Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Book Snippets: "Battle Cry of Freedom" - Musket to rifle

James M. McPherson explains, in "Battle Cry of Freedom" (Oxford UP, 1988), that the shift from musket to rifle just before the American Civil War caused a shift from offensive infantry charges with bayonet to defensive tactics. "The rifle and trench ruled Civil War battlefields as thoroughly as the machine-gun and trench ruled those of World War I," he says (477). In one battle later in the war, a defensive line of three trenches crawling with riflemen achieved a rate of fire on charging troops nearly equivalent to machine-gun fire, and Lee's army met its eventual defeat in the grueling trench warfare around Petersburg, Virginia. McPherson:
One reason for the high casualties of Civil War battles was the disparity between traditional tactics and modern weapons. The tactical legacy of eighteenth-century and Napoleonic warfare had emphasized close-order formations of soldiers trained to maneuver in concert and fire by volleys. To be sure, some of the citizen-soldiers of the American Revolution fought Indian-style from behind trees or rocks, and the half-trained levée en masse of the French Revolution advanced in loose order like "clouds of skirmishers." But they did so mainly because they lacked training and discipline; the ideal for Washington's Continentals and Napoleon's veterans as well as Frederick's Prussians and Wellington's redcoats remained the compact, cohesive columns and lines of automatons who moved and fired with machine-like efficiency.

These tactics also stressed the offensive. Assault troops advanced with cadenced step, firing volleys on command and then double-timing the last few yards to pierce the enemy line with bayonet charge. Napoleon used his artillery in conjunction with infantry assaults, moving the field guns forward with the foot soldiers to blast holes in enemy ranks and soften them up for the final charge. Americans used these tactics with great success in the Mexican War. West Point teaching stressed the tactical offensive. Most of the top Civil War officers had fought in Mexico and/or had attended West Point; from both experiences they had absorbed the message that the tactical offensive based on close-order infantry assaults supported by artillery won battles.

In Mexico this happened without high casualties because the basic infantry weapons was the single-shot muzzle-loading smoothbore musket. The maximum range of this weapon was about 250 yards; its effective range (the distance at which a good marksman could hit a target with any regularity) was about eighty yards on a still day. The close-order formation was therefore necessary to concentrate the firepower of these inaccurate weapons; artillery could accompany charging infantry because cannoneers were relatively safe from enemy musket fire until they came within a couple of hundred yards or less; bayonet charges could succeed because double-timing infantry could cover the last eighty yards during the twenty-five seconds it took defending infantrymen to reload their muskets after firing a volley.

Rifling a musket increased its range fourfold by imparting a spin to a conical bullet that enabled it literally to bore through the air. This fact had been known for centuries, but before the 1850s only special regiments or one or two companies per regiment were equipped with rifles. These companies were used as skirmishers—that is, they operated in front and on the flanks of the main body, advancing or withdrawing in loose order and shooting at will from long range at enemy targets of opportunity. Given the rifle's greater range and accuracy, why were not all infantrymen equipped with it? Because a bullet large enough to "take" the rifling was difficult to ram down the barrel. Riflemen sometimes had to pound the ramrod down with a mallet. After a rifle had been fired a few times a residue of powder built up in the grooves and had to be cleaned out before it could be fired again. Since rapid and reliable firing was essential in battle, the rifle was not practicable for the mass of infantrymen.

Until the 1850s, that is. Although several people contributed to the development of a practicable military rifle, the main credit belongs to French army Captain Claude E. Minié and to the American James M. Burton, an armorer at the Harper's Ferry Armory. In 1848 Minié perfected a bullet small enoguh to be easily rammed down a rifled barrel, with a wooden plug in the base of the bullet to expand it upon firing to take the rifling. Such bullets were expensive; Burton developed a cheaper and better bullet with a deep cavity in the base that filled with gas and expanded the rim upon firing. This was the famous "minié ball" of Civil War rifles. The superiority of the rifle was demonstrated by British and French soldiers who carried them in the Crimean War. As Secretary of War in 1855, Jefferson Davis converted the United States army to the .58 caliber Springfield rifled musket. Along with the similar British Enfield rifle (caliber .577, which would take the same bullet as the Springfield, the Springfield became the main infantry arm of the Civil War.

...Northern industry geared up to manufacture more than two million rifles during the war; unable to produce more than a fraction of this total, the South relied mainly on imports through the blockade and on capture of Union rifles. In 1861 neither side had many rifles, so most solidiers carried old smoothbores taken from storage in arsenals. During 1862, most Union regiments received new Springfields or Enfields, while many Confederate units still had to rely on smoothbores. ...By 1863 nearly all infantrymen on both sides carried rifles.

The transition from smoothbore to rifle had two main effects: it multiplied casualties; and it strengthened the tactical defensive. Officers trained and experienced in the old tactics were slow to recognize these changes. Time and again generals on both sides ordered close-order assaults in the traditional formation. With an effective range of three or four hundred yards, defenders firing rifles decimated these attacks.Artillery declined in importance as an offensive weapon, because its accuracy and the reliability of shells at long range was poor, and the gund could no longer advance with the infantry toward enemy lines, for marksmen could pick off cannoneers and especially the horses at distances up to half a mile. Sharpshooters also singled out enemy officers, which helps to explain why officers and especially generals had higher casualty rates than privates. ...The old-fashioned cavalry charge against infantry, already obsolescent, became obsolete in the face of rifles that could knock down horses long before their riders got within saber or pistol range. The Civil War hastened the evolution of dismounted cavalry tactics in which the horse was mainly a means of transportation rather than a weapon in its own right. (472-475)

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