When I was a kid, I loved the film “Gettysburg” which centered on the battle of the same name from the American Civil War in 1863. In the third day of the battle, Confederate general Robert E. Lee gambles on a frontal assault on the fortified Union lines across open ground after artillery bombardment, along with diversionary attacks on the flanks.
My dad, at the time, would vocally say “Why are they walking? Why aren’t they spread out? It doesn’t make any sense! They’re just asking to get slaughtered!”
And yeah, it failed badly.
So that does nevertheless beg the question: in films set in the 18th and 19th century, why do we see men bunch up in tight formations when they’re fighting with guns against each other, with artillery and all that other destructive stuff flying around?
There are good reasons for this, and a few bad ones.
The first is that your average soldier was an uneducated peasant, in most countries. You could only make them worthwhile by drilling them to fight practically on automatic, because battles are scary and people will run. They had to react automatically to orders, and not think about them. This is much easier in a tight formation.
The second is that early gunpowder weapons were really really inaccurate. Even in the 18th century, for the most part there was no real such thing as aiming. Smoothbore barrels, like early muskets, were smooth on the inside. The bullet, when fired, would literally bounce around in the barrel before it exits the muzzle and gods alone know where it will end up. Rifled guns, which mean that the inside of the barrel is grooved in a spiral fashion which make the bullet spin as it exits, were much more accurate but much more expensive and time-consuming to make.
So the way you can guarantee the effectiveness of arming men with muskets is to group them up tightly, face them all in one direction, and when they shoot, they have a better chance to hit something in front of them. “Ready, Aim, Fire” is not part of their routine, because there’s no point to aiming. They would generally just point it high, because gravity would drop the bullet over range.
And the third reason is that tactics were inherited from the medieval and renaissance period, where tight formations were important for maintaining cohesion, and defense against cavalry. The threat of cavalry was still very present, and a tight formation of infantry still had a better chance of fighting them off. The tragedy of this is that tactics just didn’t move quickly enough to adjust to the increasing destructiveness of technology.
By the American Civil War, cavalry had mostly lost its shock value. Horses were too vulnerable to increasing numbers of rifles, faster firing artillery, and more. They found they were acting more as scouts and dragoons, the latter meaning they ride to an area, then dismount and fight, rather than fighting from horseback.
Looser formations were also used in these periods, as scouts, skirmishers and sharpshooters. They generally considered themselves an elite, and given less discipline and more independence. The Prussian “Freikorps” were intentionally recruited from brutish or aggressive men, and allowed to keep their beards. They were expected to be flexible, mobile, and work without specific orders.
So would a change in tactics have saved Pickett’s men at Gettysburg? Probably not. A change in strategy maybe, as has been argued, but the training for the day largely worked as well as it could have.