Fire by file – Why we should do it less often

By Warner Todd Huston

I have been doing some reading and trying to discover what was the most common way that a battalion utilized firing orders and I have come across some interesting points.

It seems that firing by file was not a popular style of firing among the officer class during the civil war for almost the very same reason it is problematic for us in reenacting.

How many times have we as reenactors ordered a company to fire by file and had the company run through their rounds in seconds flat leaving the company standing there, all unloaded, a perfect target for the enemy to charge? To remedy this in the past I have tried cautioning the company to count to three between sections firing. That way we give enough time between the first file and the last, thereby making sure that at least some of the men are loaded again at the head of the company. Consequently, we are not presenting a totally unloaded company for the enemy in our front to exploit. But this “Fix” is nearly impossible to control as well.

So, the tendency is for the men to fire down the line too fast. Then there ends up being a time when there is no firing at all while the men of the company are reloading leaving the company vulnerable to a charge that could cause them to break and run.

One of the reasons for firing by file was so that a continuous amount of fire was to be popping up and down the line after the initial firing. Remember manuals order that after each file fires, the men are to automatically load and fire at least three rounds on their own. The idea was that once the firing had gone down the 100 man company front the first platoon would be mostly reloaded and will have begun to fire independently creating a desultory fire up and down the company front as each man fires at his own rate. This is fine if you actually have 100 men, but this was uncommon even during the war. And a100 man company is nearly unheard of in reenacting.

Here are a few citations which appear in “The War of the Rebellion: A compilation of the Official Records” (the OR) from some of the general officers of the war on firing orders:

Gereral Rosecrans: “Fire by wings” – OR, I, 42 (3), P 412 General G.K. Warren: Ordered firing by ranks – OR,I,42,(2), P 343-334 General Beauregard: firing by file “excited the troops and renders their subsequent control difficult”. Recommended the fire by wing or fire by company instead- OR,I, 10 (2), P 326

Confederate Major William Baird explained to a military commission after the Maryland campaign that it was “almost impossible” to get untrained, inexperienced men to fire by volleys because the men got so excited in battle that they fired any which way they could. Here the Major is proving that he conceived veteran soldiers as being more effective because they were under control and firing deliberately in volleys at the command of their trained offices. (OR, I, 19 (1), P 608)

As Major Baird realized, men firing under their own initiative are harder to coordinate within the company. They are concentrating on their own, individual action of loading and firing and have less attention available to give to officer’s orders. This we see on the reenacting field all the time. Once an independent fire is ordered it can be very difficult to gain the company’s attention when the officer wishes to change the firing order, move the men or make any other order.

So, as Colonel I will try to avoid firing by file more often from this point forward. It causes the men to fire too quickly, presents a vulnerable front of men unloaded and causes the men to be harder to control as they load and fire on their own making them unmindful of their officer’s orders. I believe it will make the men more responsive on the field to orders for movement from their officers, will present constantly loaded arms to the front and will also have the effect of making our ammunition supply last longer in battle.

The last point cannot be stressed too much. We have another problem in reenacting where we run out of ammo too quickly. During the war the men were usually issued 40 to 60 rounds and often did not fire all of those. In this hobby we fire way more than that all too often and still run out at times on the field. If we are firing by more deliberate methods we will cause the men to fire less often per man and with better effect in massed volleys of wings, ranks or companies.

Please consider these ideas for future events in your own companies. Try them out and see how well they do.