Monday, October 27, 2008

Hess: "The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth"

[The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth by Earl J. Hess (Univ. Press of Kansas, 2008). Hardcover, tables, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 227/288. ISBN: 978-0-7006-1607-7 $29.95]

The issue of the combat effectiveness of the rifle musket in the American Civil War has been hotly debated for some time. In 1989, British historian Paddy Griffith launched a shot across the bow of prominent rifle advocates Perry Jamieson and Grady McWhiney with his book Battle Tactics of the Civil War. Griffith argued the overall impact of the rifle relative to the smoothbore musket was negligible, a tiny improvement at best and far from revolutionary. This work was followed up by Brent Nosworthy and others, generally confirming Griffith's contentions. Part synthesis part original inquiry, Earl J. Hess's The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth is a consensus building effort of high quality. While heavily influenced by Griffith et al., Hess's views and analyses are in the main better organized and supported.

Hess concurs with the proposition that the rifle musket was at best an incremental improvement over the smoothbore musket on the Civil War battlefield, supporting his thesis with range data drawn from primary sources*. Finding his conclusions to be rather closely aligned with those of Nosworthy, Griffith, and Mark Grimsley, Hess is confident in his findings, yet I cannot help but feel that even incremental range increases translated to underappreciated advantages for the rifle-armed soldier. The moral impact strikes me as deserving of greater consideration. Beyond the obvious increase in physical danger due to increased time under fire, the argument could be made that any lengthened exposure period to combat stresses on individuals and formation integrity is significant, leading to more individuals and groups dropping out, going to ground, or otherwise being rendered combat ineffective. Overall, I think the mental/emotional effects of massed rifle musket fire are due more careful assessment. It is beyond doubt that the practical impact of the rifle on the Civil War battle line has been exaggerated by many writers and historians, yet I do have some concerns that we might be going too far in the other direction -- toward underestimating its consequences.

As opposed to combat between competing lines of battle, the areas where Hess concedes clear rifle superiority over the smoothbore shoulder arm is in the skirmishing and sniping roles [both of which are sharply defined and differentiated by the author]. The two chapters (one descriptive and the other examining actual combat performance) on skirmishing are quite thorough. According to Hess, the best skirmishing performance of the war was put in by the regiments of Sherman's army during the Atlanta Campaign. This contention is well supported. The author is rather less impressed with the skirmish line-dominating abilities of the Army of Northern Virginia's specialized sharpshooter battalions, and found himself largely unmoved by the arguments put forth by the units's modern chronicler Fred Ray**. Abundantly documented, Hess's chapter on sniping is similarly good. In my mind, the sniping and skirmishing sections of the study are the book's best and freshest components.

The author supports all of his major themes in the text with numerous examples gleaned from primary sources. One of the finest features of Hess's study is the transparency of the data pool from which he drew his conclusions. Organized into detailed data tables, and accompanied by footnotes, these supporting materials are interspersed throughout the text.

Near the end of his study, Hess dispenses with a number of common myths in a chapter length essay. Briefly, he refutes the significance of the rifle's impact in the areas of combat casualties, battle decisiveness, infantry vs. artillery/cavalry, and field fortifications. Only summarized here, some of these are points are addressed at much greater depth in other works previously published by Hess. Tying it all together, a final chapter addresses the battlefield role of the rifle from the end of the Civil War to today.

Although reasonable individuals might quibble with some of his conclusions, Earl Hess's analysis of his most significant points is broadly persuasive. A mixture of confirmatory findings and original conclusions, The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat should be regarded as the best single volume treatment of the subject so far. If not the last word, Hess's study is a major work, an important contribution to the literature that's fully deserving of a prominent place in the library of every student of Civil War military history.

Add'l Notes:
* - I think some comments about the range data are in order:
  • I assume the author went through the records of each unit in question in order to confirm rifle armament; this is not evident in the notes or text.
  • Sample sorting by environmental constraints is needed. Only open terrain truly offers the full gamut of range options (short, medium, long) for initial fire, while other terrain features can restrict firing to point blank range only. The latter situation comprises useless data for thesis application.
  • There is also something of an inherent contradiction to be considered. If a primary contention is that the vast majority of Civil War soldiers received little or no specialized training in range estimation, how much useful data can we really derive from the range estimates provided in reports, diaries, letters, and other primary sources written by these very same men so badly untrained in the art of doing so? Of course, one must work with what's available, but that, combined with the small sample sizes used, certainly leaves room for further inquiry.
** - at the time of my own reading of Shock Troops of the Confederacy, I found Ray's arguments pretty persuasive.


  1. You're absolutely right about the moral effect of the rifle, especially by sharpshooters. I find it interesting that Griffith, Nosworthy, and Hess devote considerable ink to the moral effect of artillery, fortifications, and the bayonet, but little to the rifle, even though there is ample evidence of it.

    As for Hess's view of the ANVs sharpshooters, he does not so much disagree with my view as to simply dismiss it. There is, he says, "no evidence" that the ANV sharpshooters dominated the skirmish line. Now reasonable minds might disagree as to their effectiveness, but I think it's a bit much to say that there is *no* evidence.

    The book has other other problems as well, and I will be having my say shortly.

    Fred Ray

  2. Fred,
    Thanks for visiting. I will be interested in hearing your thoughts about the book (to be posted on TOCWOC?).


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