The Killing Evolution of Civil War Weapons

War is a laboratory for innovation and technological genius. Competing sides pit their economies and collective intelligence to accomplish new ways of defeating the enemy, subvert their ability to conduct war, and do so in an efficient manner. During the American Civil War, over a thousand new engineering and weapons patents were awarded for new guns, munitions, logistical equipment, and other tools of war. The war saw the first repeating rifles and submarines, which made all other armies and navies in the world obsolete up to that point.

These inventions are not without their downside however. The American Civil War saw unimaginable casualties; Antietam alone inflicted more casualties than all other previous wars. By 1865, there were over 500,000 casualties. Historians not only debate this number, but the root causes for such extraordinary deaths. Disease was responsible for over half the deaths as soldiers who lacked immunity to specific pathogens died from close quarters contact. On the battlefield, casualties were higher than before because of two factors: new weapons and the archaic tactics employed by the generals.

Even before hostilities, two developments were crucial to the enhanced carnage: the Minie ball and the rifled musket. Invented by Claude-Etienne Minie, the bullet had a hollowed bottom and when fired, expanded inside the barrel at a higher velocity, causing deep penetration combined with the bullet’s conical shape. Complimenting the minie ball was the rifled musket. Rifles prior to the 1850s were smoothbore, but with the introduction of rifling, helical grooves were added to increase accuracy and velocity by spinning the bullet after ignition. What seemed like small changes resulted in a fundamental shift in warfare. Rifles that originally had a range of 100 yards, shooting round bullets that hit their target only 50% of the time could now fire with 12 times the accuracy over 300 yards. This is where the conventional battlefield tactics double-downed on inflicting casualties.

Conventional tactics emphasized the use of armies en masse for much of the 19th century. We refer to these today as Napoleonic tactics since Napoleon Bonaparte frequently employed large divisions and corps in battle, simply outnumbering his opponents. Men would line up shoulder to shoulder, hurling a large wall of gunfire and charging at the enemy. This school of thought was taught at military academies, in particular at West Point, where future generals of both the Union and Confederate armies were educated. Generals relied on charging the enemy, but the minie ball and rifled muskets could kill soldiers more precisely, leading to a higher casualty rate. Repeating rifles like Henry and Spencer rifles only compounded these deaths and in the latter stages of the war, trench tactics were practiced during the Sieges of Petersburg and Richmond.

It’s amazing how small changes can impact society in incalculable ways. The disconnect between weapons and tactics resulted in a deadly outcome for hundreds of thousands of soldiers. War breeds innovation, but we sometimes forget the inherent human cost.

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