04 April 2010

ch.19: The Weapons of War

Throughout the Civil War, Americans read almost daily, in newspapers and letters, stories of terrible death and bloodshed. At Antietam, for example, the two sides suffered more than 23,000 casualties. Soldiers well understood that the mounting slaughter on the battlefields was due to new and powerful weapons, matched against outmoded ways of fighting.

New Weapons: The war created a demand for more powerful, more efficient weapons, and American inventors supplied them. Breech-loading rifles, rifled cannons shooting 200-300 pound shells, exploding canisters of shrapnel, and ironclad ships dealt death on both sides. Most battlefield casualties, however, were inflicted on and by infantrymen—about 85% of the soldiers—shooting it out in fire fights at 100 to 500 yards distance, firing volley after volley of musket shot into the entrenched or charging ranks of the enemy.

At the beginning of the Civil War, soldiers on both sides used smooth-bore muzzle-loading muskets accurate to only about 100 yards. These weapons had to be loaded by ramming powder and ball down the muzzle of the musket. By 1863, however, a new grooved or rifled musket was becoming the standard weapon, North and South: muzzle-loading Springfield and British-made Enfield rifles. Either variety could hit a man at 300 to 500 yards. The grooving of the weapons; barrels and the use of the so-called "Minie Ball," a bullet that expanded into the rifled grooves, increased the fire power—and decreased the life expectancy—of the Civil War soldier.

Slaughter: These new rifled muskets, along with the massive amounts of weapons available, made traditional ways of fighting a sure means of producing slaughter on the battlefield. By the time the generals learned to modify their combat tactics to meet the destructive power of the new technology—to fight their men in skirmishes by advancing them in groups and individually or to entrench them against deadly cannoneering—tens of thousands of soldiers had been wounded or killed. Infantry soldiers shot on the battlefield almost certainly died if hit in the head or chest. The minie ball shattered bones, tore apart arteries and tendons, and mangled intestines beyond repair. Wounds in arms or legs, which required immediate treatment if not amputation, frequently occurred when soldiers stood upright in order to ram their shots and power down the barrels of their weapons.

Death in the Hospitals: Those soldiers wounded but not killed in battle might still succumb to their deadliest enemy: the sickness and diseases associated with camp hospitals. Surgeons amputated limbs unaware that their filthy, blood-spattered hands and unsterilized cutting tools brought on infections more lethal than bullets. Indeed, more Civil War soldiers died from diseases contracted in poorly sanitized camps (malaria, typhoid, dysentery) and from infected wounds than from all the weaponry on the battlefield.One of 65 men in the Union army was killed in action; one in 56 died of wounds; one in 13 died of disease; one in 10 was wounded; one in 15 was captured. That men continued to fight against such odds is profound testament to their courage and will to win.


  1. The Civil War was perhaps the first modern war, introducing such military innovations as: trench warfare (e.g. siege of Petersburg); railroad troop movement; ironclad ships; submarines; stationary torpedoes; telegraph and balloon communications; and deliberate destruction of civilian property.

    As Professor Woodard notes, the rapid advancement of infantry firearm technology was often lost on military commanders. Perhaps no more famous example of this failure to apply new tactics to meet the new weaponry was General Lee’s order of “Pickett’s Charge” at Gettysburg.

    Tim Utter

  2. Thanks for your comments. I have really appreciated this book and all the things that I learned about Lincoln and the Lincoln era that I did not know.

    Rosie Braun

  3. keep posting please! these a great help to me and i would like to see more that go to the end of the book!