June 22 Gettysburg Campaign: Tactics vs. Technology

Franklin Horner and his mates make the best of living in camp and put a floor in their tent, probably out of some scrap wood they may have scavenged.  For the time being they can be comfortable.

Thomas Ware’s unit is sent marching again, ending up in a small village called Millwood, near Carter Hall, “Stonewall” Jackson’s headquarters for a few days in November 1862. Ware and his friends were up late cooking, but he complained of not having lard, salt or soda, and the water being some distance away.

Back to the rifle musket.

At the beginning of the war, the Union had the technological advantage in shoulder arms. With armories producing weapons for the small regular U. S. Army, they had stores of weapons and ammunition from the start. The problem was, many of the armories were in the south and when the southern states seceded, the armories went with them.

Distribution in the south was a problem. If a soldier or militia unit didn’t live near an armory, they had to supply their own weapons, many of which were antiquated fowling pieces, smoothbores and flintlocks.

Eventually, Confederates began to produce their own weapons. Some were run through the blockade from Great Britain and other foreign powers. Captures after early victories, as well put the more advanced rifle musket in the hands of rebel troops.

The weapon was called a “rifle” musket because of a series of twisting grooves (rifling) cut into the bore of the weapon. This innovation was not new, but became more widespread during the Civil War. Rifling put a spin on the projectile which made it fly farther and more accurately. A percussion cap, rather than flint and powder, became the standard, more rapid way of igniting the weapon.

But the innovation that truly made the rifle musket a long-distance killer was a small indentation in the base of the bullet.  In 1849, Captain Claude E. Minié of the French Army modified the bullet and loaned his name to the “minie ball.” This minor change would cost hundreds of thousands more casualties in the American Civil War and lead, eventually, to major changes in tactics.

Smoothbore shoulder arms, in use for centuries before,  were accurate to about 75 yards and, being muzzle-loaders and often flintlocks, sometimes took a minute to load and fire. Tactics were therefore designed to concentrate fire by lining soldiers up shoulder-to-shoulder and have them all fire at once. They would then sprint towards the enemy and finish the fight using the bayonet, tactics which served the British Army so well. Captain Minié’s indentation changed all that.

When the rifle musket was fired using a minie ball, the hot gases produced by the burning powder, softened the lead bullet, filled the indentation and expanded the lead into the rifling grooves. Now, instead of 75 yards, the projectile, with a spin like a football pass, would travel accurately 350 yards. Soldiers cannot fire a volley, sprint three football fields, and be expected to fight after so exhausting a run. Thus, they continued to march in packed ranks taking numerous volleys from the defenders until they reached sprinting distance. The field behind them was littered with dead and dying.

Because of the extreme accuracy and range of the rifle musket, tactics had to change. Defenders entrenched rather than standing up in an open field awaiting their assailants. Attackers began to use new formations, such as advancing in column, giving the enemy less of a front at which to fire.

However, the change in tactics came too late for a huge number of young men during the Civil War. Even halfway through the war, at Gettysburg, soldiers were still attacking in linear fashion, as in Longstreet’s Assault, popularly known as “Pickett’s Charge,” on July 3, 1863. Tactics lagging behind technology made mourners of a whole generation of mothers, fathers, sisters and children.

Mark Nesbitt Ghosts of Gettysburg Quote


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