23 April 2014

Book Review: Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat

The debate about rifles versus muskets during the Civil War has long held the rifle unequivcally superior. Earl J. Hess has a different take.

Published on 26 MAY 2010 9:05am by Scott Parrino

Author:  Earl J. Hess

Publisher:  University Press of Kansas

Reviewing Author:  Jim Cobb

Few things are sadder than an author who uses a “straw man” unnecessarily. Earl Hess brackets his fine work, The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat by proclaiming the general statement that the rifle musket did not revolutionize warfare. He makes a good argument toward his point but hides the wealth of information about his subject by trying to be an iconoclast. If readers are put off by his early stridency, they will miss some fascinating material.

Killing the Snake Again

Historians such as Paddy Griffith have discounted the theory that the high casualty rates of the American Civil War were due to the longer range of the rifle musket. Reading a nineteenth-century account of the Magenta-Solferino campaign of 1859 points the problem out clearly. The Austrians had rifle muskets versus the French smoothbores. The French took galling casualties at 500 yards but could charge safely over the intervening ground and rout the Austrians with the bayonet. Why? The Minie ball flew in a parabola that climbed high at 100 yards and only descended at 400 yards. Adjusting sights could compensate for this but the Austrian troops weren’t trained to do it.

So it was with both Union and Confederate troops. Both sides raised and deployed troops hastily with little training in musketry other than how to load and fire quickly. When commanders as well as the soldiers themselves noticed that fire over more than a hundred yards was ineffective, tactics adjusted themselves accordingly. Thus, the much maligned use of Napoleonic formations was due to understanding what troops could do rather than ossified military mindsets. If fire was only effective at 1812-like ranges, 1812-like tactics had to be implemented.

The Good Stuff

Hess makes his point early and sums up well at the end with several charts and examples from European wars before and after 1865. The most interesting parts of the book lie in between and are a windfall for anyone interested in nineteenth-century warfare.

The narrative starts off with both sides’ frantic efforts to arm new recruits while the North’s industry and the South’s blockade runners geared up to provide modern weapons. Anecdotes about Belgian muskets and re-tooled 1812 flintlocks provide amusement and insight into the attitudes of American recruits. Some regiments refused the foreign or in adequate weapons while others went back to smoothbores because rifles couldn’t fire “buck and ball”. Equally entertaining are stories about how troops went about maintaining their weapons with improvisation often winning out over the manual. The acceptance and use of Springfields, Enfields and repeating rifles later in the war is described using numerous anecdotes.

Hess waxes anthropological when talking about the American gun culture. He points out that attitudes towards firearms differed by region and, even in regions where marksmanship was prized; soldiers often didn’t carry over their hunting skills to battle. The concept of an American gun culture is a minefield. Fortunately, Hess, unlike Michael Bellesiles in Arming America, doesn’t espouse a political agenda and is careful about his facts.

A description of how the rifled musket was used in battle shows how each side tries to control combat by using fire by file, by rank and by platoon. Not surprisingly, any order degenerated to individual fire by the third shot and became increasingly less effective. Charts facilitate a discussion on the ranges engagements were fought at and reload times. The result is a comprehensive study of musketry during the Civil War.

Hess really warms to the topics of skirmishing and sniping. Skirmishing took on a life of its own from use of two flank companies covering a regiment to full regiments thrown out to cover brigades. Hess argues that skirmish lines became crucial to victory and that the Union’s success in the Atlanta campaign was due to its ability to create large skirmish formations in the field continuously. He further asserts that the Civil War was the apogee of the skirmish line.

Sniping is the only area where Hess considers the rifle musket revolutionary. Picked, trained marksmen could actually make use of the weapon’s increased effective range. Again, he uses anecdotes, diaries and letters to describe the psychological profile of the snipers, their techniques and weapons. These soldiers were doubtlessly the forerunners of modern “ghillies” with virtually the same characteristics.

Hess discusses the role of the rifle musket in the development of field fortifications, mounted infantry and continuous combat. Many of his points are aimed at reversing generally accepted views and can be contested. The incredible value of his book is setting a context for discussion and providing a sound basis for debate. With that rarest of entities – a detailed bibliography, The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat should be a trusted resource to any Civil War historian.

 

 

 

About the Author

Jim Cobb has been playing board wargames since 1961 and computer wargames since 1982. He has been writing incessantly since 1993 to keep his mind off the drivel he deals with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Computer Games Online, CombatSim, Armchair General, Subsim, Strategyzone Online, Gamesquad and Gaming Chronicle.