’s Third Corps which had been chewed up by fighting around Williamsburg earlier in the month. It was known that five of the seven divisions of the Confederate army were nearby, although nobody realized just how near until midmorning of May 31.

The 4th North Carolina, “eight-to-ten deep,” within 60 yards of the redoubt and about to lunge.

Casey’s position was methodically attacked, held by the attacking force, then flanked. He initially fought them partway across the field, advancing a regiment to do so. When it went badly, he ordered all troops into the redoubt, then ordered a spoiling attack by three regiments to save the guns of Battery H.  When Confederates found themselves massed 60 yards in front of the redoubt and taking heavy casualties because they were so jammed up (eight to ten ranks deep, across the field), they simply assaulted (Lt. Col. Bryan Grimes, 4th North Carolina) and overran the position at a spot held by the 85th Pennsylvania.

Eight hours after Casey’s division was initially engaged, with the redoubt surrounded, being overrun and the division running for its life, Couch’s men finally began to arrive. He immediately pulled them back and waited for the two Third Corps divisions.

Alfred C. Woods

Alfred C. Woods, 62nd NY Infantry, one of four regiments routed in the initial charge of Jenkin’s 6th SCVI and the Palmetto Sharpshooters near Fair Oaks Station on the Richmond & York River railroad:

“Our Regt are at present encamped within about two hundred yards of the late Battle ground (Battle of Fair Oaks or Seven Pines, 5/31/62). The Accounts of this Battle you have probably seen in full long ere this so I will not attempt to describe the particulars to you. Suffice it to say that it was an awful affair. Our noble Colonel (Colonel John L. Riker) was killed after leading us until our ammunition was gone and two Bayonet charges had been made and we had rallied for a third.”

He was full of spit and vinegar despite the battle:

“Another Battle is expected daily. Genl McClellan is almost ready I think to make the final stroke which will cause the Annihilation of Richmond (to say the least). We have some strong fortifications thrown up here for our time has been diligently employed for the last two weeks in digging entrenchments and throwing up Rifle Pitts and Earthworks and we have a permanent line of Battle established which never can be broken. A great quantity of fruit abounds such as Strawberries, Cherries, Apples, Peaches, and fine crops of growing Wheat, Corn etc. are to be seen which the rebels have left to go to waste.

Dear Aunt, Please excuse this poor writing for I am writing on my Cartridge Box and it is not a very handy desk.”

As for Casey, despite buying enough time for help to arrive in the area, he was held responsible by McClellan for the outcome, although history has noted that McClellan is the one who split his army on opposite sides of an impassable river and made it vulnerable. Casey spent the rest of the war commanding troops in the static defenses of Washington.

Here’s a link to a credible and extensive treatment of Casey’s role in the Battle of Seven Pines.

Overwhelming Casey’s Redoubt, May 31, 1862 This is one of the scenarios that will be enacted at ‘On to Richmond’ at Endview Plantation June 2-4.  Registration is closed, but you can be a spectator. 

Every week I find a new online site with great research. (If I didn’t, I’d spend so much time in libraries, archives and museums I’d have no time to write!) This week: Civil War Voices.  Enjoy.

And more great research by the Liberty Rifles, this time on Confederate shelters and flies. The hits just keep rolling in.

Fighting words

From their mouths to your ears

I try to give a blend of “how to” and “how it was”.  This week is “how it was,” direct from one of the fellows who was there.

In preparing a school presentation, I came upon the letters of Riley M. Hoskinson, commissary sergeant for the 73rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry.  He was 43 in 1863 — one of the older fellows, for sure, but apparently his pre-war work as a stone mason gave him the kind of strength and endurance he needed. Here’s his detailed account of the battle of Chickamauga, where the 73rd was with Sheridan’s Division, McCook’s XX Corps. At the end there is an interesting description of the hospital; it appears a great many wounded were asking for things merely to reassure themselves that someone was there to take care of them, something to keep in mind if you’re part of a field hospital scenario.

Here you go:

Riley M. Hoskinson and his wife, Martha, after the war

“Camped near an immense spring, drew & issued beef to the men. Cook and ate some supper, pulled some Ragweeds and made a bed of them, used our canteens and boots for a pillow, covered with our oil blanket, slept soundly and sweetly, under the calm blue Heavens till morning.

… about 3 O’Clock of Saturday morning Sept. 19, we turned into camp, 15 miles south of Chattanooga in the valley of the Chickamauga, Georgia. I was too tired to hunt wood or make a fire so I tumbled myself down in some brush covered with my oil blanket and fell asleep for the balance of the night, although it was cold & frosty, was only awakened by our bugle calling for us to up and away. Ate a hasty breakfast and just as we expected to roll out, orders came that ours and the 1st Brigade would stay in camp till about Noon.”

First gun at Chickamauga, Alfred Waud

“While I sit penciling these lines the constant roar of cannon & musquetry are distinctly heard in our front only a few miles distant. We expect our turn will soon come to join the deadly fray, as we are told, the Rebels are in great force just a little in front of us. About 10 O’Clock we slowly move forward, About X O’Clock in the afternoon we come to the battleground of the morning and still the sound is far to the front.”

Lost at Chickamauga Adolph Metzler

The conflict lasted till near 9 o’clock at night. I shall not attempt its description. I am not equal to the task. Language can’t do it. “

“Sabbath Morn …  At 10 O’ Clock the cannonade becomes terrific in the Extreme, mixed with the incessant crash of musquetry. The work of death goes fearfully on. Our Brigade still not called, some few of them have lain down to sleep, some are writing letters to loved ones at home while scores of others are buying & reading the daily Newspapers and a general calm & seriousness pervades the rank & file. Just at half past ten O’clock orders come for our Brigade to rush to the combat, away they go on double quick down the hill and into the woods, out of sight, which is the last  I saw of the Regiment, or ever will of many of them, “till Heaven’s last thunder shakes the world below.” … The cannon shots were so rapid as to be (most of the time) too frequent to count, and the musquetry resembled the crackling of a handful of salt thrown into the fire, add to this the constant screaming of officers and men, various bayonette charges. Men marching at doublequick in all directions trying to get better positions. Cannons & caissons being hauled at full gallop in every conceivable direction, couriers going at the topmost speed of their best horses. Then add the fearful wounds, bruises, cuts, slashes, groans & cries, bloodshed & death in all its forms, then imagine as much more as you can and then you will fall far short of a description of this Awful contest.”

Confederates advancing to capture the guns, Gaines Mill. Note how Waud caught the glint of light on the bayonets.

” I forgot to be afraid, and became so vengeful as to pray God that the whole southern Confederacy might be annihilated, for causing so much needless suffering and death. Our doctors never made their appearance so we of course stood idle spectators, at last up came a poor fellow that had been struck on his left thigh by a piece of shell, and about half size of my hand of flesh entirely carried away. I took his handkerchief and bound it up to staunch the blood, in a few moments more many wounded passed by us and one a tall handsome young man, the blood streaming from his mouth, Stuart asked him if he were wounded in the mouth, he simply pointed to his left side, where his clothes were all tattered by a stroke from a piece of shell.”

Union field hospital, Savage’s Station. Somebody must know the story behind those hats!

“As we went to the Hospital, we noticed in some woods at about a quarter of a mile distant from the road, several Secesh cavalry skulking in the timber. As soon as we came opposite them they would step out and shoot, then dodge back and hide, then come out and shoot again, this was repeated several times, as much as twenty or more, when a cavalry man of our own galloped up to us and said “don’t you know these fellows are shooting at you: Get out of the way, as rapidly as you can.” I replied, if they are shooting at us I would not be afraid to bare my breast and let them shoot at it all the afternoon if they could do no better than they had been doing. Just at that moment some of them who had a long ranged gun, let slip and the ball said, “sleo, o,o,o” as it passed in a few feet of my head. We now went a little faster, and were soon out of their range.”

Second Corps field hospital, Chancellorsville. Note the diamond corps badge on a pole. Alfred Waud again. The man was everywhere.

“Reached the Hospital in safety but had only time to unload our wounded when the whole premises, six Hospitals in number, were surrounded by two Brigades of Wheeler’s Cavalry and a Regiment of Infantry, yelling at the top of their voices as if Hell had suddenly erupted itself of all its contents. In a few moments, seeing we made no resistance, a tall fine-looking Texan rode up and told us we were all Prisoners of War.”

“The first duties assigned to me were to go around and take the names of all the wounded, their Co., Rank & Regiment. I found we had 146 then living, beside 19 that were so badly wounded as to die soon after coming in. One of these is shot through the Gullet, so that when he tries to drink, it runs out at the wound, another shot in the right eye and out at the ear. Two others shot through the hip and out through the Privates. Two others directly through the right Leg and yet able to walk unsupported. Many of the balance have fearful wounds in their thighs, and different parts of their bodies that will more than likely cause their death. …  Strange as it may seem to you, I can now stand and hold one of a man’s legs while the other is cut off and not feel the least particle of that faintish disposition that troubled me so much in former life. Helping the Doctors cut off limbs and bind up wounds is now my daily duty.”

Confederate field hospital, Cedar Mountain. A key consideration was a well, for water.

Sept. 23rd Calm, cold morning. Two more men died last night, some of the men are digging one vast grave for all at once, as we have not to date had time to bury any of them. We stored them in the cellar till we had our room almost covered. While I write a long cherished leg, belonging to a Capt. McIntire of the 51st, Ill. Now lies before me a catch for the flies as we cut it off yesterday. So it goes. It is much more easy to kill than make alive. Stuart & several others were sent with a Flag of truce over to the battle ground, and found not only all our dead (at least 500) unburied and near 100 more variously wounded but still living, lying right where they fell. They collected them together in little groups, gave them bread & water – all we could raise at this time, for our provisions were all out and those of us at the Hospital had to live on boiled wheat. There they had to leave them, as we had no means to get them away, but sent on Thursday morning, 24th, a detail to dress their wounds and do for them all they could. I will now try and describe some little of the sufferings.”

Sufferings of a Hospital

“The sound is very much like that of a lively revival meeting, where many pray in a low tone at the same time, mixed with loud exclamations, such as “O Lord” “O My God,” “Lord Save,” “Lord Help,” “Lord Have Mercy”, xc. Xc. Commingled with incoherent cries & groans. This is our doleful music, day and night, with the addition of the wants; such as “I want up,” “I want down,” “I want a drink,” “I want the pot,” “I want some medicine,” “I want my wound dressed,” “My wound is too tight,” “Mine is too loose,” “I am too hot,” “I am too cold,” “Doctor, how long can I live?” “How long must I lie thus?” “How long will it take to get well? “xc, xc, xc, xc. Then stretch imagination to its utmost and can form some faint idea of the reality. ”

He and Stuart, his 19-year-old son, managed to escape. His full story can be found here, at the University of Washington’s digital collection.

Housekeeping:  I’ve received notice some of you haven’t been able to register with the email plug-in. If that’s you, drop me a line at and I’ll take care of it for you.  Also, I’ve had to build in a block for temporary email addresses, too many hackers out there.


“The horror …. the horror….”

Acting and reenacting – from magical to ridiculous

OK, we’re not going to learn how to become Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz by reading a blog.   On the other hand, we don’t NEED to become Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz to improve  our own reenacting experience and that of everyone around us.

Some of us are better at first person than others. The late Hank Trent was terrific; he became a person from 186x at living history events, and often went an entire weekend – or week, if that’s how long the event went – without breaking into modern mode.

I’m not that good at it. I can’t discuss events contemporary with the war as if they were actually contemporary.  Nor can many of us.  My preference is to simply have some consuming supervisory role like first sergeant that

You don’t need to be Brando, but should try hard not to be Beavis or Butthead.

requires immersion in the duties and actions, with the words flowing from that. Your mileage may vary.


What I do is, quite accidentally,  much like the Konstantin Stanislavski school of acting, which Brando practiced. I will very roughly characterize that as putting yourself in the given circumstances and acting accordingly.

There are a million photos out there of reenactors dressed in the 1860s and acting like they are from the 21st Century, and I’m not even talking about the capital crime of sneaking a peek at your cell phone.  And I’m not going to include any images of them, because it isn’t necessary. Not only have we all seen it, we’ve all done it, myself included. I’ve noticed that I do it more when I’m with a group waiting for a battle to start and talking about their new cars, the fortune of their preferred sports team, or current events.  I do it less when I’m with a group more likely to await a battle with an impromptu quartet of good voices singing a period Irish song like “A Nation Once Again,”  or simply discussing the current weather.  Or being silent in the face of an impending challenge.

We can all, to improve our own and everyone else’s experience, no matter where any of you are on the authenticity immersion scale, do one particular thing: Learn how people behaved under fire, whether wounded or not.

There were all kinds of reactions, including laughter.  The insight for how to act is simple:  Too much of anything is too much. If there are five guys sitting up watching the battle move away from them, that’s too many. Wounded men did do that.  They also tore open their clothing to see where they were wounded and how badly; they laid on the ground and occasionally twitched an arm or leg; they groaned. They crawled away. They hobbled away (if you’re going to do this, put a little pebble in one of your shoes, big enough to give you an ouchie if you come down on it. It will make your limp extremely plausible and you won’t give anyone a laugh by forgetting which leg is “injured” and switching back and forth.) They got out pencil and paper and tried to write notes. They called for help. They cheered on others.

Of course, if you opt for dead, for cripes sake be dead. There is nothing more disconcerting than a riotously lively corpse.

We happy few who were in the Miller’s Cornfield fight in 2012 at Rear Rank Productions’ “Maryland My Maryland” event at Boonsboro had a stunning experience, due to weather and some serious effort by Confederates to put themselves in the moment of Sharpsburg. There was fog that morning, and we Union troops heard but did not see advancing Confederates. We fired into and advanced into a terrible red mist caused by the rising sun through the fog and smoke from the cannon.  There was yelling and shouting and shooting and the usual confusion. We emerged into a thin cleared space and found dead and wounded and dazed Confederates everywhere, so thick on the ground in some places they were in bloody piles. Those fellows had put some thought and effort into that particular moment, and it created an experience none of us will forget.

Here’s a YouTube clip from that event It captures the moment, depicting in especially vivid detail the moment when Starke’s Brigade is caught from the left rear by elements of the advancing Iron Brigade.  Notice that nobody is over-acting or under-acting.  It’s quite plausible, and we get a thin slice of what it must have been like. This is what happens when several thousand reenactors collectively eschew the 21st Century and opt for “the moment.” Footnote: There were no spectators at this particular battle. This event, by the way, had a big sign at the entrance to the camps saying , in effect, “1862 begins here.”

Now, if you’re interested in more – and some of you are interested in careers in acting — here’s a link detailing the various acting styles and techniques.  From there you can follow up and learn more about the ones that appeal to you, because Google.  The rest of us will simply have to remember that less is more when it comes to the 21st Century when it’s supposed to be 1862. In the language of the times, if all else fails, “Shut your potato trap and give the red rag (your tongue) a holiday.”  Rear Rank Productions is staging “On to Richmond!” June 2-4 at Endview Plantation in Virginia; those of you attending will have a high bar to cross to beat the Miller Cornfield fight.

 Last week’s post included a quiz asking you to identify a period-correct chicken.  It was a Dominique, and Jean Dominguez of Florida came in first with the right answer. A copy of “How to Camp Out” by John M. Gould of the Maine Volunteer Infantry is on its way to her.  You can find out more about the Dominique breed and other heritage breeds of livestock at The Livestock Conservancy.


Eggs: The period-correct ‘cheat’ for hopeless cooks

And a contest, with a prize

This is a period-correct chicken. The first person to correctly identify it gets a free print copy of “How to Camp Out” by John M. Gould of the Maine Volunteer Infantry. Replies to

This is the week where I take pity on all who simply cannot figure out how to cook anything on an open fire.  All you need to know for this is how to boil water, how to tell time, and a tablespoon. And you can do it at home.

Hard-boiled eggs.

You can put them in your haversack on Friday and, if you don’t do anything too clumsy, they’ll be good for eating all weekend with no fuss, no burned fingers, no pans to clean up.  And we’ve had chickens for at least 4,000 years now, so eggs are period correct. They may have been scarce after an army was in the neighborhood for more than a few days, but your story is they were given to you by a grateful housewife. Stick to your story. Don’t answer questions about why she was grateful.

So you are at home.  Fire up the range, put on a pot of boiling water.  How much? Four cups.  Four real, measured cups. You can find the measuring cup, right?

So now it’s boiling. Put in a tablespoon or two of white vinegar.  Now put in your eggs.  It’s liable to stop the boil for a moment; as soon as the boil starts, mark the time. This should now be regulated to be a “gentle” boil, not a violent one where the eggs are tossed around and water is boiling out of the ban. Then, 14 minutes later, take the pan off the stove and remove the eggs. Let them cool and dry.

How many eggs?  Enough so there’s still water on top after you put them in.

“But I don’t want my eggs to taste like vinegar.”  Well, they won’t. It’s not taste, it’s chemistry.  The vinegar is acidic. The egg shell is a calcium-based, alkaline (base) material.  That much vinegar in that much water for 14 boiling minutes erodes the shell just enough to make it easy to peel when it’s time to eat.  If you have ever tried to peel hard-boiled eggs and had the shell stick like it was glued to the egg, you will appreciate this.

“But I don’t want to eat hardboiled eggs all weekend.”  OK, just about the time you get tired of eggs, they will begin to look darned good to others, and you can trade for whatever they’ve got.

For those who can cook over an open fire, you can use hardboiled eggs to improve the calorie content of just about anything else.  Rice, for instance.  Chop up an egg as the rice finishes cooking and drop it into the rice; give it a stir. (You could drop a fresh egg into the rice, but keeping fresh eggs intact through a campaign weekend is pretty hard to do.)

All this is better with a little salt.  Salt adds its own flavor to food, but it also “wakes up” the flavor of foods. Kind of like a force multiplier, if you’re into war games.

Next week: Do you need acting classes?

Here’s your old newspaper clip reward, very much on today’s topic:

Syracuse Daily Courier and Union, May 8, 1862

Hardboiled eggs are referenced, but note the preachy, sanctimonious tone of the article. At the time this was published, May 8, 1862, the volunteers berated by the writer had just come off the bloody battle of Seven Pines and would soon be battered in the Seven Days fighting.