Earl Hess on The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat
Earl J. Hess has a new book out: The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Myth and Reality. I recommend it highly. Back in February the publisher asked me to blurb the book. I’m very selective about responding to such requests, but after reading the manuscript I had no hesitation:
“Conventional wisdom has long held that the carnage of 1861-1865 stemmed primarily from accuracy and extended range of the rifled musket. Earl Hess questions this assumption more thoroughly, thoughtfully, and convincingly than any historian thus far. This book is required reading, not just for students of the U.S. Civil War, but for anyone interested in the history of warfare.”
In a session at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians, I amplified upon this a bit:
[The Civil War] can be seen as the last of the Napoleonic wars — indeed, as what Paddy Griffith suggestively called “a badly fought Napoleonic war.” In Battle Tactics of the Civil War (1989), Griffith argued that the rifled musket was at best an incremental improvement over the smoothbore musket, and that the linear tactics used in the war were therefore appropriate, not outmoded as the prevailing orthodoxy maintained. The key problem, he argued, was that Civil War units lacked the tactical sophistication to execute a Napoleonic assault successfully.
In so doing, Griffith took direct aim at Grady McWhiney and Perry Jamieson’s Attack and Die (1982), the best study to emphasize the transformational impact of the rifled musket. Initially Civil War military historians greeted his thesis with skepticism, partly because of his iconoclastic presentation and partly because of his limited evidence base. Over time, however, they have taken it with increasing seriousness, and Earl J. Hess’s forthcoming The Rifle Musket in the Civil War largely confirms Griffith’s thesis. In fact, Hess’s book is so well executed that upon publication it will become the standard work on the subject, and the Griffith thesis will become the new orthodoxy.
No kidding: If you think of yourself as a serious student of military history, this is one book you need to read — sooner rather than later.