How did opposing armies in the US Civil War react to being in relatively close proximity? The following map from Shaara's Killer Angels shows several units between 500 and 1000 yards apart, or closer. enter image description here

It seems that rifle muskets were fairly accurate up to 400 yards, but could be used to some effect at twice that. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Springfield_Model_1861

There must have been times when they were in range but not attacking, during the daylight hours, right? I mean, ammunition was certainly limited. So, we're there standing orders for what to do at a certain range? Would one side just suddenly begin firing at the other? Or was firing done while advancing towards the enemy?

In a more specific sense to the above map, how long were Longstreet's men that close to the union soldiers on the round tops before their attack officially commenced?

There were several corps of each army within range for much of the four days of Gettysburg, but it doesn't seem as if it was constant combat. Happy to hear answers specific to this battle but also the campaign in general.

2 Answers 2


I think Pieter very clearly answers the primary question of "why does this map show them so close together" which is "that's the start points they withdrew out of range/line of sight in the evening." For the rest I offer the following answers:

There must have been times when they were in range but not attacking, during the daylight hours, right? Technically yes, but in reality not really. Troops not defending a specific location and not attacking (and this goes for troops from antiquity to today) will withdraw to a position of cover (like a trench or behind a hill where the enemy can't reach them with direct fire like small arms and cannon) and/or out of effective range of enemy fire. "Effective Range" is the important thing here. A rifled musket might have a theoretical range of 500 yards, but in reality nearly all fighting in the Civil War was done at under 200 yards, sometimes as close as 40-50 yards. The reason for this is twofold. One, troops are unlikely to shoot when they are unlikely to hit (the US Army realized this after WWI, which is why the 1908 Springfield has a range of over 1000 yards but the M1 Garand-onward was designed to hit out to only 300 yards). Civil War soldiers did almost no "live fire", with 10 rounds a year of practice shooting being a number I've read multiple places. (forgive me, I don't have a source on that to hand) Two, black powder creates a hellacious amount of powder smoke, so even if you start firing at 500 yards (a range where you are unlikely to hit) what you ARE likely to do is create a smoke bank in front of you which will make the enemy practically invisible as they get closer!

I mean, ammunition was certainly limited. So, we're there standing orders for what to do at a certain range? Sort of. Pickets were generally told to fire as soon as they saw the enemy so as to alert the main body (Hardee's Manual of Drill 1861 talks about skirmishers and much else on the subject). Skirmishers were given broader orders depending on the situation. For example they might be ordered to engage at maximum range to keep the enemy back, or they might be told to close on the enemy and direct their fire against specific targets. Troops in the main body (the traditional shoulder-to-shoulder we think of when we think ACW fighting) would generally be under strict orders NOT to fire unless ordered. This was to allow the officers to maintain control of the formation. Hardee's manual, Clauswitz, and many others of the time all state that once troops start firing they are hard to order to move again. Plus ammunition is scarce, and best employed in massed volleys. All of which meant that a normal soldier in the line was not supposed to shoot regardless of the location of the enemy until told to.

Would one side just suddenly begin firing at the other? Yes! Generally speaking in an infantry fight the defender would begin firing first, as it was the goal of the attacker to close with the bayonet and chase off (MUCH more likely than actually bayoneting folks, historically speaking) the defender. In an overall battle the attackers artillery would notionally begin the fighting, followed by both side's skirmishers ahead of the main infantry bodies, then the infantry.

Or was firing done while advancing towards the enemy? Yes, but the Europeans were generally horrified by this. (Justus Scheibert, the Prussian observer with Lee's army comes to mind) The accepted theory for attacking infantry with infantry in this period was to get as close as you could to your enemy (20-30 yards say), fire one volley with your muskets, then charge with the bayonet. The combined shock of a closely-delivered volley and the bayonet would drive off the enemy. However in the ACW troops would frequently end up in shooting matches until one side withdrew, which resulted in higher casualties. There were tactics for advancing by fire (Hardee again and other manuals) which involved buddy rushes (one man advances a bit, his buddy fires, then advances past man 1, etc. There was also methods of lines leapfrogging each other in a similar fashion (line one fires, line 2 advancs 10 yards ahead and fires, etc.). You see a lot of lines getting within 100-150 yards of each other and the attacker pushing forward as a mass while firing. It wasn't "supposed" to happen that way, but once a soldier stops to shoot it's hard to get him going again! So you get reports of regiments trying to advance, coming under fire, returning fire, then inching forward over a period of time until they either drive off the defender or retreat under the weight of enemy fire.


I believe you are misunderstanding the context of these troop locations. The Legend is obscured in your image, but the West Point Civil War Military Atlas for Gettysburg on July 2-3, 1863 gives, a "Situation Evening" that day very similar to your image:

enter image description here

This is where the units (are reported and believed to be) located when fighting ceased due to darkness. At that time, units would, under cover of darkness, return to where they wished to encamp and then awake the next morning. The start lines on July 3, for all Confederate units other than Hood's and half McLaws' divisions, are seen to be much further apart than the previous evening:

enter image description here

One can likely assume that those units had both sufficient cover in their evening positions, and sufficient motivation to accept that cover in return for advantageous position close to the enemy.

As for the Union troops on both Round Tops: They were exactly where they had fought half the afternoon and evening to be at nightfall.

Finally, it is (and long has been, likely for millennia) generally accepted military practice that one only fires at withdrawing enemies when in hot pursuit. Ammunition is neither free nor infinite, and there is an opportunity cost to spent ammunition: Fire has its greatest effect, both physically and on enemy morale, when expended as fast, furious, accurately, and lengthy as can be managed. None of these situations exist on a calmly withdrawing enemy not being pursued.

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