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"Infantry Squares in the American Civil War" Topic

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American Civil War

3,187 hits since 14 Feb 2008
©1994-2019 Bill Armintrout
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mosby6514 Feb 2008 7:05 p.m. PST

I received a copy of a set of regimental/grand tactical ACW miniature warfare rules being considered for publication. A note attached from a previous reviewer said that one deficiency in the rules was that they lacked provision for units to form squares.

Forming squares? In the American Civil War? I know forming squares was contained in the training manuals of the period. But is there any evidence they actually formed squares in the field?

I seem to recollect reading something about a Southern regiment that formed and fought from a square during the Antietam campaign. Also, if memory serves, I think there was a Northern force that actually formed a brigade square (1 regiment per side) in the Atlanta campaign.

Can anyone confirm these or any similar instances of Union or Confederate forces forming and fighting from squares in the ACW? I contacted an Australian colleague who teaches American and military history who responded that American Civil War soldiers were brave enough but the scruffy beggars couldn't line up straight in a mess line much less form a square. I also brought the question up in the Napoleonic miniature wargamers group in my area. I'm sure I'll get an answer as soon as they stop laughing.

jawjatek14 Feb 2008 7:28 p.m. PST

I was told it happened, but it was extremely rare. Since most ACW battlefields are covered with woods, they did not lend themselves to grand cavalry charges like the European battlefields of the time.

Dave Gamer14 Feb 2008 7:47 p.m. PST

From Co. Aytch pp 147-148:

'Halloo! here comes a cavalry charge from the Yankee line. Now for it; we will see how Yankee cavalry fight… They thunder down upon us. Their flat-footed dragoons shake and jar the earth. They are all around us – we are surrounded. "Form square! Platoons, right and left wheel! Kneel and fire!" There we were in a hollow square.

….They charged right upon us. Colonel Field, sitting on his gray mare, right in the center of the hollow square, gives the command, "Front rank, kneel and present bayonet against cavalry." The front rank knelt down, placing the butts of their guns against their knees. "Rear rank, fire at will; commence firing." Now all this happened in less time than it has taken me to write it. They charge upon us, no doubt expecting to ride right over us, and trample us to death with the hoofs of their horses. They tried to spur and whip the horses over us, but the horses had more sense than that. We were pouring deadly fire right into their faces, and soon men and horses were writhing in their death agonies; officers were yelling at the top of their voices, "Surrender! Surrender!" but we were having too good a thing of it. We were killing them by scores, and they could not fire at us; if they did they either overshot or missed their aim. Their ranks began to break and get confused, and finally they were routed…

Personal logo Dan Cyr Supporting Member of TMP14 Feb 2008 7:49 p.m. PST

A number of battles, but the last few in the valley by CSA forces come to mind. Believe Early had run out of cavalry, it was fall and all the crops were in and the flank of the Confederate infantry line was exposed and in the open. If I recall right, the Federals claimed they rode the square(s) down.

Long time ago though so I'll not pretend I remember the story correctly.


SCOTT BOWDEN14 Feb 2008 8:17 p.m. PST

Check out the action of James Lane's brigade of the Light Division during the fighting of 1 July 1863 at Gettysburg.

avidgamer15 Feb 2008 5:28 a.m. PST

Troops did practice forming square in the early days of the war but… many found out they didn't need to form square. The rifled musket was so effective at stopping cav charges as long as the soldiers holding the rifles didn't panic and fire too wildly.

vtsaogames15 Feb 2008 6:05 a.m. PST

Confederates formed square several times on July 1 at Gettysburg. Buford's tired troopers did not charge.

doc mcb15 Feb 2008 6:06 a.m. PST

As an indication of why squares were seldom necessary, check the cavalry charge against the Texas Brigade as it retreated from Little Round Top. The Texans scattered and crouched behind boulders and such, and blew the troopers away as they galloped by.

avidgamer15 Feb 2008 6:49 a.m. PST

Two things about cav and squares at Gettysburg…

One – that Buford formed 'as if' he'd charge. He never really intended to charge but he wanted to delay and fool the Rebs.

Two – Farnsworth's charge was foolhardy in the extreme. It was Kilpatrick's insane idea and stopping the cav charge was pretty easy because of the broken terrain.

None of these examples could be used to understand anything about whether cav charges vs. infantry in squares or not are good or bad ideas in general.

EJNashIII15 Feb 2008 7:51 a.m. PST

If I remember right, the regulars formed square at 1st Bull Run.

As stated above the terrain and rifle musket have cavalry charges difficult. In addition, all American calavry other than Rush's lancers were trained as light cavalry rather than heavy cavalry so they were not all that interested in this form of charge.

Now if you really want to throw your buddies off, model Rush's cavalry during the Antietam campaign. A couple of companies were documented to have tried a lance charge in Middletown valley!

I agree squares were rare, but not completely unheard of. As a reenactor we have practiced it a few times, but have never used it at a battle.

doc mcb15 Feb 2008 8:00 a.m. PST

avidgamer, I agree -- but terrain was nearly always broken. Gettysburg is one of the "open field" battles, in general.

doc mcb15 Feb 2008 8:01 a.m. PST

And, I would add, veteran infantry would be contemptuous of a cavalry charge, as Sam Watkins indicated. A charge might throw a green unit.

avidgamer15 Feb 2008 8:35 a.m. PST

doc mcb,

Yeah. The terrain near Seminary Ridge in which Buford division was farm land. The area near where Farnsworth's charge was all rocky. Looking at the area even now with the NPS having cut down the post battle trees is totally insane. You can understand why Judson Kilpatrick was nick-named "Kill Cavalry".

The one real strange incident (but perhaps not so) is when considering the battle of Winchester in 1864 during Sheridan's Valley campaign. The Union cav attacked mounted against Early's veterans. They were very sucessful but a few points need to be raised about this:

Early's army was worn out and somewhat demoralized by the battle time

Sheridan's army smelled blood

Union infantry had broken Early's line and the Rebs had started to fall apart. The rout was just about on.

Union cav supported the charge with dismounted cav with advancing repeating carbines

mosby6515 Feb 2008 8:35 a.m. PST

Two other instances of American Civil War units forming a square in combat have been brought to my attention:

The Confederate 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, 2nd Corps (Gladden's Brigade) formed a brigade square during the Battle of Shiloh.

The Union 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, 1st Corps formed a brigade square during the Battle of Chancellorsville.

Also, EJNashIII, you're correct. The Union 13th U.S. Infantry regiment not only formed a square at 1st Manassas, they manouvered (movoed) in square formation. Of course we would expect a regular army unit to be able to accomplish this. But the volunteer brigades mentioned above come as somewhat of a surprise.

doc mcb15 Feb 2008 8:56 a.m. PST

And given the rifled artillery in widespread use, any terrain open enough to allow cavalry to charge is likely to provide the longer ranged guns a juicy target. Even if a unit did form square in response to an imminent attack, it surely wouldn't want to STAY in square very long!

And yup, Early's men had had it by the time of Winchester.

ScottWashburn Sponsoring Member of TMP15 Feb 2008 10:57 a.m. PST

As noted above the square was used from time to time. I've seen a number of photos of regiments in square on the parade ground so they certainly practiced it. My reenactment battalion often forms square during drill and last fall at Cedar Creek actually had a chance to use one (see the "It's Cool to be Square" post in the Reenactments forum for details).

GRENADIER115 Feb 2008 1:08 p.m. PST

I was going to add that I have pictures in a book of a regiment in Square so the training was there.

vtsaogames15 Feb 2008 1:59 p.m. PST

I have a photo of a company square, I guess like a rallying square for skirmishers.

SteveJ15 Feb 2008 2:09 p.m. PST

Dave Gamer- that passage is quoted in Haythornthwaite's "ACW Source Book".
I remember it because it did seem quite a revealing quote at the time.
There were probably more tactics still in use that evoked the napoleonic wars than we realise, albeit a lot less freguently.
I suppose when a certain situation arises the commander on the spot will just do what he has to do. They didn't have 'Johnny Reb' to consult back then…

ScottWashburn Sponsoring Member of TMP15 Feb 2008 2:45 p.m. PST

"I have a photo of a company square, I guess like a rallying square for skirmishers."

Yes, by-the-book skirmisher drill calls for half the company (one platoon) to be deployed as skirmishers and the other half to be held in close-order reserve some distance behind the skirmish line. If the command was given to 'rally on the reserve' then the skirmishers would double-quick back to the reserve platoon. That platoon would bend back a section on each flank to form half of a square. as the skirmishers arrived they would fill in the rest of the square. It should be noted that it would take a nearly full-strength company to have enough men to form a hollow square. Skirmishers could also form a solid mass facing out in all directions with no clear space inside. This was probably more practical for the size of typical CW companies.

JackWhite16 Feb 2008 11:07 a.m. PST

In his unit history of the 1st Rhode Island Infantry, Elisha Hunt Rhodes writes that early in the war, the regiment had reached the crest of a hill with the intention of entering a town down below. Before making the movement, they formed square.


RockyRusso16 Feb 2008 11:21 a.m. PST


I think it depends on what you want out of rules. If you want to simulate a battle by only allowing a unit to do what it actually DID, the discussion has some merit. If, however, you see the player replacing the historical counterpart, then you need to allow the player to use the "tactics toolbox" that was available in the period, but not force him to only use the tools he did.

I think that one can assume that all the units involved knew how to form line, advance in line or column, deploy from column of march to line of battle…….and form square. Thus, I allow the players to do the drill even if a given drill would be a mistake in a given situation. Like being in square or column while being fired on by artillery.


Agesilaus16 Feb 2008 11:59 p.m. PST

The Second Wisconsin formed square near the Stone Bridge at Bull's Run, but broke formation because they were attracting too many civilian sectators. I'm pretty sure most units in the ACW knew the drill. I've done it as a reenactor, and it isn't rocket science. Forming square in a a static position is simple. Maneuvering in square is something else. They were also drilled to bayonet cavalry, aiming for the femural artery near the groin, by stabbing the inner thigh and sliding the bayonet up the leg. Yes, it seldom came up during the ACW, but the mere fact that they knew these things may help explain the infantry's contempt for cavalry.

Piper7918 Feb 2008 3:08 p.m. PST

I've encountered the following instances of infantry forming square;
1) 69th NY at 1st Bull Run
2) 55th Illinois at Shiloh (to protect against infantry!)
3) Lane's Brigade Confederates at Gettysburg 1st day
4) Orphan Brigade at Murfreesboro
5) Confederates at Winchester
6) Confederates at Five Forks
7) Confederates at Sailors Creek
8) 27th Tennessee Infantry, Resaca, Georgia, May 15, 1864:
9) The Thirty-second Indiana at Rowlett's Station, Ky
10)67th Indiana at Grand Coteau, La
11)123rd Il returning from an unspecified scout
12) Confederates at Nashville
13) 8th Ga at Olustee
14) 8th NH at Bayou LaForche

Upton's 1866 infantry manual still prescibed square as the defence against cavalry.

mosby6518 Feb 2008 8:00 p.m. PST

From other sources I can add:

The 5th Wisconsin Infantry formed a square in the Battle of Willamsburg during the Peninsula campaign

The 41st Illinois formed a square at Jackson, Mississippi durin the Vicksburg campaign

Companies of the 36th Illinois Infantry formed squares during the Battle of Pea Ridge.

From the excellent responses in this thread I for one am satisfied that another ACW question has been settled on TMP. ACW infantry companies, regiments, and brigades, both regular and volunteer, were

quite capable of forming and fighting from squares when circumstances required it and/or terrain allowed it.

able to do this throughout the war

mosby6519 Feb 2008 7:34 a.m. PST


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