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Crucible of Blood - Part Two

But that was not entirely the case. The top-ranking officers appeared complacent because they were old men, entirely satisfied with their rank and privileges and mostly just marking time until their honorable retirements. The common rank-and-file soldier was rarely exposed to progressive ideas because he had little or no exposure to the technical literature and lively scientific arguments proliferating in France, England and what-would-soon-be Germany; there were no organized libraries in the frontier forts and no incentive for the enlisted man to read the professional journals available by subscription from Europe, assuming he could read at all.

But the somnolence of America's army was more of an impression than a fact; with Mexico out of the strategic picture, the American soldier was challenged only by nomadic bands of savages. He did not have to worry about being smarter or more up-to-date than the soldier of a nearby country with which his own nation had, perhaps, fought a dozen wars since the adoption of gunpowder. The very real possibility of having to fight Prussia, France, or even Sardinia provided a lively stimulus indeed for the career soldiers of Italy or Great Britain to keep abreast of the newest technologies, theories, and experiments that were, at an accelerated tempo, drastically changing the profession of arms from what it had been in the years immediately following Waterloo.

In the United States, the brightest minds and most intense professional curiosity could be found in the middle ranks of the Army; all the latest European journals were available in the libraries of West Point and Virginia Military Institute, and the cadets with the greatest future potential availed themselves of the chance to stay current - after all, the "experimental breech-loading cannon" being tested at the Woolwich Arsenal this year, might be the very weapon that was firing at you most dangerously five years down the road.

The climactic Union assault on Ft. Fisher. The weapon in the foreground is a fearsome British Armstrong seacoast rifle, which fired a 150-pound shell. The third shot from it easily penetrated the hull and half the interior of a Union warship before it blew up, causing so much damage that the vessal began shipping water and had to be towed out of the battle area. Unfortunately for the commander, he only had 18 rounds for the Armstrong...

Nor were the civilian administrations ignorant of or disinterested in these arcane subjects - the burning of Washington had provided a salutary lesson in the virtues of preparedness. As it happened, the two Presidents who preceded Lincoln in the White House - Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan -- both had a keen interest in military affairs, especially in the rapidly evolving technologies that were transforming European armies with increasing speed, and, it seemed, always in the direction of longer ranges, faster reloading, and increased lethality on the receiving end. By the mid-1850s, a head of state who ignored these trends did so at his nation's peril.

The American Civil War is, of course, a subject rife with ironies, and one of the more curious is the fact that President Pierce's Secretary of War, a dour ex-West Pointer named Jefferson Davis, was the man most responsible for the American Army's adoption of the .58 caliber Springfield rifle-musket, following extensive trials of many competing weapons, held at Harper's Ferry during the period 1853-1855. It was a well-made weapon, designed to stand up to the rigors and mistreatments of campaign, and in the hands of a trained marksman, it could consistently hit its target at ranges up to1000 yards (or at least un-nerve its intended targets with the vicious bumble-bee hum of near-misses).

That wasn't the only innovation that caught Davis's attention. He persuaded Congress to fund extensive tests of the brand-new breech-loaders -- dozens of competing models were pouring out of European workshops - but ultimately, while the theory of a breech-loader was incontestably worthy of development, the metallurgy of the 1850's just wasn't up to the concept; all the models tested became fouled after a dozen shots, or their mechanisms worked loose to such an extent that most of the propellant gases spewed out through cracks and lose fittings around the breech mechanism. It was a weapon whose time had not yet come.

More serious attention was paid - again at Davis's instigation - to the new "repeating" Sharps' rifle, a robust and ingeniously designed weapon slightly longer than a carbine but considerably shorter than a Springfield - potentially a superb cavalry arm. In test after test, the Sharps cranked out 18 rounds every 50 seconds, rarely jamming or mis-firing. It was such a promising design that Congress allocated funds for Davis to outfit a very small company of experimental skirmishes (50 men unleashing 450 bullets in less than a minute could work wonders when it came to suppressing enemy fire, or, in a defensive role, discouraging any unit attempting to make an old-fashioned bayonet charge), but the very reliability of the Sharps made it unsuitable for regular formations. The commission studying it had nothing but praise for its design, but the bottom line was insurmountable. A single battalion equipped with Sharps' repeaters would burn up more ammunition in a single day of combat than could be transported by the supply wagons of an entire corps, after which the weapon was of no more use than a fence post wielded as a club. The logistical system could be changed, but the cost would be astronomical and the conversion would require at least three years, during which period the American Army would be thoroughly cast into confusion. This fact alone explains why so little use was made of such an advanced weapon during the coming war, although the Sharps did find useful employment with marauding bands of cavalry, which did not intend to fight pitched battles but mostly sought to do as much damage as possible in a brief ambush or to speedily overcome the armed escort of a supply column, and with bands of bush-whackers on both sides, most of whose engagements could be categorized as multiple homicides against defenseless or poorly armed opponents ("victims" might be the more accurate word) rather than proper combat operations. Dress a man in a uniform, and you give him a God-sent excuse to settle old grudges without being arrested for it - as the terrified inhabitants of the North Carolina/ Tennessee mountains would soon learn.

Davis also sent officers to Europe to bring back reports on the possible strategic impact of the railroad, the steam-powered warship, and the advantages conferred by the telegraph as a means of command-and-control. It is not a coincidence that when the Civil War broke out some of these very inventions were better understood and more creatively exploited by the Confederate side, at least in the first two years of the conflict. Davis may have been an obstinate and blinkered strategist (why else would he have kept assigning his old West Point buddy Braxton Bragg to important commands, despite Bragg's having won only a single major battle during his entire career and despite persistent rumors that Bragg was, by 1863, a very serious laudanum addict) (*), but the Rebel President's knowledge of contemporary technology was quite advanced and he deserves credit for that.

***

When the Crimean War broke out in 1854, every government not actually participating viewed the conflict as a real-life laboratory where the newest developments in military science could be observed in actual battle, not just read about in theoretical essays. As directed by President Pierce, Secretary Davis selected, with much care and deliberation, a three-man commission to go to the Crimea and report what they saw and learned. Davis finally chose three distinguished officers who were experienced enough to have seasoned judgment, but still young enough to be free of entrenched prejudices - men who could be trusted to report in accurate, impartial detail on the events, equipment, and military doctrines they witnessed under battlefield conditions.

Bayonet drill as depicted in a similar manual, and bizarrely effeminiate-looking. One thing the rifle did was to render the bayonet primarily a psychological weapon. Of the 250,000 Union soldiers treated for wounds during the war, only 922 were injured by an edged or pointed weapon.

One of the three, Captain George B. McClellan, was fated to play a major leadership role in the Civil War. The other two officers, Major Richard Delafield and Major Alfred Mordicai were not destined to achieve such celebrity (perhaps fortunately for their careers!), but their reports, too, would have a profound influence on the American military during the years just prior to the outbreak of fratricidal conflict. McClellan had begun his career as an engineer, but more recently had switched priorities to the cavalry; Mordicai was regarded as one of the army's leading experts on ordnance, both heavy and small arms; and Delafield was known as an expert on topography and fortifications. But each man was knowledgeable enough to write accurately about all the elements of military science.

Secretary Davis, in one of the longest telegrams he ever dictated, gave the commission a briefing which shows the remarkable breadth of his own professional curiosity. He directed them not only to provide detailed accounts of the battles they saw, and of each army's methods of fighting them, but to pay particular attention to the performance of the rifle-musket, the numerous new patterns of gun-howitzers, the changes - if any - in cavalry tactics, and he strongly admonished them not to overlook what he termed the "auxiliary branches of the military profession", mentioning specifically the types of rations issued to the combatants, innovations in engineering and fortifications, cartography, transportation, signals, telegraphy, steam-powered vessels (especially the brand new "ironclad floating batteries" the Russians were rumored to be deploying), plus any and all advances in both veterinary and human medical treatment (this was, after all, the first war in which chloroform was employed to ease the pain of the wounded, although there was never enough of it to meet the demand and many surgeons were so ignorant of how to apply it that they simply sloshed great dollops of it on to cotton wadding covering their patients' faces - sometimes this resulted in stopping the hearts of amputation candidates before the cutting even began).

This was quite a menu, but all three officers, far from being discouraged, undertook their mission with excitement, thoroughness, and zeal. The first thing they learned was how truly out-of-touch the American Army was with all the bewildering innovations being tried out by its European colleagues. This sobering realization inspired them to prodigious efforts. Not only did each man take such voluminous notes that he could later write a book-sized report from them, but they also brought back a collection of 371 new European texts, covering every aspect of military science, along with more than a thousand maps, drawings, charts, pamphlets, memoranda, and glass-plate photographs.

Given the size and close-knit structure of the peacetime American Army's leadership, it did not take long before reprints of many European documents were being widely circulated and hotly discussed or debated, by everyone from the lowliest West Point Plebe to the President himself. By the time the commission's formal reports were compiled and printed, in early 1858, there was a new Secretary of War, John B. Pierce, and although he lacked the almost furious zeal of Davis, he was of the same generally progressive temperament, and he spent many hours pouring over the intelligence from the Crimea.

Indeed, during the years 1857 - 1861, America's professional military had much to study, to debate, and to implement. Given the inertia that had so long prevailed in the profession of arms, it took some time for everyone to "get with the program" and to start thinking and planning along modern lines. It is no wonder that the early Civil War campaigns were fought with a confusing amalgam of up-to-date technology and many tactical practices that were still covered with the dust from Napoleon's boots. This unbalanced agenda would cause a vast and often unnecessary effusion of blood.

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