Monday, August 16, 2010

History In The Making

I just finished reading "Haskell of Gettysburg" edited by Frank L. Byrne and Andrew T. Weaver (State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1970). I think it's one of the better personal accounts of the battle by someone who was there, simply a short volume of letters written by a Union soldier to his brother. Critics say Haskell wrote with future publication in mind, with language overly flowery. But he was successful in transmitting details of the fighting with the weapons they had, with remarkable immediacy.

It is telling that when he survived to return to Gettysburg four months later for the battlefield's dedication as a national cemetery, he left abruptly in mid-ceremony. The civilian throngs, he said, despite their reverence, had absolutely no idea of the horrors that had taken place on those grounds. That is something I understand all too well.

Gettysburg. The battle of which had the largest number of casualties in the Civil War. A battle which is frequently cited as the wars turning point.

A fellow named Marcellus E. Jones, Lieutenant, 8th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry, is on record as stating he fired the first shot in the battle, resting rifle on a fence and taking aim at an officer on a light horse and firing. That claim has proved arguable but his weapon of choice, the Sharps carbine, signified a growing revolution in small arms development.The Sharps carbines and the Sharps rifles, invented by Christian Sharps and manufactured by Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company, would become legends for the roles they played in the theater of this battle.

h/t to Jay Sharp for musket photos and resource.

From a weapons and warfare standpoint, there was little that was 'new' tactically, in 1863; armies still fought the way they had since the Napoleonic era, in line of battle, firing away at one another. What had changed were the weapons.

During this time frame, self contained metallic cartridges started coming onto the scene in quantities. Many wealthy Officers bought their own "Henry's" repeating rifles with which to carry into battle and for many Civil War soldiers, owning a Henry rifle was a point of pride. Even though it was never officially adopted for service by the Union Army, it was said that one or two of their mounted units purchased their own Henry rifles to use throughout the war.

.. . . . picture from Wilkipedia
The brass framed rifles could fire at a rate of 28 rounds per minute when used correctly, so the soldiers who saved their pay to buy one often believed it would help. The only drawback to these early lever action rifles was the anemic cartridge for which they were chambered. It was a small, rimmed, .44 caliber round loaded with black powder and a soft lead bullet. Penetration couldn't have been all that good and some have speculated that was the reason Custer didn't have them in his troop that fateful day in the Dakota Territory. Truth be told, the old copper cases of the .45-70 Govt. cartridge would stick in the weak trapdoor action and many of the soldiers were found to have used pocket knives to pry the swollen cases out when they stuck in the action.

However, a soldier armed with a 39-inch long breech-loading Sharps carbine held a real advantage over an opponent armed with a near six-foot long Springfield or Enfield muzzle-loading rifled musket. The Sharps loaded weapon from the breech, fairly simple either mounted or on the ground. The soldier would open the action, load a paper- or linen-encased powder and ball cartridge, close the action (trimming the paper or linen and exposing the powder), cock the hammer, pull the trigger and fire his weapon. The Sharps also did not have to have an individual primer inserted with each shot, coming equipped with an unusual pellet primer feed. Someone skilled with it could load and fire his single-shot weapon 10 times in a minute and the shorter weapon was easier to handle, especially on horseback. For that very reason, they earned the nickname of "Cavalry Carbine" and were carried by mounted units for many years thereafter, including the final skirmish of Gen. George Armstrong Custer, on the rolling plains near the Little Big Horn river.

An opponent armed with a musket had to load his weapon from the muzzle, the military equivalent of herding cats on horseback. The soldier would have to hold the weapon as vertical as possible, resting the butt on a a surface that would remain firm. He had to then place a paper-encased powder and Minié ball cartridge into the barrel, withdraw the ramrod from beneath the barrel, ram the cartridge into its seat, return the ramrod to its home, cock the hammer into firing position, insert a primer beneath the hammer, and, finally, pull the trigger to fire his weapon.

The skilled shooter could fire two or three times in a minute, but for every skilled marksman there were five Barney Fifes. The musket was much improved over the old smoothbore weapons, which had basically fired a large 'ball' with several other smaller, balls. This made the weapon deadly at close range, but neither accurate nor effective past about 100 yards most of the time. This is why armies of men equipped with muskets could stand and blast away at one another for long periods of time without sustaining massive casualties. It had to be a hellish scene, the clattering grapeshot ringing out through smoke and moans, both sides clustering and firing, a volley of curses and prayers, not words mingled together yet discernible, but one great sound gathered together in unceasing anguished thunder.

From that great mournful clash there were casualties, so many casualties, and they were grim. For although the technology of weaponry had improved, the tactics had not caught up with it. For hundred's of years we strained under the self-deception that the only way to win a war was to get more and more troops, and battalions than the enemy had and launch them upon one another in a volley of powder smoke and flashing blades until one side was destroyed. Gettysburg was a turning point in weaponry, but the gloves came off for good, when the first nuclear bomb was dropped. War as we know it, as we might know it, makes Gettysburg look like a romp in the park.

We are no longer limited by our past conceptions as to what defines war anymore than a rogue nation is limited by muskets and horses. It's close, it's watching and it's watching from within. Keeping this country safe and stable will require more than weaponry, more than troops, it will require physical courage and vigilance on the part of all Americans. War is a wretched thing, but even more wretched are those that feel there is nothing worth fighting for, as they sit back in the comfort of their homes waiting for big brother to send the next check, oblivious to the exertions of better men and women than themselves, fighting and dying so that the next battle won't be on home soil.

Honor requires difficulty. But for whatever deficit of nerve has been demonstrated by leaders in the past, I'm continually amazed by our growing advocacy of the qualities in which our countries hopes are hung. They do exist that fight lawfully and with honor for freedom, in those that speak up against the degradation of those concepts on which our country was founded, those that fight for the Constitution and all it entails, those that support our nation even as they prepare themselves and their homes for dangers that could arise. There is a sublime heroism ingrained in many of us that I know won't be lost amidst an ever changing political landscape.

But even with growing dedication, our country is not imperishable, and our rights and responsibilities should be relearned by every generation. Ask the average high school student about Gettysburg, and all you will get is "that was just some battle somewhere, dude", if you don't just get a blank look. Will society remember 9-11 as something other than just a bad day their parents told them about ten years from now? Will we continue to be watchful and wary of those that wish to risk our lives by eroding our rights and trivializing the risks that we face as individuals and as a nation.

Time has passed and weapons have changed, yet history is something that we need to remember, as always, a gentle rebuke to the present. Some would say I read too much of it. Some definitely say I worry too much about the terror threat around the world,, some even say that it is simply a fabricated political mechanism to distract us from what is really wrong with the country. But anyone that turned on a TV on 9-11 knows the threat is real, and while we go about our daily business, the world spins faster and faster outside, on its axis of turmoil. The sad thing is, while America is as war, most Americans are at the mall.

Living is a risk and life itself is a two edged blade, one of joy and one of violence, that can cut you clean from the earth without a moment's hesitation.There are many people that wish to pluck us out of the safety of our cover like a predator. To whom we are merely prey. I think about that now, as I look out on a vast field of corn as a hawk dives down for a field mouse, his talons glinting in the last scrap of daylight. We are all vulnerable. As the Tao Te Ching puts it: " Heaven and earth are inhumane; they view the myriad creatures as straw dogs."

As the approaching twilight runs off in all directions under a low, uncaring sky, I realized how alone out here I am. My hand drifts to the cold steel on my hip, thankful that whether LEO or citizen soldier, my right to carry is confirmed, for I am indeed vulnerable. We all are. But I am still one good step above the winged hunter and prey in this field. For while they survive by adapting themselves to their background, I survive by knowing the background and adapting it to myself. Watching, learning, from history, from all the senseless brutality that roams on the wind, seeking the defenseless, the complacent.

The sun takes its final bow in the western horizon, and all that's left is fire and blood. In the encroaching darkness, the hawk stole away with his prey, taking only what he needs for food, not killing for a jihad of hate. A hoot owl called, and I headed back to the safety of my house. I see lights coming on from the distance, people warm and happily inside, watching sitcoms and "reality" TV, basking in the illusion that the world is all one big happy family and they are safe on home soil and will continue to be. But maybe illusion is really all they have.

But a growing number of us know too well the self induced damage that living with an illusion can do. As the men at Gettysburg learned with their lives, the hard fact is that tactics have to keep up with threat. So so we, as individuals, as a nation, need to remember, lest we too, are left with a landscape that is nothing more than the wind and the dark.


  1. Very good Doc.
    Would that a way to wake up the citizens rise up and show what most cannot see.
    There are many voices on the wind. Enough? I am afraid not.

  2. Nicely written!

    ... I recall once walking through the Little Big Horn battlefield. Some have said "you see one old battlefield, you see them all" - but that one is the exception. It's hard not to see young men scattered all over the hillside to this day, each marker set where they were found.


    (And incidentally, from an arms standpoint, it's a good reminder that no one tool can do everything.. there's places on that field where a single-shot breechloader must have felt tremendously inadequate... there's another draw down which their greater range much have felt like a godsend to the men holding them.)

    Finally... I can't help but wonder if this long campaign we find ourselves in now is an aberration.. or a symptom of a permanent move away from the very concept of nation-states as a means of organizing political (and military) force.

    Time will tell, I suppose.

  3. You said "basking in the illusion that the world is all one big happy family and they are safe on home soil and will continue to be. But maybe illusion is really all they have."


    I often find myself thinking of the idea that "we" as a country are seemingly doomed to have to relearn history's lessons over and over again. While there are many ideas relating to this that I could comment from, there is one that seems to come to mind the most:

    As "we", as a country, live our live with our collective head in the sand, "we" are dishonoring those that have fought, suffered, and (many) died to protect those liberties that some of us hold so dearly and that others seem to want to urinate on.

    I wonder what my grandfather, who fought under General MacArthur in WW1 (yes, I am proud of that fact!), would think of the mess that we find ourselves in. I look at his WW1 photo and feel shame trying to think of an explanation to offer him but can't, for we cannot justify our collective stupidity.

    Did he and others fight for our freedoms in vain? I am starting to fear so.....

    As always Brigid, well said.

  4. Another important reason why armies of men equipped with muskets could stand and blast away at one another for long periods of time without sustaining massive casualties was because they weren't shooting at each other.

    Long story short, well adjusted socialized humans have a strong predisposition against homicide, (yes, even when their own lives are in danger). If you’re interested in a deep dive as to how this could be, I recommend you pick up a copy of ‘On Killing - The psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society’ by Lt. Col. David Grossman. It’s a fascinating and indispensible read.

    The reason I mention this is for those of us that have been or expect to be in a fight for our lives. All your hard training is woefully inadequate unless you understand the psychology. Or more simply put, this is the ‘mind-set’ piece of the combat triad Col. Jeff Cooper advocated.

  5. Well done. I also visited Little Big Horn and was awed. I found out years later that on that fateful morning Custer had left behind four wagon mounted .45-70 Gatling Guns because they were too cumbersome. A tactical error of immense proportions.


  6. @anonymous RB,

    I recently read the same thing about Custer and the Gatling guns. Guess the adage "Peace through superior firepower." hadn't been coined yet.

  7. You've said what others have tried to say, and far more eloquently than they - or I.

    Superbly done, ma'am - and I hope that enough people are now awake to see the storm clouds on that horizon.

  8. Very nicely written.

    I've never had the opportunity to visit the Little Big Horn battlefield and it's been many years since I visited Gettysburg as a small child. Even at the age of seven I had a sense of the terrible events that had occurred there over a century before.

    Now I worry what the condition of the world will be for the next generation.

  9. Your excellent essay made me think of my visits (with my daughters) to Queenston Heights, our Canadian scene of a bloody battle between Americans and Canucks/British in the War of 1812-14. An eery feeling.

    I also think of the emasculation of the Great White North as the libtards and ivory tower sitters fritter away the sacrifices made by Canadians in two world wars and a police action. The Europeanization of Canada is almost complete with the overwhelming rejection of the need and responsibility to be able to defend ourselves (but, perhaps, to rely upon America's willingness and strength) and to hold our futures to some adolescent dream wish of unicorns and rainbows.

    It is to sigh.

    I despair, I do ... but then think of our troops in Afghanistan and their real and valiant contribution to defeating one of the real enemies the West faces. To think that a proud country has come this far in the 65 years since the end of WW II.


  10. My favorite Gettysburg story was actually two distantly related ones.

    For the 50th anniversary of the battle, a movie director decided to reenact the fight with it's actual veterans, now in their 70's.

    He arrainged rooms for all the vets in local hotels. Scores of black men arrived, claiming to be Confederate veterans. The shocked hotel owners, mindful that Pennsylvania was completely segregated and "knowing" there were no black men in the rebel army, refused them beds.

    The white Confederate veterans greeted their old comrades with handshakes and laughter, and told the producer that without the complete Confederate army present, nobody was going up the hill in the morning.

    The movie director forced the hotel owners into complying, and the vets, white and black, sleeping 4 and 5 men across the mattresses, crawled in together for a good night's sleep.

    In the morning, firing blanks, the Confederates once again advanced on the union breastworks. A man on the Union side of the wall waited until the Rebs were half way up the hill, then shouted "Jesus no, I can't do this again".

    He dropped his musket, and hobbled down the hill, hugging his former enemies and weeping like a child. Both lines dissolved into a mass of bawling men.

    For some at least, the war was finally over.

    Thank you for bringing the memory back. I hadn't thought about that article in years, or how human it made me feel.

    Owe you one.

  11. Hi Brigid,

    I might remind you that you missed an important rifle in your list; The Spencer carbine.

    The Spencer was another lever action rifle. It fired a .56 caliber rim-fire cartridge. I have a cartridge. It's about the size of my thumb. The Spencer had a tubular magazine which loaded through the butt-plate. On top of this, troops carrying the Spencer would also carry an ammo box which contained 9 to 12 brass tubes where cartridges could be pre-counted. A rifleman could pull the follower tube, dump the rounds into the gun and be shooting again in less time than a muzzle loader could load one round.

    The .56-56 Spencer round was indeed rather anemic, largely regarded much as we regard the the 9 mm Parabellum, but considering that much of the combat was taking place under a 100 yards, this was not entirely problematic. Big groups of soldiers would literally march to within 50 to 100 yards of each other, dress up their lines and start shooting. (I've found myself braver than I ever expected but I often wonder how I would resspond to such a situation.)

    The Spencer had two interesting marks in history. It was the first rifle where a president, Abraham Lincoln, over-ruled the Army Ordnance Board and ordered them to buy the rifle they had not developed. (The second was the M-16.)

    Of greater importance, while there were no Spencer carbines officially issued for combat at Gettysburg, the Michigan Brigade, commanded by Brigadier General Armstrong Custer, had equipped themselves with Spencer carbines at their own expense. Field reports showed the effectiveness of the Michigan Brigade was all out of proportion to other military units with reports of much larger attacking units literally “melting into the ground” under a hail of gunfire.

    I would argue that the Spencer carbine was the making and later unmaking of Custer. Learning to command large bodies of troops was, and is, an apprenticeship process. During the Civil War, Custer “learned” that X number of his troops could defeat anywhere from 2 to 10X of attacking troops. From his previous experiences, I have few doubts that Custer stood over the Indian encampment and thought, “We can take them.” He was very wrong.

    There were any number of reasons for the catastrophe.

    Custer left his Gatling guns behind. He had no prior experience in combat with them. They slowed his cavalry down and people hadn't yet figured out that Gatling guns were not less than effective artillery pieces but rather the precursors of a coming technology.

    The Army Ordnance Board had issued the infamous Trap Door Springfield; a single shot rifle with a number of known functional issues. The 7th Cavalry was simply unable to provide the rate of fire that Custer had experienced in previous actions and was rapidly unable to sustain what rate of fire they started.

    Finally, the Lakota had developed new tactics from their cut & run cavalry style tactics of the past; They attacked dug in troops en-mass rather than firing a few shots and running. As they attacked, they picked up weapons from fallen 7th Cavalry soldiers and used them as well. Neither Custer nor the 7th Cavalry was expecting this change in tactics and failed to change their tactics in response. It was a deadly hesitation.

    Jerry in Detroit

  12. Hi Brigid,

    A good post but I didn't see the Spencer carbine mentioned in here. This is the rifle that the Michigan Brigade bought with their own money and carried through the Civil War. Drop me an e-mail if you're interested.


  13. This isn't the first time I've found comments to your post as enlightening as the post itself.



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