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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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Book Review: Jefferson Davis and His Generals – The Failure of Confederate Command in the West

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STEVEN E. WOODWORTH. Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas. 1990. Pp. xv, 380. $16.95.
JeffersonDavisandHisGenerals

Partners in Command

Much has been written about the political and military genius of Abraham Lincoln and the successful leader he grew to be while Commander in Chief of a fractured union.  But as the country divided and civil war became a reality, a new leader was called upon to assume the role of Commander in Chief for the Confederacy, the seasoned Jefferson Davis.  At the precipice of war, betting men looking at the comparative qualifications of the two presidents could easily have predicted that Davis would outshine Lincoln. What kind of leader did Davis prove to be and how did he recruit and manage those men who would become members of his high command? What kind of generals were they and how did their personalities and actions impact the outcome of the war?

Steven E. Woodworth’s monograph answers those questions and others through examination of Jefferson Davis’ handling of the generals who defended the newly formed Confederacy in the Western theater of the American Civil War. Against a chronology of key events, each commander is introduced with information essential to understanding the skills they brought to war. Woodworth gives us their respective birthplaces, education, military and political experience, and reasons for consideration as senior leaders. Their performances in command roles are examined along with their interactions with Davis. There is brilliance to be sure from both Davis and some of his generals. But there is also incompetence, jealousy, loss of nerve, and even a propensity toward sabotage of brother commanders. Varying degrees of analysis are given to among others: Leonidas Polk, Simon Bolivar Buckner, Albert Sidney Johnston, P.G.T. Beauregard, Braxton Bragg, Early Van Dorn, John C. Breckenridge, Edmund K. Smith, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Patrick R. Cleburne, Sterling Price, William J. Hardee, John C. Pemberton, Joseph E. Johnston, Benjamin F. Cheatham, James A. Seddon, Daniel H. Hill, James Longstreet, Gideon J. Pillow, David Twiggs, and John Bell Hood. Woodworth pulls no punches.

Woodworth concludes that Davis was highly trained, skilled from a breadth of experience in the militarily and in politics, and eminently qualified to assume the role of Commander in Chief of the Confederacy. He was also flawed. His imperfections are revealed as the war in the West is traced from beginning to end. Davis is shown to be incapable of judging objectively the performances of personal friends. He both trusts and delegates too much to his leaders. This trait worked to the detriment of some of the most exceptional men like Albert Sidney Johnston, who accomplished miracles in the defense of western borders despite unanswered requests to fill and equip his ranks. It also left incompetents like Leonidas Polk in power, impairing more talented men like Braxton Bragg. Davis becomes consumed by the war emotionally and physically. In the end, failure in the West is seen to have contributed significantly to the failure of the Confederacy. Woodworth posits that the faults of Davis himself, stemming from a deep-seated insecurity, are contributory to this failure.
SWoodworth
Woodworth brings to the work the credentials of a seasoned historian. He holds history degrees from Southern Illinois University (B.A. 1982) and Rice University, where he received a Ph.D. in 1987. At the time of the book’s publication, he taught history at Toccoa Falls College in Georgia. He now teaches U.S. history, Civil War and Reconstruction, and the Old South at Texas Christian University. He also teaches military history at the American Military University. He is a prolific and award winning author.
Woodworth provides an insightful contribution to our understanding of the Civil War by revealing the best and the worst of the Confederacy’s senior military leadership in the West.
Particularly helpful to an understanding of the challenges faced by Davis’ high command is Woodworth’s campaign analysis. Also exemplary is the concise summary he provides of key points at the end of each chapter. This important study in leadership fills a gap and stands equal to and complementary of the T. Harry William classic,  Lincoln and His Generals. It is both highly readable and academically rich.