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

Hess, Earl J. The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth. Lawrence.: University of Kansas Press, 2008. 288 p. ISBN# 0700616071. $29.95.

According to historian Earl J. Hess, the Stewart W. McClelland Chair in History at Lincoln Memorial University and author of numerous scholarly works, the American Civil War remains the first and only armed conflict where both armies supplied their forces with rifle muskets.  Hess’s claim, noting the overwhelming use of the rifle musket in Civil War battle, creates an importance for fellow Civil War historians, as well as military historians, in understanding accurately the rifle musket’s role in Civil War combat.  For this reason, The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth, Hess’s third publication by the University of Kansas Press, assumes the role as a reinterpretation of the rifle musket’s effectiveness on the Civil War battlefield.  Hess’s thesis, however, conflicts largely with what the author refers to as the standard interpretation of the Civil War rifle musket.  According to Hess, the standard interpretation, which he claims is held by the majority of Civil War historians, assumes that the soldierly use of the rifle musket largely contributed to the enormity of casualties during the war, offensively limited both artillery and cavalry operations, profusely led to the heightened construction of field fortifications, and as well prolonged the conflict.  However, during Hess’s reassessment of the rifle musket’s effectiveness, the author uncovers a remarkably conflicting analysis.  Hess argues that the common battle line infantry soldier, whether Union or Confederate, made essentially minimal use of the rifle musket’s advantages.  This failure resulted from several, often overlapping, issues including: the battle tactics utilized by commanding officers, the projectile’s trajectory, and the soldier’s marksmanship skills.  However, Hess convincingly points out the rifle musket’s advantages employed by both skirmishers and snipers throughout the war.

During the first chapter, Hess provides an insightful history of the rifle, including its origins in Europe and tracing its path to the New World.  He continues by making note of the advancements in both military tactics and ammunition, most notably Hardee’s Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics and the Minié ball, which created significant influence on Civil War combat.  Hess also sheds light into the mindset of the military writers and historians of the era.  Many of the 19th century contemporaries concluded that the rifle musket could possess effectiveness, yet by the 1850’s the majority remained partial to close range tactics and the bayonet.  The author also explains the wide range of rifle muskets utilized by Civil War soldiers as well as the availability of such weapons.  Within the bulk of the work, Hess argues his thesis by explaining the limitations of the rifle musket amongst the common battle line soldiers.  He addresses the lack of formal training in estimating distances and practicing marksmanship as well as makes the point that prior to the war a large number of the soldiers remained unfamiliar with firearms.  However, Hess’s most convincing argument lies within the 96-114 yard average range of fire during battle.  Based on the Official Records average, one would conclude that the smoothbore musket, with an affective range of 100 yards, possessed the capability of producing comparable casualty rates to the rifle musket, with an affective range of 500 yards.  Hess makes the point that he has found no evidence supporting the assumption that the rifle musket possessed more effectiveness within the average range than the smoothbore musket.  However, Hess does argue that both Confederate and Union skirmishers and snipers utilized the long range advantages of the rifle musket.  Members of both these groups, often recruited or hand-picked by officers, obtained specialized training in marksmanship and target sighting.  Hess provides detailed descriptions of the roles of famous units including Hiram Berdan’s 1st United States Sharpshooters and General Lee’s sharpshooter battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia.  The author does find it important to make note that although the skirmish units and snipers utilized the rifle musket’s advantages, the battles of the Civil War were decided by the battle line soldiers, which implies that although these specialized units made their mark, battle line soldiers played the larger role in Civil War combat.

Hess constructed his publication from a wide array of both primary and secondary sources.  The author consistently and efficiently makes use of manuscripts including those from the University of North Carolina and the National Archives.  He largely used these manuscripts to implant soldiers’ quotations, which pointed out significant descriptions of the rifle musket’s usage.  In addition, Hess makes reference to fellow historians’ works such as Carl Davis, Brent Nosworthy and Paddy Griffith, author of Battle Tactics of the Civil War. These works provided Hess with essential statistical information through which Hess anchors his thesis.  Although the statistics remain imperative to proving Hess’s thesis, the enormity of figures and formulas often lead to periods of cumbersome reading.

The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat provides readers with a compellingly improved viewpoint of the rifle musket’s exploit during the American Civil War.  Hess credibly makes the point that weapons are tools and remain only as effective as the human utilization of them.  Furthermore, the author proves that it becomes the human factor in warfare that outweighs the technological advancements.  Most importantly, Hess creates the necessity for further reinterpretation of the Civil War.  Historians, now assuming the rifle musket’s role did not overwhelmingly factor into the following: casualty rates, offensive cavalry and artillery operations, increased fortification construction, or prolonging the war, must answer those questions based on freshly researched theses.  Hess touches on his explanation towards the end of his book in which he blames the fate of the war on dreadful officer leadership; however, he merely opens the door for further research on the subject.  Through his publication of a thoroughly researched work, Hess has effectively contributed a work possessing the capability of altering many historians interpretation of Civil War combat as well as enhancing new areas of Civil War scholarship.


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