Review: The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat

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The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth

Earl J. Hess
University Press of Kansas
September 2008
288 pages, 8 illustrations, 6 x 9
Modern War Studies
Cloth ISBN 978-0-7006-1607-7, $29.95

How do the tools of war affect its outcome? Earl Hess, a history professor at Lincoln Memorial University and author of ten previous books on the Civil War, has written an entire book on effects of the top casualty-producer of the Civil War, the rifle musket. It promises to be a “convincing assessment of the rifle musket’s actual performance on the battlefield and its impact on the course of the Civil War,” as well as “the most complete discussion to date of the development of skirmishing and sniping.” Unfortunately, although it is in many ways an interesting study, the book misses this ambitious target by a considerable margin.

The book generally follows the thesis first articulated by British military historian Paddy Griffith in his revisionist 1988 book Battle Tactics of the Civil War, in which he argued that:

· While the rifle did have a much longer range than the smoothbore musket (500+ yards vs. 100 yards), this advantage was for several reasons more theoretical than real, and in fact engagement ranges in Civil War battles differed little from those of the Napoleonic era fifty years earlier.
· Casualties in Civil War battles were roughly comparable to those in European ones during the period 1800-1859.
· Given the above, Napoleonic warfare was still possible. Tactically there was no revolution.
· The American Civil War was not the first modern war, as is often asserted, but the last Napoleonic war (and a “badly fought” one at that). The first modern war was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

Hess comes down firmly on Griffith’s side, marshaling a vast array of data to show that engagement ranges remained much closer than prewar advocates of the Minié rifle (or its latter-day defenders) would have predicted. In this he joins tactical historians like Brent Nosworthy and Joe Bilby, who have also done detailed studies of engagement ranges in various battles and have come to similar conclusions. Personally I don’t have a dog in this fight, having come late to the controversy. I read Griffith’s book shortly after it came out but was not particularly interested in the topic at the time. Hess and I have had some very cordial email exchanges—he quotes my sharpshooter book extensively and was one of the first to order it, and has been very generous with sharing his sources. While on that subject, let me say that he found some sources, like the order book for Rodes’—Battle’s brigade in the National Archives, that I had overlooked.

There were, says Hess, three main reasons why the rifle musket failed to live up to its long-range promise—a low muzzle velocity, which caused a looping bullet trajectory that made misses easy and range estimation critical; the almost total lack of marksmanship training in both armies; and the wooded battlefield terrain that restricted long range target acquisition.

At this point I’d have to say that Hess, Griffith, and their adherents have the better of the argument—that engagement ranges did remain fairly close, at least for the line of battle; that there was no real tactical “rifle revolution,” at least on the line of battle; and that casualties for Civil War battles were comparable to those in European battles fought primarily with the smoothbore musket.

Still, this doesn’t mean that rifles didn’t make a real difference on the battlefield, or that tactics did not differ from the days of Napoleon. Although Hess and I disagree on many issues (more on that later), we do agree that the rifle did cause something of a revolution on the skirmish line, where soldiers took aim at individual targets. Everyone quickly realized that a rifle was far superior to a musket there, something the British had already proven in Spain.

Hess deserves credit for writing one of the few books so far that treats scouting, skirmishing, and similar activities in some detail. Most other tactical and campaign studies mention it only in passing, if at all. However, he characterizes skirmishing as a “marginal” activity. While it’s true that the decision on the battlefield was still made by the massed lines of battle, surely a better term for skirmishing would be “secondary,” which also applies to other arms like cavalry and artillery, or technical services like medical, signal, ordnance, and the like. It does not mean that these arms and services weren’t vitally important. In fact, he concludes that skirmishing became more important as the war went on, and that the American Civil War marked a high point of skirmishing in military history, which makes his comments about its supposed marginal utility seem all the more unusual.

Most of the revisionist arguments stem from a study of engagement ranges based on text sources, which has become much easier in recent years with the the digitized OR and other resources. Thus while Griffith had a very limited data set, later researchers like Nosworthy and Hess were able to do extensive computer searches. Yet as Drew Wagenhoffer pointed out in a recent review, there is a contradiction here. The revisionists claim that few soldiers got any training in distance estimation, yet accept their range judgments more or less uncritically for their data sets.

The other factor I think gets too little attention is the distances at which a target could be acquired. Due to the wooded nature of the American landscape, this was often quite close. This is one problem I had with Griffith’s book—he compares American battles fought in densely wooded territory to Napoleonic fights in much more open terrain like Spain, Poland, Russia, and the like. As one English historian noted: “No European general has yet been called upon to carry on a campaign in a wilderness of primeval forest, covering an area twice as large as the German empire, and as thinly populated as Russia.” Thus one has to question the utility of an undifferentiated averaging of engagement ranges. Was the engagement made at close range because the troops were poorly trained in marksmanship, because of the tactical situation, or because they simply could not see each other, as in the Wilderness, until they were very close?

To make a true estimation of the situation, one would need to first determine what weapons the unit in question had, walk the ground (or use something like Google Earth), estimate the tactical situation, and measure the distance. So far the only one I know who’s actually done this is Joe Bilby in Small Arms at Gettysburg. It seems odd that Hess did not do at least some of this, since he did a great deal of tramping and on the spot inspections in his books on fortifications.

Bilby found that the average engagement range at Gettysburg—the first battle in which both sides were  armed almost entirely with rifles—to be about 200 yards. If we compare this to Griffith’s average of 75 yards for British forces in Spain, this still amounts to a tripling of the average engagement range—far short of the rifle’s potential of 500+ yards, but a hardly a “marginal” improvement either.

The other factor I think most historians overlook is the effect of riflemen on the skirmish line upon the line of battle, which was considerable. The conventional wisdom during Napoleonic times was that a body of infantry in the open was safe from most direct fire (except for round shot) if they were over about 250 yards from their enemy, and completely safe at 500. This was certainly not the case in the Civil War. Riflemen routinely riddled formations in the open at these ranges, as did the new artillery pieces.

Overall, Hess is at his best when amassing data and anecdotes from the printed record, and at his weakest when analyzing firearms and tactics. There are, unfortunately, numerous mistakes of fact showing an unfamiliarity with period firearms. None are too bad by themselves, but the cumulative effect seriously undermines the book’s credibility.

Some examples: Hess begins by defining the rifle musket as a “weapon that had spiral grooves…inserted during the initial manufacture.” This is so vague that it could refer to just about anything, including a heavy target rifle. It actually meant that the rifle was the same size and length and the smoothbore musket it replaced. He describes the bullet of the Thouvenin stem rifle as having “a wooden sabot at its base that stuck on the pin to hold it in place until firing,” apparently confusing this with earlier Delvigne or Pontchara system, which did use a wooden sabot (but did not have a pin or tige), and states that the Minié ball had a wooden plug inside the base “to help expand the ball when rammed.” The whole point of the Minié ball was to avoid having to expand the bullet skirt by ramming, and to use a cup-shaped culot (variously made of iron, boxwood, or burnt clay) to expand the skirt when the weapon was fired. Hess lists the caliber of the Whitworth rifle as .40 instead of .451, and claims that “at 1,500 yards a skilled marksman could guarantee a hit on a man-sized target.” This is doubtful (even a modern sniper would hesitate to claim it), as is his statement that the telescopic sight was only used for distances over 1,200 yards.

In his chapter on “The Art of Skirmishing” Hess lists both Union and Confederate sharpshooter units and tries to come up with an estimate of their strengths and the proportion of sharpshooters to ordinary infantrymen, which is a useful exercise. However, he seems unable define exactly what a sharpshooter unit was. He rightly notes that there were many units that carried the title but did not operate as sharpshooters, but then lists some anyway.

For instance, he does not list the 64th Illinois (Yate’s Sharpshooters) or the 66th Illinois (Birge’s Sharpshooters) because, he says, he has no evidence that they were ever used as sharpshooters (I would disagree, at least for the 66th) but then lists the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters, even though he quotes a soldier saying that they always served as line infantry. For some reason he does not list (or even mention) four independent Michigan sharpshooter companies—Brady’s and Jardine’s (attached to 16th Mich.), and Vosper’s and Perrin’s (attached to 27th Mich.), nor the 2nd Company Minnesota Sharpshooters. Nor does he mention the Pennsylvania Bucktails, who had some Sharps rifles and often fought as light infantry. Hess states that Berdan’s 1st and 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters were “raised by the Federal government” when in fact they were an amalgamation of volunteer companies from different states raised by Hiram Berdan, who held a volunteer commission, and that “two companies were armed with James rifles,” which were “issued.” I don’t doubt that some of the men used target rifles made by Morgan James, but each man provided his own rifle (all of which were hand made by individual gunsmiths) and there was never any attempt at standardization. Berdan promised to have the government pay the men for their rifles, but this was never done. As far as I’ve been able to determine, the Federal government never bought or issued any target rifles, although some state governments may have.

Confederate sharpshooter units are even more confusing, and unfortunately Hess does little to clear it up. He lists the Palmetto Sharpshooters (which he states incorrectly as having 10 companies instead of 12) as a sharpshooter outfit, but although it was intended to be a counterpart to Berdan’s regiment, it was never used that way. The 1st Battalion NC Sharpshooters had a similar history. Some of the other units he lists, like the 23rd Battalion Alabama Sharpshooters and 30th Virginia Sharpshooter Battalion, very little is known about, so it’s difficult to say whether they were customarily used as sharpshooters or not. Other units, like the 3rd SC Battalion, were used as sharpshooters, but never had the title and did not make the list.

There are like problems with his characterization of prewar Army target practice when he says “the army had adopted a short manual for target practice written by Capt. Henry Heth of the Tenth U.S. Infantry just before the onset of the Civil War, but it had never been used in training. Heth based his book entirely on the English School of Musketry at Hythe.” Neither statement is true—Captain Heth was quite clear that his book was “chiefly a translation from the French Instruction provisoire sur le tir, à l’usage des bataillons de chasseurs à pied” used at their musketry school at Vincennes, and he did use it in a comprehensive prewar marksmanship program with the 10th Infantry at Carlisle. Some volunteer organizations also had very good prewar marksmanship programs, and it’s strange that the author does not mention them in his chapter on gun culture. Similarly, although Hess talks a lot about European practice, he does not discuss American rifle units except in the Revolutionary War. The U.S. Rifle Regiments in the War of 1812, rifles in the Mexican War, and the Regiment of Mounted Rifles all go unremarked.

Speaking of the Revolutionary War, Hess gives the impression that all American skirmishers were armed with the rifle. This was somewhat true in the beginning of the conflict, but the importance of the rifle declined as the war went on, leading to mixed rifle and smoothbore skirmish units. The Light Corps, considered the elite of the army, was armed entirely with smoothbore muskets. This incidentally undercuts his statement that there was little light infantry in the 18th Century.

Hess bases most of his conclusions about skirmishing on the Atlanta and Overland campaigns. In these two campaigns, he says:

skirmish lines became stronger and commanders tended to rely more heavily on them. Skirmishers not only sought locate the enemy and provide information on his position, but they also tried push opposing skirmishers away and try to break or move opposing battle lines. The real reason for this is not the use of the rifle musket but the policy continuous contact that Grant introduced in the spring of 1864, which resulted in extended campaigning that kept the armies in contact with each other for months at a time. This extended contact encouraged aggressive brigade and division commanders to push the capacities of their skirmish lines farther than ever before, proving the worth of loose-order tactics for specialized tasks.

Odd, then, that he would not at least look at the 1864 Shenandoah campaign (which does not rate even a mention). As one of the most mobile campaigns of the war, it is the perfect counterpoint to test his “continuous contact” theory. Sharpshooters, particularly on the Confederate side, played an even more prominent part in the Valley than in the Overland and Petersburg campaigns. Two of the largest open order battles of the war, Charles Town and Fort Stevens, were fought in that campaign, and were bigger than any of the “mini-battles” around Atlanta. So perhaps commanders relied more on heavy skirmish lines because they were more flexible and effective.

In no other campaign did skirmishing become as intense as during the Atlanta campaign. For four months, from early May until early September 1864, the Union and Confederate armies were in constant contact with each other. The skirmishing increased in intensity as the campaign progressed, until it reached level similar to a never-ending minibattle as the troops were locked in static positions north and west of the city for more than a month. Nothing like this evolved during the Overland or Petersburg campaigns in Virginia, despite the presence of Lee’s dedicated skirmish units and the longer period of contact. The best possible explanation for this is the larger presence of gun-adept soldiers in the western armies.

A more likely explanation, I think, is the different style of warfare practiced in the two theaters. Johnston, who had a theater with a great deal more depth, avoided battle and tried to preserve his army. Lee, who had little room to fall back, sought a decision on the battlefield, and the relative casualty lists reflect this. In Georgia the pattern was a Union maneuver followed by intense skirmishing, followed by another Union maneuver and a Confederate withdrawal, the only real exception being at Kennesaw Mountain. This allowed the Federals to perfect their skirmishing technique at relatively low cost. In Virginia the pattern was a collision between Grant and Lee leading to a major and extremely bloody battle, followed by a Federal maneuver and another sanguine encounter. Skirmishing thus assumed a more secondary, though still vital, role. If Western soldiers were more “gun-adept” than Easterners, wouldn’t engagement ranges have been at least somewhat longer there? Why would Yankee Westerners be so much more adept than their Southern counterparts? Would this include Western units like the Iron Brigade that served in the East? And what about “less-adept” Eastern units that transferred west, like the Union XI and XII Corps? This conclusion needs a lot more proof to be convincing, and is characteristic of the author’s tendency to overgeneralize.

Still, his section about skirmishing in the Atlanta campaign is one of the best in the book, and to my knowledge this is the only recent study that has looked at it in any depth. I would like to have seen more specific examples and a discussion of innovative Federal tactics like “compressing no-man’s land.” Hess’s overall verdict is that the ordinary Union infantryman served admirably as a skirmisher, and that this should have been a model for the rest of the armies.

This leads to Hess’s next conclusion about the Army of Northern Virginia’s sharpshooter battalions. In spite of doing an excellent job of describing their organization and training (“superbly trained” and “unique and impressive examples of … specialist units”), he concludes that “there is no convincing evidence that they consistently dominated the skirmish line or regularly outshot their opponents during the Overland or Petersburg Campaigns.” His examples seem rather weak, however—that one sharpshooter battalion (out of thirty-something) was “roughly handled” in two battles and that the sharpshooters “lost a huge chunk of skirmish line on March 25 [1865]. This last example is simply not appropriate—the sharpshooters had been withdrawn to support the attack on Fort Stedman. The men who lost the line were ordinary infantrymen. When the sharpshooters returned later that day they were involved in a number of bitter fights (including McIlwaine’s Hill) that took back portions of the picket line. One would expect some better illustrations before simply dismissing the ANV sharpshooter battalions as ineffective. Yes, the Federals did win the war, but at no time does Hess mention that the Confederates were considerably outnumbered and outgunned.

There is a strain in the historiography, a kind of mystique about skirmishing in the Civil War, that portrays it as the wave of the future. Writers who yearn to see some degree of innovation, especially to see signs of a commitment to loose-order tactical formations for entire armies, tend to grasp onto every straw they can find in Civil War accounts to argue that a few wise men were beginning to get away from the foolishness of fighting in close-order lines.

Now I confess to never having seen any sort of mystique in skirmishing, but I do think it’s fairly obvious that the major development in infantry tactics in the 19th Century was the gradual loosening of the close-packed line of battle into the open order of the turn of the century. Some of this, for whatever reason one cares to attribute, came during the Civil War. He continues:

Some type of loose-order formation did lay in the future of infantry warfare, but skirmishing would rapidly decline in significance as a result. The Civil War not only represented the high point in the history of skirmishing, it was also among the last major wars in which large-scale skirmishing took place.

I would suggest that he gets it exactly backwards here. What happened was that the elbow-to-elbow line of battle gradually disappeared and was absorbed by the skirmish line. By the latter part of the century all armies fought in what were essentially “strong skirmish lines,” and this certainly had something to do with the available firepower, not just in its effect on the attackers but on their ability to inflict casualties as well.

A Civil War skirmish line armed with single shot muzzle-loading rifles just could not put enough lead down range to decide the issue, although there are examples of skirmish lines holding off lines of battle under favorable conditions. The use of the line of battle was not due to foolishness but to the fact that it was the only way, given the weapons of the time, to pack in enough firepower to force a decision. We do see a change later in the war as skirmish lines become more important and, at least on the Union side, begin carrying either breech-loading Sharps rifles or Spencer repeaters. Colonel Oliver Edwards of the 37th Massachusetts was of the opinion that a skirmish line with Spencers was “fully equal to a line of battle armed with the Springfield,” and this was eventually what happened.

My opinion is that the loosening of the line of battle was a gradual process, and I really don’t see an outright revolution as posited either by the conventional historians during the Civil War or the revisionists at battles like Königgrätz or in the Franco-Prussian War. Further, it seems to me that the revisionists have become as dogmatic as those they condemn, and have locked themselves into the Civil War-as-badly-fought-Napoleonic War paradigm. One does get the impression at times when reading Griffith, for instance, that if the Yanks had just done it like the Iron Duke they could speedily have solved all their problems.

My biggest issue with the book is that Hess muddies the definitions of skirmisher, sharpshooter, and sniper by using modern terms. The term sharpshooter was a much broader term in the 19th Century than we think of it today, covering the roles of precision marksman, light infantryman, and skirmisher. The problem with using terms like “sniper” (of British origin, that did not come into wide use until WWI), and the reason I tried to avoid it, was that it tends to make us mentally fit 19th Century tactics into a modern framework. I’ve had a great deal of trouble, for example, trying to explain to people that Confederate sharpshooters were not snipers in the modern sense. Still, if we’re going to use modern terminology, then one would expect to see the term “designated marksman,” which is the closest modern analogue to the sharpshooters of the Civil War era. It might also be worth mentioning that the French term tirailleur, usually translated as “skirmisher,” literally means “sharpshooter” and that’s how most of the them operated.

Much of what Hess describes in the chapter on sniping were really just riflemen with some special training using their skills on the enemy. For example, Sergeant Wyman S. White of the 1st U.S.S.S. made it clear in his diary that he often used a target rifle because he was good with it, but carried his Sharps most of the time and did not operate independently. Similarly, Hess quotes extensively from the letters and memoirs of 18th Corps sharpshooter Daniel Sawtelle, who at one point used a target rifle but eventually took up a Spencer repeater. Division sharpshooter companies like Sawtelle’s typically had two sections—one of light infantry armed with Spencers and another smaller one armed with target rifles. Sawtelle’s memoir makes it clear that he spent much of his time acting as a light infantryman, not as a sniper in the modern sense. There were times that the “sniper” section acted tactically in a supporting role as well, something you would not see a modern sniper outfit doing.

Because of its emphasis on the rifle musket, the book suffers from a sort of split personality. On the one hand the author must highlight the role of the rifle musket, yet when discussing skirmishing and sharpshooting has to consider specialty weapons like target rifles and the Whitworth, but then can’t really get into a detailed look at breechloaders and repeaters on the skirmish line, which increased markedly in 1864-65 and had a major tactical effect.

As for the book itself, it is handsomely done, well written and edited. The $29.95 price is very reasonable in this era of outrageous book prices from university presses, especially if you buy from Amazon where it’s under $20. There is a section of photos, most of which do not seem particularly relevant, but not a single illustration. This is a major omission considering that Hess expends considerable ink taking about subjects like dangerous zones and bullet trajectories. Even a couple of illustrations would have been very useful to help the lay reader understand these concepts.

Overall it’s an interesting book with some excellent sections, such as skirmishing in the Atlanta campaign, and some original research. It’s also the only modern book that takes a comprehensive look at scouting, skirmishing, and associated activities in the Civil War. However, this has to be balanced with the many mistakes of fact, overgeneralizations, and questionable methodologies. As such it’s probably more suitable for the specialist who is able to sort this out than the general reader.

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2 responses to “Review: The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat”

  1. Michael R. Cunningham, Ph.D. Avatar
    Michael R. Cunningham, Ph.D.

    I appreciate Fred Ray’s thoughtful engagement on the topics raised by Earl Hess and Paddy Griffith concerning the impact of the rifle-musket on Civil War tactics and outcomes. This issue could be further illuminated by accurate laser measurements of the actual distances involved on Civil War battlefields. To examinine accuracy in CW fire, it would be helpful if the NPS would conduct historical archeology on selected fighting positions, and report the relative number of inbound minie balls that fall short versus overshoot the position, and how close they fell. I suspect that that there may be fewer overshoots than predicted by Hess’ analysis. Finally, on a minor detail, I note that the 64th Illinois (Yates Sharpshooters) definitely functioned as skirmishers during much of their service.
    They began with Mississippi rifles, and ended the war with privately purchased Henry rifles. Their forward deployment was the reason that the gallant 64th was the first to the top of Kennesaw Mtn., first to Gen. McPherson’s body at Atlanta, and first in Johnston’s Hqrts at Bentonville.

  2. […] unchanged since 1815 and therefore Napoleonic warfare was still possible. This view has been adopted and amplified by historians like Earl […]

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