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On Forming the Company.

An examination, by

Leonidas Jones
Colonel cmdg
6th Regiment, 1st Division, ANV

The Liberty Greys

There is likely no issue in reenacting which has as many variants as the seemingly elemental action of forming the company in two ranks, in preparation for drill or battle.  This is because out primary sources, Hardee's and Casey's, give no direct information on  how this simple but vital task is to be accomplished.

The chore is so mundane, that no military historian has recorded it, nor did any first person account outline it.  We are left to extrapolation and educated guesswork.

Both General Hardee and General Casey wrote drill manuals, designed for instruction of the regular army.  Much of the minutia of military life was simply assumed.   Hardee tells us in his School of the Company, that "the company will always be formed in two ranks"  (SotC. para. 4) but gives no direction as to how.

Gen. Casey, in his SotC, gives an enigmatic instruction that the company will be formed in two ranks "wither any preliminary formation" (SotC, para. 4.)   This brings to mind a picture of a thought I once had, that all soldiers should keep a file card with them, with their exact height to the quarter inch!  With the aid of their sergeants, they would mill about comparing their cards and place themselves in ranks accurately.

While this is an amusing notion, I suspect it is far more likely that Gen. Casey assumed that the company would have been formed earlier, say at morning roll call.  The men would then fall in for drill in their pre-assigned places in ranks.  Indeed, this is exactly what we do, reforming the company only in the case of additions or deletions from the earlier formation.


We begin our search for a system with three general assumptions, which are pretty well taken for granted throughout reenacting.  I will comment on the assumptions at thee end of the article.

  1.  The company will be formed in two ranks by height, with the taller men to the right.

  2.  In each file, the slightly taller of the two file partners will be placed in the rear rank.

  3.  If the number of men in ranks be uneven, the one man file will be placed at the left side of the company.

Believe it or not, I have actually been aware of companies that form with the taller men to the left!  I will not go into detail, except to point out that this flies in the face of the explicit direction of every period manual from Gen. Scott's on.


When I began to reenact, most companies formed by counting twos in one rank, facing to the right to double, and fronting in two ranks.  Many companies still form in this manner.  However, this causes several problems.

First, it is an involved procedure, with a command sequence as follows:


Attention.  COMPANY..

Count.  TWOS.

Right.  FACE.

In two ranks.  FRONT.

Right .  DRESS.


In each rank, count.  TWOS.

All this must be commanded and performed before the company is formed.  Second, this involves a double count, which many soldiers, particularly new recruits, find confusing.  Third, and most significant, it violates the second assumption, by placing the shorter men in the rear rank.


Early in my reenacting career, I fell in under the command of an experienced sergeant, who adapted a command found in the back of Hardee's SotC (the same command appears in Casey's), for the purpose of forming the company.  "In two ranks form company" (SotC. para. 364.) does indeed eliminate the double count, and simplify the process.  The command sequence is as follows:


In two ranks form company.  Company,  Right.  FACE.


In each rank, count.  TWOS.

The task is performed with half the commands, and the men only count once.  Still, the second assumption is still violated.

In this movement, the tacticians supposed a company properly formed in two ranks, which has been reduced to one by the command "In one rank form company."  The men, while they will be in one rank, will not be in the order in which they fell in..  At the command "march", the front rank man (shorter of the first file) steps off, and his rear rank file partner steps behind him forming the one rank, but in exactly the reverse order from which they first fell in by height.  While the "In two ranks" command will reform the company correctly in context, when used independently, it violates the second assumption.


Our company solved the problem by reversing our original process of the double count, replacing "right" with "left".  This met all assumptions, but is still cumbersome and potentially confusing.  Yet it remains the most common method in use in reenacting today.


To try to shed some light on the issue, I researched earlier drill manuals.  Baron von Steuben, the great Prussian tactician who converted the Continental "rabble" into the Continental Army, was silent on the matter.  Early on, in Chapter III, (his "chapters" are paragraphs), he states "A company is to be formed in two ranks, with the tallest men in the rear, and both ranks sized with the shortest men of each in the centre."  However, he gives no instruction as to how this is accomplished.   His first instruction in company drill is to open the two ranks, which he already assumes to be formed.  The good Baron is of little assistance to us here.

There are two different manuals associated with Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, the Abstract of Infantry Tactics, an abridgement of the manual which supplanted von Steuben's in 1812, condensed by a committee in 1826, which Scott chaired.  Then there is Scott's great work, a translation of the Napoleonic manuals published as the three volume Infantry Tactics.  For clarity, I will refer the former as Scott's Abstract, or the Abstract.  I refer to the larger work as Scott's Tactics, or simply as Scott's.

The Abstract actually details a procedure for forming a company.  (SotC. para. 430-440.) It is a fascinating and involved process using temporary platoon divisions to work the company into two ranks aligned with the tallest men at either end, sloping down to the shortest in the middle of the line!  Clearly this must be the method von Steuben imagined.  While delightful reading, and of great interest to the student of drill, it is of little practical use in the question at hand.

The most pertinent point for us in the Abstract on this matter is the very beginning (SotC. para. 430).  The men are directed to form in one rank, by height, but quickly, and, to correct any errors, are commanded as follows:

Company.  Right .  FACE.

Size.  MARCH.


This clearly beats the file card idea.

Scott's Tactics, on the other hand, provides more up to date information.  This manual was the accepted drill manual from its adoption in 1835, for 20 years, including the period of the Mexican War.  It was supplanted in 1855 by the first edition of Hardee's work, even though Hardee had set out to supplement Scott's with rifle tactics, not replace it entirely.  Thus Scott's is far more detailed in scope than Hardee's.

Scott's can be confusing on the matter of forming the company, since the manual is based on system of three ranks, not two.  However, by reading the brief forward by Lewis Cass, of the Department of War, we find that the three rank formation was suspended in 1835, and was probably never used. 

Scott begins by sizing the men, exact commands unspecified, although the Abstract gives us guidance.  He then outlines a method remarkably similar to Hardee's "In two ranks form company", but doubling by the left rather than the right.  (SotC. para. 421.) The only difficulty is a violation of the third assumption.  Here is the command sequence:

In three (or two) ranks form company. 

By the left flank, Left.  FACE.


Since Scott's did not double when marching by the flank, we would have to add counting in twos to the procedure.


Perhaps our best hope of information is in the form of the volunteer manuals .  These books, often mere booklets, were intended to provide the information needed by the volunteer soldier, eliminating much and adding some important information for those who had little or no military background.


The first of these manuals we will consider was written in 1836 by Brevet Captain Samuel Cooper, who, of course, became Adjutant General of the Confederate States Army.  His manual consists of abridged directions for all three arms.  Although Scott is not mentioned by name, his work clearly forms the basis for the first section of Cooper's manual.

While he bases his work on Scott's, Cooper does put his own stamp here and there.  At the command "Fall in", the soldiers fall in faced to the right flank, rather then front, and size themselves.  When the first sergeant is satisfied that the alignment by height, he commands "Front FACE."  (SotC. p. 33. paragraphs are not numbered.)  From there, Cooper gives much the same directions as appear in Scott's Tactics, sizing the company and doubling them by the left.  Again, we are left with a violation of the third assumption.  There is instructive material in Cooper's, but little more to help us in this situation.


The magnum opus of volunteer manuals is surely that of William Gilham, professor and infantry instructor at VMI during Jackson's tenure.  It was Major Gilham who was truly the most respected military mind at the Institute.

Similar to Cooper's, Gilham included drill instructions for all three arms, and much other material from Army regulations, material the regular army man would know, but the volunteer would need.  He also elaborates much that Hardee and Casey take for granted.  For example, in marching by the flank in two ranks, Hardee and Casey simply say that the officer will "caution" the men not to double, or undouble.  Gilham says the same, but adds the exact command, "In two ranks. Right (or left, or front) Face."

Gilham's was the first manual I studied outside of Hardee's.  I was most excited to find explicit directions, which I now know came from Scott's Tactics.  Note the addition of a command of execution to "fall in", which, so far as I know is unique to Gilham. (SotC. para. 216.)

Fall in.  COMPANY

In two ranks form company.

Left.  FACE.


In each rank, count.  TWOS.

I took my new tool to my next event, where on Saturday, I formed the company both expeditiously and correctly.  On Sunday, however, it stopped working.  There was an odd man on the right of the company!  The process only worked if there were an even number of men in the ranks.  For all I knew, at VMI, companies were always even.  For us that is not true, so we were back to the double count system.


J. K. Lee, a Virginia militia officer, published a slim Volunteer's Hand-book an infantry only manual, in 1860, the same year that Gilham published his more extensive work.  He calls it Hardee's abridged, and adapted for the musket, meaning the use of the musket manual of arms, as well as the rifle manual.  His company formation, however is most similar to that outlined by Cooper.  The men in the ranks (privates and corporals)  fall in one rank faced to the right flank, and are sized with the help of their sergeants.  Yet, amazingly, he forms company to the right rather than the left, violating the second assumption.  (Part 2, para. 199-203.)


The last of the volunteer books we will examine is the Volunteer's Manual, by D. W. C. Baxter, published in 1861.  This slim book, containing School of the Soldier only, has much to recommend it, most particularly in its excellent series of illustrations. 

Baxter begins with a well deserved homage to Scott, on whose work he bases his own.

While the manual does not contain School of the Company, there is a most instructive snippet hidden away in directions for the flank march by squad.  In place of Hardee's standard doubling, we find the following (SotS. "To march by the flank". Paragraphs are not numbered.):

In two ranks, form squad.

By the right flank.  Right .  FACE.


In reading the commands, it appears to have the same flaw as Lee's version.  However, on close reading we find that the man on the far right of the rank faces, not to the right flank, but to the rear.  On "march", he takes one step to the rear, and the files form successively, faced by the rear rank.  At the conclusion of the movement, the first sergeant faces them about, and the company is formed, quickly and correctly, into two ranks, all assumptions fulfilled.  If we translate this to the context of company formation, and accounting for doubling, we have the following:


In two ranks form company.

By the right flank.  Right. FACE.


About.  FACE.

In each rank count.  TWOS.

Despite the number of commands, it is quick, efficient and effective.  This is the basic process by which we form our company.


For the sake of completeness, we examine the post war manuals, especially Upton's.

Emory Upton had a brilliant career, commanding in all three arms during the American Civil War, most notably in his assaults in column formation.  His 1866 manual gives us great insight into how drill developed during the war.  For a detailed analysis, see my article on Upton's.

Unfortunately, in this matter General Upton gives us no guidance.  He gives an explicit form for morning roll call, ( SotC. para. 435.), but does not cover the formation into two ranks.

The Infantry Drill Regulations, of 1891 takes much of its close order formation work from Upton.  Without going into detail, the directions for forming in two ranks violate the second assumption.  By this time, of course, fighting in close order was not a likely occurrence.


Before drawing conclusions, it is appropriate to consider the validity of the three assumptions.

1.  The company will be formed in two ranks by height, with the taller men to the right.

This assumption cannot be questioned, as Title First of every manual  from Scott's Tactics on specified it.


  2.  In each file, the slightly taller of the two file partners will be placed in the rear rank.

For this assumption there is less direct evidence.  The only manuals which make a direct reference are von Steuben's, and Scott's Abstract, which, in its lengthy procedure notes that "the men of the rear rank respectively taller than their file leaders," as though to reassure the reader that this does work.

Even though the manuals closer to the period do not state this specifically, there is much to recommend it.  From the period standpoint, aiming over a taller file leader is most awkward.  From the reenacting perspective, the safety issue of placing properly the rifle bands is much more awkward.  For this reason alone, the assumption should be upheld.

Hardee and Casey do not specify it, but we have seen that there is much that they have omitted as being understood. 

Scott's, Cooper, Gilham, and Baxter did not specify it, because in their manuals, they gave explicit directions to form in two ranks, which made further direction superfluous.  There can be little doubt as to the validity of Assumption Two.

As to the third assumption, I begin to have doubts. 

 3.  If the number of men in ranks be uneven, the one man file will be placed at the left side of the company.

No manual refers to this in any way whatever.  When I believed Gilham was alone in violating the assumption, I was willing to see some aberration.  Now we see Gilham, Cooper, and the great Winfield Scott all specifying procedures that violate the assumption.

Why should a one-man file be placed on the left instead of the right?  If we look at reenacting rather than history, we see that the doubling of files is more awkward with a one-man file at the head.  Remembering that reenactors not so long ago only marched by the right flank, we can see why they would resist an odd file at the right.  Now we realize that we should march by the left as well as the right, and we have relied on the flank march too much. 

With these thoughts in mind, the one-man file at the right of the company is not such a problem.  Indeed, the problems of doubling are easier, as the group of four (comrades in battle) will be a group of three on the right, while on the right it might be three or one.  This makes doubling to the right easier.  Also, in skirmish drill, there will not be a soldier on the left who is not associated with a group of four.  The odd man on the right will be part of a three man skirmish team, at least.

With these points in mind, it seems to me that the third assumption is a reenactorism, which can be safely ignored if we wish.


We see that we must observe the first two of the assumptions, but not necessarily the third.  Yet there is a period procedure that allows all three.  Baxter's gives us the key.

Fall in.  COMPANY.


Right.  FACE.

Size.  MARCH


(Scott's Abstract.)

In two ranks form company.

Right.  FACE.\


About.  FACE.


In each rank count.  TWOS.


This could certainly be a suggested procedure.  Since we have cast doubt on the third assumption, the Gilham's procedure could serve as well.

Fall in.  COMPANY.

(Soldiers will fall in faced to the right, by height from right to left. )


In two ranks form company.  Left-FACE.  MARCH.

(The left guide and the man on the left will stand fast, the rest of the company will face to the left.  At MARCH, the second man from the left will place himself in the rear rank, behind the man next to the guide, and face to the front.  The remainder of the men will form in two ranks in a similar manner.)

In each rank count.  TWOS.

Either procedure should serve the purpose.


Here is a listing of the works I have consulted in making this study, and a short commentary on their use.

Baxter, D.W.C. (1861) Volunteer’s Manual.  Philadelphia: King & Baird

                A version of Scott’s School of the Soldier, for Volunteer’s

Casey, Silas.  (1862)  Infantry Tactics. New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1862

                The Standard Federal Manual for reenactors.

Gilham, William. (1861)  Manual of Instruction for the Volunteers and Militia of the United States.  Philadelphia: Charles Desilver

                A very useful volume.  Infantry is Hardee’s with additions for volunteer’s.

Hardee, William J. (1861) (original, 1855) Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics. Philadelphia: J. Lippencott & Co.

                Hardee’s original work.

Hardee, William J. (1862)  Rifle and Infantry Tactics.  North Carolina.

                Hardee’s revision for three band weapons. 1st printed in Mobile in 1861

Lee, Jas. K.  (1861) Volunteer’s Handbook.  Richmond: West & Johnston Press

                Another manual for volunteers.

Upton, Emory. (1867) Infantry Tactics.  New York:  D. Appleton & Co.

                The manual studied in this article.

Scott, Winfield.  (1830)  Abstract of Infantry Tactics. Boston: Hilliard, Grey, Little, and Wilkins.

                A short manual written by committee before Scott’s major work, Infantry Tactics.

Scott, Winfield. (1836.) Infantry Tactics.  New York: Harper Bros. and Cliff.

                The three volume master work, used until the adoption of Hardee's in 1855.

Steuben, Frederick, Baron von. (1794) Regulations for the Order and Discipline of  Troops of the United States. Boston: Thomas & Andrews.

                The standard manual for Rev. war reenactors.  It was supplanted by the French manuals, which formed the basis of Gen. Scott’s work.


Members of the Sixth Regiment will surely note that there is a command missing.   After "In two ranks form company," we have been commanding "By the right double files".  This crept in by my faulty memory.   Baxter, like Scott before him, always prefaced a facing with "By the right (or left) flank".  I had not read Scott's at the time I introduced the procedure.  I remembered a "by the right", but inserted "double files", which comes from Hardee's instructions on forming into two or four ranks from one while marching to the front. (SotC, para. 380.) 

We could remove it, but we have seen that every tactician who addressed this issue has put his own slightly different slant on it.  Perhaps this is mine!

Leonidas Jones

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