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Your Civil War Fantasy?
Incompetent Union General 7%
Runaway Slave 14%
Surveillance Baloon Operator 21%
Cowardly Deserter 14%
Irish Mercenary 21%
Southern Belle 7%
Amputee 14%

Votes: 14

 The US Civil War

 Author:  Topic:  Posted:
Feb 08, 2002
I was browsing through the bargain bin of a bookstore today, and came across the unique Battle in the Civil War by Paddy Griffith.

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I had just watched portions of the movie Gettysburg last weekend, and was admittedly confused by the tactics used by both sides. Why did they all line up and shoot at each other in open fields? Why did they charge like maniacs? I asked my roommate; he's somewhat of a civil war buff. He didn't really have a good explanation, other than that was the traditional way war was fought back then.

The book I bought today is absolutely fascinating. It is beautifully illustrated and diagrammed in striking line art. While the book is quite thin at 47 pages, the illustrations and magazine-style format lets Griffith pack in an amazing amount of information while remaining entertaining.

Battle deals not with why the was fought, but how. Nor does it focus on a particular battle. It only describes specific battles when they underline a certain point, like how retreats were handled, or how fortifications were built, or how artillery was used.

Most interesting is the perspective from which the book is written. Other things I have read on the Civil War are written by Americans, and firmly set the events in the greater context of US history. Griffith, on the other hand, is a British professor of war history, specializing in 19th Century French warfare. A thesis of some of his other books is how the American Civil War was a culmination of the tactics outlined by early 19th Century French war scholars.

While I am no expert, I'm sure his constant references to the Napoleonic wars would irk some Civil War buffs, I thoroughly enjoyed Battle. It is a very informative and answered a lot of questions I had been afraid to ask.


The column of attack (none / 0) (#3)
by Anonymous Reader on Sun Feb 10th, 2002 at 08:47:51 AM PST
Essentially the accepted tactics of the day according to the French (as put forth by the Comte de Guibert) were to form up into a thick column, and smash through the enemy line of defense. This worked often during the Napoleonic wars, when muskets were highly innaccurate--you could get very close to the enemy, and charge.

However, by the time the Civil War happened, most musket barrels were rifled, which pretty much doubled or even tripled the musket's effective range AND accuracy. Head-on charges in densely packed formations were now obsolete.

Why were these tactics still used? Failure to appreciate new technology was one reason. Also, the belief that if you spread your soldiers out they will not want to advance under fire, was another. Innovation was slow. They were still going over the top in elbow-to-elbow formation in 1914.

Tactics (none / 0) (#4)
by First Incision on Sun Feb 10th, 2002 at 10:43:34 AM PST
In the book, the author says that the widespread introduction of rifles didn't occur until halfway through the war. By then, there was too much momentum to change tactics.
Also, he said that almost no infantrymen had target practice with live ammo. He said that most of the soldiers were too poor at shooting for rifles to make much of a difference.
He also says that advancing under fire was a constant problem for these "civilians in uniform." Formation marching was the only way to get them to go anywhere. Often, rather than charging all the way up to the enemy line, they would get withing a hundred yards of it, take cover and spend the next few hours taking potshots at an equally covered enemy. But that's probably a common occurence in any war.
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Question (none / 0) (#5)
by hauntedattics on Sun Feb 10th, 2002 at 03:32:05 PM PST
Is it safe to say that the majority of Civil War combatants died of infection or disease, rather than being killed outright by bullets? I know that in earlier wars, because of the poor aiming technology of the existing guns, you were much more likely to die of massive infection after getting winged by musket shot.

(Yes, it's sad that I don't know more about American history, but my studies always focused on Europe and international relations.)

Death (none / 0) (#6)
by First Incision on Sun Feb 10th, 2002 at 07:31:00 PM PST
The stats given in the book for an avg Confederate Regiment of 1550 (counting reinforcements), through the duration of the war was

365 wounded
350 died of disease
260 deserted
90 died as a result of battle

The numbers for a Union regiment were about 1/2 to 2/3 of that.
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Lie (none / 0) (#7)
by Right Hand Man on Mon Feb 11th, 2002 at 06:31:36 AM PST
The book is attempting to support the already defeated position taken by a book titled Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. The book attempted to unseat the idea that Americans have always owned guns and that they played a significant part in our heritage. It failed to do so by claiming that in the early years of the US few households owned firearms and fewer still actually used them for hunting or otherwise.

The truth is that a significant majority of US citizens, at the time of the Civil War, owned firearms used for hunting. Although the portion of the population that owned them was much lower than what it was during the War of Independence, infantry men were still expected to arrive for duty bearing their own arms, albeit not all of them did. (The Confederate side kept fairly accurate records that indicated they had about 150,000 rifles at the beginning of the war, thus they appealed to prospective soldiers to 'bring their own')

The only possible explanation for the statement that widespread introduction of rifles didn't occur until halfway through the war is that the author meant effective rifles. As anyone who has explored a Civil War battlefield can tell you, musket balls are literally a dime a dozen. These balls were fired through smoothbore rifles or shotguns that possessed very little accuracy or range, but they were effective if they stuck an enemy. The arrival of British Enfields, and the subsequent development of the Springfield 1861 (over 500,000 produced for the Federal troops), brought very accurate, very long range guns that fired a conical bullet through a rifled barrel. The Enfield was usually equipped with an elevator type peep sight adjustable to a range of 800 yards, although the gun can hit and kill a man out to about 1,000. Once developed the 1861 was actually the standard issue for the North. I've fired the gun and can attest to its ability to hit a man sized target out to about 600 yards. Given the ballistics of the round, it would certainly be lethal.

Although I'm no Civil War buff I know the guns fairly well. You should just be aware that the book is more interested in supporting the leftist agenda of disarmament than reporting historical fact.

"Keep your bible open and your powder dry."

Actually (none / 0) (#8)
by First Incision on Mon Feb 11th, 2002 at 09:08:14 AM PST
I think you read a little bit too much into cursory review I gave of the book. There was little political agenda to be found in this extremely technical book (which is why I found reading it so read).

Pretty much everything you said was mentioned in the book, including the estimated numbers of shotguns, smoothbore muskets, and rifles in Union and Confederate regiments at the beginning and end of the war. Everything you said about the production of Springfields, Enfields, and their accuracy was presented in detail.

According to the book, most of the soldiers on both sides had dropped their old personal muskets and shotguns in favor of army-provided rifles during the course of the war, but he stated that the rifles did not significantly change the accuracy or tactics of the soldiers. Regardless of how widespread firearm ownership was in antebellum America, the majority of the soldiers fighting in it had never touched an accurate rifle, and had only cursory training in their use. The only real target practice they received was during the adrenaline and smoke-filled fog of battle.

Throughout Battle, the author kindly pointed out opinions of his that were not shared by the majority of Civil War historians. Among these were his emphasis on the importance of trenches and other constructed fortifications, the psychological impact of artillery, and his downplaying of the significance of calvary and the mid-war introduction of accurate rifles.

I discussed this with a friend who is a Civil War buff. He said that the whole issue of the significance of the Sprinfields and Enfields is very controversial. Historians all have their own opinions on how well the common infantrymen could shoot.

As I wrote this, I got to thinking about something else. These were in the days before corrective lenses were widespread. 20/20 vision is not the norm, and I wonder how many of these soldiers even had the visual acuity necessary to shoot a man at 600 yards. Even with my contact lenses, I doubt I could distinguish a man at 600 yards in less than ideal conditions. With no corrective lenses, I would be hard-pressed to see one at 200.
Do you suffer from late-night hacking? Ask your doctor about Protonix.


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