The Mechanics of Marching

The actual nuts and bolts of military life is something that usually doesn’t make it into the history books, yet it’s something soldiers have to deal with every day. Few who have not been in the military realize the constant, mind-numbing array of details that have to mastered on a daily basis just for an army to survive, much less fight.

Armies have to move, and just moving a large group of men from one place to another is a challenge in itself. In the Civil War this was almost always done by men marching down roads, usually in a column of fours. Sounds easy, but it isn’t. A brigade, especially if you included its wagons, might stretch out for a couple of miles. Add artillery and cavalry and it gets even longer. Not to mention heat and choking dust, or bottomless mud when it rained.

In practice a marching column like this is a sort of giant accordion. Your company seldom marches at a steady pace for long. You halt for no apparent reason, then suddenly it’s hurry up and you’re almost double timing, then halt again. That was the reality of many marches. Why?

I came across some fascinating research on this—not about marching per se, but traffic studies, which deals with the same phenomenon. Highway traffic on congested roads acts similarly to men marching on one. We’re all had the experience I described above in a car—stopped one moment and nearly flat out the next.

Some Japanese scientists investigated the phenomenon, which they call “shockwave traffic jams.” Usually they are caused by one driver who slows suddenly, causing a “shockwave” of slowed vehicles that moves backward at about 20 km/hr. They modeled this on a circular track and there’s even a video. I’m sure some modern-day CW units could experiment as well. One electrical engineer even figured out a way to “smooth the waves” and get everything back to normal again.

In the Civil War the problem was most apparent with green troops who didn’t yet have the basics down. Veteran troops learned, like the electrical engineer mentioned above, that the best policy was a steady marching speed and lots of patience. Over time the “accordion” effect lessened, but never went away. In practice, especially with new units in the line of march, it could really slow things down, just as it does on a congested highway. The problem, as you would expect, got even worse when the column had to slow to cross an obstacle like a river.

I mention all this because of how it fits into the battle of Antietam, particularly the question of the anomaly of why French’s division veered off to attack the Confederates in the Sunken Road. The first question is why French got so far behind Sedgwick, who moved into the West Wood unsupported. I think the answer lies in the makeup of the two divisions. Sedgwick’s division was composed of veteran regiments, most of whom had been in the army since the beginning of the war and had many marches behind them. Thus for them, crossing the creek, deploying, and pushing into the West Wood was a fairly straightforward exercise. French’s division, OTOH, had many regiments that had been raised in August and had been in the army only six or seven weeks. For them the approach march, the crossing, and deploying in formation on the other side were major exercises. This, I think, is the main reason that French fell so far behind, although his own dilatory ways probably had something to do with it as well. Thus he was far behind where he should have been—and where his corps commander, Bull Sumner, thought he was.

Also ran across a manual of protest tactics (Bodyhammer: Tactics and Self-Defense for the Modern Protester). I’m not going to link to it—it’s easy to find if you want to look for it. The author, “Sarin,” spends a good bit of time talking about using a “shield wall” to combat police. He ends up reinventing techniques any Civil War soldier would know.

1) linear formations are hard to control:

The critical aspect to moving in any shield wall formation is unison. While demonstrators would discourage any individual to marshal a march, a form of organization is necessary. Unless it is possible to prepare and practice these tactics ahead of time, the best way is the use of simple commands that can be shouted (examples below), including warnings of what is ahead for those who cannot see.
For keeping tight in a march at any pace, the best method is a drum near the front (a drummer in the back won’t know what is going on well enough) or the calling off of steps
(“1, 2, 1, 2…).

2) Use scouts:

A system of scouts is critical to effectively moving a shield wall, especially when it is unknown where confrontation is to be expected. This does not necessitate a series of outpost necessarily, although that would be useful as well. What a mobile shield wall needs is eyes, which should be on at least all four corners of the march. Bicyclists or possible regular-looking pedestrian scouts can cover their own angle of view and operate half of a block to a full block ahead watching their respective side.

3) Retreat is dangerous:

So should a situation come to this and the possibility of arrest or extreme caution becomes necessary, it might be time to beat a retreat. Historically, retreating armies suffer the worst losses. The same is true in demonstrations when people break and run in fear. While there is no real practical means of teaching people to avoid this panic, a few cool heads can save the day. The first critical thing a person can do in this situation is to yell “Don’t run!” as the first fear should be stampeding other people – a horrible and demoralizing possibility.

Someone should send these guys a copy of Hardee.

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One response to “The Mechanics of Marching”

  1. Rich Rostrom Avatar
    Rich Rostrom

    Very few people who haven’t actually had to do it understand how difficult it is to maneuver large numbers of people. To get. say, 40,000 men from hither to yon in good order and reasonable time, on foot, with no communications except couriers, is a considerable achievement.

    I read once of a WW II soldier whose assignment was “advance man” for an Allied HQ (might have been a division or corps) in Italy. When the Allies were advancing (as they were much of the time) the HQ needed to relocate, and this guy was in charge of finding places for them to set up.

    During the War, there were similar (but in fact much tougher) requirements for armies on the march. So called “mediocre” commanders like Buell or Bragg had to be serious experts to do as much as they did.

    Getting back to the battlefield – that’s why troops spent so much time drilling.

    Two other notes:

    1) A brigade would be about 1,600 men. In column of fours, that’s 400 ranks. If the ranks are two yards apart, that’s 800 yards. Even with additional space for artillery, wagons, and spacing between companies and regiments, still a bit over half a mile, not “a couple of miles.”

    2) “Bodyhammer” is for rioters, not protesters.

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