Rethinking the Rifle Musket

springfield rifle musket
Springfield Model 1861 used by the Union Army during the Civil War.Wikipedia

Note: This post contains material that may be upsetting to some readers. It does not, however, contain any references to Donald Trump or the recent election.

One of the Great Truths that every student of the Civil War absorbs is that the adaption of the rifle (not “rifled”) musket by the Confederacy (the British-made .577 Enfield) and the Union (the .58 Springfield) led to casualties the likes of which had never been seen before in warfare. Smoothbore muskets, goes the conventional wisdom, were lethal to 70 yards; rifle muskets in volley fire were deadly at 600. Smoothbore muskets led to the evolution of Napoleonic tactics. Mass your men, march to within whites-of-their-eyes range of the enemy, fire a volley and go in with the bayonet.

This is what was taught at West Point before the war, and its graduates never caught on to the fact that this doctrine was null and void before the first shot was fired. Even the most skilled—Grant, Lee, and Sherman—ordered suicidal frontal assaults until the very end of the war. If you lined up your men in serried ranks assembled, they would be shot to pieces before they could get anywhere near the Rebs or the Yanks. Thus sayeth the conventional wisdom.

The casualties were horrendous. In World War II, total U.S. battle deaths were 416,800. In the Civil War, the total for North and South was long thought to be 620,000. A recent, and much more accurate, estimate places the figure at 750,000 and possibly as high as 850,000. This is the equivalent of 6 million soldiers today. As Ken Burns’ great documentary on the Civil War put it, “At the end, everyone knew someone who should have been alive…but wasn’t.”

Of these fatalities, at least 90 percent were caused by musket fire; I've read some estimates that go as high as 98 percent. So, the new, more accurate rifle muskets were the ne plus ultra in battlefield lethality, no?

Maybe not. Allen Guelzo, in his terrific book Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, says that the real cause of repeated slaughters was the sheer clumsiness of Civil War soldiers maneuvering on a battlefield. Start with imbecile generals (Ambrose Burnside, Joseph Hooker, John Bell Hood, Dan Sickles, and Braxton Bragg, to name a few), add ambiguous or incomprehensible orders, orders that never arrived, soldiers and officers who were poorly trained or not trained at all, and the difficulty of covering ground rapidly in an organized manner. Then add lots and lots of lead in the air—it doesn't have to be aimed or accurate—and a great many people are going to be killed.

A military historian named Michael Stephenson, in his remarkable book The Last Full Measure—How Soldiers Die in Battle, takes a somewhat different view. This book is a proper catalog of horrors tracing the evolution of organized carnage from primitive times up until the present. Stephenson points out that the rifle musket, being more difficult to load than the smoothbore, cut the rate of fire by the average proficient soldier (of which there was always a shortage) from 4 rounds a minute to 3. Then factor in the considerable difficulty of firing an Enfield or Springfield accurately under battle conditions.

There was considerable kick. Then a cloud of reeking whitish smoke which made it difficult to see who you were shooting at, a fouled bore which required that you had to pound the ramrod on a rock to drive it home, crude sights, and the difficulty of loading your musket from any position but standing, and it was a wonder that anyone shot anyone on purpose.

A confederate officer estimated that 5,000 men might expend 200,000 rounds in a decent battle, and that it took 400 rounds to kill a single Union soldier. (This pales beside our 25,000 rounds per fatality from Korea to the present, but they did the best they could.) As Stephenson sums it up:

“Of a sample of 113 actions in which range was mentioned by eyewitnesses, 62 percent were at 100 yards or less and none took place at more than 500 yards. In short, infantrymen were more likely to be killed by musket fire not because the rifled musket [sic] was more accurate at longer range but because they were in a confined killing zone close to their adversary.”

There were snipers, and they were deadly, but there were not a lot of them. There were repeating rifles such as the Spencer and the Henry, but they never got into general use. If they had, you would have seen some truly astronomical casualty figures.

About one thing everyone is in agreement. Hardly anyone killed anyone with a bayonet. Swords and bayonets accounted for a fraction of a single percent of all fatalities. Soldiers just did not have the stomach for cold steel.

“What’s the spirit of the bayonet?”

“To probe for mines.”

Be glad you weren’t there.