Review: The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth

TheRifleMusketInCivilWarCombatEarlJHessHess, Earl J. The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth. University Press of Kansas (September 9, 2008). 288 pages, tables, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-0700616077 $29.95 (Hardcover).

Did the widespread use of the rifle musket for the first time in the American Civil War lead to increased average combat ranges, increasingly destructive fire, and a revolution in combat?  In The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Myth and Reality, author Earl J. Hess answers this question mostly in the negative but makes several exceptions which will be explored in this review.

Dr. Earl J. Hess is the author of ten Civil War books and even more magazine and journal articles, including a trilogy on field fortifications during the war and a look at the Pea Ridge Campaign.  He currently is an Associate Professor of History at Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee.  Dr. Hess is well-known by most serious students of the Civil War.

The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth came about mainly due to Paddy Griffith’s groundbreaking book Battle Tactics of the Civil War.  First published in 1989, Battle Tactics presented conclusions which rocked the boat of Civil War orthodoxy at the time.  Among those conclusions was the contention that the rifle musket did not lead to dramatic changes in combat during the American Civil War.

Hess takes this contention and runs with it, “responding to a call” from Paddy Griffith to reevaluate the role of the weapon.  He does this by first looking at a history of rifles and rifle tactics prior to the Civil War.  After providing this base the author then explores the effectiveness of the rifle musket in combat conditions.  The meat of The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat is contained in the chapters detailing how rifle muskets were used along the battle line, on the skirmish line, and in the hands of individual snipers (referred to as sharpshooters during the Civil War).  He brings all of this information together in a compelling and thoroughly backed argument against the rifle musket having a minor effect along the battle line, concluding that the rifle musket found its true calling along the periphery of the battle line in the hands of skirmishers and individual snipers.

This book is a must read for any serious student of the Civil War, despite the somewhat misleading dust jacket and marketing material touting Dr. Hess’ findings as “entirely new.”  I was surprised at the level of difficulty of firing a rifle musket and hitting a man at long range due to the need to accurately estimate range and correctly use an adjustable range finder.  This alone is a somewhat persuasive argument against the rifle musket as a decisive weapon.  However, Hess does not stop there.  His chapter on “The Rifle Musket in Battle” is a real eye opener as to just how many things must happen before a bullet actually strikes an enemy soldier in the other battle line.  Research by Brent Nosworthy, Mark Grimsley, and Hess himself which perused first person accounts of combat also go a long way towards establishing that the ranges at which the opposing lines opened fire were not much different from the smoothbore Napoleonic Wars.  Hess writes that men have a tendency to want to see clearly what they are firing at, limiting their average range.  What surprised me the most, however, was the authors look at average ranges for later wars and the conclusion that the typical range of infantry firefights has not changed much at all in the past 300 years.

The chapters on skirmishers and sniping were illuminating and an entertaining read.  Hess disagrees with fellow TOCWOC blogger Fred Ray, believing that the sharpshooter battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia did not “dominate the skirmish line” during the Siege of Petersburg.  His contention that skirmishing reached its absolute apex during the Atlanta Campaign was somewhat surprising.  I had never heard this mentioned before and it is a subject which bears further exploration.

Hess’ next to last chapter on “The Rifle’s Impact on Civil War Combat” was very well done.  He offers a variety of reasons why the rifle musket’s impact on combat has been “exaggerated, misunderstood, and understudied” for most of the past 145 years.  He debunks commonly held beliefs about the rifle musket’s role in percent losses by armies in battle, the lack of decisive battles, increased vulnerability of artillery crews to rifle fire, and the limited number of massed cavalry charges during the Civil War.  Only in the area concerning a lack of decisive battles did I feel Dr. Hess’ arguments were not fully convincing.  His closing chapter points out that the rifle musket had a very short time in the sun.  Only a five years later the muzzle loading weapon was obsolete, the Franco-Prussian War having been fought with breech loading weapons on either side.

With The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Myth and Reality, Earl J. Hess has only added to his reputation as one of the leading Civil War scholars writing today.  All serious students of the Civil War, especially of Civil War tactics and the minutiae of combat 1860s style, will want to own this book.  It is reasonably priced at $29.95 and will provide readers with many times that amount in terms of value and knowledge gained.  This book is highly recommended!


I would like to thank Ranjit Arab and Susan Schott at The University Press of Kansas.

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One response to “Review: The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth

  1. Captainrlm (Richard) Avatar

    I read this book a few months ago and agree that it was a real eye-opener and a very worthwhile book.

    One point it mentioned (and maybe carried over from Griffith’s book) was the lack of target practice, which limited soldier’s ability to use the rifle musket as efffectively as possible. It’s amazing that the military could give out this new weapon but not provide enough training on it, but that’s apparently what happened.

    I agree that this book is a must for Civil War students even those like myself who do not has as much knowledge on the tactical/battlefield side of the war as on other issues (or maybe ESPECIALLY valuable for those like us).

    It is one of the most informative books I have read recently and is a book I am very glad to have acquired and read. (And it did lead me to discover Griffith’s book, which I read shortly thereafter.)

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