An examination of the several methods
of passing obstructions,
as found in Hardee's.
By Leonidas Jones
6th Regiment, 1st Division, ANV
The Liberty Greys
In our recent encampment at Hammonasset, we were blessed with a large battalion, and a drill fields strewn with a variety of small to medium sized obstructions. The experience has caused me to ponder the question of avoiding obstacles, and I propose to share those thoughts in this short monograph.
In Column by Company.
When marching by the flank, upon encountering an obstacle, one simply marches around it. The small front of four men is quite maneuverable in this way. In a column by company, it becomes more awkward. The captain must judge the size of the obstacle, and exactly where his company will strike it, in order to avoid it with the minimum loss of distance.
If the obstacle will inconvenience only one file, such as a shrub, small tree, or isolated post, it is best to have that file step to rear and return to line once the obstacle is passed. There will be no loss of distance, and no formal command need be given.
If, however, the obstacle obstructs two or more files, action must be taken. If the obstacle appears at either side of the company, the oblique step could remedy the situation. Keep in mind though, that the oblique step causes a loss of distance. While, in theory, each company would have to oblique, thus regaining distance, in practice it be better to avoid the oblique if passing the obstacle requires more than a few paces in the step. This method is best used when the colonel causes the entire column to oblique at the same time.
It is possible to pass obstacles by breaking files to the rear, (paragraphs 289-305, SotC, 202, SotB) or by diminishing front by platoon or by section. (265 and following, SotC 201 an following, SotB.) These methods, however, are really designed for passing narrow defiles, and are awkward for the purpose of passing obstacles.
For a large obstacle, the best method is to break into the more flexible flank march. (314-315, SotC, 207, SotB.) The command sequence is as follows:
By the right (left) flank, by file left (right), MARCH.
The directing guide should continue to march straight to the front. The rank and file face right, double, and wheel by file immediately behind him. If the directing guides of the succeeding companies also continue the direct step, the only loss of distance incurred would be in maneuvering around the obstacle.
Strictly speaking, if the column by company is right in front (that is led by the right flank (first) company, the movement should be performed by the right flank. However, if the obstacle obstructs the right flank march, causing the company to maneuver around it, while a march by left flank would allow it by-pass it in the direct march, the march by the left would be preferred, as this will maintain distances.
If each company passes by the same flank, and the guides march accurately, there should be no loss of distance. In order that each company pass in the same manner, the colonel should intimate his preferred method of passing to the captain of the first company to reach the obstacle.
While passing an obstacle by flank march will cause no serious inconvenience in the column at full distance, in columns at half distance or closed in mass, the following company will be obliged to mark time, in order to allow the company which precedes it room to complete the movement. This will have the effect of opening the column to full distance, which can be closed again, if desired, once the obstacle is passed.
As an example, at one point in battalion drill, we were approaching a stand of trees before the second platoon. As we approached, the colonel commanded "Guide Right". This could have meant a wheel to the left, although that was unlikely due to woods. More likely it meant "On the right into line." Sure enough, we had just finished passing the obstacle, when we heard that command, we formed by company into line, and competed the maneuver. The following companies had a little more time to reform. The movement was performed well despite the obstacle.
In Line of Battle.
When marching in line, there are two specified methods of passing obstacles. The first is used when the entire line is faced with a row of small obstructions, such as several trees, shrubs, boulders, or, very commonly, a line of artillery. In this case, the entire battalion passes to a flank march, by company, passes the obstructions, and returns to the line of battle on the other side. (105 and following, SotB.) The command sequence is as follows:
By the right (left) of companies to the front, Battalion, by the right (left) flank, March.
The movement each company performs is actually "by the right (left) flank, by file left (right)," as described earlier. The result, in a six company battalion, is six parallel flank marches. Our practice is for the 1st sergeant (if by the right) to be responsible for maintaining the direction square to the front, while the captain is responsible for maintaining the alignment with the captains of the other companies. Thus we can maintain the alignment when line is reformed, and ensure space for each company to reform into line.
When the obstacles are passed, the colonel commands "by companies into line". If the captains and 1st sergeants have maintained direction and distance, the line is reformed quickly.
While this movement can be performed by the left of companies, thus far there has seemed to be reason to confuse the issue by doing so.
When advancing in line, and one or more companies is faced with a large obstacle, our practice has been to have the individual company perform the above maneuver. The only difficulty is that the right guide cannot march direct to the front. He must move to his left to keep his wheeling files from marching into the left flank of the company on his right. When the company forms back into line, he must again drift to the right, or his left flank will run into the right of the company on his left. We have performed the maneuver many times, and it does work, but, for the reasons just outlined, it can never be performed with parade ground precision. General Hardee, however, does give us another way. (628 and following, SotB.)
We suppose a six company battalion, advancing in line. The colonel sees that the first company faces an obstacle and commands as follows:
1st Company, Obstacle, 1st company by the left flank to the rear into column, double quick, March.
The company faces to the left while marching, and the two files on the left disengage to the rear. Basically, this means that it marches by the left flank, by file left. The captain then conducts it to the left, and enters behind the second company as though in a column left in front.
When the obstacle is passed, the colonel commands, "1st company, forward into line". The captain then adds "by company right half wheel, double quick, March. Forward, March," and the company returns to line. The only difference between this and "Forward into Line" from column is that the companies still in line are continuing to march to the front, necessitating the double quick step.
If any other company is faced with an obstacle, the same procedure is used. A company places itself into column behind the next company to the center. Thus companies of the right wing march by the left, as outlined above. Companies of the left wing would march by the right, simply reversing the directions in the above command sequence.
Realizing that we coming to a drill field that presented many obstacles, I determined to try this out with the 1st Maryland. In company drill Saturday, I taught a simplified version of the evolution.
A few years ago, I coined the term "reenactorism", meaning elements of drill that are common in reenacting, but differ from what is specified in any period manual. Reenactorisms have crept into our hobby for four reasons:
1. The manual has simply been misread, or not consulted at all.
2. A procedure specified in company drill is misapplied to battalion drill.
3. A procedure is not specified in the manual, so one is made up to serve a purpose.
4. A procedure is modified or simplified to accommodate reenacting reality ( for example, very small numbers), or our ability to learn.
No. 1 mostly perpetuates reenactorisms, as we simply do as we were taught, rather than learn from the period texts. A good example of this are the many bizarre versions of skirmish drill you will still find, fortunately, in our region, mostly from the blue (or more likely, green) side.
Another example was a problem I had. When I first became a 1st sergeant, I was taught to leave a space of one file between companies in a battalion line of battle, I assumed it was correct, and continued to do so for quite a while. Of course the period manuals make no reference to any such thing. The battalion line is shoulder to shoulder, unless firing, when the captain and 1st sergeant step to the rear, creating a one file space between companies.
No. 2 comes about from the way we learn. We all learned School of the Soldier, progressed to School of the Company, and slammed head on into School of the Battalion. An example of company drill applied to the battalion is the battalion wheel. It simply doesn't exist! Battalions in line change front by the evolution "Change Front Forward" which will be discussed later in the article. A battalion marching in line can be wheeled to effect small changes of direction, but the command should be "Change direction to the Right (Left), March," not "Battalion, Right (Left) wheel, March." We get away with it since our battalions are often not much larger than period companies.
For those interested in the study of battalion drill, see my short article on the subject, where I suggest a sensible order in which to study General Hardee's School of the Battalion.
An example of No. 3 is the command for facing right or left without doubling files. Both versions of Hardee's, and Casey's, simply state that the captain will "caution" the men not to double (or undouble). Thus we found "without doubling (or undoubling)" as a cautionary command. This is a perfectly utilitarian improvisation, since no command is specified. However, once we consult Gilham's, we find the very specific "In two ranks". Since this caution is found in a period manual, albeit not our adopted standard, it preferable to one invented for the purpose with no documentation.
A perfect example of No. 4 is advancing by the right of companies. When we first began to learn this evolution as a battalion, our staff made a decision to leave out the breaking of two files to the front, and inserting "by company, by file left" into the command sequence, thus accomplishing the same end. This reduced an unfamiliar evolution into a series of familiar commands, rendering it doable almost immediately. Now that the evolution is familiar to all of us, staff has eliminated the extra command, and taught us to break the files. This was a reenactorism with a purpose, properly delete when the purpose was served. We now do the movement almost as specified in the manuals. ( I will have more to say on this in an upcoming monograph on the proper use of the second sergeant.)
I amended the procedure to make it easier to teach and use in a short time. Rather than having the left two files disengage automatically, which they might or might not remember to do, I had the company mark time to disengage the flank, a command familiar to all, and then march by the flank behind the second company, then by the right flank. We marched in quick time, which placed just about at full distance. Since we so rarely practice evolutions at the double quick, unlike our historic counterparts, to reenactors the double quick tends to promote disorder. To return to line, I basically reversed the procedure, marching by the right flank to unmask ourselves, and by the left flank to return to our proper place. Here the double quick is unavoidable, since we need to catch the companies which have continued to march direct to the front.
While at the time is seemed easier to reverse the same process to return to line, I have now realized that "Forward into line" is now so familiar to all that it would be better to leave that alone. Still, we have a reenactorism, created for a purpose, which I hope to eliminate once the movement becomes very familiar.
At Saturday's battalion drill at Hammonassett, the battalion was advancing in line, when our company (first company) was faced with an obstacle, a pile of wood that was to used to create a field fortification. This obstacle covered most of our front, but impeded no other company, the perfect opportunity for trying thru new procedure.
I gave the commands outlined above, and ployed the company into column behind the second company. All worked beautifully. We entered into column at about company distance, without the need to double quick. We passed the obstacle, and began to move back to the right at the double quick. At this point, matters became more complicated.
As we started to move by the right flank, the colonel marched the entire battalion by the right flank. We were gaining ground by double quicking, but not as quickly as we needed. Our first sergeant moved us insensibly to the left, moving us closer to our proper position. At this point, the colonel commanded by companies into line.
We continued to march by the flank, closing on our position, hoping to form into line at the head of the column. We had gained our distance, and were closing on the column, when the colonel commanded forward into line.
At this point I gave up trying to reposition ourselves, halted the company and aligned it by the left instead of the right, in order to gain at least a little of the lost ground. We were on the alignment, a bit less than a platoon distance to far to the right. The other companies formed line. It was a bit messy, but the movement was completed.
Had we used the proper forward into line version of returning to line, the would most likely have been the same. The orders were simply coming too fast for us to catch up! The forward into line method is clearly to preferred, in that we would never be marching to flank while the battalion marches away from us. In the future, I will employ it.
Still, the obstacle was passed, and the rapid movements ended correctly, so I would judge the experiment a success. Once we become accustomed to it, and perform it with greater facility, it may prove most valuable
Change of Front.
There were two other occasions in drill that required passage of obstacles. Both involved changes of front on the sixth company. Both times, the second company was faced with an obstacle that did not effect us. Both times their captain marched around the obstruction by the right flank, as I would likely have done in his place. On both occasions I was compelled to cause my company to mark time to allow the second to finish its wheel by file, causing us to arrive a little late. It is the most minor of points, but in reflecting on it, passing the obstacle by the left flank would not have impeded our progress, and would also have kept the company in the flank march in closer contact with the company upon which it would have to form.
Therefore I recommend that in a change of front on the left flank company, or its companion evolution, forward into line in column left in front, that obstacles be passed by the left flank. In a change of front on the right flank company, or forward into line in column right in front, the passage would be better accomplished by the right flank.
Of course, each captain knows his own company. If a march by the left flank would cause confusion and disorder, a march by the right flank in good order will cause less loss of distance and sloppiness of execution.
It is good that our drill has progressed to this point. In the old days every man was left to fend for himself. An obstacle of any size basically cause the formation to be dispersed and then reformed on the other side. That we can now discuss several options, and choose that witch allows the most regularity, least loss of distance, and consequently, greatest promptness, speaks well for the development of our drill.
All number references refer to paragraphs, not pages, in the 1862 North Carolina edition of Hardee's. The 1855 edition has identical paragraph numbers, and these examples, differs only in minor wording, it at all.
Noting the above, there is no real need for a formal bibliography. Reference to any complete edition of Hardee's will do.
It is, however, important to note that much of the basis of this, and many of my works could only be gained from the first hand experience of maneuvering troops, that can only be gained through reenacting. By experiencing this, hands on, and first hand, we, as reenactors, gain an understanding of what we do that can never be gained from books alone.
6th Regiment, 1st Division, ANV
The Liberty Greys