Water and Alexander Rose’s _Men of War_

Last week, in History 103—yes, that class again—we were discussing the first half of the chapter on Gettysburg in Alexander Rose’s Men of War (2016). I’m ambivalent about Rose’s discussion of this battle because I think he overstates his case on several occasions. To name one example, when he explains why the “default tactic of Civil War combat was the straightforward assault,” he resorts partly to a cultural explanation that seems exaggerated to me:

The widespread acceptance of high losses was partly due to the belief that the primary intent of battle was not to kill the enemy while minimizing your own casualties . . . but to endure startling (to us) casualties in order to achieve victory. A willingness to suffer, rather than inflict, high casualties was considered evidence of a muscularly Christian and heroic masculine will to win, not of lamentably poor command, bad planning, flawed execution, and idiotic decision-making, as we might assume today.[i]

While Rose provides many citations to explain why generals were more eager after the Napoleonic era to seek battle and smash the enemy in costly encounters, he doesn’t produce any sources to support the argument that common soldiers embraced high casualties as a measure of their will to win. Clearly, soldiers were proud of their regiments’ achievements, especially if they had proved especially costly. For instance, after the Battle of Fredericksburg, members of the 5th New Hampshire aggressively repeated the claim (much contested by other units) that they had made it closer to the infamous stone wall than any other Northern regiment. This accomplishment was no doubt dear to them because it came at the high cost of about 160 casualties out of almost 270 men engaged. But in the immediate aftermath of the battle, there was very little sign among survivors of that muscular Christianity or heroic masculinity which sought to suffer rather than inflict casualties. Instead, the men were appalled by the dismal leadership that had led to so many pointless deaths.[ii] Rose’s argument, then, seems a bit hard to swallow. I must admit, though, that I appreciate his willingness to think about culture in this context as well as his assumption that Civil War soldiers did not see the world as we do. But, still. . . .

That being said, the section on Gettysburg is well and vividly written. It is not for the faint of heart; almost every page is splattered with blood and descriptions of mayhem. Even if I don’t always agree with the arguments, they are easy to follow—always something to consider in a book for undergraduate non-majors. The book also intersects well with the themes of the course. It’s not the worst thing non-majors could read, and if it kindles among my students some sort of interest in history, well then, I’m happy.

So much for my overall impressions of the Gettysburg chapter. While I don’t always agree with Rose’s judgments, I can still see how he reaches them. Except for one topic.

Water.

Rose asserts that many soldiers at Gettysburg suffered from extreme dehydration and sunstroke because they were discouraged from drinking water. Too much water, so the argument went, was unhealthy. Rose refers to a “well-known New York Times letter to the editor . . . that had advised soldiers to consume as little as possible.” He later goes on to write that officers in the 124th New York and the 17th U.S. Infantry “actively prevented their men from refilling their canteens at roadside wells and pumps” which badly undermined the effectiveness of these regiments during the battle.[iii]

Again, Rose refers to few sources to support these assertion. He does produce a citation for the letter in the New York Times. And he provides a citation for the paragraph in which the reference to the two regiments occurs (although it’s not clear if that source refers to the experience of the two regiments or something else in that paragraph).

Winslow Homer, “The Coffee Call” from Campaign Sketches (1863): During the Civil War, a number of drinks were safer than water which was often tainted in one way or the other. The good news about coffee was that one had to boil it, thus killing off any bacteria or organisms that might cause illness. Coffee also provided a nice pick-me-up, and it could warm one on a cold day. The bad news about coffee (aside from the fact that it did require some time to prepare) was that it was a diuretic which meant that it could actually contribute to dehydration.

I have never heard about this prohibition against drinking water. It seems to me that other reasons probably better explain why soldiers were thirsty at Gettysburg. Most obviously, fighting in hot and humid weather was hard work. And in all likelihood, soldiers were already dehydrated by the time they reached the battlefield. Even though Gettysburg was an encounter battle, the days before the fight saw both Lee and Meade rushing to concentrate their forces in that area. Consequently, a number of units found themselves engaged in a series of long, hot marches, urged on by officers who would brook no delay. Under these circumstances, locating untainted water—always a problem for large armies during the Civil War—would have been difficult. It is also hard to imagine entire regiments waiting patiently around a country well or water pump, or even lining up along a small stream, to fill up canteens with water when the army needed them somewhere else immediately.

The experiences of the 5th New Hampshire shortly before Gettysburg may shed some light on these issues. On June 29, in the midst of a week of hard marching, the regiment was ordered to move from Frederick, MD, to Uniontown, MD, a distance of 32 miles.[iv] The entire II Corps (to which the 5th New Hampshire belonged), got off to a late start, so its commander, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, ordered that his units should not be allowed to stop at streams to take their socks and shoes off.[v] Captain Thomas Livermore of Company E in the 5th New Hampshire remembered:

Our pace was rapid and the most rigid orders to keep the ranks closed up were enforced; we even were obliged to keep the regulation twenty-eight inches only between the men and their file leaders in fording streams, and no one of us was permitted to stop long enough to remove our shoes or stockings.[vi]

It was on this same day that Colonel Edward Cross, the regiment’s former commander, who now led the entire brigade to which the 5th New Hampshire belonged, used the flat of his sword to hit a corporal of the 148th Pennsylvania on the neck for dawdling in a stream.[vii]

Cross’s behavior certainly seemed unwarranted to some. Yet when placed in the context of Hancock’s order, this incident says something about the urgency with which these marches were conducted in the days leading up Gettysburg. It seems hard to believe that on a march of this sort men would have been permitted to stop and top off their canteens at this place and that. And that probably meant they were awfully thirsty by the time they reached the battlefield.

Before closing, I ought to return to Livermore who had this to say add about the June 29 march:

The day was lovely, though hot, and the people were demonstrative in their admiration and affection for us and the Union, and in the streets of the villages and at the corners of the country roads the farmers distributed bread to the soldiers from their wagons, children ran along the ranks with pails of water, and every one was open-handed and smiling.[viii]

This aside is revealing. First, the fact that he pointed out people were “demonstrative in their admiration and affection” suggests that such was not frequently the case (especially when the regiment was marching Virginia). Second, it is instructive that he mentioned children “ran along the ranks with pails of water.” The image implies that the soldiers were not allowed to break ranks, so the children had to keep up as best they could with the water so men could serve themselves without breaking stride. In other words, had it not been for the good offices of these civilians, the men would never have been able to obtain water on their own. 

Perhaps I make too much of Livermore’s words. Maybe I’m guilty of overstating my case. Recognizing that possibility, I’m open to changing my mind if I find evidence that soldiers were discouraged from drinking water because their officers or others thought too much H2O was unhealthy. But for now, call me skeptical.


[i] Alexander Rose, Men of War: The American Soldier in Combat at Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, and Iwo Jima (New York: Random House, 2016), 114.

[ii] See Mike Pride and Mark Travis, My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross & the Fighting Fifth (Hanover: University Press of New England, 2001), 176-185. Among many letters that make the same point, see George S. Gove to Julia Parsons, December 14, 1862 and December 20, 1862, Parsons Family Papers, Series 2, Box 2, Folder 11, University of New Hampshire Special Collections & Archives.

[iii] Rose, 132-133.

[iv] William Child, A History of the Fifth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers in the American Civil War, 1861-1865 (Bristol, NH: R. W. Musgrove, Printer, 1893), 207; Thomas Livermore, Days and Events 1860-1866 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1920), 235.

[v] Pride and Travis, 229.

[vi] Livermore, 234.

[vii] Joseph Wendel Muffly, The Story of Our Regiment: A History of the 148th Pennsylvania Vols. (Des Moines: The Kenyon Printing & Mfg. Co., 1904), 533, 716.

[viii] Livermore, 234.

Showing off Some Minié Bullets in Class

My MWF 1:30 History 103 section just raring to go. Today, it’s about the development of firepower. And no, I don’t have powers of levitation; I was standing on the desk at the front of the room. I took my chances, emboldened by the fact that I would be able to extract a workers’ comp claim should I fall down.

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.

Here’s one of the Minié balls I bought at Gettysburg. One can clearly see the hollow base. If I put this bullet in some sort of solution, I’m sure I could make it clean and shiny, but I like how the accumulated filth makes it look old.

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]

Splat! This is another one of the Civil War bullets I bought at Gettysburg. This Minié ball obviously hit something and flattened out, but one can still see the hollow base of the bullet at the top. When I was younger, I used to imagine that this ball wounded somebody, and I was excited at the prospect. Now it makes my skin crawl just thinking about the kind of damage a projectile like this could inflict on a person.

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.

Brooke is a Nursing major, and she is engrossed by this small messenger of death. And by the way, this photograph was totally candid.

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.

Brendan is not a Nursing major (he’s majoring in Marketing), but he’s still interested. And no, this photo was definitely not posed.

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.