Fire Effects Considered: The Rifle Musket and Artillery

If you’ve read even a bit about Civil War tactics, you are probably aware of the oft cited change on the battlefield ushered in by the rifle musket.  From my view-point, the discussion lands in two camps – the “traditionalists” who contend the minie ball and rifle musket changed everything; and the counter, revisionist if you want, argument featuring interpretations by assessing battlefield accounts and raw data.  I call these “quantitatives” as I don’t think their goal is to revise history, but rather make it sharper to the actual form.  (And I’ll gladly acknowledge I prefer the quantitative camp myself.)

While I’ve long played the role of skeptic in discussions about the “modernity” of the Civil War, there is some weight to the traditionalist argument.  There were new, or at least fresh, aspects to the battlespace in 1861-65.  We might argue if those aspects were indeed first seen here in America or on other fields prior to Fort Sumter.  But I think most would agree the battlefield had changed in some manner in the time after the last major American combat experience (the Mexican War), more so since the War of 1812.  But can we attribute that simply to the advent of rifle muskets?

The quantitative stance offers a wealth of combat experiences and data which suggest the impact of the rifled musket was not as great.  Perhaps I said it above, simply alluding to some change but not sweeping changes in the battlespace.  Indeed the most damming evidence presented is that battle ranges did not increase with the longer effective range of the rifle muskets.  Personally I tend to follow that logic.  On battlefield after battlefield, I’ve paced out battle lines.  The ground doesn’t lie.

Another point often refuted by the quantitative response is the notion that the casualty rates rose due to more accurate fire.  Historian Paddy Griffin offered the comparison to actions on many European fields as an example.  The “bloody” nature of Civil War fields is just as much a function of the number of men involved and the tactical formations used.  Griffin derived a statistical conclusion that some fraction of 1% of all bullets fired in the war actually hit an enemy target.  This tends to lead down the path of counting bullets – or in the case of artillery the number of projectiles from a canister round.  And we see that in venues ranging from forum message boards to works of well grounded historians.

A typical vignette I’ve seen offered when “counting bullets” would involve two brigades of infantry lined up to fight.  The narrative often notes the ammunition expenditure, time that all the regiments were involved, and then the number of casualties at the end.  The story line ends up very compact – they came, they fired, they died.  But wait, not all died.  Indeed not all were even casualties.  The “battle math” simply deducts the casualties in order to derive each unit’s combat strength come the end of the battle.  Simple numbers, no fractions.

I guess that is where I depart from the pure quantitative analysis of the data.  The targeting of an enemy, using a weapon system, is conducted with the purpose of disrupting that enemy’s plans or designs.  Yes, a subset of targeting is to inflict casualties.   But from a pure process standpoint, the casualties are but a by-product on the way to the true goal – that of hindering the enemy’s chosen course of action (be that offensive or defensive in nature).

Consider the disruption within the ranks of the receiving end, both ancillary and psychological.  If I may present this from a cold, analytical setting, those killed are a liner reduction in combat strength.  Those wounded are more progressive reductions, as some will invariably aid them (either by orders or not).    More telling is the reduction in combat strength on those completely unscathed.  How many in the ranks are stunned – be that for seconds, minutes, hours, or even days – into inaction?  The bullet does not need to hit flesh to be effective in its task.  And even that effect is but a scratch of the full impact.

The same effect is even greater when considering artillery.  While we might (unfairly) discount the artillery as ineffective in the close range, blood-letting infantry fights, we must consider the longer effective range of the big guns.  During the Civil War, field artillery could – and frequently did – engage the enemy at ranges exceeding 800 yards (the extreme for the rifle musket).  As with the infantry battle line, the desired effect of the long ranged artillery fire was to disrupt the enemy’s plans.  An artillery battery might fire all afternoon without inflicting a single blood casualty, but that does not mean it was not successful in the assigned task.

To me this says we need to avoid the pitfall of “counting bullets” in the quest to understand the dynamics of the tactical battlefield.

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