07 February 2013 by Published in: Union Cavalry 4 comments

800px-UnionInfantryHollowSquareOn one of the forum boards that I regularly visit, someone asked for examples of infantry forming squares in echelon to defend against cavalry charges. The first response on the list was Brig. Gen. James H. Lane’s Confederate infantry brigade forming square at Gettysburg on July 1.

There’s a problem with that response. There is no proof that it happened. And it completely ignores the documented instance of Confederate infantry forming square to defend against a feinted cavalry charge that DID occur earlier in the afternoon of July 1, 1863.

For those unfamiliar with forming squares in echelon, it’s a classic Napoleonic tactic for infantry to defend against a cavalry charge. A good, concise explanation of the tactic, and how to try to break a square, can be found here. Yes, it’s a Wikipedia article, but it’s a good one and it is accurate. The photo is of a Union infantry regiment, formed up in a hollow square. Click on the photo to see a larger version of it.

Here’s the story about Lane’s supposed forming squares:

A determined attack by the Confederate infantry brigade of Col. Abner Perrin finally broke the last Union line of resistance on Seminary Ridge, driving the First Corps back toward Cemetery Hill. At 4:00 p.m., in imminent danger of being flanked by Perrin’s advance, Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday, the acting commander of the First Corps, sent staff officer Capt. Eminel P. Halstead in search of Maj. Gen. O. O. Howard, then overseeing efforts to cobble together defenses on East Cemetery Hill, looking for reinforcements. When Halstead reported the Confederate threat, Howard informed him that he had no reinforcements to spare, and suggested that Halstead “go to General [John] Buford, give him my compliments, and tell him to go to Doubleday’s support.” When Halstead asked Howard where to find Buford, Howard indicated that he did not know, but that he thought Buford was somewhere to the east of Cemetery Hill. Halstead set off to search for the Kentuckian.

After they were driven from the stone wall they had held until Perrin’s attack broke the Union line, Buford ordered Col. William Gamble’s weary troopers to fall into line on the Emmitsburg Road, where they were later joined by Devin’s brigade. There, Halstead found Buford, mounted on his thoroughbred war horse, Grey Eagle, overseeing the disposition of his cavalry. When Halstead delivered Howard’s order, the irate Buford “rose in his stirrups upon his tiptoes and exclaimed, ‘What in hell and damnation does he think I can do against those long lines of the enemy out there!’”

Halstead responded, “I don’t know anything about that, General, those are General Howard’s orders.”

“Very well,” replied Buford, “I will see what I can do.” Around 5:00 p.m., Buford ordered his mounted command to move out into the fields in front of Cemetery Hill, in plain view of the enemy. The sight so impressed Second Corps commander Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, sent by Meade to take command of the field, that he later recalled that, “one of the most inspiring sights of his military career was the splendid spectacle of that gallant cavalry, as it stood there unshaken and undaunted, in the face of the advancing Confederate infantry.”

Gamble sent elements of the 8th Illinois forward to remove fence rails and other impediments to a mounted charge. In line of battle, Buford’s exhausted troopers stood their ground, daring the Confederates of Brig. Gen. James H. Lane’s brigade to attack. Doubleday noted in his diary that night, “Having thus strengthened his right, General Hancock extended his line by posting Buford’s Cavalry…on the left. This gave us an appearance of strength we did not possess and the enemy did not press the attack, preferring to wait for reinforcements.” Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, the Army of the Potomac’s chief engineer, later recorded, “General Buford’s cavalry was all in line of battle between our position [on Cemetery Hill] and the enemy. Our cavalry presented a very handsome front, and I think probably checked the advance of the enemy.” Doubleday’s aide Halstead recounted, “the enemy, seeing the movement, formed squares in echelon, which delayed them and materially aided in the escape of the First Corps if it did not save a large portion of the remnant from capture.” Doubleday later recounted that with the feinted charge, Buford “rendered essential service…and prevented them from cutting us off from our line of retreat to Cemetery Hill.”

The problem is that Halstead’s post-war account–published in a paper that he presented to the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (a Union officers’ veterans’ organization)–is the ONLY source that claims that Lane formed square. None of the participants mentioned it in their contemporary after-action accounts. None of the other memoirs, letters, and other primary sources mention it. It simply cannot be corroborated by anyone. Undoubtedly, SOMETHING halted Lane’s advance that day. It was probably the sight of two full brigades of cavalry–roughly 2700 troopers–mounted, in line of battle, with sabers drawn, awaiting the order to charge. But there is no evidence that Lane actually gave the order to form squares by echelon, and there is no evidence that they actually did so. Instead, it appears that the feint was enough. Lane’s advance halted, which allowed time for the Union infantry to fall back safely from its very exposed position on Seminary Ridge to the positions that Hancock and Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, the Army of the Potomac’s chief engineer, had prepared on East Cemetery Hill.

The story of Lane’s Brigade overlooks another instance that day when Confederate infantry did, indeed, form square against a feinted charge by troopers of the 8th Illinois Cavalry of Gamble’s brigade.

About 1:00, advancing Confederate infantry of Brig. Gen. James J. Pettigrew’s brigade threatened the left flank of the First Corps near the end of modern-day Reynolds Avenue. Col. Chapman Biddle’s brigade held the end of Doubleday’s line. Biddle’s men were in grave danger of being flanked by the 52nd North Carolina Infantry of Pettigrew’s Brigade. A deep swale hid the Confederates’ advance and allowed the Tarheels to approach Biddle’s flank unseen.

From his vantage point, Gamble could see the threat, and he ordered Maj. John Beveridge, commanding the 8th Illinois, to take his regiment out to the southwest, along the Hagerstown Road, where they took position in an orchard south of the road, near woods.

Beveridge “ordered the 8th Illinois, in column of squadrons, forward, increased its gait to a trot as if to make a charge upon [the Confederate] right. His right regiment halted, changed front, and fired a volley: Biddle’s brigade rose to their feet, saw the enemy, fired and retired across the field toward Seminary Ridge.”

The men of the 52nd North Carolina stopped dead in their tracks and formed a hollow square. A member of the 52nd recalled:

[the 52nd North Carolina] held the right of Pettigrew‘s line, and as we advanced through the open field our right flank was menaced by a body of the enemy’s cavalry, seeking an opportunity to charge our lines. While on the advance and under heavy fire Col. [James K.] Marshall formed his regiment in square to guard against attack from this body, and at the same time deployed Company B…to protect his flank. [They] succeeded in holding the cavalry in check and finally drove them from our flank. This maneuver was executed by the regiment as promptly and accurately as if it had been upon its drill grounds.

Maj. William Medill of the 8th Illinois proudly observed that his regiment

saved a whole brigade of our infantry and a battery from being captured and cut to pieces. The rebels had them nearly surrounded and hemmed in, perceiving which, we made a detour to our left, gained their flank, and charged right on the rear of one of the living walls that was moving to crush our infantry. The rebel line halted suddenly, faced about, formed to receive us, and fired a volley that mostly went over our heads. We returned fire with our carbines and galloped away. But during the time they were delayed, the infantry escaped.

The mission accomplished, the 8th Illinois fell back to rejoin the rest of Gamble’s brigade southwest of the Federal line.

This critical episode saved Biddle’s brigade from being flanked and permitted it to withdraw safely to Seminary Ridge. Yet, it is completely overlooked. Instead, it gets lost in the shuffle of the legend of Lane’s Brigade forming square, when it probably never happened. It’s a shame, because the stand by Beveridge’s men was a critical moment. That’s not to downplay what John Buford and his troopers did, as the very threat of a mounted charge by 2700 Union troopers clearly brought Lane’s advance to a screeching halt. What’s not clear, though, is whether Lane formed square, as it cannot be corroborated.

This particular issue has fascinated me for years, and I’ve been wrestling with it since 1992. I’ve seen every known account of the events of that day, and the idea of Lane’s Brigade forming square, romantic as it may be, just can’t be reconciled with those accounts. Hence, it does not appear that it occurred.

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  1. Chris Evans
    Fri 08th Feb 2013 at 1:10 pm


    Studying the Napoleonic Wars has given me a appreciation of squares and how difficult they were to break up. I believe that only one was broken during the entire Peninsular War , for example.

    I’m also trying to remember the mention of squares and the ability of Confederate units to form into them from Fremantle’s ‘Three Months in the Southern States’.

    I remember reading about the possibility of squares at Gettysburg on the First Day (possibly in David Martin’s wonderful book) but the breakdown of the accounts in this article is really excellent and helps figure the situation out.


  2. John Foskett
    Mon 11th Feb 2013 at 8:33 pm

    Interesting stuff and great research. This is a recurring question and if I recall correctly, there was at least one, and possibly two, credible instances reported at Shiloh. The one I recall with most certainty involves the 55th Illinois. They were originally commanded by Col. David Stuart, who was an advocate of European tactical training and drilled them in forming squares against cavalry attacks. After Stuart was promoted to brigade command, he was succeeded by Lt. Col. Malmborg, who I believe was Swedish and European-trained. On the first day at Shiloh they are reported to have formed square, although it was against an attack by Rebel infantry, not cavalry so I’m not certain that it “qualifies”.

  3. Fri 15th Feb 2013 at 12:15 pm

    Do you know the name of he soldier in the 52nd NC who wrote about the square being formed. I always see it as a statement in later writing (NC Regiments) any dea who it was ???

  4. Michael Gawlinski
    Tue 26th Mar 2013 at 3:30 pm

    There was a post on this subject last year by a park historian on the Gettysburg NPS wordpress. IIRC the conclusion was that there was likely a square formed but it was unlikely that they could ever be reasonably sure on specific details.

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