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Some interesting posts regarding orders in the ACW

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Some interesting posts regarding orders in the ACW

Post  henridecat on Mon Jan 19, 2009 11:55 am

Copy of a topic originally posted o the Yahoo group by lugnakh.

Was going back through TMP's (The Miniatures Page)archives and came
across these posts by a chap named Mosby65.
Thought they might be of interest for those here who don't read TMP


I haven't pulled an all-nighter since my student days. But the more I
got into this topic the more intriguing it became. So I loaded my OR
CD into my computer and began my detailed research into tactical
orders in the ACW. I concentrated on the orders issued to brigades
for the Peninsula Campaign, the Maryland Campaign, Chickamauga, and
Gettysburg. Several hours later I emerged with pages of notes and a
new outlook:

· I confirmed that, as the original posting said, ACW formations did
not wander aimlessly over the battlefield looking for something to
do. Virtually all the brigade commanders' battle reports were
initiated with the term, "responding to orders" or a variation of the
same before describing the action and ended with the term "in
obedience to orders", "all orders were carried out", or similar
wording. In those instances when orders were not carried out, the
brigade commander invested a great deal of care and attention
explaining why. All this clearly showed me that tactical orders were
taken very seriously in the ACW. In wargaming terms, I am now of the
opinion that any tactical/grand tactical set of ACW miniature rules
that claim any degree of historical representation must make some
provision for the writing and transmission of tactical orders.

· I was surprised by the number of action descriptions where a
brigade commander wrote "…having received no orders, I took it upon
myself…", "…receiving no response to my request for clarification, I
decided…", "…I was without orders, but I saw that if no action was
taken then disaster surely would…", "…circumstances were now such
that if I followed my original orders my command would be destroyed,
so I…" , etc. As stated above, it is clear that ACW brigade
commanders preferred and expected to receive orders and were
conscientious in obeying them, if possible. But, on the other hand,
they didn't fall to pieces if they weren't forthcoming. In wargaming
terms, I saw no justification for a blanket "cannot move, cannot
fire, if meleed the unit is eliminated" rule applied to an ACW
brigade merely because it doesn't have orders or is out of command

But more than that, I noted in the action reports that ACW brigades
without orders, after a short period in defensive mode where the
brigade commander tried to contact senior command or otherwise waited
for the situation to clarify itself, could the be surprisingly
aggressive organizing and launching attacks on nearby enemy positions
on his own even if the enemy in that position was no immediate
threat. So, in wargaming terms, rules that say a brigade without
orders/out of command radius can only act defensively – can only fire
if fired upon and cannot initiate attacks – also do not reflect the
historical realities of the ACW. And neither do rules that state a
brigade without orders over a period of time automatically suffer
command and morale penalties or have to withdraw from battle. From
what I read in the OR, it seems to me that a more historical rule
would be to impose a short period of defensive posture on a brigade
without orders after which the brigade is treated as an independent
command without impediment or penalty.

I must say I gained a new respect for ACW brigade commanders, both
Union and Confederate, while conducting this research. They did not
dissolve into quivering pools of indecision wringing their hands and
crying, "What am I going to do? I don't have orders". It seems the
more historical response was, after waiting for a short time for the
situation to clarify itself, they shrugged it off [ In my mind's eye
I see the typical ACW brigade commander saying to himself, "S***w'em.
If they want to get a hold of me, they know where to find me." and
looking around his brigade's immediate area for the best way to
employ his troops.] and went about their business with dispatch and

This post is long enough so I'll post it now. When I finish compiling
my notes on what the typical ACW tactical order looked like, I'll
post that separately.


My OR research has indicated that while brigade commanders did use
their freedom of action aggressively, so far I've seen no examples of
it used outside the immediate vicinity of the brigade; no long range
or frivolous adventurism. Also, I've found that a brigade commander
without orders went on the offensive only for defensive purposes; to
remove a perceived threat to his brigade. Also, I have seen no
examples of a brigade voluntarily abandoning its mission, as Imrael
ably puts it. The most common reaction I've seen so far of an ACW
brigade commander who saw that carrying out his original orders was
no longer feasible was to halt his advance, go into defensive mode,
and send word back to division to appraise them of the situation.
Sometimes he asked permission to withdraw or to delay his advance
until re-enforcements arrived. But, and I find this very important,
if the original order was confirmed the brigade commander would obey
the order even to point of his death and the destruction of his
command. Thus we have the assault on Marye's Heights at
Fredericksburg and Pickett's Charge. So far, the OR shows me that a
brigade commander can and did exercise a considerable amount freedom
of action, but never in direct defiance of an unambiguous or
confirmed order.


In an attempt to answer the question in the original post, "What did
ACW tactical orders look like" , I found several types of tactical
orders and communications from division and corps in the OR:

1. Specific Tactical Action orders aka "go somewhere and do
something" (GSDS) orders

These seem to account for the vast majority of tactical orders in the
ACW. However, within this format I found a wide number of variations
and formats.

Some of the more common phrases I found in this type of tactical
order were:

"Proceed to location x, occupy/attack position x, and report
back…" [most common]
"Proceed to location x and form line of battle…" [very common]
"Withdraw to location x and await further orders.." [very common]
"Form your brigade to the [left] [right] of x brigade…"
"Be on hand to support…"
"Detach x regiments from your brigade and send them to…" [The OR
battle reports strongly indicate this was among the most unpopular,
if not the most unpopular, order received by the brigade commander. I
was also surprised at the number of times this type of order was
issued to protect nearly artillery positions]
"Turn over your position to x brigade and proceed…"
"Support the advance of x brigade…"
"Prepare for an enemy attack on your position…" [and similar advisory
orders, "Be aware", "Take care", "Be alert", etc.]

I also found a number of one to three word orders – "Wait", "Hold",
"Attack", "Withdraw", "Take no action", "Look to your flanks", "Stand
fast", "Avoid enemy contact", "Hold until relieved", "Continue to
Advance", etc. However, I hasten to add that I did not see these as
evidence of incompetence. I never saw them used as initial orders but
only as a part of a stream of communications back and forth between a
brigade commander and division. I also noted that the brigade
commanders in their battle reports did not seem to be particularly
annoyed by their lack of detail.

2. Administrative orders

While the action orders above concerned themselves with the
disposition of the brigade on the battlefield, I also found a body of
orders that were more concerned with administrative, organizational
and command structure matters:

"Be advised that your new divisional commander is…" [looks like
something happened upstairs]
"Turn over your command to x and report to headquarters…" [oh oh,
you're in trouble now]
"Assume command of x brigade…"[ All the example I saw of this order
were in response to a nearby brigade commander being killed or
otherwise incapacitated]
" The division commander wishes to communicate to you his concern/
displeasure/outrage…"[followed by some admonition ranging from mild
to threats of arrest if the brigade commander continues doing
whatever he's doing]

2. Conditional, Provisional and Preemptory orders

Although I noted these type of orders were common in orders issued to
divisions and corps, I saw a relatively small number of these types
of orders issued to brigade commanders. It seems clear to me that ACW
corps and divisional commanders preferred issuing orders to their
brigade commanders with a single goal after which they would issue
new orders. Relatively few brigade orders started with "If …" or
ended with "Once accomplished, you are to then proceed…" .

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Re: Some interesting posts regarding orders in the ACW

Post  henridecat on Mon Jan 19, 2009 12:04 pm

some of the many responses...

Re: [Kriegsspiel] Some interesting posts regarding orders in the ACW

I wonder how 'American' this all is?

In terms of the experience (or lack of) of a lot of Brigade commanders and the more general 'go getting attitude' of the period and style of fighting.

Brigadiers were always charged with the preservation of their command, so defencive variation to orders is common, as is not proceeding with out orders, or indeed following the last one received.

I would be interested to see the same degree of latitude (Oh! Division seems to have forgotton me, I'll just attack that lot over there) in Napoleonics for example, outside of Auerstadt or some other notably flexible actions.



What an excellent post. Opinion based on evidence.

Ansd what a wonderful resource the ACW Official Records are. You can access them on-line at if anyone is interested.

I wonder to what degree your findings might apply to the Napoleonic period? My instinct is that most Napoleonic armies (if not the French) would have expected a more rigid adherence to orders, and less creativity in the absence of them. But, unlike you, I have not done the research so may be wrong!

It is also the case that most Napoleonic battlefields were much less heavily wooded than many ACW ones, so the opportunity/need for independent action by brigade commanders was perhaps somewhat less frequent.


Re: Some interesting posts regarding orders in the ACW

They are indeed excellent posts, but I cannot claim them. Some fellow
called Mosby65 did them. I used to have access to the OR in college,
and read them at every chance. But that was years ago, his research
is fresh, and I thought it useful Wink

Oddly, he states he is not a fan of written orders in games.

Re: [Kriegsspiel] Some interesting posts regarding orders in the ACW


"It is also the case that most Napoleonic battlefields were much less heavily wooded than many ACW ones, so the opportunity/ need for independent action by brigade commanders was perhaps somewhat less frequent."

I see we are on the same track here. It also occured to me after my last posting that ACW Brigaders could probably move more freely as there was a lot less chance of them needing to wipe hoof prints off their coats if they got it wrong!

You point is also spot on. Can you imagine Napoleon fighting Lee in The Wilderness?


The issue of writing and/or issuing orders was another one of those things undergoing a change during the 19th Century. There was relatively little formal instruction in the United States military on the writing of orders until the work of Eben Swift at Fort Leavenworth in the late 1800s. His lecture "Orders" can still be found in pdf format through the website for the Command and Staff College at Leavenworth and it is clearly the basis for the modern art of writing orders in the U.S. Army. You can find some of his material via Google Books as well for on line examination - but do follow up by going to the provider's website as well because you can often get a downloadable copy.

Swift's work was very close in spirit to the developments in Prussia at the time on the writing of clear orders, a skill they apparently expected would be learned via Kriegsspiel among its other benefits. However, Swift did not get into the Prussian debate over whether to write :"mission orders" which told the recipient what to do but now how, as compared to the more common orders that told the recipient in more detail both what and how to do their task (a concept more common in the Union and Confederate armies, btw).

Last year while reading up on General Grant I found that both contemporaries and later scholars considered Grant one of the best Civil War commanders at writing clear concise orders that told the recipient what he needed to know as well as what he needed to do - he often personally wrote out his orders and rarely if ever had to rewrite them. There is even an old story that can be found about someone asking Grant why he kept a particularly unskilled and not to bright officer on his staff - the answer reportedly was that Grant would have him read all of these orders he had written out and if this officer understood the order, Grant knew he could send it out as written confident that the intended recipient would understand it. Sadly for us, if the story is true Grant never named the officer!

Robert A. Mosher
The Military Philosopher
Thanks for the Eben Swift mention. Searching that led me to some very
interesting material.
This page in particular was loaded with good stuff:


Can you imagine Napoleon fighting Lee in The Wilderness?
Only with difficulty David Wink

Maybe Grant's strategy was somewhat Napoleonic - throw masses at the enemy to pin him and then wear him down. (or am I being unfair to both!!)

Tim Carne

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Re: Some interesting posts regarding orders in the ACW

Post  Ike on Mon Jan 30, 2012 6:26 pm

There are contextual explanations of the manner in which orders were written and were ignored, followed and amended in the ACW. First, the brigade O/C's and the regimental CO's were often men of political or economic importance (or the sons of such people) in the same area of a state, or, in the smaller states, all from a particular state. This means that they more likely than not knew each other and had had some extent of interactions with each other prior to the war. Second, this was in large part a war of amateur officer corps on both sides, the small to tiny body of professionals being expanded with the aforementioned burghers or their sons, and few if any of them had experience in leading or commanding the large bodies of soldiers found in the ACW from the start. Third, as the war continued on and the surviving officers and men matured as soldiers, they were not likely to respond kindly to orders worded as arbitrary demands from the - usually, but not always - professional Army man who was their Corps or Army CO. Fourth, this was a war of Causes. The Cause(s) on the Union side were restoring the Union (see the lyrics of a quite popular song of the day, "Rally 'Round the Flag") and the destruction of the institution of slavery and delivering the enslaved blacks to freedom (see "Battle Hymn of the Republic"). On the Confederate side, the Cause(s) were States Rights and continuing the instution of slavery. Rather more like the Thirty Years' War than the War of the Spanish Succession, in the emotional appeal of the war's goals, aims and ... well, "Causes". Significance? The men were more likely to obey an order and die to the last without the autocratic demand to do so than with such an order. Besides, who other than the few professional officers knew how to write such things? West Point didn't teach order writing to the generation of officers who served in the Civil War. In addition, the professionals all saw themselves as gentlemen, though of different backgrounds, to be sure. From the South, 'Southern gentility' of privilege, wealth and manners; from the North, of wealth and military experience. All these factors, in addition to the ones normally bandied about in academic works, produced the result we read of in the memoirs, private histories and fictionalized accounts of the ACW, in the area of orders both giving and taking.

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Re: Some interesting posts regarding orders in the ACW

Post  Blaugrana on Tue Jan 31, 2012 10:37 am

Thanks for this - very interesting.

Do you have links to the original posts in the Yahoo group and/or TMP ?

I had a quick look for the ACW Yahoo group and found there are LOTS.

I was hoping to find images of actual orders- Davinci on the NSD forum is after examples of courier messages and I thought it would be intersting too.


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Re: Some interesting posts regarding orders in the ACW

Post  Lugnakh on Fri Feb 24, 2012 7:27 am

Thanks for posting that up, had forgotten about it Wink

I saved, or at least tried to save, an archive of the old Yahoo group, but I needed some other software I didn't have to view it and so I am still not sure if I actually was able to save anything.

I have to say that while the format here is nicer, there was a TON of valuable information on the old group, and I sorry to see it go. Would have been nice to have it remain online for archival purposes.



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