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.

Comments (4) to “Earl Hess on The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat”

  1. I see my mind and a great mind can think alike from time to time. I was one of the [now no longer] anonymous outside readers of the manuscript for the press and wrote in the general comments section of my report:

    “I anticipated a fairly enjoyable read and that it would be easy to provide a favorable verdict on.

    My expectations were fully fulfilled and I enthusiastically endorse its publication. . . . [I]t has all the qualities that make it worth publishing by the University Press of Kansas and will attract a sizeable audience. It is well-written, effective in presenting its arguments, and thoroughly and impressively researched. At the same time, there is a lot of good, fresh information and insights on such matters as the development of skirmishing and its role during the later phases of the war here that will be of material value to anyone trying to understand what exactly was happening on the Civil War battlefield at the tactical level. I am particularly impressed by the fact that the book presents such a comprehensive (with some caveats listed below) and informative study in such a concise fashion. Of course, not everyone will agree with Hess’s arguments, but they are fully in line with a welcome reconsideration of traditional interpretations of how the Civil War was conducted that is evident in recent scholarship and is having a salutary effect on the field.”

  2. Hess’s book looks good. Several works pre-date Hess’s in terms of advancing the “short range” thesis (for want of a better title) but I think Griffiths, for example, carries things to far the other way – rifles had no real impact on the tactical balance.

    Both Nosworthy and Griffiths note that ranges did increase, just not to the limits traditional scholarship expected, mostly due to technological and training limitations.

    However, we shouldn’t dismiss those increased engagement ranges out of hand. My own work on Chickamauga has convinved me that effective fire was often delivered at 200 or 250 yards, and this despite a heavily wooded western battle, where traditionally terrain is supposed to mitigate the effect of rifling.

    What is largely ignored in all of this technical chatter is the psychological effect of even limited increases to the beaten zone (that portion of ground swept by effective fire that an attacker must cross to close) can complicate the attacker’s problem significantly. As long as Rate of Fire remained a constant, this increase is the real difference between smoothbore and rifled weapons, IMO.

    I also think we tend to give the pre-war theorists too short a shrift in discussing this topic. To often the pre-war folks are viewed as being oblivious to the special problems posed by rifles; I find that far from oblivious, they proposed a host of solutions, including increasing pace, flexibility of formations, and density of lines. In the end, they fell short, but the late-war innovations that changed tactics suggest they they were at least on the right path.

    The real problem in understanding the impact of the rifle-musket is that it has such a fleeting life in the military sphere – rifles started to become standard in the late 1850s, and by 1870 weapons had already migrated to breachloaders with much higher rates of fire. Essentially, then, we have a decade’s worth of effective life in which to evaluate the real impact of the muzzle-loading rifle. No wonder military historians continue to grapple with the question.

    Dave Powell

  3. Dave,
    The point of the psychological impact of the increased range of rifled small arms (a MAJOR one, IMO), is something I’ve contemplated but have yet to see addressed in a serious manner by any of the publications that debate the rifle vs. smoothbore issue (have you?). I don’t have Hess yet, and was looking forward to seeing if he tackles it. Great response, as always.

  4. Drew,

    I have not seen it addressed.

    In fact, I think that so far, the argument has not yet reached true understanding.

    The traditional school argued that the rifle musket’s increased range (out to 800 yards) made combat too deadly for linear warfare.

    The new school (Griffiths on through Hess) argues that those ranges were never reached, and the rifle had little or no impact. (caveat, not yet read Hess – he might be more nuanced.)

    I applaud the new school for discarding old assumptions, returning to the sources, and taking the argument a great leap forward.

    But I also feel that they missing essential factors (the morale impact, etc.) that do make rifles more deadly in the same space, or that increase ranges in smaller but still crucial increments. I think the rifle’s impact is still very large, and that the problems of the attack are still much more difficult than they were while facing smoothbores.

    There is a third way, in other words. I wouldn’t mind tackling that some day, but I confess that I never seem to find the time…:)

    Dave