Very often, on tours at Antietam, visitors ask these three questions:
1. How could the Civil War soldiers march into battle in close formation to face certain death?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that individuals living in the 1800’s had to deal with dying on a regular basis at home. Child mortality rate was much higher than is today and, if I remember correctly, until 1900 the average white male had a 45 year life expectancy. They did not shy away from death. Many held wakes in their houses so everyone could gather to pay their last respects. With the invention of photography, family members had photographs taken of the dead, something, which we find rather repugnant today.
Religious belief in an afterlife, fatalism, fear of being called cowards, a strong sense of responsibility to the company, the regiment, and the country kept men within the ranks.
They knew that no one got out of this world alive and they knew, as soldiers do today, that they could not and would not let their comrades down. Sad as it is, many of the veterans grimly accepted the inevitability of their final “rendezvous.” Much like a French Poilu in 1916 who, when he noticed a photographer focusing on his company, turned and said, “That’s right. Take a picture of the dead.”
I also emphasize that formations did not always remain intact while advancing and that many times the regiments did not approach the field in straight lines but used other formations to facilitate rapid movement and present a smaller front to the enemy.
2. Why did they stand up to fight shoulder to shoulder, particularly since rifles had become a standard weapon at the time?
Just like today, the army taught its soldiers to bring the maximum amount of fire onto a target to gain fire superiority and to force the enemy to disperse or go to ground.
Neither army, however, at that time, devoted extensive amounts of time to target practice and they sporadically conducted conduct “sham” battles (FTX’s – field training exercises) to get men combat ready, but nowhere near the extent that the military does today.
Many soldiers never learned how to use the incremental sights on their Springfield or Enfield rifles correctly, and muskets, having no rear sights, could miss a target at 15 yards. Therefore, officers often ordered their men to “aim” or “point” low.
The smoke from a firing line, particularly on a breezeless day, often hung low to the ground, drastically reducing visibility to yards and, in the case of high humidity, feet. All too often, such as at Antietam, new regiments learned how to use their weapons while under fire. Fighting should to shoulder allowed the regiments to throw as much lead down range as possible.
3. Why did they not hide behind trees and fences to fight the enemy?
As Antietam, as in other battles, regiments very often went to ground, if the circumstances permitted it, to return fire. They did shelter behind trees, rocks, and fences and any available cover. Regimental lines often broke into squads and lost their cohesiveness. Many regiments did not, given the opportunity, remain upright and easy targets. They often took cover rather than slug it out as their forefathers had.
What I try to convey to the visitor is that soldiers, throughout history, have adapted their tactics to suit the situations on the field and that the drill manuals of the time reflected those. The main objective was to suppress incoming fire, maximize out going fire, and use the terrain to protect maneuvering troops and to achieve the objective with minimal casualties.
Frontal assaults across open fields, officially known as “forlorn hopes,” allegedly, guaranteed survivors extra rations, and promotion. With the introduction of the rifled musket during the Mexican War, massive charges gradually became the tactic of last resort. When used during the Civil War across cleared fields veterans on both sides often hit the dirt and let the new regiments pass over them and “see the elephant.”