Chapter VII

Mahan’s Outpost


419. To conduct a convoy in safety through an enemy’s territory, where it is exposed to attacks either of regular, or of partisan troops, is one of the most hazardous operations of war; owing to the ease with which a very inferior force may take the escort at disadvantage in defiles, or other positions favorable to an ambuscade, or surprise, and to the difficulty of securing a long column, like that presented by a convoy-from a-sudden attack.

420. The escort should be of sufficient strength to beat off any presumed force that the enemy can bring against it. A weak escort will only hold out a temptation to the enemy to attack the convoy. When the convoy is of very great importance, it may be necessary, besides giving it a strong escort, to throw out detachments between its line of march and the enemy; and when there are posts occupied by our troops along this line, they should keep up a vigilant system of patrols, pushing them as far out as practicable, so that the escort may receive aid and timely notice of any hostile movement.
The escort, when it is deemed necessary, should be composed of all arms; but always of both infantry and cavalry, as, from the necessity of gaining timely information of the enemy’s approach, patrols of cavalry must be pushed out to some distance, both in front and on the flanks.

421. As the convoy must be perfectly hemmed in and guarded on all points by its escort, the latter is usually divided into five principal portions with this object; an advanced-guard, which is preceded by a small detachment to scour and search the ground in front of the line of march; a rear-guard; flankers; and the main-body. For the purpose of presenting a sufficient force upon those points of convoy that will probably be assailed, the main-body is subdivided into four unequal portions; one-half of it will constitute a reserve; one-fourth will form a guard for the centre of the convoy; and the remaining fourth will be divided into two equal portions one of which will march directly at the head of the convoy, and the other close in its rear. This subdivision of the main-body is made on the supposition that the enemy will attack the convoy either at the centre, or in the front, or rear. If the attack is made upon either of the two last points, the divisions for their protection can be readily reinforced by the advanced, or the rear-guard. As the reserve must be in readiness to reinforce any point menaced, and to offer a vigorous resistance, its strength should be greater than of the other divisions.

422. The order of march of the escort will be regulated mainly by the natural features of the ground passed over. The advanced-guard will precede the convoy about a thousand paces. The detachment by which it is preceded, and which should consist of cavalry, will push forward as far as it can with safety, taking care to scour thoroughly all the ground passed over. The flankers, which will also usually be composed of cavalry, will be divided into platoons, and be thrown out as far as circumstances will permit. Each platoon will throw out a small detachment, on its outer flank, which last will furnish vedettes to move along the outward flank of the detachment. The reserve will usually occupy some point near the centre of the convoy. The rear-guard will leave about 1000 paces between it and the tail of the column. The divisions immediately at the head and tail of the train will keep close to the convoy. The centre division will usually be divided into two portions, one being on each flank of the convoy; a space of eight or ten paces being left in the centre of the train, for these portions to pass to either flank, as circumstances may require.

423. The convoy is placed under the orders of an officer, subordinate to the commandant of the escort, who is charged with everything appertaining to its police, &c. A detachment of pioneers, or sappers, should precede the convoy, to repair the roads and bridges, &c. A few wagons, with all the necessary implements for the sappers, should accompany the convoy; and it is also recommended to carry with it a few chevaux-de-frise, the lances of which are of iron, and connected with the bodies by hinges, to pick conveniently, in order to form a temporary obstacle against the enemy’s cavalry, when the convoy parks for the night or when threatened with an attack.

424. When a part of the convoy consists of batteries, horses, or mules, they should be placed at the head of the column of wagons, as they are found to travel better in this position than when in the rear.

425. Distribution of the train. The train is usually divided into four sections. If money or powder form a part of the train, it should occupy the centre of the second section, as this point is usually best protected. The provisions and other munitions will be distributed equally among the other sections; so that, should any one be cut off by the enemy, a portion of each kind may be saved in the remainder.

426. As it takes some time to set the whole column in motion, the horses are harnessed and hitched to successively, by sections. The second section will not commence to harness until the first is ready to move off, and so on in succession. The time for this operation will be ascertained by the officer in charge of the convoy; so that each section may be notified of the proper moment to prepare for the march. This should be done in order not to fatigue the horses unnecessarily, by keeping them standing in harness.

427. March of Train. The convoy will march in single or double files, according to the state of the roads. The files should not be doubled unless the road is wide enough for three files; and also when the train can march in this order at least an hour; otherwise there will be too great inconvenience and loss of time in changing the order of march. To pass from single to double file, the hindmost wagons of the first and third sections will lead off to the side of the road; and so on each in succession to the one at the head. The leading wagons of the second and fourth sections move briskly on in their new line of direction, followed by those in their rear until they come up with the leading wagons of the other two sections. An interval of four paces should be preserved between the files. To change from double to single file, the first section quickens its pace, and when its last wagon has passed the leading one of the second section, this and the rest of the section follow in the new line.

428. The greatest attention should be paid to preserve regularity and good order in the march. For this purpose small detachments of infantry, taken from the centre division of the escort, should march at intervals on the flanks of the train. When the number of men will admit of it, each wagon should be under the guard of a soldier, or at least of one man to three wagons. If neither of these arrangements can be made, each section may be placed under the charge of four or five horsemen, who will keep in constant motion along the line, to see that all goes well. If, for any purpose, a wagon is obliged to halt, it must fall out of the line, and not be allowed to enter it until the rear wagon of its section has passed. The line should be kept well closed up; the leading wagons to allow the others to come up, if retarded by any obstacle.

429. Halt of Train. When from any cause the convoy is forced to halt for some time, as for the repair of a bridge, the passage of a defile, &c., the wagons should be parked either in lines of sections, or as many in line as the character of the ground will admit of. An interval of about twenty paces may be left between each line. If there is any apprehension of an attack under these circumstances, the lines may close to within fifteen paces; the openings on the flanks being covered wagons placed across them.

430. Parking of Train. When the convoy halts to park for the night, a strong position should be chosen, offering only one side, if practicable, to an attack. The park may be formed by lines of sections or in squares, as may be deemed most advisable. The faces of the park should be flanked by some pieces of artillery, and the angles be covered by any temporary obstacle, as a chevaux-de-frise, a slight abatis, &c. The different portions of the escort will take position around the park, to cover it from the enemy’s approach; those divisions, which march with the convoy, being posted behind the wagons, and the obstacles which cover them. The usual dispositions of out-posts and patrols will be made, to guard against a surprise. It is not safe to park in villages, nor even to pass through them on a march, when powder forms a part of the convoy.

431. When the park is formed as a temporary entrenchment, to cover the escort against an attack, an open portion of ground should be selected, which offers no covers for the enemy to approach within musket range. The wagons may be placed in one line, or in two if their number is sufficient to inclose the necessary ground for the troops, &c., so as to form a square, rectangular, or circular figure, as the locality may require. When the enclosure is formed of a single line of wagons, they are placed wheel to wheel, with an outlet of three or four feet between every six wagons; a wagon being placed, six pace’s to the rear of the line, behind each outlet to close it. If the enclosure is a double line, the wagons are placed end to end, and wheel to wheel, outlets, as in the preceding case, being left between every four wagons, and closed as before. The poles of four-wheel carriages are placed outwards; the shafts of the two-wheel inwards; the horses picketed opposite their wagons. The wagons that contain ammunition, or valuables. are placed within the enclosure, at the point regarded as least exposed. If the convoy is surprised on a march, and have not time to park in square, the files should be rapidly doubled if moving in single file, the heads of the horses be turned towards the centre of the road, so as nearly to touch each other, and the wagons be brought as closely together as practicable.

432. Duties t)f Escort. All the usual precautions, to guard a column in march against a surprise, should be redoubled in cases of convoys. The patrols on the flanks and in front should push as far out as practicable; so that the convoy may have timely warning of an enemy’s approach; in order to park, according to circumstances, before an attack can be made. With drivers accustomed to their business, half an hour at least will be required for this operation. The advanced-guard should be particularly careful to occupy by detachments any lateral roads which might offer the enemy a favorable point of attack on the convoy. These detachments will keep their posts until the convoy has passed; and they will join the rear-guard as it comes up.

433. The officer in command of the head-division, marching with the convoy, will see that his detachment moves on regularly, as the pace of the convoy will be regulated by it; and, from time to time, he will bring it to a halt, to allow the carriages to close up; this precaution must be carefully attended to when near an enemy.

434. If menaced with an attack, the divisions at the head and tail of the convoy will keep their positions and repel the enemy by their fire should he attack; the centre division will move to the flank menaced, and take position to cover the two centre sections of the convoy; the reserve will move towards the point threatened; the advanced and rearguards and flankers will close upon the convoy to be in readiness to act as circumstances may require.

435. Before entering a defile, a detachment from the reserve should be sent forward to secure its flanks and outlet, and then send out patrols in all directions to examine the ground in front, and see that all is safe. As the convoy comes up to a point designated in rear of the defile, it is parked in lines of sections. The centre division of the escort will join the advanced-guard to cover the front; the rearguard will take position to cover the rear; the flankers on the flanks; and the reserve in a central position to advance upon the point which may be attacked. When the patrols report all safe, the advanced-guard and centre division pass the defile, and proceed far enough beyond it to cover the sound where the convoy will park as it reaches the other side; the reserve and flankers will cover the flanks of the convoy as it moves to its new position, and will then take post as before; the rearguard joined by any detachments left to secure particular points on the flanks of the defile, will follow so soon as the convoy and the rest of the troops are in position. When an the troops have passed, strong detachments are sent forward, in all directions, at least one hour before the convoy is again put in motion.

436. When the escort takes position at night, within the park, for defence, the reserve will be posted in the centre, and the divisions that march with the convoy in rear of their respective sections. The advanced and rear- guards and the flankers will take post without, and establish their out-posts and sentinels in the usual way for safety. The cannon, placed at the angles of the park, will be supported by detachments of infantry and cavalry in their rear. The different divisions will throw forward skirmishers to meet the enemy if he attacks; whilst others will occupy the wagons from which they can fire. Should the enemy not be beaten off by the fire or these troops, the reserve will sally out and attack with the bayonet.

437. Attack of Convoy. An attack upon a convoy is a comparatively easy and safe operation, and may be made with a force quite inferior to the escort; as the latter is obliged, for the security of the convoy, to keep on the defensive. It will usually be best to attempt a surprise, choosing points which are favorable to ambuscades. The manner of conducting the attack will depend upon its object, whether it be to capture the entire convoy, to cut off a part of it, or simply to delay its march. In the first case, the escort must be beaten and dispersed, whilst a detachment is sent to secure the convoy. In the second, an attack may be made on one point with the view of drawing the main-body of the escort to the defence of that point, whilst a detachment attempts to cut off the part of the convoy from which the escort has been withdrawn. In the last case the convoy will be frequently menaced with an attack, to force it to halt and park for defence; the roads will be obstructed, bridges broken down, &e.

438. If the attack is successful, the main-body of the troops should be kept together in position, to cover the captured convoy, whilst the detachment sent to secure, or destroy it, is performing its duty. The cavalry will endeavor to disperse the escort, and bring in all the horses that may have been cut loose from the convoy. The precaution should be taken of having spare horses in harness, in readiness to take the places of those which the escort may have cut loose, or maimed, to prevent the wagons from being carried off. For the attack of a convoy parked for defence, some pieces of artillery will be necessary, and howitzers will be found particularly useful. Without the aid of this arm it will be very difficult to force a defensive park with infantry, unless the escort is very feeble, or the position chosen for the park presents covers within the effective range of musketry, from which, after keeping up a well-directed fire, a rush may be made on the park.

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Mahan’s Outpost Main Page
Chapter Introduction
Chapter I – Tactics
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 VIII – Surprises and Ambuscades