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VOLTIGEURS discussed in The US Army and Navy Journal 1865

VELITES OR VOLTIGEURS; The United States army and navy journal and gazette of the regular ..., Volume 3, 1865, p. 229-230


To the Editor of tte Army and Navy Journal:

Sib,:—Velites, among the Romans, were the regular light infantry forming part of the Legion, and were originally exactly what Votilgeurs proper have been at mom recent epochs. In fact General G. De Vaudoncouht, writing on this subject, says Velites can be exactly translated by Voltigeur. Velites owed their conception to a centurion, Q. Navius, at the siege of Capua, B. C. 213. He proposed to organize them to compensate for the inferiority of the Roman horse, who had proved themselves incapable of keeping the field against the Capuan cavalry. The Proconsul, General-in-Chief Q. Fulvius, adopted the idea, and ordered tho selection of the most agile and vigorous Legionaries, who were then furnished with light dedefensive armor and offensive weapons. These were drilled to accompany the movements of the cavalry. To each cavalryman, one of these selected footmen was assigned. His duty was to leap adroitly up and ride behind the horseman for transportation and jump down again for combat. The result of this mingling of the services was happy, and victory remained thereafter with the Roman cavalry thns reinforced.

Nevertheless, these were not the first light infantry which Rome possessed. It had tirailleurs proper long before, who discharged their appropriate duties with an adroitness which was peculiar to every branch of the military organization of the armies of the seven-hilled conquering city. It was at the siege of Capua, however, that their utility was first dearly apprehended, their instruction perfectea, and their number augmented. The old rorarii or light infantry had only comprised 620 men in each legion of about 4,200, say one-seventh, very near the proportion in Russia, Austria, Prussia, France and Italy between the light and line infantry, according to the estimate of a Prussian officer's critical comparison. After the Capuan affair already cited, the rorarii took the name of velites, and were increased to 1,200, or two-sevenths. That is to say, at the epoch of the highest perfection of the Roman military organization, the regular light infantry proper were proportionately more numerous than at any previous period. They kept their superior numerical proportion, while Roman war continued to maintain its pristine force and superiority of method. When, however, Rome commenced to decline, auxiliary troops, whether mounted or on foot, replaced tho glorious Roman regular light infantry. Balearic, Cretan, Thracian and other mercenary contingents at first partially and gradually altogether usurped the place of the velites. Then Republican Rome, which, prior to Augustus, had been to all other nation'' that which Bonaparte was to all other generals prior to his complete imperialism, all conquering through the wisdom and force of her institutions by their applicative genius and utilization became like Napoleon the subjugator through the increment of human and material wealth and power. Then came the triumph of natural vigor such as both North and South displayed in our four years war, and the soulless machinery of system went down before it. The military preeminence of "Rome may be said to date from the perfect development of her infantry arm, and to have been coeval with its maintenance.

The Gallio or Celtic armies, acoording to Levy, first century B. C, comprised velites or voltigeurs. Ceasar tells us that the Germans, whom he encountered at the epoch of the new era, brought them into the field also. Tacitus, writing at the end of the first century A. C, confirms their appearance on the field among the German effectives. And Vegetius, that " Romania militare majestee," describes their peculiar tactics with favorable mention in his "Military Institutes," emitted about three centuries afterwards. Bonaparte, First Consul, during the last years of Republican rule, decreed the institution of companies of voltigeurs or modern velites. Two ideas, one military the other political, influenced their creation. He took them from men too small for line or even light infantry, and so utilized comparative dwarfs, and enabled the conscription to yield 40,000 more males as cannon's food. What is more, being light weights, they were more appropriate to a service whose peculiarity in conception consisted in their trusting for rapid transport to horses, which bearing them behind the saddle, carried double. In our country, Senator Benton proposed a regiment of voltigeurs, during the Mexican war, and it was raised, but it is very questionable if it ever discharged, in any one case, its peculiar duties. Voltigeurs are not chimerical, for they were rendered serviceable, as will be shown, by the Romans. They have also been recognized, as herein proved, as valuable elements of a military force by many nations, ancient as well as modern. Still to make them what they should be demands a far greater degree of sense, choice and care than any United States war administration ever yet has shown. Small, well formed, robust, agile, intelligent men, good shots, are needed on the one hand, and very strong, active, handy, chunky horses on the other. Over big horses have too much of their own weight to boar along, to carry double, and bulky men, either in height or girth, would soon break down anything but an exceedingly strong animal. A voltigeur brigade, however, might be maintained, and if kept up in regular legionary style would render sufficiently efficient service to pay for the extra care needed in iu organization and maintenance.

According to General Babdin, the term voltigeur dates from the Eighteenth Century. Judging from his language, it superseded or took the place of the older batteurs d'estrade—scout—a soldier mounted or dismounted, as it may have been—or perhaps eclaireur, a title applied to members of " a corps," says Duane, " raised by Bonaparte " in France, who, from their celerity of movement, were "compared to lightning"—defined by James flankers). Eclaireurs, a half century since, according to Hoyt, were emphatically batteurs d'estrade who led the army, resembling feelers, observing everything, guarded the flanks in passing defiles, and prevented ambuscades. We needed such men exceedingly during our late civil war, and it would seem of paramount importance while at peace to provide them against a future conflict. But this is wandering from the point. As soon as the Consular Guard was transmuted into tho Imperial Guard, in 1804, two (four?) battalions of foot velites were organized and attached to each of the regiments of foot grenadiers and foot chasseurs. In 1805, a battalion of mounted velites and two new battalions of foot velites (which formed a regiment in 1806) were created. In 1807, two regiments of tirailleurs-grenadiers, two of tirailleurs-chasseurs, one battalion of velites of Florence, one of velites of Turin, two regiments of conscript grenadiers, and two of conscript chasseurs were organized. These took tho name of the Young Guard; the troops already aggregated as the Imperial Guard, the Old Guard. In 1810, the conscript chasseurs became the voltigeurs. In 1812, the Guard comprised, besides odd battalions and detachments of special corps, thirty full regiments, of which six were cavalry. Of the twenty-four foot regiments, seventeen were light infantry—viz., one of grenadiers fusiliers, six of grenadiers tirailleurs, two of foot chasseurs, one of fusiliers chasseurs (riflemen ?), six of voltigeurs, and one of flankers. Or, as seems most probable upon reflection—of the twenty-four regiments of foot in the Guard, seven were heavy, seven were medium, and three were light infantry ordinary, and seven were light infantry extraordinary. No one who did not witness the movements of these different corps, appreciate their destinations, and know their peculiar duties and service, can do more than speculate. Still, it would seem that Napoleon held in hand, even if he did not always call upon them to discharge appropriate services, a much larger proportion of light infantry than any other great general before or since.

But, to return to the consideration of the first regularly organized light infantry, we find that, in the Roman legions, there were four different sorts of footmen, not only as to age, riches, warlike science, but likewise on account of their arms and way of fighting. Of the younger and poorer sort—the more appropriate from their hardy nurture, laborious pursuits, and habitual mode of life—they made their velites. - Those that were somewhat above them, on account of their age and riches, were hastatii; such as were richer and in the full vigor of their age were principes - and the oldest and most experienced were the triariis. The number of the soldiers of every one of these different classes was different at several times, according as the legion was less or more numerous. When the legion amounted to 4,200, as it did in the time of Polybius—first century B. C.—there were 600 triarii in the legion, and 1,200 of each of the three other classes—viz., of principes, hastatii, and velites. When the legion was more numerous, those three different-categories were likewise increased, the triarii only excepted, who wore always the same number. The Roman order of battle was drawn up after this manner, wherein consisted the strength of the Roman disposition for combat:—
for relief or support: the hastatii, being pressed, retired orderly into the intervals of the principes ; these into those of the triarii—which, making, as it were, a new body, might conjointly renew the battle. In this system lay the secret of their success. It is worthy of remark that, in the battle of Zamain, Africa, Scipio, fearing a rout from the elephants of the enemy, did not leave the principes disposed as usual with their alternate intervals, whereby the elephants, passing through the intervals of the hastatii, might have run upon them, but drew up the troops in perpendicular lines, whereas they were ordinarily in echelons, and leaving free passage to the unwieldy animals, evaded the mischief intended to be done by the elephants.

The principle of Roman war, as exemplified in tho tactics of the legions, was consonant with the soundest sense and wisest military science. The battle was brought on by peculiar light troops, acclimated to battle, drilled for hand to hand, man to man encounters, perfect skirmishers, self reliant, thinking men, and the combat was constantly fed by fresh troops before the nerve, force and physical powers of those first and successfully brought under fire, so to speak, was in any way exhausted by an evolution equivalent to the modern " passage of lines." The great principle, however, the discipline adopted by the Romans, and that applicable to Americans, differs entirely. Tho basis of Roman discipline was inflexible severity in all its bearings. The Roman soldier, like the Prussian under Frederic, was kept up to his work, was restrained and impelled by fear. The punishments were numerous and terrible. Now, too much severity represses intelligence, while on the other hand, too much latitude to intelligence makes soldiers unmanageable. The golden mean should be the rule in our armies. Our troops should be kept constantly and perfectly in hand, while at the same time the reins should be held with so light a hand as to permit their intellects to work as freely as is consistent with sage and effective discipline.

Thus, to resume, the Velites, Light Infantry, inaugurated the combat and were replaced by the Medium Line Infantry; these by a steadier or heavier grade; these again by the best, and most reliable Heavy Infantry. Meanwhile the first the Light Infantry, superior in mobility and address, inferior alone in weight and armament, retiring through the intervals of the supports, filled in the intervals of the Heavy Reserve foot, made it a solid line, and thus united, activity and solidity combined, worked in at the crisis to deliver the decisive blow.

The art of reconnoitring was not sufficiently developed among the Romans to enable a critic to decide if the Velites accompanied and felt out the route for the scouting parties sent forward as explorers. It is most probable, however, that they did. In camp, the Velites watched and guarded the entrenchments; they likewise supplied the outposts. They furnished for this service ten posts, four men each, for each face of the camp. Here we discover the type of the Quadriglia of the Sardinian Bersaglieri, the four Commanders de Combat of the French Chasseurs, and the fours which enter so largely into all the recent Light Infantry formations. In line, the Velites, served generally with the cavalry, furnishing in common with the latter the exterior grand guards, each of which were covered by a fixed number of little posts, mounted as weJA as foot.

Taking this term Velites as synonymous with Voltigeurs, Gustavus Adolphus, who founded his Swedish brigade on the principle of the legionary formation, revived the idea of mingling musketeers, picked or " commanded men," according to the language of the era, with his cavalry. Their efficiency or comprehension of the effective use of this composite force, although it answered the expectations of its originator, does not seem to have survived him. Although the success of the Swedes at Rheindorf or Angern, in 1631, was chiefly attributable to their musketeers, or Voltigeurs, mingled with cavalry, an idea suggested by the famous Mansfeld, it is said, as early as 1620, and practiced by Gnstavus in his Polish wars, although the great king made good use of them at Leipsic, and they were greatly instrumental in retrieving affairs at Lutzen, the intermingled infantry and cavalry formation does not seem to have been generally endorsed by any succeeding great commander. Gustavcs fell at Lutzen, November 6, 1632, and at Janikau, February 24, 1645, cavalry had learned to estimate its objects and capabilities, charging by itself, spiritedly home, without intervals.

It is very questionable, if the value of regular Light Infantry proper was recognized from the times of Ceasar down to the middle of the Eighteenth oentury. War returning as a science to its source, Republican Roman military organization, adopts the proportion of line infantry and light infantry, which carried the eagle over the world. But ratio is not altogether reason, and it is not the number, but the qualities of our light infantry will determine our conflicts. The standard of our Velites must be high and then success is assured ; triumph admits no question.


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