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The Killing Fields of the Civil War

Posted on | January 16, 2016 | No Comments

by H. M. Brett

Why were so many soldiers, both from the North and South, killed or maimed in the Civil War? The combination of several factors of medicine, weaponry, and tactics led to one of the highest numbers of American soldiers killed during any war. Medicine and medical technology had made some advances with few practical advances. But weaponry technology made great strides in the technology of maiming and killing opponents in combat as a result of the mass industrial manufacturing and engineering revolution taking place in the United States and Europe.

The infantry or foot soldiers were organized and marched in closely spaced ranks and columns, tactics used since before the Revolutionary War. Both sides would fire towards the others ranks with the lead mass of their shoulder to shoulder volleys to attempt to successfully punch holes in their opponent’s ranks and morale. This form of fighting needed disciplined training to both to load and fire in an orderly fashion and to receive fire from the opponent’s artillery and infantry fire. As the Civil War began, the combat formations, the individual soldier to soldier spacing, and the tactics of the infantry were virtually unchanged from the earlier wars. The same was generally true of the placement and use of artillery in unit engagements in the field.

killing ball and minie shot

Actual Musket ball and Minié rounds used in the Civil War (courtesy of Fort Ward Museum)

In the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812, the round musket ball was the main individual “bullet” fired from a smooth bored musket with a generally effective range of 100 yards with poor accuracy. The smooth bore musket was the primary weapon at the start of the Civil War-many still in their original flintlock design. Other smooth bore muskets were being gradually converted to the new percussion cap and nipple system which shortened the amount of time needed to reload and fire. The spread of rifling through the state armory systems was hastened by the invention and implementation of a pointed nose bullet designed by Mr. Minié of France. This pointed, aerodynamic bullet had circular external grooves round its body and a hollow back end. The Minié bullet was rammed down into the barrel and fired. The bullet’s hollow back end captured the exploding gases and expanded into the barrel’s rifling, giving the bullet a secure gas seal and a spinning motion resulting in a flight with greater distance and accuracy. Unlike a musket ball, a Minié bullet had an effective range of 250 to 350 yards. Generals accustomed to round ball, smooth bore effective distances reach or relatively low musket ball impact rates suddenly found that these distances between opposing infantry troops armed with rifled bore weapons and Minié bullets meant they were in a sudden mass of whizzing bumble bees full of anger and mortal spite.

More bullets/balls fired from newer weaponry at from a greater distance with greater accuracy increasing casualties. The introduction of breech loading and repeating rifles on the battle field also led to higher numbers of casualties. Where an experienced muzzle loader infantryman could load and shoot three times per minute, a breach loading rifle increased the number of shot or bullets fired significantly.

100 lb. Parrott artillery shell invented by Robert P. Parrott (courtesy of Fort Ward Museum)

100 lb. Parrott artillery shell invented by Robert P. Parrott (courtesy of Fort Ward Museum)

The smooth bore artillery (cannon) of the time fired solid metal round shot, explosive-bursting metal round shot, and various forms of grape or scrap shot, much like a shotgun round for limited distances. Grape shot and it relatives were fired in hollow shells that were meant to disintegrate while flying through the air spreading the pattern of flying balls in a shotgun style pattern, which could be quite effective at close range. Artillery advances in metallurgy and technology including barrel rifling, mechanical time fuses that were superior to the earlier fuse systems, and aerodynamic rounds which flew further and could be placed with much more accuracy. The rifling of artillery barrels allowed for doubling the sizes and weight of the rounds fired. Artillery became the queen of the battlefield, and an aggressive killer and crippler of infantrymen.

The effectiveness of “modern” weapons on casualties, the tactical movements of old, and the medical system that existed on the battlefield caused medical resources and personnel to be quickly overwhelmed. This combination of these three resulted in the most terrible and tragic losses of any other war in American history.

M. Brett is a retired Marine Corp. officer. He is a well-known and respected military equipment expert. Mr. Brett lives in Alexandria, Va.

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