Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Just finished reading - The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth by Earl J. Hess

The notion that the rifle musket revolutionized warfare has been purported since about the time the smoke cleared from the last battles of the Civil War. Scholars have long claimed that this weapon drove casualty rates to unprecedented levels, made decisive victories rare, and relegated cavalry and artillery support to minor roles in combat actions.

Hess explores these previously long-held myths in The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat. Hess is a history professor at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee and is also a noted Civil War scholar that has written over ten well-received books, including a trilogy study of field fortifications in the eastern theater.

Hess contends that the rifle musket's major impact in the Civil War was mainly in the marginal areas of skirmishing and sniping. He compares statistics from the Civil War with earlier wars (both in Europe and in America) that were fought with smoothbore weapons and found that there was not a real significant difference in the rate of causalities. He argues that longer range rifle musket's potential was nullified in part by poor training. Civil War soldiers were rarely trained on how to judge distances or use the adjustable sights found on the Springfield and Enfield rifle muskets that dominated Civil War army's weaponry. In addition, soldiers were usually not afforded the luxury of target practice to become familiar with the way the weapons shot; most had to learn on the job, and to their harm. Officers and soldiers also negated the potential long-range effectiveness of the rifle musket due to their preference for short-range firing. It is difficult to feel that one if effectively damaging the enemy if he is too distant to see. Much along the same lines, these weapons produced immense clouds of smoke that obscured the enemy and caused battle lines to draw closer together in order to see the enemy targets.

Another point that Hess makes is that the rifle musket had a relatively short life in military actions. The Mexican War, which was fought about 13 years before the Civil War largely involved smoothbore flintlock muskets. Rifle muskets were a relatively new weapon when the North and South went to war. War has a strange way of speeding technology though; as men try to find better ways to kill each other. This was of course true for the Civil War as well, which witnessed the rise of breech loading and repeating weapons (especially on the Union side) in the second half of the war. Weapons such as Spencer's repeating rifle that shot seven rounds before reloading, and the Henry rifle, the precursor to the Winchester of Old West fame, brought about significant technological changes. After the Civil War these new weapons quite quickly made the rifle musket almost obsolete on the world's battlefields. For example, shortly after the Civil War the United States army adopted the breech loading Springfield Trapdoor and days of loading by way of the muzzle with a ramrod were gone.

Hess also explores the myth that the rifle musket caused the extensive use of field fortifications and trench works that were the precursors to World War I type warfare. He explains that field fortifications were used all throughout the war and that their extensive use for, starting in the spring of 1864, can be attributed more the constant closeness and fighting of the armies than to the rifle musket.

At a few places Hess takes time to discuss slightly off topic items, but to me this only added value to the book. I especially enjoyed his short looks at body armor used during the Civil War, and the effectiveness of some of the skirmishing/sharpshooting units.

This well-written and researched book should be read by all military history students. His challenge to the long standing myth of the rifle musket is argued convincingly and supported with sound statistics and soldier's first-hand accounts. This is a book that will not disappoint anyone with an interest in Civil War combat.

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