Monday, July 22, 2019

On Gettysburg

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 the 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 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 Wikipedia
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 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 any more 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 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 happy 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 the 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. Hadn't heard of that book, adding it to the reading list. Thanks! And yes, thankful for the ability to defend ourselves, at least in most states...

  2. Brigid, a fine novel of the Civil War with a focus on the guns used is No Good Like It Is by McKendree R. Long (there are two sequels of lesser quality). The two protagonists start out in the pre-War west fighting indians, then join Terry's Texas Rangers and fight for the Confederacy; the novel is their war experiences and their journey back west after the Confederacy's defeat.

  3. I went to Gettysburg in 1966, I could still feel the death and destruction in the air.

    It was one of the few places I have ever felt humbled.


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