The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth. By Earl J. Hess. Modern War Studies. Lawrence, KA: University Press of Kansas, 2008. 288 pgs.
The contentious thesis of Earl J. Hess’ 2008 monograph The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth is that despite its remarkable potential, the rifle musket did not in effect alter the rate and volume of casualties during the Civil War, or fulfill its potential to revolutionize warfare. Hess takes up Paddy Griffith’s 1986 call to reinterpret the role of the weapon, and suggests that, “It is time to reevaluate the standard interpretation of the rifle musket’s impact on the Civil War. (p. 4)” That standard interpretation is the ubiquitous assumption that the widespread use of the rifle musket caused a dramatic rise in combat casualties during the conflict, and that consequentially the Civil War holds the title of history’s first modern war.
Instead, Hess argues that while the rifle musket had great potential in theory, the weapon was not used effectively in practice. Firstly, and most significantly, Hess points to the “parabolic arch” of the rifle musket’s minié ball. When fired on an open field of three hundred yards, the ball would fly straight for only about one-hundred yards, then curve upward to a height of twenty to one hundred feet above an opposing soldier’s head, and finally would sail sharply downward to strike an enemy within a small seventy five yard zone. The kill zone created by a rifle musket under the ideal conditions was thus somewhere around one-hundred seventy-five yards out of three hundred, not the long kill zone of a bullet flying on a flat trajectory as supposed by modern historians. Hess argues that the rifle musket had a noticeably lower exit velocity than did a smoothbore musket, and points out that Civil War battlefields often offered only limited visibility to combatants who could then not utilize the long range of a rifle musket. Civil War soldiers were rarely properly trained to sight long distances, performed target practice only sparingly, and were generally unprepared to utilize the ideal range of eight hundred to one thousand yards offered by the rifle musket. Another key contention is that fire from rifle muskets along short range was no more accurate than fire from smoothbore muskets. Hess also argues that soldiers using rifle muskets operated their weapons at approximately the same the of reloading as soldiers using smoothbore muskets. Finally, and most convincingly, Hess argues that most battles fought during the war occurred only at smoothbore range, with opposing sides firing at each other only within one hundred yards, thus further reducing the effective potential of the weapon that for a brief moment during the Civil War defined modern warfare. Along that line of thought, Hess concludes that the Civil War should not be thought of as modern because of the rifle musket; and if considered to be modern at all, that thought should be derived more so from the frequent occurrence of sniping and field fortifications during the war than the legendary rifle musket itself.
Aside from his essential argument, Hess’s work includes fascinating descriptions and analyses of several aspects of the common soldier’s experience during the Civil War, fitting The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat into an increasingly visible movement to document the Civil War from the ground up. All aspects of Civil War gun culture, from rifle cleaning to soldiers’ nick names for their rifled companions are discussed in Hess’ third chapter, would make for excellent reading for undergraduates and Civil War hobbyists. Hess also provides excellent details concerning skirmishing and sniping in his fourth, fifth and sixth chapters. Skirmishers and snipers made excellent use of the rifle musket, particularly Confederate marksmen during the Overland campaign in Virginia and other battles late in the war. Hess argues that such naturally adept and specially trained marksmen made the only novel and truly effective use of the rifle musket during the Civil War and would continue to significantly impact warfare in later wars. Skirmishing would soon disappear, but the roots of modern sniping can be seen during the Civil War. Hess is known for such sort of historiography as these chapters, which exhaustively document extremely specific themes, and each of the chapters adds to the concrete knowledge of a war that has been dominated as much by myth and misconception as reality in much of Civil War historiography.
Reviews of Hess’s works have usually been positive, and he has built up quite a reputation for his strong and detailed scholarship. Many reviewers held this work in a positive and revolutionary light; however, The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth is less sturdy than some of Hess’ other influential monographs, particularly his trilogy on field fortifications. Firstly, it is questionable that the muzzle velocity of a rifle musket is less than that of a smoothbore. Secondly, Hess’ estimation of the average range that Civil War battles were fought at is based on sparse evidence. His own primary-source study includes only twenty-four battles, a small number that certainly cannot be considered representative of all or most Civil War scenarios, even if Hess is correct in his point that combat typically took place at shorter ranges than made possible by rifle musket in theory. Thirdly, Hess’ argument that fire from the rifle musket was not on average more accurate than fire from older smoothbore muskets is simply incorrect.
However the main issue that haunts this work is more of a logical fallacy than a scholarly error. Hess’s conclusion about the part played by the rifle musket in role of the Civil War in the broader narrative of world warfare does not seem effectively derived from his premises. It is true that the average soldier did not utilize his rifle musket as effectively as he might have, had he undergone extensive training and fought on a battlefield with pristinely clear visibility. It is true that rifle muskets operated at approximately the same the rate of reloading that a smoothbore musket did. It may also be true that Civil War combat took place on average at similar distances to combat in earlier wars, since even today much combat involving small arms takes place at comparatively short ranges. However, if Hess’s argument that the rifle musket was not as revolutionary as has been assumed in traditional Civil War historiography is but a microcosm of both his and Paddy Griffith’s hypothesis that the Civil War was more of a Napoleonic than modern conflict, than that broad hypothesis is unfounded by this volume. Other factors than the rifle musket made the Civil War modern, including the extensive use of defensive fortifications later perfected during the world wars of the early twentieth century, a subject about which Hess has written extensively. Pioneering use of railroads to move troops, extensive wartime propaganda, total war against the Confederate civilian population and infrastructure, and submarine and iron technology on the water are just a few other reasons that many historians consider the Civil War to be the first modern war. In this very monograph, Hess also points to Civil War sniping as modern in essence. Not only this, but tactics of subsequent wars, particularly the essentially linear rushes “over the top” of trenches on the western front of the Great War seem reminiscent of the Civil War. If the Civil War may be said to be Napoleonic in essence because of linear battle tactics, then why is the Great War considered to be modern if similar tactics were used during that conflict? The larger argument about the place of the Civil War in the history of modern warfare is not satisfied by the cumulative theses of Griffith’s 1986 Battle Tactics of the Civil War and The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat. Perhaps a reevaluation of the myth of the rifle musket in the Civil War might be overdue, but a reevaluation of the role of the Civil War in the broader scheme of military history is not.
- Jonathan Jones