Tactical Innovation in the Civil War?

August Willich at Liberty Gap

The mere typing of this blog post title fills me with dread and nervous anticipation. As an historian who does biography, I focus on the life story of my central character— how she developed her social and political beliefs, changed over time, interacted with important people and events, faced and overcame challenges, and left some sort of mark behind for us to study and evaluate. Having had no formal education or training in the military arts, writing battle narratives is daunting enough. Going deeper into strategy and tactics for a core audience of Civil War enthusiasts is like offering advice on shooting technique to LeBron James. Thankfully, I have qualified, generous peers willing to review my drafts and help save me from making an ignorant error or ten when describing combat maneuvers.

Disclaimers aside, taking on the challenge of writing about one of the most talented and interesting general officers in the Western Theatre required a deep dive into many areas far from the realm of my expertise. This is one of the great pleasures of research and writing. When Dave Powell and Eric Wittenberg urged me to tackle the biography of Army of the Cumberland General August Willich, I knew it would be a big challenge. Besides being one of the most colorful and eccentric general officers in the war, Willich had a well-earned reputation for tactical excellence. Whether his men were employing the hollow square formation to fend of a force of cavalry four times their size at Rowlett’s Station, changing front nine times in five successive charges at Shiloh, or covering the retreat of two divisions at Chickamauga, Willich consistently demonstrated coolness under fire, the ability to think, adjust and act quickly, and the foresight to anticipate enemy moves, countering them with an effective blend of disciplined troop management and creative field leadership.

However, origins of Willich’s most heralded innovation, “advance firing,” remain shrouded in mystery, even among experts. Here’s how Dave Powell described the tactical opportunity:

Advance Firing was Willich’s own solution to the problem of advancing over contested ground. Typically, stationary infantry could fire 3 rounds a minute. Advancing troops had to cross the killing ground quickly and close with the enemy. When smoothbore ranges really limited infantry fights to 50 or 100 yards, defenders might rip off one good or two ragged volleys before that moment of closure. Rifles opened the range, and theorists, in turn, increased the rate of closure for advancing troops by doubling the pace. Willich found this answer unsatisfactory. Instead, he decided that it would be better to incorporate fire and maneuver while advancing.[1]

Advance firing required the battalion to right face and double into a column of fours, then face back to their left. Instead of undoubling and reverting to a standard two rank line, they stayed in fours, creating a line four ranks deep with an empty file on the left between each file of four. After the first rank fired, the fourth rank advanced several paces through the open file to the front and fired while the original first rank began reloading. The rear ranks moved to front in successive order, having had plenty of time to reload. This created an advancing wall of fire that was, by the accounts of both attackers and defenders, both surprising and overwhelming. As a captured Confederate sergeant described the first documented use of advance firing by the 49th Ohio at Liberty Gap in Tennessee, “Lord Almighty, who can stand against that? Four lines of battle and every one of them firing?”[2]

Training Manual Illustration of Advance Firing

Willich did not invent advance firing out of whole cloth; rather, he probably adapted it from tactics he had studied at the Prussian military academy. Powell mentioned a street fighting drill whereby German Jaegers advanced in four ranks in the American Revolution as one possible inspiration. My challenge was clear—find hard evidence of similar techniques in older military manuals that Willich was likely exposed to in Europe. Despite the fact that I could not pretend to carry Earl Hess’s cartridge box or wear Brent Nosworthy’s kepi, I plunged awkwardly into the deep end of infantry tactics. Here’s what I discovered.

Initial clues came from Willich himself, who believed that the majority of the firing in battle should be done by heavy skirmish lines, reserving fire from the line for times when skirmishers were driven back or in the instance of a full-scale assault or retreat. Newspaper reports from 1863 describe the implementation of advance firing at Liberty Gap as a skirmishing drill executed at the battalion level by the entire regiment.[3] A few months later at Chickamauga, Willich expanded the use of advance firing to the brigade level, with multiple regiments executing the technique simultaneously and also performing the reverse technique when conducting a methodical withdrawal from the field, which Willich called “retreat firing.”[4]

A Google search of these terms yielded intriguing results. An English skirmishing manual published in 1831, just three years after Willich earned his commission as a second lieutenant in the Prussian army, describes an entire battalion advancing in line with the leading ranks covering the front as skirmishers. Firing commenced as they advanced by alternate files.[5] This was not the same as Willich’s technique. Some historians claim that similar methods of advancing and firing by alternate ranks were used throughout Europe for centuries. Sure enough, a glance at an English drill manual from 1635 revealed nearly the same four rank advance firing technique that Willich used. They called it “firing by introduction.” Here’s a snippet from that manual:

1635 Barriffe Manual

For the other way of firing by introduction, the first ranke (or file-leaders) are to give fire as before, and to stand, the last ranke (or bringers up) in the interim of their firing; marching up, and ranking even with the second ranke: the rest following their Bringers up; as they do when Bringers up double their front. The first ranke having fired, the Bringers up step immediately before them; present, and give fire; the rest stil, successively, doing the like, untill every rank have given fire once over.[6]

Conversations with historian Greg Biggs revealed that the father of Frederick the Great used a four-rank infantry formation, then his son reduced that to three ranks due to innovations with the Prussian musket that increased his rate of fire to five rounds per minute while advancing. Historians dubbed it a “walking battery.”[7] Willich was a keen student of both Frederick and Napoléon and claimed that lessons learned from studying the great military campaigns of the past were far more useful than “three ponderous volumes of Scott’s tactics.”[8] Ample evidence uncovered recently by Ninth Ohio historian Andrew Houghtaling confirms that while Willich and other German American officers may have given lip service to a strict comportment with American military manuals, their own commanders often looked the other way while they maintained numerous practices derived directly from the Prussian drill manual.[9]

Prussian Drill Manual 18th c

I will defer to the experts to debate the degree of tactical innovation that occurred during the American Civil War, but what made Willich a brilliant tactician was not his originality, but his ability to adapt to changing conditions and employ a much broader tactical repertoire than his West Point trained counterparts. In fact, Willich made little effort to conceal his contempt for a professional officer corps, whom he criticized as composed of “the lurid intellect of a regular corporal or the scraps picked up from a half-digested compendium of a military school.” Willich believed that a citizen army, with officers selected for their superior intelligence and morality and soldiers trained via compulsory military education and service, would serve the republic better than a system led by an exclusive class of privileged elites. His proposal for a national citizen militia was never seriously considered.[10]

General William S. Rosecrans was receptive to new ideas and left service with the reputation of being one of the Union Army’s most creative and resourceful strategists. Willich’s revival of advanced firing and other techniques plucked from the playbooks of the most talented military leaders in European history gained favor for a short time in the Army of the Cumberland. After the debut of advanced firing at Liberty Gap, one solider reported, “I understand most of the brigades in the army are adopting the movement.”[11] Indeed, two of Colonel Charles B. Harker’s regiments, the 64th Ohio and the celebrated 125th Ohio led by Colonel Emerson Opdyke, employed advance firing on September 20 at Chickamauga.[12] But when George S. Thomas replaced Rosecrans after the battle, such irregular maneuvers came to an end. The Rock of Chickamauga was a “by the book” army commander and had plenty of conventional tools in his arsenal that ultimately proved effective. Willich’s advance firing technique, as devastating as it was to enemy infantry remains, as Powell so aptly out it, merely “a footnote in the history of the war.”[13]


David T. Dixon is the author of Radical Warrior: August Willich’s Journey from German Revolutionary to Union General (Knoxville; Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2020). He lives in Santa Barbara, California.


[1]David A. Powell, “Attention, Battalion! Advance, Firing!” The Chickamauga Campaign (blog), December 27, 2009, https://chickamaugablog.wordpress.com/2009/12/27/attention-battalion-advance-firing/.

[2] David T. Dixon, Radical Warrior: August Willich’s Journey from German Revolutionary to Union General (Knoxville; Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2020), 6. 170, 176, 182, 188—89, 196. David A. Powell and Eric J. Wittenberg, Tullahoma: The Forgotten Campaign that Changed the Course of the Civil War, June 23 – July 4, 1863 (El Dorado Hills, Ca.: Savas Beattie, 2020), 156—57.

[3] Tiffin Weekly Tribune 28 Aug. 1863.

[4] Dixon, Radical Warrior, 197.

[5] C. Leslie, Instructions for the Application of Light Drill to Skirmishing in the Field: With Observations on Advanced and Rear Guards, and Flank Patroles (Dublin: Pettigrew and Oulton, 1831), vii, 8, 17–18.

[6] William Barriffee, Military discipline: or, the yong artillery man Wherein is discoursed and showne the postures both of musket and pike: the exactest way, &c. Together with the motions which are to be used, in the excercising of a foot-company (London Thomas Harper, 1635), 203.

[7] Email from Greg Biggs March 21, 2019. Biggs cites Christopher Duffy, The Army of Frederick the Great (2nd Edition)
(Emperor’s Press, 1996, Chicago); Jay Luvaas ed. and translator, Frederick the Great on the Art of War (Free Press, New York, 1966); Philip Haythornthwaite, Frederick the Great’s Army: Infantry (Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 1991); Peter Hofschroer, Prussian Line Infantry 1792-1815 (Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 1984).

[8] Dixon, Radical Warrior, 224—28.

[9] Andrew M. Houghtaling, “Mit einem lauten hurrah-ruf”: The use of “Prussian Drill” during the American Civil War, unpublished manuscript, 2020.

[10] Dixon, Radical Warrior, 224—28.

[11] Tiffin Weekly Tribune 28 Aug. 1863.

[12] Dixon, Radical Warrior, 196.

[13] Powell, “Attention, Battalion!”

16 Responses to Tactical Innovation in the Civil War?

  1. First off, I want to say how much I enjoyed Dixon’s book. Oddly enough, I recently quoted his description of Willich’s tactic in a text about the many innovations Rosecrans’ army used during the Tullahoma Campaign. The Army of the Cumberland under Rosecrans was open to talent in a way their opponents in the Army of Tennessee were not. It is a stark contrast.

    1. Enh.. the AoT did have Forrest, who was promoted way too high just for being such a martial figure, and they let Shoup build his Shoupades, not that they used them. Rosecrans might have been the best general the Union had as far as maneuver, logistics, and tactics. He had some stellar subordinates, and he recognized them and encourage them.

      1. You are more than welcome. I also read the new Tullahoma Campaign book by Pollard & Wittenberg. It was quite a combo. I live in Murfreesboro, so this is home ground for me. I find the three attacks at Liberty, Hoover’s & Guys Gaps fascinating. Each engagement involved innovations that were going to win the war.

  2. Much of this is equally true for Colonel Elmer Ellsworth. The Zouave drill is different in several respects from regular U. S. Army drill. Sharpshooters developed a type of drill based on their needs, and the cavalry changed dramatically in its mission as the war continued. Ultimately, all of this will result in the development of Special Forces within our military. I find it all very compelling, and liked that part of Radical Warrior very much.

  3. Interestingly, I have no recollection of reading about such an idea (nor can I find anything in a hasty check of indexes) in McWhiney and Jameison’s “Attack and Die,” Paddy Griffith’s “Battle Tactics of the Civil War,” or Nosworthy’s “The Bloody Crucible of Courage.”

    1. Thanks for your comment, Dave. Greg Biggs turned me on to Nosworthy’s Bloody Crucible. Dave Powell deserves credit for bringing attention to advanced firing. I personally prefer Earl Hess’s terrific book on Infantry tactics as I think it appeals to a much wider audience on on-experts like myself.

  4. I think what is so interesting is that Grant looked at Scott’s Tactical Manual and said it is just “common sense.” More interestingly, he was involved in pressing Wallace’s tactical manual (it failed), then helping Upton’s work get published. Grant was the only general in the American Civil War that developed the Grand Tactic of Continuous Contact.

    Your work on Willich seems very interesting and will have to put that on my list. Great piece.

  5. It is a beautiful day here in Middle Tennessee. I am going to take my Official Atlas maps, David A. Powell & Eric J. Wittenberg’ book & yours to Liberty Gap this afternoon. I have never had a clear idea of what went on where out there. The addition of Willich’s tactics changes my entire concept of what happened. Liberty Gap is essentially pristine. The next time we do our Tullahoma Campaign programs at Stones River I will have a very different narrative. That is what I like about CW scholarship, there is always something new coming along to shake up my assumptions.

    1. I took my German colleague Felix Zimmermann to both Stones River and Liberty Gap as part of the research. Even with Greg Biggs helping me with landmarks I found it very difficult to grasp from a landscape point of view. Is there a move afoot to have any educational markers erected on the road to Belle Buckle? We spent most of the day figuring it out. Beautiful and unspoiled area. Dramatic geography.

      1. It is hard to orient yourself at Liberty Gap. Beautiful country, though. If they have a seat I am going on Greg & John’s Tullahoma Campaign bus tour on the 24th. We will benefit from your hard work. I am not aware of any plans to erect historic markers there.

  6. Just as Napoleon wasn’t a pure innovator of either tactics or Grand Strategy, but a brilliant synthesizer, much of what is viewed as unique in the Civil War actually has rather dated roots. I love the above discussion, but it unfortunately skips over the War of the Spanish Succession, where the English and Dutch perfected firing by platoon. Marlborough left a significant footprint in Europe, one that his allies the Prussian picked up on over the next several decades.

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