- The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth
Earl Hess believes that the rifle musket did not significantly affect Civil War combat. He writes, "The impact of the rifle musket on Civil War combat has been exaggerated, misunderstood, and understudied ever since Union and Confederate volunteers shouldered firearms" (p. 197). In other words, Hess has set out to not only correct the mistakes of most post-Civil War historians, but also to correct the misconceptions of many Civil War soldiers. He has a daunting and difficult task before him. [End Page 958]
Educated at Southeast Missouri State University (B.A., 1978; M.A., 1979) and Purdue University (Ph.D., 1986), Hess has taught at Lincoln Memorial University since 1989 and has emerged as a leading scholar in the field of Civil War military history with nine monographs and twenty-three articles to his credit. In this book, Hess challenges the "rifle revolution" theory introduced by John Mahon in "Civil War Infantry Assault Tactics" (Military Affairs, Summer 1961); and made famous by Grady McWhiney and Perry Jamieson in Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage (1982). The theory states that the increased effective range of the rifle musket produced heavy casualties, encouraged the use of trenches, rendered both artillery and cavalry offensively ineffective, and prolonged the Civil War by making battles indecisive. According to Hess, however, the combination of the rifle musket's parabolic trajectory, the rugged terrain of most battlefields, and the soldiers's reluctance to fire their weapons at extreme ranges rendered rifle muskets only slightly more lethal than smoothbore muskets. Therefore, the rifle musket could not have altered Civil War combat to the extent claimed by proponents of the "rifle revolution."
Hess acknowledges that the rifle musket did initiate some tactical changes, particularly in the areas of skirmishing and sniping. He accepts that the rifle musket increased the effectiveness of both these combat specialties, but he downplays their significance during the war. "Good skirmishing," Hess argues, "was never a substitute for good fighting by the battle line" (p. 174). Similarly, Hess claims that good sniping "represented only a marginal change in military operations" (p. 196). In other words, opposing armies continued to use close-order linear formations because they were the most effective way to fight. Despite the impact of the rifle musket on skirmishing and sniping, Hess concludes, it did not revolutionize combat during the Civil War.
Hess's arguments are forceful, but not flawless. Perhaps the study's greatest weakness is its western bias. Approximately seventy percent of Hess's evidence regarding the soldiers' use of rifle muskets comes from western battles. To state definitively that the rifle musket had "only an incremental, limited effect on Civil War combat" (p. 4), broader research is necessary. Finally, in concluding his analysis of skirmishing, Hess uses only three paragraphs to address the influence of Civil War skirmishing on the Army's postwar tactical doctrine (pp. 173-74). These paragraphs are mildly opaque and thinly documented. Better to leave them out than to challenge Perry Jamieson's Crossing the Deadly Ground: United States Army Tactics, 1865-1899 (1994) in such a casual manner.
The preceding quibbles aside, Earl Hess has produced an outstanding study of the rifle musket during the Civil War. His research is saturated with primary sources, his writing is lucid, and his arguments are logical. Hess has delivered a mighty blow to the "rifle revolution" theory.