Tactics and Drill… Drill and Tactics… Which is which? And what is in a name?

In an earlier post, I walked through the basic evolution of cavalry manuals used by the US Army (and thereby the Confederate Army) up to, including, and beyond the Civil War.  One point I made about those manuals was the naming convention.  Those were often titled “Tactics” but were in reality a conglomeration of both “drill” and “tactics.”  The difference between drill and tactics has come up in several private conversations of late.  So let me set those differences here so as to better understand what the manuals tell us.

The manuals were most often the sole reference provided to the troopers.  And thus the manuals had to encompass a broad set of instructions and lessons.  So the manuals were divided into volumes with lengthy sections – “School of the Trooper”, “School of the Platoon”, “School of the Squadron” for instance.   This is no different for the modern armored cavalry where “Soldiers Manuals,” squad operations manuals, platoon operations manuals, and so on exist.

The School of the Trooper provided detailed instructions for individual movements – both dismounted and mounted.  Because soldiering is a team activity, from those individual actions the manuals built up to movements of a platoon – again separate sections for dismounted and mounted.  And those platoon movement instructions gave way to squadron level movements.  Those maneuver tasks were called “drills.”

Now it is important to understand that mastery of the profession of soldiering was not, or is today, simply proficiency with the tasks, known as drills, described in the manuals.  Instead, those drills form a baseline of common actions to be used when needed.  The drill was not, by itself, a tactic.  Rather the drill was a particular type of maneuver – individual or unit – that would be performed when called upon.  That “when called upon” is where “tactics” is involved.

Too many readers (and historians) will simply assume “drill regulations” are “tactics” used by the cavalry.  Rather, the discussion should be more nuanced. For example, the drill regulations explained how to conduct a wheel or other maneuver, at different layers (school of the trooper, the platoon, etc.). Tactics being, of course, when it is considered proper to execute such a maneuver on the battlefield.

Let’s take a practical example.  One of the basics found in the “School of the Trooper” was how to turn the horse to the right or left:

The instructor commands:

  1. Squad, to the right (or to the left.)
  2. March.
  3. Halt.

… At the command Squad, to the right, gather the horse.

At the command March, open the right rein, and close progressively to the right leg.  In order not to turn the horse too short, perform the movement upon a quarter of a circle of 3 paces. The movement almost being completed, diminish the effect of the rein and the right leg, supporting the horse at the same time with the left rein and leg to terminate the movement.

And the manual went on to explain how to halt the horse (important stuff) and what a proper turn looked like.  Looking further into the manual, we find that these turns would be used when a platoon was dispersing into a formation… a specific movement breaking the platoon by files:

The platoon being in line, the instructor commands:

  1. By file.
  2. March.

…. At the command By file, the troopers of the first gather their horses, and the others successively, as soon as the file on the right is in motion.

As the command March, the first file of the right moves straight to the front; it is followed by the other file; each file moves off when the haunches of the rear rank horse of the file which has broken arrives at the head of the horses of the front rank; each file marches 6 paces straight to the front, makes a quarter-turn to the right, and marches in the new direction until it reaches its place in the column, when it makes a quarter-turn to the left.

See, how those turns learned in the “School of the Trooper” is expanded upon to support a platoon level movement?  In this case of course a more elaborate set of turns.

OK, this moves the platoon from line into files.  Still a drill maneuver.  But what is that used for? Still further into the “School of the Platoon” we find a section about “Skirmishing” starting on page 274:

The platoon being supposed to form a part of the squadron, it is dispersed as skirmishers, in order to cover the front and the flanks of the squadron.

The platoon being in line at the extremity of the ground, the instructor causes the schabraques to be raised, the holsters uncovered, and the arms loaded; he marches the platoon forward, and when he wishes to disperse the troopers as skirmishers, he commands:

  1. Six files from the right – as skirmishers

2. March.

3. Guide right.

The instructions go on to detail about the line is set, how to reface the line, and other particulars.  The point for this reading, however, is the points of instruction in those two paragraphs.  The first gives a short justification or reason for conducting this particular maneuver.  Not a detailed or refined justification, but just something to occupy the trooper wondering why the maneuver is called forth.  The second part is building upon the earlier instructions that called for files, and within those files being quarter turns.

So you see how the individual maneuver builds up to a more complex platoon-level maneuver.  That is a drill.  When and where that platoon-level maneuver is executed becomes a manner of tactics.

Another good example of this, building from the platoon and squadron levels to the regimental level is in regard to “charge as foragers.”  Page 344 of the 1864 “Cavalry Tactics” manual, under “School of the Squadron” we find:

To execute the charge as foragers, all the troopers of the squadron disperse, and direct themselves each upon the point he wishes to attack, observing not to lose site of their officers, who charge with them…..

Details of the maneuver follow that passage. There is no discussion under “school of the squadron” that explain when a commander would order a charge by foragers. Rather the focus is making sure the maneuver is properly described for execution.

Move forward to the “School of the Regiment,” page 450:

The charge as foragers is used against artillery. It is executed as prescribed in the School of the Squadron. The Colonel designates the squadron or squadrons which are to charge; they break off and march toward the point from which they can in succession charge the batteries; the rest of the regiment marches to support the attack or oppose the enemy, and to rally the foragers after the charge.

Ah… so that is where we’d use the charge as foragers!  If the regiment encounters artillery and that artillery must be assailed, the the “charge as foragers” is called for.  The passage from the School of the Regiment certainly a discussion of tactics.  But it does reference specific maneuvers, described in the drills that would be used to accomplish the task.

If we are going to have a discussion of tactics, be that infantry, artillery, or cavalry, then we must understand the difference between drill, describing movements, and tactics, determining when and where to execute the maneuver.  The former had to be a precise, regimented exercise.  The later is, by nature, a decision processed from available information.

Last shot here … be ware of the writer who mixes drill and tactics.  Such an approach is fraught with misunderstanding!


2 thoughts on “Tactics and Drill… Drill and Tactics… Which is which? And what is in a name?

  1. Craig: You make a nice point about the difference between the two concepts. Some drill manuals also contained a small dose of tactics, such as the Hunt/Barry/French Board’s Instruction for Field Artillery. And some, such as Patten’s knock off of the same book, contained even less, to virtually nothing, in the way of tactics. But the two concepts are all too often discussed interchangeably. One was equally as likely to find as much discussion of tactics in something with no drill instruction – such as Gibbon’s Artillerist’s Manual.

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