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The Revolution in Warfare

Excerpt from Robert E. Lee’s Civil War, by Bevin Alexander, pages 33-36

Robert E. Lee was among many commanders on both sides who did not recognize that a new weapon, the Minié-ball rifle musket, had revolutionized the battlefield and made traditional military tactics obsolete.

The Minié bullet or ball was invented in 1849 by a French army officer named Claude-Étienne Minié. It had an effective range of 400 yards, four times that of the existing infantry weapon, the smoothbore musket, and was lethal and somewhat controllable out to a thousand yards.1

By quadrupling the killing zone through which attacking soldiers had to march, the Minié-ball rifle---combined with a growing emphasis on defensive fortifications---made the orthodox method of conducting battle so costly that attacks were becoming exercises in murder and mayhem. This was why Lee lost 20,000 men in the Seven Days. He and commanders North and South were following an outdated system two centuries old that had been built around military forces armed with the smoothbore musket.

These tactics called for troops to march up shoulder to shoulder to about a hundred yards of an opponent's position in a long line of battle two men deep. In an era of single-shot weapons, the only way firepower could be multiplied was to increase the number of men carrying weapons and to get them close enough to hit the enemy. The saving grace of the line of battle was that, provided they were shielded from artillery fire, soldiers were relatively safe until they got within range of enemy muskets. Since it took twenty to thirty seconds to reload a musket, a defending force usually could get off only two or three shots before the attacking enemy was upon it.

Although sometimes defenders shattered an attack with well-aimed fire, attackers were successful more often than not. This became all the more the case in the early years of the nineteenth century. Napoleon Bonaparte wheeled smoothbore cannons to within a couple hundred yards of the enemy and knocked a hole in his line with canister or case, which blasted out a wide swath of deadly metal balls or fragments. Since muskets were effective for only a hundred yards, the enemy could do little about it, and Napoleon won most of his later battles in this way.

The Minié ball alone would have changed everything, but the upheaval was greatly intensified by experiments with field fortifications. These included abatis of felled trees to slow the advance of attackers, entrenchments or dirt-covered log frameworks to shield defending soldiers, and cleared spaces in front of breastworks to expose attackers to defenders' fire...

Although the combination of field fortifications and the Minié ball immensely increased the power of the defense, commanders had no method to reach a decision except the line of battle, and they continued to employ it, though attacks failed five times out of six.

Just one assault in the Seven Days succeeded---at Gaines Mill---and this only because the Confederates possessed overwhelming strength, and even then casualties were twice as high for the attackers as the defenders. Four attacks failed, most with gruesome losses.

Civil War artillerymen could not employ Napoleon's solution. The Minié-ball rifle had an effective range longer than the effective range of canister. When artillery tried to move up close to the enemy, sharpshooters shot down gunners and horses and usually sent the batteries hurrying to the rear. Thus, in the Civil War, the infantry tended to dominate the artillery, despite the first widespread use of rifled cannons in warfare2.

1. Rifles were more accurate and longer ranged than muskets, but had not become standard military weapons because the rifling in the barrel quickly became fouled by gunpowder. Minié produced a bullet with a hollow base. When fired, the explosion expanded the base to fit snugly against the rifling grooves, scouring the fouling of the previous shot from the grooves. A Minié-ball rifle could fire many rounds before the barrel had to be cleaned. By the Seven Days, most soldiers on both sides were armed with the rifle, though the Confederates had difficulty acquiring it, and many of their troops still carried the musket.

2. Cannons normally fired straight at their targets. Civil War gunners usually had to see what they were aiming at and to have an open "field of fire" to it. They needed fairly level places to locate, since the guns had no recoil mechanisms, and absorbed the shock of recoil by rolling backwards. Before being fired again, the guns had to be rolled back "into battery," or the original firing positions. The workhorse canister cannon on both sides was the 12-pounder Napoleon smoothbore (named after Napoleon III, not Napoleon Bonaparte), a light, highly maneuverable weapon. Its maximum range was about 1,000 yards, but it was usually fired at much closer ranges.

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