Yesterday, my course History 103: War and Innovation met, just as it does every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 1:30 pm. It’s a core course that satisfies the history requirement at the college, so the enrollment consists mainly of non-majors. There are, however, three history majors in the class who sit in the front row and and know the answers to lots of questions—although I do my best to compel other folks to talk. The course revolves around the textbook, Wayne E. Lee’s Waging War: Conflict, Culture, and Innovation in World History. I like this book a lot because it manages to deal with a number of complex issues while remaining accessible. I especially appreciate the fact that its definition of innovation is expansive and includes many fields beside technology; that kind of approach gets the students thinking more creatively about what an innovation is. And these days, isn’t innovation an important topic? I’m sure not all of the students would agree that the book is accessible. Having conceded that point, I will also make the following assertion: I do my very best to reach the students where they are, but I also feel that they need to stretch themselves to master the material. That’s the way learning takes place.
In any event, we’ve reached the beginning of Chapter 11, entitled “Men against Fire,” which traces “key changes related to the increase of firepower, especially infantry firepower, and the responses to that increase, culminating in the infamous trenches of the western front in World War I.” This “focus on firepower continues our examination of the consequences of industrialization” which began in the previous chapter. The chapter begins with a discussion of the American Civil War, moves on to the Prussian reforms that facilitated the forcible unification of Germany, continues by assessing the role of “industrialized firepower” in the “scramble for Africa,” and ends up exploring the role of firepower in World War I.[i]
Every time I teach this course and we start this chapter, I bring a couple of Minié “balls” to class. I think I bought them at Gettysburg when I visited there with my parents in 1982 (I could be mistaken about the date). I also seem to remember that they were cheap. I have this vague recollection that I picked them out of a large glass jar full of Minié balls and that they were 50¢ each. The price seems like a bargain for a piece of American history, but I’ve got to think that bullets at Gettysburg were a drug on the market. In Battle Tactics of the Civil War, Paddy Griffith estimated that at Gettysburg, it required 200 shots fired to produce one casualty.[ii] If you keep in mind that just over 50,000 men were killed or wounded at that battle, we are talking about 10,000,000 rounds expended. No wonder they were only 50¢ each.
They are a fun and interesting prop in class. The students get to handle them and feel how heavy one ounce of lead weighs. And the deformed bullet gives them a sense of how how lead spreads on impact and can cause catastrophic wounds. I often find that in this class the Nursing majors are especially interested in discussions about wounds and physical trauma.
In any event, the Minié ball solved an important problem that had bedeviled the muzzle-loading rifle. A rifle bullet had to be loose enough to get rammed down the barrel, but tight enough to take to the rifling. How could one accomplish both feats at once? Claude-Étienne Minié figured it out in 1847. As Lee explains it
His [Minié’s] conoidal bullet fit loosely in the barrel, allowing it to be rapidly rammed down the muzzle, but it had a hollow base with an iron plug. When fired, the base of the bullet expanded to grip the rifling and gain spin, therefore achieving greater range and accuracy. . . . So-called rifled muskets . . . designed to fire the new “Minié ball” could shoot accurately to five hundred meters and more, and were even equipped with long-range sites.[iii]
For a long time, scholars asserted that the Minié ball helped make the Civil War both bloody and indecisive. Because rifled small arms could hit soldiers at longer ranges, so the argument went, attacking units spent much more time in the killing zone than ever before. Instead of being exposed to accurate fire for 100 yards (as during the Revolutionary War), they took casualties at ranges approaching a quarter of a mile. Under these circumstances, the cost of launching a successful attack became prohibitive. As a result, battles became indecisive.
Due to work by Griffith, Earl Hess, Brent Noseworthy, and others, however, this conventional wisdom has been overturned (Lee arrays himself on the side of these scholars as well). These historians argue that a variety of factors limited the effective range of the rifled musket during the Civil War: topography (which rarely gave soldiers an unobstructed view of an enemy 400 yards away), the smoke generated by heavy fighting (same problem), the lack of training soldiers received in firing a black powder rifle at long range, and so on. Indeed, a Civil War firefight typically reached its critical moment at around 100 yards (I write “typically” because there were exceptions to this rule). The experiences of the 5th New Hampshire seem to bear out this view; at almost all the major battles in which the regiment fought enemy infantry—Fair Oaks, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, and High Bridge—the effective range of engagement was either just over or under 100 yards (Cold Harbor is probably the big exception). But that’s a topic for another post.
So why was the Civil War so bloody and indecisive? We don’t need to look to the rifled musket for the answer. Think about the Napoleonic wars. Just using regular old smoothbore muskets, Napoleon’s armies and those of his opponents inflicted enormous casualties on one another.
[i] Wayne E. Lee, Waging War: Conflict, Culture, and Innovation in World History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 365.
[ii] Paddy Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 84-85.
[iii] Lee, 366-367.