Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Midlist Writer blog, where he talks about writing, adventure travel, caving, and everything else he gets up to. He also reproduces all the posts from Civil War Horror, so drop on by!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Hazards of the Civil War battlefield (besides the enemy)

In a recent post I pondered the origin of the many so-called "slight" wounds of the Civil War. How could so many soldiers only receive reportedly minor wounds when a direct hit by a musket ball or rifle bullet so often meant death or dismemberment?

My main theory was that the widespread use of buck and ball--a musket ball and three shotgun pellets--meant soldiers were being hit more often by pellets than actual bullets. Some researchers over at the Missouri in the Civil War Message Board pointed out that buck and ball was only used in smoothbores, and these fell out of favor later in the war.

After a holiday lull, the thread has picked up again. Now one very well-read individual has examined ordnance reports listing buck and ball rounds well into 1864 and said many units in fact preferred smoothbores because they had a greater chance to hit. Also, rifles have an arced trajectory and require a great deal of target practice most units on both sides never got. Smoothbores fired at a higher muzzle velocity than contemporary rifles and this gave them a flatter trajectory, further increasing their accuracy over rifles. We'll take up the subject of smoothbore vs. musket again once I've done some more research.

Of course, getting "slightly wounded" doesn't have to come from enemy action. General Lyon got kicked in the stomach by a horse when he was breaking up the rebel Missouri State Guard camp outside St. Louis in 1861. A reenactor in Missouri recently got his groin stepped on by his horse. Not sure how he managed that. Horses aren't always the gentle beasts we like to think they are, especially when shells are bursting nearby and they're getting hit by bullets.

Also, when large groups of men are charging over rough ground, it's quite easy for one or more of them to sprain an ankle and be put hors de combat for some time. I used to be on the cross country team and I remember this risk all too well. When you have an enemy formation shooting volleys at you, chances are you aren't looking where you're stepping! Add to this powder burns in the face or eyes, accidentally jabbing someone or yourself with your bayonet, cavalrymen getting hit by low branches, and any number of other embarrassing pratfalls, and one wonders why the number of "slightly wounded" wasn't higher

Of course, these are rarely reflected in the historical record. What commander wants to put in his official report, "I charged the enemy up a steep slope under heavy fire. We lost three men dead and five seriously wounded by enemy action. Ten more were slightly wounded: three sprained their ankles on the uneven slope, one was knocked out when a panicked horse ran him over, three suffered painful power burns to the face, two of my cavalrymen were thrown by their horses and injured their backs, and one man put out his shoulder due to the recoil of his weapon."

Not very glamorous. War rarely is.

Charge of Weaver's brigade across the Salkehatchie, South Carolina, courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Can you imagine several thousand guys running across this swamp and nobody spraining an ankle?

1 comment:

  1. The last paragraph was quite humorous. Guess that's why they leave out those details.


Got something to say? Feel free! No anonymous comments allowed, though. Too many spammers and haters on the Internet.