Friday, September 12, 2008

Early Review--The Rifle Musket In the Civil War

The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth, Earl J. Hess, University Press of Kansas, 288 pages, $29.95.

Bruce Trinque on The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth.

The flyleaf of Earl J. Hess's "The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth" promises "a completely new assessment of the rifle musket, contending that its impact was much more limited than previously supposed" and at the start of the book's Introduction Hess states that "the prevailing view of this weapon has been that it revolutionized warfare because of its increased range." Well, back in the 1980s in his "Battle Tactics of the Civil War" British military historian Paddy Griffith stated that "it is difficult to find any evidence at all to support the suggestion that Civil War musketry was delivered at ranges much longer than those of Napoleonic times" and furthermore concludes that "Civil War musketry did not ... possess the power to kill large numbers of men, even in very dense formations, at long range." For the past twenty years, this understanding has, among those of us who study and think about such things, been pretty much the orthodox view, not heresy. See, for example, Brent Nosworthy's "The Bloody Crucible of Courage" and Joseph Bilby's "Civil War Firearms" and "Small Arms at Gettysburg" for quite clear statements about the matter. (To be fair, Hess in his new book cites Griffith, Nosworthy, and Bilby for their work in this area.)

But, if Hess's "The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat" might not be as groundbreaking as the flyleaf description and author's introduction indicate, the book nonetheless provides a solid, detailed underpinning for this relatively new understanding of the practical use and limitations of the prevalent American Civil War infantry weapon; and the book may spread that notion to a wider spectrum of Civil War readers than heretofore has been the case. Hess has performed a valuable service in digging through mountains of primary source material to quantify the impact of rifle muskets on Civil War combat, yielding numerous statistics in support of his conclusions that firefights occurred mostly at ranges far under the theoretical capacity of the weapons and that Civil War battles were no more bloody or indecisive than earlier battles when smoothbore muskets were the rule.

Perhaps of particular value is Hess's assessment of the impact of rifle muskets upon skirmishing, sharpshooting, and sniping (Hess takes pains to differentiate between the terms, noting that they are often incorrectly used interchangeably). He concludes that the widespread use of the weapons permitted large numbers of soldiers to act in the skirmishing role, not concentrating that duty upon a couple of picked companies from each regiment or in elite units such as described in Fred L. Ray's "Shock Troops of the Confederacy: The Sharpshooter Battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia." Hess states that "Lee's sharpshooter battalions were unique and impressive examples of Civil War specialist units. But there is no convincing evidence that they consistently dominated the skirmish line or regularly outshot their opponents during the Overland or Petersburg campaigns ... In the long run, it might have been the wiser course for the Federals to insist that all their regiments be able to skirmish rather than rest that important duty on a small cadre of elite troops."

I might have wished that Hess, perhaps in an appendix, gave a little more technical information about the performance and trajectory of rifle muskets, although in his basic text he does provide a clear description of limitations imposed by the high arching flight of the bullets. And I could wish for a specific comparison between rifle muskets and smoothbores at close range (say, less than a hundred yards), the smoothbores firing both the traditional single round balls or the more effective "buck-and-ball" ammunition, although it may well be that there is insufficient primary source material available to do a meaningful study (based upon records of test firings and modern experiments, I think that rifle muskets and smoothbores with buck-and-ball were at least roughly equivalent at such ranges, and decidedly more effective than smoothbores firing single round balls alone; this may in part explain what firefights during the American Civil War tended to be at somewhat longer range than those during Napoleonic times. even though at distances far less than the theoretical capabilities of rifle muskets.)

Any small quibbles or unfulfilled wishes aside, I find Hess's The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat to be an important contribution to better understanding the realities of Civil War battles, and to place those battles in their proper context in the general history of warfare.

CWL thanks Bruce Trinque for permission to use of remarks from the Civil War Discussion Group and

Image of Union Soldier from Veterans Letters.

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