Much has been said about the impact of new weaponry on the tactics employed and resulting casualties of the American Civil War. Contributing to its designation as the first “modern war” (fodder for much debate in class) has been the notion of widespread use of long-range rifled artillery and small arms, and the introduction of breech loading and repeating rifles.[i] Author Joseph Bilby in his work, Civil War Firearms: Their Historical Background and Tactical Use and Modern Collecting and Shooting, posits that small arms weapons did not shift to rifled technology until mid-war. He argues that “the majority of Union and Confederate regiments raised in the first year of the war carried U.S. pattern .69-caliber smoothbore muskets, primarily Model 1842s and converted flintlocks. Among the arms captured by Federal troops following their February, 1862 victory at Roanoke Island were large numbers of flintlock muskets. Some Confederates, especially those in the western armies, carried flintlocks as late as the April 1862 Battle of Shiloh.
While it is true that the rifle-musket became the standard infantry arm for both Union and Confederate infantrymen in the Civil War, it is less well known that these “modern” weapons were not general issue until the war’s mid-point. As late as the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1, 2 and 3, 1863, 10.5% of the regiments in the Army of the Potomac, the best-equipped Federal army, were still armed, in whole or in part, with obsolete smoothbore muskets. Except for their percussion ignition, these guns differed little in ballistic capability from the weapons shouldered by those Yankee soldiers’ grandfathers in the Revolution and the War of 1812. Smoothbores were common issue in Confederate ranks and in both armies west of the Appalachians well into 1864.[i]
Thus the long range accuracy of the rifle-musket was less a factor in the first part of the war when most men would have carried older smoothbore muskets and a load of “buck-and-ball” consisting of a large round ball and three buckshot. The good folks over at Barry’s Treasures Civil War Relics provided this picture of “buck-and-ball.” Officers frequently had men hold their fire until the enemy came into the range effective for smoothbore firearms as well and, at this range, they were arguably more effective than a rifled musket. Examination of casualty records in Civil War battles reveals that they “were not proportionately heavier than those suffered in the great smoothbore battles of the Napoleonic era. [i]
Bilby believes that of more import than the introduction of the rifled musket and the long range “minie ball,” was the innovation of breech-loading arms, both single shot and repeating. “Single-shot breech loaders were most evident in the ranks of cavalry units, where even conservative ordnance officers, who felt muzzle loaders the best arms for infantry, supported their use since they were easier to reload on horseback.”[i]
However, they lacked the accuracy of the rifle-musket and didn’t stand up well in the field with the exception of the Sharps rifle which was especially highly regarded. Cavalrymen often dismounted to fight and even with breech loaders, their skirmish lines didn’t bode well against masses of men with muzzle loaders. These engagements were thus short. The Sharps rifle was the choice for long-range accuracy and rapidity of fire in the hands of men who knew how to use it, like Berdan’s Sharpshooters. But according to Bilby, it was not in service long enough to make a difference.”[i] [Note: I’ve provided a link over to the Berdan’s Sharpshooters living history group above. Great website. The drawing is a cropped image of Harper’s Weekly VOL. V.–No. 249. dated October 5, 1861 made available by the folks who manage the Civil War site at www.sonsofthesouth.net.]
With the exception of sharpshooters, most soldiers armed with rifle-muskets, breech loaders, repeaters and revolvers knew little of ballistics or even basic marksmanship techniques— and never learned otherwise.[i] While they drilled a great deal, the men rarely practiced shooting and marksmanship. Their officers didn’t know much more and rarely ordered their men to do more in preparation than what is today called “familiarization firing.”[i] Thus even when issued the more technologically advanced weapons, the men didn’t always take advantage of them. There are some notable exceptions. John Singleton Mosby’s guerrillas appear to have understood well the merits of six shot revolvers against the weapons of the Union Army. Mosby’s men, who carried several handguns each, did so with great effectiveness against Spencer-armed Federal horsemen.
“The revolver, which predated the rifle-musket, breech loader and repeating rifle alike, was the one Civil War weapon that completely lived up to its reputation. In a close range melee, nothing proved better.”[i] Patent lawyer Robert Shaver has a great write up on his blog, “Patent Pending” about the handgun carried by John Singleton Mosby, the Colt Model 1851 Navy Revolver. David Stroud at Texas Ranger Dispatch Magazine also has a nice write up.
Another notable exception to the rule was Confederate Major General Patrick Cleburne. A veteran of the British army, Cleburne “trained his infantrymen in range estimation and target practice at various distances up to and including 800 yards. He also created a sharpshooter detachment, gave them long-range British-made Whitworth rifles, and turned them lose on Yankee artillerymen and officers whom they could easily hit within 1,500 yards of the Confederate lines.[i]
The impact of technological developments in weaponry is an issue still open for debate. Gerald Linderman implies a more direct connection between improvement in weapons and the diminishing success of large scale frontal attacks. The evolution of the role of “sharpshooter” as well as the notion of entrenchment, colored much of the second half of the war.[i] But I’ll leave that for later…