Civil War Weapons Carried by Soldiers

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Edmun Ruffin

Ruffin, Pvt. Edmund, Confederate soldier who fired the first shot against Fort Sumter; National Archives Ref. #: 111-BA-1226

Buck and Ball

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.

Best Rifle Shots

Rifleman Attention Poster, Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Digital ID #: 02703700

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]

Buck and Ball

Buck-and-Ball

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]

Berdan's Sharpshooters

Photo of Berdan''s Sharpshooters Harper's Weekly drawing used by permission from www.thesonsofthesouth.

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.

John Singleton Mosby

John Singleton Mosby - Source:The Photographic History of The Civil War in Ten Volumes: Volume Four, The Cavalry. The Review of Reviews Co., New York. 1911. p. 176.

“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.

Patrick Cleburne

Maj. General Patrick R. Cleburne, Source: Library of Congress - LC-USZ62-107446

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…

Copyright © 2010 Rene Tyree
Their Historical Background, Tactical Use and Modern Collecting and Shooting

[i] Joseph G. Bilby, Civil War Firearms: Their Historical Background and Tactical Use and Modern Collecting and Shooting [book on-line] (Conshohocken, PA: Combined Books, 1996, accessed 30 September 2007), 11; available from Questia, Internet.
Photo of John Mosby from the National Archives. Mosby, Col. John Singleton; bust-length. 111-BA-1709.
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The Revolutionaries of the American Civil War

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[Note:  This post continues a series on The Civil War as Revolution which is available at the following links:  Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part VThe Revolutionaries of the American Civil War, and Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln as Revolutionary.]

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All revolutions require revolutionaries. If the American Civil War was, in fact, a second American Revolution, who were its revolutionaries?

william-lowndes-yancey

William L. Yancey

The Confederacy as a Revolutionary ExperienceEmory Thomas in his work The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience suggests that Southern “fire-eaters” should be included on the roll call of revolutionaries because they “used radical means to achieve conservative ends and therefore began [my emphasis] the Confederate revolutionary experience. Their role was reactionary – to preserve the Southern way of life. Yet in pursuit of this goal, the fire-eaters acted in ways commonly associated with revolutionaries.” [i] First on the list would be the triumvirate whose voices for southern unity, independence, and succession were the loudest and of longest duration: Robert Barnwell Rhett (dubbed the father of succession), William Lowndes Yancey (secession’s orator), and Edmund Ruffin. All had connections to South Carolina which proved the hottest bed of Southern revolutionary thought. But, points out Thomas, “fire-eaters cut a broad swatch across many professions and every state in the antebellum South.” [ii] Influential clergymen like James H. Thornwell and Benjamin M. Palmer used their pulpits and pamphlets to “deepen the sentiment of resistance in the Southern mind.”[iii] Men with control of the editorial content of widely read publications added their voices including: James D. B. DeBow (DeBow’s Review), Roger A. Pryor, editor of the Richmond Enquirer newspaper, William Gilmore Simms (editor of the Southern Quarterly Review), and various editors of the Southern Literary Messenger. <[iv] Teachers in the classroomsJames DeBow of schools and colleges taught “Southern Nationalism” and impressed on the minds of students the “standard ‘line’ on the issues of slavery, politics, and economics.”[v] The system also expunged itself of faculty members who dissented. Taken in the aggregated, these activities resulted in what Thomas rightly labels an “intellectual blockade” as the Southern rights mantra came to dominate press, pulpit, and classroom.”[vi] Was this revolution or defending Southern institutions? The line between the two is admittedly a fine one. [vii]

It can also be argued that some from the Southern political elite, while advocates for Southern rights, did their advocating within the Union and so are not so easily labeled revolutionaries. Jefferson Davis falls into this camp as does Calhoun, Alexander H. Stephens and R. M. T Hunter. [viii] These men moved into the secessionist camp once it was a “fait accompli.” Were they, along with many of those who would take up arms on behalf of the South, thus revolutionaries or were they simply caught up in the fray? Jefferson Davis considered the use of the label revolution “an abuse of language.”[ix] “‘Ours is not a revolution.’ We left the Union ‘to save ourselves from a revolution’ that threatened to make ‘property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless…Our struggle is for inherited rights.’”[x]

The Black Republicans were the real revolutionaries, southerners insisted, “a motley throng of Sans culottes…Infidels and freelovers, interspersed by Bloomer women, fugitive slaves, and amalgamationists…active and bristling with terrible designs and as ready for bloody and forcible realities as ever characterized the ideas of the French Revolution.” Secession was therefore a “political revolution,: explained a Georgian in 1860, to forestall the “social revolution” sure to come if the South remained in the Union.[xi]

Can Northerners be assigned the label of revolutionist? Certainly extremists like James Brown [photo to right], Abolitionist James Brownwho resorted to violent acts to try to force social change, qualify as radicals. Harriet Beecher Stowe influenced social change by reaching hundreds of thousands with abolitionist sentiments through the power of popular literature. See an excellent summary of her writings here.

Representative James A. Garfield and contemporary William H. Seward considered the rise of the Republican Party to be a “revolution.”[xii] Garfield studied the French Revolution and found striking parallels with mid-19th century America. He became an ardent voice of revolution and “one of the most radical of the radical Republicans.”[xiii]

Abolitionist Wendell Phillips was considered by historian James McPherson to be “the most articulate spokesman for a revolutionary policy,” pegging Civil War as social revolution and calling for the “taking to pieces” of the whole social system of the Gulf States.[xiv] Similarly, Thaddeus Stevens, a leader of radical Republicans in the House, asserted that “‘we must treat this [war] as a radical revolution…and free every slave–slay every traitor–burn every rebel mansion, if these things be necessary to preserve’ the nation.”[xv]

Activists from both the South and the North could agree that secession was a counterrevolution to the revolution of 1776. But their frames of referenced were completely opposite. Secessionists saw it as a counterrevolution against the anticipated revolutionary threat of slavery.[xvi] Northerners saw secession as “not a just revolution, but an unjust counterrevolution.”[xvii]

For consideration of Abraham Lincoln as “revolutionary,” please see my previous post “Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln on Revolutionary.”

Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree
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[i] Emory M. Thomas, The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience. (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1971), 24., [ii] Ibid., 30., [iii] Ibid., [iv] Ibid., 35., [v] Ibid., 34., [vi] Ibid., [vii] Ibid., [viii] Ibid., 32.,
[ix] James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, (New York: Oxford University Press), 26. [x] Ibid., 26., [xi] 3., [xiii] Ibid., 4., [xiv] Ibid., 5-6., [xv] Ibid., 30., [xvi] Ibid., 27., [xvii] Ibid., 28.

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