Chapter I

Mahan’s Outpost


70. TACTICS may be defined to be the art of drawing up, and moving troops systematically. It admits of a classification into two divisions. 1. Minor or elementary tactics; under which head may be placed all that refers to the drill, and other preparatory instruction of troops, to give them expertness in the use of their weapons, and facility of movement. 2. Grand tactics; or the art of combining, disposing, and handling troops on the field of battle.

71. The manner of drawing up troops, or their disposition in their primitive order of battle, evidently must depend upon the kind of weapon with which they are armed, and their mode of fighting. A glance, upon the preceding pages, will show how the primitive order of battle has been modified by these circumstances, in different nations, and at different epochs. Without stopping to consider these, or to enter into an analysis of the once vexed question respecting the merits of the deep and shallow orders, we shall take it as practically solved, for the present, by the adoption in all civilized states, of the uniform system now in use; which is for in. fan troops, either dispersed, or deployed in lines for firing; and in columns of march, or attack, for movements;–for cavalry, either deployed lines or dispersed order for attack, and columns for maneuvers, and exceptionally for attack. To this it may be added, that no soldier, who has made himself conversant with the resources of his art, will allow himself to be trammeled by any exclusive system. What the case requires he will do, if confident of his troops; throwing a deployed line, with the bayonet advanced, upon his enemy, if he judges the moment propitious; or charging impetuously, with his horse in column, under like circumstances.

72. The systems of tactics in use in our service are those of the French; not that opinion is settled among our officers on this point; some preferring the English. In favor of the French, it may be said, that there is really more affinity between the military aptitude of the American and French soldier, than between that of the former and the English; and that the French systems are the results of a broader platform of experience, submitted to the careful analysis of a body of officers, who, for science and skill combined, stand unrivaled; whereas the English owes more to individual than to general talent; and therefore is more liable to the defects of individual pride of opinion, than where this can only be felt in discussion at the council board, at which its morgue is liable to be checked, and its fallacies exposed, by rival talent.

73. In all tactical combinations, experience has shown that for each arm there is a certain numerical force, which lends itself best to the essential conditions demanded in all troops -,-which are strength, activity, and the faculty of moving in any direction. This force, termed the unit, varies in the different arms. In all cases, it should not be so great but that all the men of which it is comprised may be overlooked by, and be known to, the officer in command of it; and also when drawn up in its order of battle, be within reach of his voice. These last conditions place a practical limit to the tactical unit; owing to the extent to which the human voice can be distinctly heard; the space taken up by each combatant; and the form and dimensions of the figure covered on the ground by the unit in its order of battle.

74. The battalion is the unit of the arm of infantry; the squadron that of the arm of cavalry; and the battery of six guns that of the arm of artillery.

75. For each of these units, particular subdivisions have been adopted; and their command intrusted to officers of suitable grade, both to overlook and to lead them in the various combinations to which the unit may be subjected. For the details on all these points, as they do not come within the scope of this work, reference may be had to the systems of elementary tactics adopted in our service.

76. The order of battle of the unit is usually based upon the nature of the weapon used, and the space required for handling it freely.

77. The habitual order of battle of infantry is in two or three ranks. With us, that of two ranks is generally preferred, partly because our battalion is small, and therefore requires all the front that can be given without presenting a line liable to waver at every change of position; but mainly because every musket can be made to tell effectively: a point of great importance where the troops, like ours generally, are habituated to handling firearms almost from childhood.

78. Cavalry is now universally formed in two ranks, in order of battle. The efficiency of this arm resides in the power of its shock; and, as in a charge, the first rank alone is brought into actual contact with the enemy, the only reason for placing a second is to close up gaps made in the front by casualties whilst charging; and also in the melee that succeeds the charge, to have a sufficient number of sabres in hand to do good service.

79. The order of battle of artillery is necessarily a line of pieces in front; a second of caissons for the supply of immediate wants, and a third line of caissons in reserve to the rear, beyond the reach of casualties from the enemy’s fire.

80. The subdivisions of the unit have their habitual position in the order of battle. This is necessary, in order that the mechanism of the unit may have that simplicity and uniformity in which there will be no difficulty in its being comprehended and retained by ordinary minds, to the end that every movement may be executed with promptitude. Still cases may occur in which the requisite rapidity to meet an attack, or to move in a given direction, cannot be attained without changing the habitual order. Such cases are provided for by what are termed inversions, in which the subdivisions temporarily change places and parts.

81. In all changes of position that demand a disturbance of the fundamental order of battle of the unit, it is broken into its subdivisions, which are placed in certain relative positions with respect to each other, according to the object in view. These combinations are termed maneuvers, and their chief object usually is to change the direction of the front of the unit, according to the particular exigency.

82. Maneuvers, like all the rest of the mechanism pertaining to the unit, should be stamped with simplicity and uniformity, for reasons already as signed. The tactics of the present day present, in this respect, a remarkable contrast to those of the period anterior to it; which is owing, in no small measure, to the little scope left for individual fancy, every proposal being submitted to the formal examination of an enlightened board. Stage spectacles alone now occasionally furnish some notions of the whimsies of olden times; so happily bit off in the well-known article of Salmagundi, where the street pump figures as an almost impassable obstacle to the show soldier of that day.

83. The foregoing observations, upon the spirit of the actual state of tactics, can doubtless convey nothing more than a vague idea of the subject. They were introduced with this view only; so that the young student of the art might have some general notion, though a vague one, of what is proposed to be attained, before his mind gets more or less bewildered in what must seem, for some time at least, a maze of technicalities, and mere rote-work,- the systems of elementary tactics for conducting the drill.

84. Army Organization. Although not altogether within the design of this work, a few words here may be not out of place on army organization. Of all the civilized states of Christendom, we are perhaps the least military, though not behind the foremost as a warlike one. A sounder era, however, is dawning upon us. The desire for war, as such, is decreasing, whilst a feeling of the necessity for being always ready for it is becoming more general. All our battle-fields, up to the glorious feat at Buena Vista, have proved to the world that the American soldier was wanting in no military quality, but combined the vivacity of the French with the tenacity of the English. But this, however, could make but little impression upon the soldier-statesmen of Europe. To be warlike, does not render a nation formidable to its neighbors. They may dread to attack it, but have no apprehensions from its offensive demonstrations. It was reserved for the expedition to Vera-Cruz, and its sequel, the victory of Cerro-Gordo, to bring into strong relief the fact, that we were un-ostentatiously, and almost silently, becoming a powerful military state. The lesson will not be lost upon our neighbors, however slowly we, in the end, may profit by it. A shout has gone forth from the Rio-Grand, and the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, which, heard on the Thames and the Seine, has resounded along the far-off shores of the Baltic and Black Sea, and will reach the farther inland, bearing with it a significance that no prudent statesman will hereafter affect to misunderstand. What are the military resources of this great Republic is no longer a question; a more thorough organization is alone wanting for their complete development

85. Napoleon, at the period of the preparations for his descent upon England, had a moment of leisure which he could bestow upon his military organization. Then, for the first time, it is believed, was introduced a systematic organization of grand masses, termed Army Corps; each one comprising within itself all the elements of a complete army, and apt for any emergency. Since then this has served as a type to France, and other European states, in their organization.

86. An army is now composed of one, or more army corps, made up of infantry and cavalry; an artillery equipage, comprising several batteries; several artillery parks of reserve; with a grand one to which is attached a bridge-train.

87. Each army corps consists of one, or more Divisions; each division of several Brigades; the brigade comprising two Regiments. Two batteries of foot-artillery, of six pieces each are attached to each infantry division; and one of horse-artillery, of the same strength, to each division of heavy cavalry.

Besides, for each army corps of infantry, there is a reserve of several batteries; and a few served by foot artillery. In some cases, one of the batteries of reserve is served by the horse-artillery.

88. A company of engineer troops, termed Sappers, is generally attached to each infantry division; and to each infantry army corps a brigade of light cavalry; with a company of Ponteniers, which has charge of the bridge-train.

89. In France, each brigade is commanded by a Marechal de Camp, a grade corresponding to our brigadier-general; each division by a Lieutenant-General, which corresponds to our major-general; and an army corps by a Marechal de France.

90. The particular organization of the General Staff, and the different arms of service, would lead to details of no importance here. The proportion, however, of each arm of an army to the others, is a subject of great interest, as upon this depends, in a great degree, the more or less of excellence in the military institutions of a state.

91. The infantry, from its powers of endurance, its capabilities for battle in all kinds of ground, and its independence of those casualties by which the other arms may be completely paralyzed, is placed as the first arm ; and upon it is based the strength of all the others. It generally forms about four-fifths of the entire force.

92. In all states where the military art is justly appreciated, the cavalry arm is placed in the second rank to the infantry. To it an army is often indebted for turning the scales of victory, and giving a decisive character to the issue. To it, the infantry, when exhausted by fatigue, or broken, often owes its safety, and through the respite gained by its charges, finds time to breathe and reform. Without it, much of advanced-post duty, patrols, and detachment service requiring great celerity, would be but badly performed.

But the arm of cavalry by itself can effect but little; and, in many circumstances, does not suffice even for its own safety, The smallest obstacles are sufficient to render it powerless; it can neither attack nor hold a post without the aid of infantry; and at night is alarmed, and justly so, at every phantom.

The proportion borne by the cavalry to the infantry should vary with the features of the seat of war; being greater in a champagne than in a broken, or mountainous country. The proportion of one-fourth of the infantry for the first, and one-sixth for the last, is generally admitted by received military authority as the best.

93. The artillery is placed third in rank among the arms. Its duties are to support and cover the other arms; keep the enemy from a approaching too near; hold him in check when he advances; and prevent him from debouching at particular points. To perform these duties it is considered that an allowance of one piece. for each thousand men of the other arms, and one in reserve forms the proper quota of this arm. It is to be remarked, however, that this proportion supposes the other arms in an excellent state of organization and discipline. In the contrary case, the quota of artillery must be increased; for it inspires poor troops with confidence, as they rely upon it, to keep off the enemy, and to cover their retreat. But here arises another disadvantage; as artillery is utterly incapable of defending itself, and therefore, when present in an over proportion, it must necessarily sustain great losses in guns and the other materiel.

94. The arm of engineering, although requiring more science and a higher grade of talent for its duties than any other, takes the last place in tactical considerations. To it is intrusted all that pertains to opposing passive obstacles to an enemy’s advance, and removing those which he may have raised. To it is assigned that most difficult of all tasks to the soldier, patient endurance of manual toil, and a disregard of everything but the work in hand, whilst exposed to the enemy’s fire. The proportion of engineer troops will depend in a great measure upon the character of the operations undertaken; being most in sieges, and least in those depending mainly on maneuvers. In the French service, the engineers are one-half the strength of the artillery; a large number, but rendered necessary by the peculiar military position of that country.

95. The troops which compose the three principal arms are generally subdivided into two-classes, heavy and light; partly arising from the nature of their weapons, and partly from their destination on the field of battle.

96. This subdivision is less marked in the infantry than in that of the other arms; for although in most foreign armies, a portion of the infantry carries a sabre with the musket, still this additional weapon is of rather questionable utility; for the musket is the one which, under all circumstances of attack and defense, will be resorted to.

97. All infantry now receive the same instruction; but whether a portion of it ought not to be reserved especially for the duties consigned to light troops, is still a disputed point. One thing is certain, that perfection is more easily reached by confining the individual to one branch of his art. than by requiring him to make himself conversant with the whole. Still it might be often found inconvenient, at the least, if infantry were not able to perform all the functions required of it.

98. The service of light infantry often demands great individual address, intelligence, and well-developed physical powers; a combination of qualities not easily found, and seldom, indeed, without careful habitual training. Whereas, in infantry of the line, the qualities of the individual are of less importance, as results here depend almost solely upon the action of the mass.

99. The habitual order of battle of light infantry is the dispersed order; and whether acting offensively or defensively, it depends for its results upon the effect of its fire, resorting to the close order, and using the bayonet, only exceptionally. As each individual, although immediately supported by his own file-closer, and those on his right and left, is still often thrown upon his own resources, being obliged to take cover where he can most conveniently find it, he must be a good marksman, cool, deliberate, and circumspect; since it may become necessary to keep an enemy occupied hours, and even days together, pressing on him at one moment and yielding to him the next, or holding with tenacity, and disputing inch by inch some particular point as it may suit the views of the general in commands

100. In infantry of the line, as success depends upon the action of the mass, ensemble, coolness, and determination should characterize all its movements, whether it delivers its fire in line, forms in column to attack with the bayonet, or throws itself into square, to await the charge of the enemy’s cavalry.

101. The duties of light infantry are to open an engagement, and, after it is fairly got under way, to keep it going; turning it to advantage if successful, otherwise breaking it off. In its relations to the infantry of the line, it should cover the flanks of the latter; clear the way for its advance by rooting the enemy out of all covers, and then holding them if requisite. Upon it devolves all advanced-post, detachment, and advanced and rearguard service.

102. To the infantry of the line is confided everything where firmness is the essential requisite; as the attack or defense of key-points, the formation of all supports and reserves; whether on the field, or in the attack and defense of posts.

103. There is a third class of infantry, termed riflemen, which does not form a part proper of the arm of infantry; partaking, when properly constituted, more of the character of partisan than of regular troops; being chosen only from that portion of a population whose habits lead them to a daily use of fire-arms, and give them an unerring aim. As an auxiliary in the defense of particular localities, where they are secure from the attack of the bayonet, or of cavalry, and can deliver their fire with that deliberation which their weapon demands, riflemen will often be found invaluable; as nothing is more dreaded by troops generally than this lurking, and often invisible foe, whose whereabouts is only divined by the destruction he deals around him.

104. In cavalry, the distinction between heavy and light is more strongly marked, and the functions of each more clearly defined than in infantry.

105. The cuirassiers, from their defensive armor and heavy sabre, which in both man and horse call for great physical powers, constitute the true heavy cavalry. The dragoons and hussars belong to the light, and the lancers indifferently perform the functions of either.

106. The most essential quality of all cavalry, which distinguishes it from all other arms, and gives it the faculty of taking an enemy frequently at disadvantage, is that of celerity. If to this the rider unites boldness, and even, when called for, recklessness, it makes of this arm a truly fearful one.

107. Cavalry, to attain its ends, should unite several essential conditions; horses and weapons in good condition; sufficient depth of ground both in front and rear to gather speed for the charge or space for rallying; to be left boldly but skilfully into action; have its flanks covered against a surprise; and be followed by a support, or reserve, to cover the retreat, or secure from the effects of confusion the line charging, if brought up unexpectedly by the enemy.

108. There are qualities which are peculiar to each kind of cavalry, growing out of the duties required of this arm. To the heavy cavalry, the cuirassier sans peur, should belong the attribute of irresistibility. Apparently as careless and indifferent to the maddening strife around, as was le Noir Faingeant, in the “Gentle and Joyous Passage of Arms of Ashby-de-la-Zouche,” whilst waiting the moment for action; the cuirassier, when, with sabre raised, he rushes on his foe, should, like the tornado, level all before him, and leave nothing of his task unfinished but the gathering of the wreck he leaves in his track.

109. The dragoon, when first instituted to combine the functions both of the foot soldier and cavalier, was found, like most mongrels, to have the qualities of neither in a very serviceable degree. Ye still retains his musquetoon, and on outpost duty, and skirmishing in broken ground, does a soldier’s duty with this weapon. Apt for attacks, whether in close order or dispersed, he should lend himself to the charge kindly; and in cases where thrown on his own resources, display all the intelligence, activity, and circumspection of the best light infantry.

110. The dashing bold hussar, that epitome of military impudence and recklessness at the tavern, should present those qualities in a sublimated form on the held. Regardless of fatigue and danger, his imagination should never present to itself an obstacle as insurmountable. On the march, constantly at the enemy’s heels; in position keeping him it all moments on the alert, harassing him either with fatigue, or apprehension for the security of his rear and communications; on the field careering with a falcon’s speed and glance upon his quarry, however it may seek to elude his blow, such should be the hussar.

111. The lancer, like the poet, “is born not fashioned.” In the hands of the Pole, the lance, whether used to charge in line or in the dispersion of pursuit, is a truly fearful weapon-, but to those to whom long practice in its use has not made it a second nature, it is only embarrassing, and more to be avoided by a comrade than by a foe man. Still the apprehension of being run through has a powerful moral effect upon a man; and there is no sound more appalling to a flying enemy than “here come the lancers.”

112. As the functions of heavy cavalry are to bear down all opposition, and present an impassable wall to the enemy’s efforts, its duties are confined to the battle-field; there, placed in the reserve, it is held in hand until the decisive moment arrives, when it is launched forth to deal a blow from which the enemy hopelessly struggles to recover, either to achieve victory, or to fend off utter defeat.

113. To light cavalry are intrusted the important duties of securing from surprise the flanks of the heavy; to watch over the safety of horse artillery, and to perform the services required of them by infantry divisions, and those of detachment service in general.

114. The artillery, which had for a long period, and even still, preserves the character of eminent respectability, has of late years begun to infuse a dash of the dare-devil spirit of the cavalier into its ranks. If it has not yet taken to charging literally, it has, on some recent occasions in our service, shown a well-considered recklessness of obstacles and dangers, fully borne out by justly deserved success.

115. The distinction between light and heavy in this arm arises not only from the difference of calibre in the pieces, but also in a difference of their tactical application.

116. The heavy field calibre is the 12-pounder, which is reserved for batteries in position, and is seldom shifted during the action.

117. The light field calibre is the 6-pounder, and the 24-pounder howitzer, which are served either by foot or horse-artillery, and follow the movements of the other arms.

118. Improvements both in the materiel and the tactics of artillery have been very marked within late years. Formerly, considered only in the light of an auxiliary on the battle-field, artillery now aspires, and with indisputable claims, to the rank of a principal arm. Its decisive effects, at the late battles on the Rio-Grande,* are supported by testimony too emphatic to be overlooked.

119. From the studies required of him, the artillerist is well trained to maintain the characteristics of his arm; courage of the highest order, in which the physical is always under the control of the moral element, producing, as a necessary result, unbounded devotion to the task assigned; a presence of mind that nothing can disturb; and that coolness which no danger, however appalling, can impair.

120. The tactical applications of artillery on the field depend on the calibre. To the heavy are assigned the duties of occupying positions for strengthening the weak points of the field of battle; for securing the retreat of the army; for defending all objects whose possession might be of importance to the enemy, as villages, defiles, &c.; and for overturning all passive obstacles that cover the enemy, or arrest the progress of the other arms.

121. The light pieces, served by foot-artillery, follow the movements of the infantry; covering the flanks of its position, preparing the way for its onset, and arresting that of enemy. It is of this that the principal part of the artillery in reserve is composed.

*In alluding to the late brilliant achievements of our artillery, it is but just to call attention to the fact, that the country is indebted for it to the Hon. Joel R. Poinsett, late Secretary of War under the administration of President Van Buren. Without the forethought and military sagacity of this accomplished gentleman, and his untiring efforts, while in office, to promote the public good and insure its safety if suddenly brought into a state of war; the country, in all probability, would have been found, on the breaking out of the Mexican difficulties, in the same dilemma with regard to this most important arm as it was in some other hardly less essential points. It is to be hoped that the maxim so often idly repeated, and the value of which was here forcibly illustrated, In Peace prepare for War, may not again be used in vain.

122. The horse-artillery is held in hand for decisive moments. When launched forth, its arrival and execution should be unexpected and instantaneous. Ready to repair all disasters and partial reverses, it, at one moment, temporarily replaces a battery of foot, and at the next is on another point of the field, to force back an enemy’s column. In preparing the attacks of cavalry, this arm is often indispensable and always invaluable; brought with rapidity in front of a line, or opposite to squares of infantry, within the range of canister, its well directed fire, in a few discharges, opens a gap, or so shakes the entire mass, that the cavalier finds but a feeble obstacle, where, without this aid, he would in vain have exhausted all his powers.

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Mahan’s Outpost Main Page
Chapter Introduction
Chapter II – Manner Of Placing and Handling Troops
Chapter III – Positions
Chapter IV – Advanced-Guards and Advanced-Post
Chapter V – Reconnaissances
Chapter VI – Detachments
Chapter VII – Convoys
Chapter VIII – Surprises and Ambuscades