Civil War Infantry Tactics: The Right Tactics?

To the extent that the American Civil War is still mentioned in our public schools, other than as a vehicle for Black liberation, every student is informed that the reason for the war’s high casualty rate is because the weapon technology had outpaced the military tactics, and Civil War generals failed to adapt – instead they foolishly continued to deploy troops in massed formations in the open, where the soldiers were cut down by the lethal fire of technologically-advanced weaponry.

So what was the lethal, technologically-advanced weaponry that did all this damage? Specifically, it was the rifled musket and cannon. “Rifling” means that that the inside of the gun barrel is grooved, causing the projectile to spin as it leaves the barrel – giving the bullet or shell greater range and accuracy, much like a quarterback throws his football in a spinning motion for the same reason. The rifled musket didn’t exist in the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s; the gun barrels of that time were smooth, and thus called “smoothbores”.

Civil War rifled muskets were more or less accurate up to approximately 500 yards – a vast improvement over smoothbores which, depending on which weapon we’re talking about, were only accurate up to 100-200 yards. (The British claimed their smoothbore Brown Bess, the gun used against Americans in the Revolutionary War, had an effective range of 200 yards).

Since over 80% of the Civil War casualties were caused by gun shots – not artillery – we’ll confine our discussion here to the infantry rifle.

Casualties in Perspective

First of all, the American Civil War was not the first to produce horrific casualties – fifty years before our Civil War, the Europeans had clearly demonstrated that their slaughters using old fuddy-duddy smoothbores could be every bit as lethal as any in the U.S. with our rifled muskets. Note that Antietam was the bloodiest one-day battle in American history, but 50 years earlier, at the battle of Borodino, Europeans generated almost 3 1/2 times that amount of casualties in the same time frame, using smoothbores.

Year

Total   Battle Time

Total   Casualties

Average   Casualties per Hour

Weapons   Used

American

Antietam

1862

12 Hours

22,000

1,833

70% Rifle-Muskets
30% Smoothbores

2nd Manassas

1862

2 days

24,000

1,000

Chancellorsville

1863

4 days

30,000

313

Gettysburg

1863

3 days

43,000

597

European

Borodino

1812

12 hours

75,000

6,250

100% Smoothbores

Leipzig

1813

4 days

127,000

1,323

(Casualties are somewhat misleading in that they   also include missing/captured)

(If you want to go back a bit farther, in 216 BC at the Battle of Cannae, the Romans suffered 50,000 dead in the loss of a one-day battle against Hannibal, not including Hannibal’s losses. No rifle-muskets there!)

Rate of Fire

Secondly, though the rifled musket was a great improvement over the smoothbore in terms of range, it was still as slow and clumsy to load & fire as the smoothbore. The drill manual specified 17 separate steps (or 9, depending on how you counted them) to load & fire a rifled musket versus 18 steps (or 10, again depending on how you counted them) for the smoothbore. In drill, a solider was supposed to be able to load and fire a rifled musket three times a minute, but in confusion of actual battle, he was probably lucky to get off one shot a minute.

This slow rate of fire of the infantry weapon – whether rifled musket or smoothbore – had everything to do with the battle tactics of the day. It forced commanders to mass their troops to concentrate their fire to create a shock effect. And to perform the ballet of movements needed to load their weapons, the soldiers needed to stand or kneel. Unfortunately, laying down was really not an option, since to do so would greatly hamper weapon loading movements, slowing the rate of fire even more.

Therefore, Civil War tactics, like those of preceding wars, were highly dependent on the rate of fire of the infantry weapon – which demanded that troops be concentrated in closely-packed, standing or kneeling formations, , exactly like those of preceding wars.

Range

So the “modern” weaponry of the Civil War really had only one real advantage: range. As mentioned, the rifled musket had an accurate range of approximately 500 yards. But as someone who has hunted since the age of six and spent probably the equivalent of months on rifle ranges, both as a teenager and in the military, my hat’s off to any shooter who can hit a slowly moving, man-sized target from a standing position with iron sights at 500 yards – or for that matter, from 400, 300 and probably even 200 yards. Granted, a mass-formation target would be much easier to hit, but this advantage is negated by the heavy smoke produced by the guns, obscuring the target, and the fact that the target would be firing back, producing fear and even more smoke.

And the truth of the matter is that the average Civil War soldier was probably a lousy shot. Though they were drilled endlessly on loading and dry-firing their weapons – again focused on rate of fire – there seems to have been very little time devoted to actual target practice; Southern solders often received zero practice due to ammunition shortages. Not all the soldiers were rabbit-hunting farm boys who were comfortable with guns – many were store clerks, or draftees straight off the boats from Germany and Ireland, where guns were generally prohibited except for the military. And even for the farm boys, shot-gunning rabbits at 40 paces is one thing; firing a high powered rifle under quick-time command when the enemy is shooting back is a whole different matter.

For these reasons, despite the longer range of the rifled musket, the gun was rarely used at 300 – 500 yards (except by snipers). Time and again in the accounts of various fights at Gettysburg and throughout the Civil War, the firing is in a range of 200 yards, 100 yards, or even 50 paces. These are ranges where the old smoothbore musket was just as effective as the modern rifle musket.

 The Best Example

The best example of the real killing range of rifled-muskets is Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. The closest Union point facing the attacking Confederates was at The Angle, where two stone fences came together on the Union line. From the Angle to Seminary Ridge, where the Confederates launched their attack, was 1,337 yards (though not all the Confederate troops marched straight across the field).

The Southerners advanced out in the open over that 1,337 yards in slowly moving, packed formations – making picture-perfect targets. The Union soldiers had plenty of ammunition, in fact many of them stacked up extra loaded rifles, and many of them could steady their guns on stone walls, allowing perfect aim. And yet with all the advantages of their 500-yard, modern rifled muskets, the Union infantry commanders didn’t give the order to fire, nor did the Confederates return fire, until the Confederate line reached the rail fence at Emmitsburg Road – exactly 193.6 yards from the Angle – about twice stone-throwing range – and within the range of many or most smoothbores.

Conclusion

So the rifled musket’s one major technological advance – its longer range – was rarely used because its slow rate of fire required the shooters to be in a standing position, and in a standing position most people can’t hit a man-size target at much over 200 yards. Civil War casualties were not high because the technology had outpaced the tactics. Civil War casualties were high because hundreds of thousands of men in hundreds of battles faced off at almost stone-throwing range, because that was the only range where the shooters could get hits and still maintain a 2-3 round per minute rate of fire.

And at that range, the casualties would probably have been about the same – maybe even higher – had the two sides been using English Longbows, which had an effective range of 200 yards, a faster rate of fire, and didn’t produce smoke!

Jack Kunkel

One thought on “Civil War Infantry Tactics: The Right Tactics?

  1. Hello. I recently got your Shiloh book from ebay so I found our page.
    Great study. I dont agree with the “new weapons and old tactics” theory either.
    Considering the amount of smoke on a battlefield and lack of communication, they had no choice but to deploy units in massed formations, both to get effectiv fire and be able to move the units around on the battlefield..
    As you say, the average CW soldier was not a very good shot either. They few that where, was often deployed in ad hoc sharpshooter battalions attached to each brigade. Atleast in Lee’s army.
    Considering the poor shots combined with the lack of visibility on a smokeclad battlefield, they again had no choice but to fire volleys of musketfire and the only way to achive that, is massed formations as we all know..
    So basically the advanced weapons, was no help when you hardly could see anything due to the high amount of smoke.

    The losses in the CW was high compared to previous american wars, but not compared to wars in Europe, as you present some fine examples of.
    This is my personal opinion, but the killing rate was not very high either, when we look at the amount of soldiers. Appx 170.000 soldiers fired probably around 2 million musket shots, resulting in “only” 28.000 killed and wounded. 35.000 was KIA and wounded during the battle. Not the entire campaign and less captured soldiers. If 20% percent was artillery casualties, we are down to 28.000 killed and wounded by musket fire. Not very high considering the amount of soldiers and shots fired and the tactics they used in massed formations.

    As a final note, I recently read that some historians think the reason they found so many loaded weapons on the battlefield, was because lots of soldiers did not want to shoot humans, so they deliberately missed. This could also be used as a reason for low rate of hits, but thats bullshit if you ask me. By 1863, atleast in the confederate army, they where hardened veterans and would have no problem killing your enemy. The cowards and shirkers where long gone. 🙂

    Again, excellent stydy!
    Greetings from Norway.

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