(The following is most gratefully used with permission from our friends at Fort Atkinson.)
After the War of Independence, commonly referred to as The Revolutionary War, the United States Army realized the usefulness of troops that operate in unconventional tactics and using rifles which are more accurate and useful at greater distances. In 1799, Congress authorized the formation of a regiment of soldiers that were to be a specialized unit that would use the more accurate rifle and tactics that did not constrict them to the common linear battle line.
However, it wasn’t until 1808 that funds were granted to actually raise such a body of troops. With the funds allocated, The First Regiment of United States Riflemen was born. Originally known as simply “The Regiment of Riflemen”, they were issued the model 1803 rifle and uniforms that were unique from all other U.S. military uniforms. The summer uniform was a style of hunting frock that was green with yellow fringe. For winter and dress, a yellow trimmed green wool coatee and trousers were issued similar in pattern to other troops. Most of the rest of their uniform was the same as other troops but using their own insignia where appropriate. In 1814, due to cost, difficulty of obtaining the green wool and the prospect of having to uniform three more regiments, the winter uniform was changed to gray. But they retained their summer uniform green and yellow frocks.
Tactics and missions for Riflemen were varied. Although they were required to know and could be called to fall in to the battle line with the Infantry, they were contemporary guerilla fighters borrowing tactics from the Light Infantry and even Indians. They were consistently sent ahead as an advance guard, then stayed behind to cover the rear flank. The first in the field and last out. In battle, they were advanced to mask their own troops by spreading across the battle field and flanks, and to harass and disrupt enemy movements and positioning. Their mission was generally to snipe and kill the officers, NCOs and musicians. When their own troops were in position and ready, the signal would be given to unmask and they would retire to either the reserve or form flank on the battle line and attack with the Infantry or continue to harass the enemy. They were cunning soldiers to frequently face an enemy many times their number. Their success depended on speed and daring.
Riflemen were dispatched as scouts. Running advanced patrols to guide a troop movement. They were also used as flank guards, spread out around the main body of troops marching in column to protect from surprise attack and again guiding the main body through the easiest area to traverse. While operating independently, typical movement would be in “Indian File” and moving at “Indian Pace”. Basically, their movements were by file of one or two stepping at a trot.
With the outbreak of war in 1812, it was believed that the Riflemen would be very valuable in most theaters of operation. So much so that in 1813, three more regiments were authorized and in early 1814 were recruited and raised. Normally being detached to other regiments by companies or platoons, they performed well in their unusual missions. Although the Second and Third Regiments did not see much in the way of action, the (now numbered) First and Fourth Regiments were very active, especially in the Niagara Campaigns of 1814.
For more information on the history of the Regiment of Riflemen see John C. Fredriksen’s Green Coats and Glory, the United States Regiment of Riflemen 1808-1821 printed by the Old Fort Niagara Association.