Crucible of Blood - Part Three

Crucible of Blood - The American Civil War And the Evolution of Modern Military Technology

Part Three of a Series

(Read Part 2 Here)

By William R. Trotter

In America's Military, Dark Clouds Gather, and Confusion Reigns

Until the 1850s, the only “contemporary” subject of study in the realm of “military theory” was the campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte. While studying those epochal events was (and still is) highly useful to a professional soldier, the world-wide burgeoning of technology had rendered “military science” at least co-equal in its importance to “theory” rooted in historical precedent. To those younger, more progressive officers who wished to stay current with, or even a bit ahead of “the curve”, theories propounded on the basis of new developments had perforce to be speculative in nature. Every officer who was not a hopeless blockhead understood that the long-range rifle musket, the multiplying new patterns of artillery, the telegraph, the steamship, and the railroad, would inevitably render future military campaigns as different from Bonaparte’s as Napoloen’s were from those of Julius Caesar. The hardest question to answer was HOW.

Within professional military circles, debates were spirited, and if you read numerous excerpts from the military journals published during the decade proceeding Secession, you can discover, among the baroque welter of highly personal prognostications, two dominant overall philosophies gradually taking shape. While they DO roughly correspond to “Liberal” and “Conservative”, those labels are a gross oversimplification. I prefer to use the terms:



REALIST/ SKEPTICS (as in “weapons evolve and machine change, but human nature remains both obdurate and beyond the realm of mere logic!”)

The position of the technologically hip Futurists may be summarized thusly:

The long-range rifle will confer upon the infantryman an unprecedented spirit of confidence and aggressiveness; convinced of the superior range and accuracy of his weapon, he will willingly and with increasing skill make use of its elevated sights to deliver punishing fire against the foe; his morale will be stronger from the knowledge that he will no longer have to close to within 200 yards or less to insure a reasonable probability of hitting his target. Moreover, at moderate or even close ranges, his confidence in the accuracy and stopping-power of the .53-caliber expanding Minie bullet will enable him to repel enemy attacks with what one contemporary officer (obviously one who had spent little or no time in actual combat!) described as “perfect internal coolness”.


Even the most skeptical essayists conceded that the new infantry rifles would certainly augment the common soldier’s firepower, both offensively and defensively, but beyond that they drew the line. Let me try to summarize the gist of their argument:

While IN THEORY, the accurate range of a Springfield might exceed 1,000 yards, true AIMED accuracy at such ranges could only be achieved by independent companies of specially trained sharpshooters, who roamed the flanks of the main battle formations, seeking small pieces of terrain from which they enjoyed good observation of enemy lines, and virtually no chance of being spotted in return amidst the noise, confusion, and violence of a large-scale engagement. Such marksmen, virtually “invisible”, would enjoy the luxury of being able to fine-tune their elevated sights (and, yes, the idea of partnering each sniper with a “spotter” equipped with powerful field glasses or a telescope was indeed discussed, but little attempt was made to implement the idea on a wide basis). Such “lone wolf” detachments might wreak considerable havoc upon officers, signalmen, gunners, flag-bearers and other high-value targets by making full use of their rifle’s fancy new sights, biding their time until the “perfect shot” presented itself, and then striving to attain the modern sniper’s goal of “one shot, one kill”.

But the rank-and-file majority of an army, still compelled by necessity to maneuver in controllable geometric formations, “aimed” rifle fire would continue to be a matter of rough-and-ready approximation. Because of the range and accuracy of the Springfield, such fire WOULD be deadlier, relative to the number of bullets fired, than it had ever been in the days of the Brown Bess smoothbore. It would no longer be necessary, as one 18th-Century cynic had observed, “to fire a man’s weight in lead balls for every casualty inflicted beyond the range of 150 yards”, but, the Realists contended, warfare was not a subject reliably amenable to the precision of scientific equations, and history indicated that the new rifle muskets would not prove to be remotely as lethal in combat as the True Believers claimed.

Unless the mass of soldiery in your nation’s army had been trained to an elite standard – a Utopian idea in and of itself. Most soldiers -- distracted, confused, and frightened by the noise, chaos, and violence all around them -- simply would NOT retain the coolness of mind to make fussy adjustments to their elevated sights. Like their counterparts at Bunker Hill and Waterloo, they would mostly just point their weapons in the enemy’s general direction, pull the trigger on command, and hope for the best.

Nor were the Realists quite so quick to predict the dethronement of field artillery as the decider-of-battles. They pointed out that a rifleman blazing away at 1000 yards MIGHT know if he had achieved a hit (if he’d been aiming at someone very prominent, in which case he might have been just one of fifty who’d drawn a bead on the same poor bloke), but if the target did NOT go down, the rifleman hadn’t the foggiest idea whether his shot had been high, low, left, or right of his aiming point. And so, at any range beyond, say, 500 yards, the vaunted accuracy of the rifle-musket was IN PRACTICAL TERMS, nowhere near as decisive as its partisans claimed.

And if our rifleman was dueling with a line of enemy artillery, his range-and-accuracy advantage would be a transient thing. True, he and his comrade might drop a scattering of enemy gunners before the foe would unlimber and load his guns, but the commander of each enemy battery – if his men could stand up to the galling long-range fire – had only to wait until his first ranging shots landed to know exactly how far off his gun-laying was and how to correct it. Unlike inidivual Minie balls, a solid-shot from a 12-pounder, falling short or to the side, would always throw up a rooster-tail of sod or sand, and an exploding shell was even easier to spot. A few adjustments – which a well-trained gun crew could make in seconds – and the sniped-upon battery would then be able to place its salvoes accurately on target, time after time. So, yes, the Realists admitted; future battles would surely see a somewhat higher rate of casualties among the artillerists, but hardly severe enough to negate the cannons’ tactical power.

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