The American Civil War: Weaponry


Figure 1.--This 1927 photo shows a boy holding Federal and Confederate bullets he found at the Perryville Battlefield, located at Perryville, Kentucky. Perryville was the largest battle fought in Kentucky--a slave holding border state (October 8, 1862) PResident Lincoln's astute policies helped hold the birder states in the Federal Union. Perryville was the climax of Confederate General Braxton Bragg's Kentucky Invasion seeking to win the state for the Confederacy. He achieved a tactical victory, but had to withdraw leaving Kentucky in Federal hands. Notice that the boy has mostly found balls, the standard shot for mussle loaders at the start of the War. If you look closely you can see some of the new Minnie balls which inreased accuarcy, range, and hitting power.

The American Civil War has been described as the first modern war. This was in part because of advanced weapons that were inntroduced dufing the War, primarily by the Federal Army. Until the Civil War, infantry battles wre fought with smoothbore muskets. The Civil War soldier was armed with smooth bore muskets, but rifeled muskets appeared. This greatly increased the leathality (range and accuarcy) of the musket. The introduction of the Minnie ball futher increased lethality. These developed made massed infantry charges a very dangerous matter, especially against an entrenched enemy position. Both Federal and Confederate officers took some time to learn this and adjust tactics accordingly. The revolver with 5/6 shells was used in the War, but only issued to officers and calvalry troopers. Thus the musket or rifle was the most inportant infantry weapon. Federal calvalry units were eventually issued Henry repeating rifles which ended the advatatage that Confederate calavalry initially had. The Gattlin gun, a kind of early machine gun, was introduced, but not widely used. There were also major advances in artillery. Most Civil War artillery pieces were muzzle-loaders, but as with infantry weapons, we begin to see rifled artillery. And this increased lethality (accuracy, range, and penetrating power). Rifeled artillery was highly effective in counter-battery fire because rifeled battery could attack a smooth bore battery while remaining out of range. Range was particularly important, because it increased the time for which advancing infantry could be engaged and subjected to devestating fire. Many highly effective anti-infantry ordinance was developed. Tactics were also defined. At first artillery was interspersed among infantry units, effectively dissipating the impact of artillery. Fairly early in the War, independent artillery commands were created. This enabled the mass artillery fire that proved so deadly in Civil War battles. [Tidball]

Infantry Weapons

A major change in infantry weapons occurred during the Civil War. Until the Crimen War (1854-56), infantry battles were fought with smoothbore muskets. This is essentially the same weapon used in the 18th century and Napoleonic Wars in the early-19th century. Infantry tactics at the time were premised on the use of the smoothbore musket. The smoothbore had limited range and accuracy. Fired from more than a hundred meters, smooth bores could not inflict very much harm to the enemy line. Thus an attacking commander would concentrate a force together and charge en masse. They would attack clsely concentrated, elbow to elbow like Roman legionaires. They would then charge or run at the emeny position. Given a a clearfield, the defenders capable of nly a volley or two could not do much damage. If the attacking force was fast enough the defendrs could not damage with smoothbore mausket fire. Thus the two forces would have to fight it out with bayonets, with numbers often proved decisive. This had begun to change. The British and French in the Crimea were armed with riffeled muskets and minie balls. This made an enormous difference. The rifeled musket was still a single-shot muzzle-loader, but the rifeling gve it much more accuracy and a far longer range. The British and French rfeled muskets did enrmous damage to attacking Eussian troops armed with smooth bore muskets. American observers were present in the Crimea, including future Gen. George McClkellan. As a result, both Confederate and Federal armies were beginning to change. Most state arsenals, however, begun the War with smoothbore muskets. Rifeled muskets only grdually reached the troops. This greatly increased the leathality (range and accuarcy) of the musket. The introduction of the Minnie ball was partof this process increasing lethality. These developed made massed infantry charges a very dangerous matter, especially against an entrenched enemy position. An advancing infantry line could now be brought under deadly fire at a distance of a kilometer. Thus charges became virtualy suicidal against strongly defended positions. The only option for a commander became flanking movements. This is hy the Federal Fish Hook poston t Geettyburg wasso important. Lee was unable to flank the Federals. Both Federal and Confederate officers took some time to learn this and adjust tactics accordingly. Soldiers learned to dig fairly early in the War, something you did not see in the Napoleonic Wars. The hideous casualty lists of Civil War battles owed much of their size to the fact that soldiers were fighting with highly accurate rifeled muskets, but were using tactics suited to smoothbores The revolver with 5/6 shells was used in the War, but only issued to officers and calvalry troopers. Thus the musket or rifle was the most inportant infantry weapon. The Federals increased the Gattlin gun, a kind of early machine gun, but it was not widely used.

Cavalry

The calvalry used infantry weapons. There were no important advances in cavalry tactics or weaponry. Federal calvalry units were eventually issued Henry repeating rifles which ended the advatatage that Confederate calavalry initially had.

Artillery

There were also major advances in artillery. We see the same infroduction of rifeled artllery barrels as we see with mukets. Most Civil War artillery pieces were smoothbore muzzle-loaders, but as with infantry weapons, we begin to see rifled artillery. And this increased lethality (accuracy, range, and penetrating power). Rifeled artillery was highly effective in counter-battery fire because rifeled battery could attack a smooth bore battery while remaining out of range. Range was particularly important, because it increased the time for which advancing infantry could be engaged and subjected to devestating fire. Many highly effective anti-infantry ordinance was developed. A rifled battery could hit a smoothbore battery without being hit by returnfire. The new 3-inch iron rifleled artillery pieces firing a 10-pound conical shot, had a flat trajectory with immense Penetrating power. The old smoothbores had brass barrels with a 4.62-inch caliber, firing a 12-pound round shot continud to used throughout the War. This is because te orimary purpse of artillery was to breakupand destroy nemy infantry charges. The eastern United States is dominated by forested hills. And even the Western Theater was mostly fought east of the Mississipi. In ths environment, a range of 1.5 km is all that the artillery needed to desimate an attacking infantry force. And for this the smoothbre was often more effective than rifeled artillery. the artillerist had canisters, meaning a tin can full of iron balls. A propellant at one end and a wooden disk at the other. Te canor caister container disintegrated when the round was fired. This unleased iron balls on the attavking eneny infantry line. The smmoth bore firing canister rounds was essentially a huge sawed-off shotgun. At a ranges of 250 meters or less it was murderous. Not only did infantry tactics change, but so did artillery tactics. At first artillery was interspersed among infantry units, effectively dissipating the impact of artillery. Fairly early in the War, independent artillery commands were created. This enabled the mass artillery fire that proved so deadly in Civil War battles. [Tidball] The introduction of rifeled muskets was bad news for the artillery men. It brought thm within range of eney infantry.

Communications

There was also important changes in communications. The Civil War was the first important war fought in which the telegraph was used.

Sources

Tidball, Hohn C. Lawrence M. Kaplan, ed. The Artillery Service in tge War of the Rebellion, 1861-65 (2011), 432p. This is a modern reprint of a series of articles that Tidball published in a U.S. Army professional journal during the 1890s. The book focuses on the Army of the Potomac, the most important Federal formation of the War.






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Created: 11:57 AM 10/12/2011
Last upodated: 5:15 AM 7/2/2014