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Wednesday, August 08, 2012

VIRGINS


I suggest, if you want a touch the reality of the American Civil War, you pick up a nine pound, 56 inch long, walnut stock .58 caliber model 1855 Springfield muzzle loading rifled musket, and think about what this weapon tells you about the world which built it. They made 47,000 such weapons in Massachusetts, and another 12,000 at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, before the war started. Over the five years after Fort Sumter in 1861, they built about a million more in various versions. But to the volunteers who were handed one of those older, no longer state-of-the-art weapons (costing $20 each at the time, about $500 in today's money), they were revolutionary. This was likely the first mass produced piece of high tech these people came into intimate contact with. And once they did, they were no longer virgins.
Following the manual written by Brigadier General Silas Casey, (West Point class of 1828), you began with your Springfield musket standing on its base. You removed a paper cartridge from the box on your hip. You bite or tear off the end of the cartridge, exposing 65 coarse grains of black powder, which you pour down the barrel. With your thumb you press the remains of the cartridge (with the bullet called a “minie ball” inside), into the top of the barrel. Using the rod stored beneath your musket's barrel, you ram the ball, cartridge and the powder down the barrel until it is firmly at the bottom. Replacing the ramrod, you lift the weapon to chest high. You half-cock the hammer, take a percussion cap from your cartridge box and place it atop the nipple covering the opening in the breach. Then you lift the weapon to your shoulder, pull the hammer back to full cock, aim toward the enemy and upon command, you pull the trigger, releasing the hammer.
The hammer falls, setting off the black powder in the percussion cap. The resulting explosion forces hot gases through the breach, which sets off the black powder in the barrel. This flash of heat causes the the soft lead on the bottom of the' minie' ball to expand, trapping the gases behind it. Those gases then drive the bullet out of the barrel at about a thousand feet per second. With luck you might hit a target 100 yards away. With training, a man could get off two, and maybe three, rounds every minute. But most of the soldiers, particularly in the early stage in the war, spent very little time learning to fire their weapons. Burning black powder produced enormous dense clouds of smoke, and after a few minutes you couldn't see what you are aiming at. Firing ranges were thus considered largely a waste of time. So the men spent most of their time learning to march.
Battlefield tactics were over half a century old by 1861, developed by Napoleon Bonaparte in the 1790's, when muskets were still smooth bore, and so inaccurate that to effectively injure an opponent they had to be used en mass, hundreds or thousands of muskets firing in the same direction at the same moment. Everything that occurred on the battlefield was done to create that moment, when the maximum number of men would discharge their weapons at the enemy, together. General Casey listed 84 separate and distinct steps required to move a company of 84 men from a marching column four men wide, to their firing formation, in a rank thirty-two inches between each man, three ranks deep. And that was on the flat and open parade ground. The men and the officers had to to learn to do this, across unfamiliar and broken terrain, without thinking, while people were trying to kill them. The endless drilling required to achieve proficiency at this was boring, physically exhausting, and boring. And there was no way to prepare the men for the terror of replicating it while being shot at, under the noise and horrors of combat, because nobody had ever experienced a battle with these new rifled weapons.
What was it like? Well, in 1863, after everybody had two years hard won experience with the demands, drudgery and the horrors of combat, the two sides met for three days at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. After that battle 35,000 abandoned but usable muskets were collected on the battlefield, of which 11,000 were unloaded and 24,000 were loaded. Of the 24,000 loaded muskets, 6,000 had one charge, 12,000 had two charges still loaded, and the remaining 6,000 held anything from three to ten charges - One musket had twenty-two charges stuffed down its barrel;  powder, cartridge and bullet, one atop the other. The noise of all those muskets firing next to unprotected ears, producing all that smoke, meant that a soldier could no longer hear his own rifle going off. And if you missed the first loaded round not being fired, likely you never got a second chance. Firing a musket with anything more than one charge in the barrel often resulted in the weapon exploding. There is no record of how many of those unusable muskets were found at Gettysburg, but it raises the question of how many battlefield casualties were unconsciously self inflicted.
Officers had a few things to learn too, even the 5'2” tall Ulysses Simpson Grant who had graduated West Point in 1843. Although he had been forced to resign in 1854, the war made him a much sought after commodity, and in June of 1861 the governor of Illinois made him a colonel and he was given command of the 21st Illinois volunteer regiment. These 1,000 men were described by their new commander as “men...who could be led astray.” And they had been. Grant said he “found it very hard work for a few days to bring all the men into anything like subordination; but the great majority favored discipline, and by the application of a little regular army punishment all were reduced to as good discipline as one could ask.”
On July 3rd the 21st Illinois was ordered to Quincy, Illinois, but en route the destination was changed. The 19th Illinois regiment had been building a bridge over the Salt River west of Palmyra, Missouri - about 25 miles north west of Hannibal, on the Mississippi River. Troops of the Missouri State Guard, sympathetic to the south, had cut off the union troops. Grant was now ordered to rescue the fellow prairie state-ers. However, by the time his men had reached the Mississippi, the threatened unit had retreated back to Hannibal, with not a shot being fired by either force. Grant wrote later, “I am inclined to think both sides got frightened and ran away.” Still, Grant got his men across the big river, and marched back to scene. The 21st Illinois spent two weeks finishing the bridge, and was then ordered to advance on a new Missouri State Guard regiment gathering to the south, at the forks of the Salt River.
The Missouri troops were commanded by a politician, Colonel (later Brigadier General) Thomas Alexander Hariss. His position was overlooked by the small community of Florida, with about 100 residents. And as Grant approached he started to get nervous. “In the twenty-five miles we had to march we did not see a person, old or young, male or female, except two horsemen who were on a road that crossed ours. As soon as they saw us they decamped as fast as their horses could carry them.” Grant now had to assume the rebels were alerted of his approach, and would be waiting for his men. The young commander camped his men that night beside the road, so they would be fully rested for the battle he knew was coming in the morning.
In the morning, Grant lead his little force up the hill. “As we approached the brow of the hill...my heart kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat. I would have given anything then to have been back in Illinois, but I had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do; I kept right on. When we reached a point from which the valley below was in full view I halted. The place where Harris had been encamped a few days before was still there...but the troops were gone. My heart resumed its place.”
In fact, Harris and his still unprepared recruits had retreated on hearing that Grant was gathering horses and wagons for his march south. With such a head start, his Missouri State Guards were now sixty miles away, heading to join rebel forces in the southwest corner of the state, near the Arkansas border. Learning this, Grant noted it taught him something.  “It occurred to me at once that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before; but it was one I never forgot afterwards. From that event to the close of the war...I never forgot that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his”. On the march back to the bridge at Palmyra, Grant noted, “The citizens living on the line of our march....were at their front doors ready to greet us now.”
And that taught him even something more useful, something still true today - winners are always popular. Grant was no longer a virgin.
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