Sunday, July 12, 2015

Why Did So Many Men Die In The Civil War?

The Battle Of Stones River
  For many years I was invited to local schools to give presentations on the Civil War. I would pack up my bullets, cannon balls, bayonets, accoutrement's such as belt buckle, cartridge box plates, breastplate and buttons. This stuff is very heavy and by the time I was through I was as tired as if I had been working all day. I would carry an 1864 replica Springfield rifle to demonstrate to the children how the common soldier would load and fire a rifle in combat. How he would do it from the standing and prone position and how the average experienced soldier could fire as many as three rounds per minute. I would then place a percussion cap on the nipple of the rifle and after cocking the weapon pull the trigger. The percussion cap sounded like a firecracker going off and the kids would scream and nearly jump out of their seats but they loved this. I usually had their undivided attention from that point on. As a side note black soldiers guarding Confederate prisoners would threaten them if they got out of line by saying "I'm going to pop a cap on you". One thing that I have found out about children is that they love to hear about the blood and gore of battle. However I strive to make them realize the reality and horror of war and that it should not be glorified in any way. Some of the questions that kids ask me are both funny and sad at the same time. Sad to me because many times they reflect a total ignorance of history. Especially when I am talking to older kids like eleventh graders. For example one high school student asked me what I did in the Civil War? I like to think that they were joking but sadly I don't think so. Many times children would write their questions on paper and the spelling and hand writing was so atrocious that I couldn't read many of them. Finally, one question that I have been asked many times is why were there so many casualties in the Civil War? That is a very good question.

  Scholars have agreed for many years that 620,000 men died in the Civil War. In recent years the number has been revised upward to about 750,000. Two thirds of that number was caused by disease. The most dangerous place for a soldier was not on the battlefield but in camp. Most soldiers were from rural areas and their immunity was weak because of a lack of exposure to disease. As these soldiers suddenly found themselves thrown together in close quarters they passed the various contagious diseases on to each other. Measles were deadly because of the complications that came with the disease such as pneumonia, There was also smallpox and tuberculosis. Typhoid and cholera was usually the result of bad water. Malaria was caused by mosquito's. The biggest killer by far was dysentery and chronic diarrhea. The better led and disciplined soldiers were usually the healthiest. In the modern military you are trained to dig a slit trench far enough away from a camp as to not contaminate drinking water or food sources. You are taught to cover feces with dirt and you do not relieve yourself in the camp area at all. Latrines should always be dug downstream and not upstream. These simple rules were many times not followed in the Civil War through a lack of discipline or just out of ignorance. As a result men died like flies from dysentery and chronic diarrhea. I had the latter in Turkey even though our medic treated our water with chlorine on a regular basis. We didn't have bottled water available back then and I was not under field conditions. I dropped from 220 pounds to 175 before I left Turkey. Armies during the Civil War usually went into winter camp and stopped active campaigning during the coldest months. Winter battles like Fredricksburg and Stones River were rare. The camps were deadly during the winter. Active campaigning and marching were good for the health of the troops aside from being in actual combat. Grant and Sherman realized this during the winter of 1862, 63 during the Vicksburg campaign. They kept their troops busy all winter digging canals and trying to find alternative ways of reaching Vicksburg. Even though Grant held out little hope of taking Vicksburg this way he kept his troops healthy by keeping them active. Sherman accomplished the same thing with his famous March to the Sea which occurred in the winter of 1864. The deadliest winter camp was at Falmouth Virginia during the winter of 1862, 63 where men died in large numbers from inactivity.

Civil War hospital in Nashville

  There were 214,948 combat deaths in the Civil War. Of these there were 140,414 Union and 74,524 Confederate and that number could be as high as 94,000. Confederate records were destroyed during the Richmond fire when that city was evacuated in early April 1865. Death by disease could be as high as 500,000. Counting combat and disease casualties the Civil War was the costliest war in American history. However if you are comparing combat deaths there were 291,557 American combat deaths in World War II, making it costlier than the Civil War. You must consider however that in WW2 men were being killed with machine gun fire, semi-automatic weapons with a high magazine capacity, tanks, bombing and strafing by airplanes, flame throwers, land mines, and other modern weaponry. The Civil War soldier suffered nearly the same casualties using a single shot, muzzle loaded rifle, and artillery shells that were primitive by the standards of WW2. It is estimated that anywhere from 2.0 to 2.5% of the American population died in the Civil War out of a population of 31,000,000 of all races. To equal that percentage today 6.2 million people would have to die. In WW2 there was a population of over 132,000,000 people living in the United States.

Seventy-five percent of combat casualties were caused by the rifled musket. Twenty-five percent was caused by artillery. The technology existed at the beginning of the war for the repeating rifle and the machine gun in the form of hand cranked Gatling gun. The Gatling gun had a tremendous rate of fire and later saved our butts in the Spanish American War. The military brass however, in their ultimate wisdom, decided that they wanted to rely on the outdated technology of the single shot rifled musket. This was because they thought that soldiers would waste ammunition firing the repeating rifles and machine guns. Union Colonel John T. Wilder of the Union Army of the Cumberland commanded a brigade of infantry. He paid to arm his entire brigade with Spencer repeating rifles out of his own pocket. Wilder mounted his men and it became known as the Lightning Brigade. At Hoovers Gap, which is at Beech Grove Tennessee, his brigade held off an entire Confederate corps until the rest of Rosecrans army could catch up. Confederate soldiers began saying that you could load a Spencer on Sunday and fire it all week. Rosecrans was able to flank Bragg out of Middle Tennessee. Bragg retreated all the way to Chattanooga. This was a strategic victory for Rosecrans with few casualties that occurred at the same time period of Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Yet it is virtually ignored by historians. This was the first time that repeating rifles were used on a battlefield anywhere in the Civil War. The following is from an article called The Price of Freedom.

On 18 August 1863, President Lincoln agreed to test the rifle with Spencer on a weedy plain extending from the White House to the unfinished Washington Monument. At a distance of forty yards, Lincoln fired seven consecutive rounds into a wooden board, directly hitting a crude bulls-eye with his second shot. Lincoln presented Spencer with a fragment of the board on their return to the White House. Lincoln was pleased with the rifle’s accuracy and efficiency. In a matter of weeks, Spencer’s small Boston factory was receiving more orders than it could fill.
Harvest of Death - Union dead at Gettysburg

Hoovers Gap at Beech Grove Tn.

Col. John T. Wilder

Spencer's repeating rifle
Gatling Gun

  Rifling technology was being used during the American Revolution primarily by the Americans. The Kentucky Rifle or Pennsylvania rifle as it was also called had a longer range and accuracy than smooth bore weapons like the British Brown Bess. The Kentucky rifle had a range of about 300 yards using a round ball but was accurate because of the rifling in the barrel. The major drawback was that it fouled frequently. The rifling caused the ball to spin giving it better range and accuracy. Another disadvantage was that you couldn't use a bayonet with it. American and British smooth bores only had a range of 50 yards. Both the Kentucky rifle and smooth bore were flintlocks. Flint was used to set off the gunpowder in a flash pan that ignited the powder in the barrel. During the Napoleonic Wars all sides were using smooth bore muskets with a range of 50 yards. This was half of a football field. The smooth bore fired a round ball and accuracy was lost because the ball vibrated as it left the barrel. This lack of range allowed artillery to perform an offensive role. It could close in just out of the 50 yard range and blow holes in the infantry line. This allowed the cavalry to crash through these holes and create chaos in the enemies rear. In the revolution and during the Napoleonic wars there was a concept called mass firepower. Men stood shoulder to shoulder with fixed bayonets and fired by volley. The idea was to march to within the 50 yard range and fire a volley at the enemy. The volley would create chaos in the opposing line. After firing the men would execute a bayonet charge through the smokescreen caused by the black powder and exploit the momentary chaos caused by the volley. Although West Point was primarily a school that specialized in army engineering these tactics were taught to the future Northern and Southern commanders.

  Starting in the 1820's percussion cap technology was invented. This allowed a weapon to discharge in any weather. Flintlocks were prone to misfire in wet weather which led to the saying, "Keep your powder dry". Then Claude Minié, a French military officer, invented a soft lead conical bullet which came to be popularly called the minie ball. It was fired from a rifled barrel which gave it greater range and accuracy. Now the effective range was 300 yards and a man could be killed as far as 1000 yards away. The effective range on an M-16 is 300 yards. This technology made the tactic of mass firepower obsolete. It would be the equivalent of the tactics used in World War I when men charged headlong into machine gun nests. Unfortunately Civil War commanders were still using mass firepower formations, refusing to adapt to this advance in technology. Soldiers were not able to close with the enemy. They were usually shot before they could get anywhere near the enemy. An attack could be broken up long before the men came in contact with each other. For example at Stones River four different Confederate brigades attacked the Round Forrest on the Nashville Pike at various times of the day on December 31, 1862. All of these attacks were stopped short. Hand to hand fighting was pretty rare in the Civil War unless there were special circumstances. For example at Franklin Confederates were able to penetrate the Union line because Union infantry was afraid to fire on their own men who were being closely pursued by the Confederates. It took violent hand to hand fighting using bayonets, shovels, pick axes, rifle butts, and bare hands to push the Confederates back. Because of the added range of the rifled musket very few casualties were caused by the bayonet. Soldiers mostly used them for tent pegs and candle holders. In addition a blacksmith could bend the point in such a way that it could be used to hold cooking pots or be attached to a long pole. This could then be used to hook the clothes of soldiers in an advanced state of decomposition and drag them into a grave or burial pit. In the early 1970's a family friend was roofing a house in the Belmont area of Nashville. The Union lines ran through this area prior to the battle of Nashville. My friend had to pee and walked into a nearby patch of woods. There sticking up out of the ground was a bayonet that had probably been there since the Civil War. Other than being rusted it was in great shape. The point was pitted where it had been in the ground so long. I bought it from him for 25.00 dollars. This bayonet was probably used as a candle holder or a tent peg.
Model 1861 Springfield rifle
The bayonet from my collection that was sticking up out of the ground in Nashville.

A bayonet that was probably used to hook on to the clothes of decomposing soldiers in order to pull them into a grave or burial trench. Or it could have been used to hold cooking pots over a fire.

  The added range of the rifle also changed artillery and cavalry tactics. Artillery could no longer be used in an offensive role. It could not get close to an enemy line and blow holes in it for the cavalry to exploit. Cannoneers could be picked off from long distances. As a result Civil War artillery could only be used in a defensive role in order to hold a position or bombard opposing lines at a safe distance out of the range of rifle fire. The role of cavalry also changed. Since cavalry could also be picked off by the rifle, it was no longer used to attack infantry on a regular basis. Calvary was used primarily to scout out ahead of an army becoming it's eyes and ears. It was also used to protect the army's flanks. Nathan Bedford Forrest would revolutionize cavalry. He not only used it in the role of scouting and guarding flanks but also used it as mounted infantry to move men from point A to point B. These men would then dismount and fight as infantry. Every fourth man was a horse holder. This method was also a great way to provide a rear guard for an army, as was the case after the Army of Tennessee was defeated at Nashville. Forrest invented mobilized infantry which was a concept used by Rommel, and Guderian. It is still used today and studied in military academies around the world.

The range and accuracy of the rifled musket combined with the outdated massed firepower tactics of the infantry was a deadly combination. Contributing to this deadliness was the minie bullet or minie ball itself. Most minie balls were .58 caliber soft lead bullets. Some were .69 caliber which was fired from older smooth bores that had been converted into rifled muskets. These lead bullets caused devastating injuries. A bullet that hit a bone would usually shatter it and the bullet would fragment or flatten out. If it hit an arm or leg bone there was a great chance that the arm would be amputated. This was not because of infection. Most of the time it was because the bone was so shattered that it could not be saved. Even with modern medical technology it would be very difficult to save limbs damaged by these bullets. Close to fifty percent of amputations resulted in death. If a person was shot in the stomach or somewhere soft the bullet mushroomed. Compared to modern day bullets minie balls had a slow velocity and could drag dirt, clothing and bacteria into a wound increasing the chance of infection. The heat produced by high velocity modern bullets tend to sterilize the wound. Most surgeons would not probe too deeply for a bullet. If a person was shot in the head there was about a 5% survival rate. In the chest about a 25% survival rate. A gut shot was usually always fatal if the bullet penetrated the intestine due to the lack of modern day surgical techniques and antibiotics.
Bullet on left is .69 caliber, the middle is a .58 caliber, and the right is a .577 caliber Enfield bullet 
Bullet on the left flattened by a hard object, bullet on right mushroomed by a soft object

  At the beginning of war armies generally fought out in the open without the benefit of protection. Over time as men saw the destructive power of the rifled musket they began erecting breastworks of piled up logs or seeking the cover of stone walls such as at Fredricksburg. Breastworks and even trenches were used at battles like Stones River and even more so at Chickamauga. By the opening campaigns of the final year of the war in May 1864 both sides were digging in. Attacking entrenched positions was foolhardy. At Cold Harbor Grant ordered frontal assaults against an intricate Confederate trench system of overlapping fields of fire, The Union forces in a battle lasting from May 31st to June 12, 1864 lost 12,700 men as opposed to Confederate losses of 1,500. After an ill advised assault by Sherman at Kennesaw Mountain Georgia on June 27, 1864, the Union lost 3000 men as opposed to 1,000 for the Confederates. One single shot rifled musket by itself was not that formative unless you were on the receiving end of it. Hundreds of men however formed up in a line of infantry, releasing a simultaneous volley, was deadly.

  Besides rifle fire artillery produced about 25% of the casualties in the Civil War. There were various types of artillery ranging from the huge naval and siege guns to the smaller field artillery. There were both rifled and smooth bore artillery. For our purposes I am only going to talk about field artillery. The smooth bores were the six pounder gun, the Napoleon 12 pounder gun and the 12 pounder howitzer. The 6 and 12 pounders were named that because of the weight of the balls that they fired. At a five degree elevation a 6 pounder had a range of 1,523 yards. A 12 ponder Napoleon had a range 1,619 yards and a 12 pounder howitzer 1,072 yards. A howitzer had a shorter barrel and was designed to fire high explosive projectiles at a higher trajectory and was also used to fire canister and case shot at shorter ranges. Civil War gunners liked the smooth bore guns for close in fighting. There were several types of ammunition.

12 pounder Napoleon at Stones River National Cemetery

1841 model 6 pounder

12 pounder howitzer

1. Solid Shot- Was a solid iron ball weighing 6 or 12 pounds and was primarily used to batter down breastworks, fortifications, houses, or anything solid that could be used to hide behind. The solid shot could also be used to take out a line of men if you were able to enfilade a line of infantry. Solid shot could be seen flying through the air or bouncing along the ground toward the advancing troops. Psychologically it was hard to maintain your place in line with these things coming toward you. There is an account of a man who stuck his foot out to stop one because the speed of the ball was deceptive. They looked like they were moving slower than they actually were. The ball took his leg off. I have several solid shot cannonballs in my collection.

2. Explosive Shell - It had a thick skin and was packed full of black powder. This could be used to set buildings on fire and could be anti personnel but when they exploded they sometimes only blew up in several large pieces. I have one whole half of an exploding shell which is shown below.
Half of an explosive shell

3. Spherical Case or Shrapnel - This shell was invented by a British army officer named Lt. Henry Shrapnel. It was a round ball with a thin skin packed with gunpowder and lead or iron balls. This was an anti-personnel device that sprayed shrapnel upon explosion. There was a timed Bormann fuse that was screwed into the ball. The numbers one through five were stamped into the fuse. If the gunner wanted the ball to explode right after it left the barrel the he might punch 1 for one second. If they wanted the ball to explode over the head of the troops they might punch 3. If they wanted the shell to explode at the soldiers feet, they might punch 5. Shrapnel has come to be a universal word for metal fragments thrown about as the result of an explosive device.

4. Canister Shot - It was a tin can full of iron or lead balls attached to a canvas bag full of black powder. Canister was like a giant shotgun shell for artillery. It was used to defend a position from being overrun and was very effective because it was so destructive to attacking troops. There was single canister, double canister and triple canister. As the enemy advanced and was threatening a position and single canister wasn't working, the gunners might be ordered to load double canister. If that didn't work and the position was sure to be captured the gunners would load triple canister and beat a hasty retreat. I have found a lot of canister over the years and most of it has been around Stones River battlefield. Many times you will hear the term grape and canister used. However grape was usually larger than canister and was attached to a wooden sabot. It was rarely used in the Civil War.

Grape Shot

Man killed by canister
  Then there was rifled artillery. Like the rifled musket it had greater accuracy and longer range. There were primarily four rifled guns that was used as field artillery. The 3 inch Ordinance rifle had a range of 1,830 yards. The 10" Parrot rifle had a range of 1,850 yards. The 14 pounder James rifle had a range of 1,530 yards and the English Whitworth rifle had a range of 2,800 yards. The Whitworth was used by both sides but primarily by the Confederates. The Union had the best and most effective artillery. It had more rifles than the Confederates. General James Longstreet once said that if he had Union artillery and Confederate infantry he could conquer the world. Both armies would use their rifled artillery to take out each others field guns. This was called counter battery fire. It was also used to take out specific targets. For example Confederate General Leonidas Polk was killed by a 3" Ordinance rifle while scouting the Union position from Pine Mountain Georgia in the Atlanta campaign.

3 inch Ordinance Rifle
10 " Parrot Gun

James Rifle

Whitworth Rifle

Hotchkiss shell- fired from a 3" Ordinance rifle

The death of General Leonidas Polk
Schenkl shell fired from a 3" Ordinance rifle

James shell- fired from a James rifle

Whitworth shell bottom right

  Although most casualties were caused by the rifled musket combined with the outdated tactic of massed firepower, artillery was the deciding factor in certain battles. At Gettysburg Lee lined up 170 cannon hub to hub to soften the Union center in a line two miles long prior to Pickett's Charge. This was the largest bombardment in North American history. It was heard as far away as Baltimore and Philadelphia. It was virtually ineffective however. The Confederates were using ammunition that they had never used before and the shells had slower burning fuses. Not being used to the new ammunition the Rebels overshot their target, which was the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. The shells for the most part exploded on the back side of the hill. The Union had eighty guns on Cemetery Ridge and during the bombardment they were ordered to stop firing in order to save ammunition for the coming charge. The Rebels misread this thinking that they had silenced the Union artillery. It was very effective however along with Union muskets in destroying Pickett's Charge, thus winning the battle of Gettysburg.

  Artillery was also the deciding factor in winning the battle of Stones River. With Civil War artillery you could only hit what you could see. The terrain of the battlefield, which was mostly forests and cedar brakes kept Confederate and Union artillery out of much of the battle. The Union army however was pushed back three miles on the first day of the battle, December 31, 1862 Fortunately for the Union General George Thomas established a strong defensive line of infantry, backed up with artillery, along the Nashville Pike on high ground facing an open field. The area around the present day Visitor Center. A prime killing field for Union artillery. This is where the first days Union disaster was halted short of the Confederate objective, which was the Nashville Pike and railroad. On the third day of the battle 57 Union guns were lined hub to hub on a ridge overlooking McFadden's Ford. These guns destroyed a Confederate attack producing 1800 casualties in thirty minutes, ultimately winning the battle of Stones River for the Union. The weapons used during the Civil War were very deadly but what was even deadlier was obsolete military tactics.


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