Friday, August 27, 2010

Friday photo

Civil War reenactment, Raymond, Mississippi. November 13, 2004.

I stumbled across this event while road tripping through the South a few years ago, tracking some of the movements of my ol' great-grandpa Burke and his 47th Indiana Infantry regiment1. My planned destination was the battlefield at Vicksburg, but when I got there I saw the announcement of this event that very afternoon in nearby Raymond. A quick change of plans, a pat on the back for my lucky timing, and a half-hour drive got me to the scene just in time for the reenactment. I did my Vicksburg tour the next day.

The historic battle took place in a tangled woods, not the recently-harvested cornfield you see in the photo, but that wouldn't have made a good show for the spectators. It also happened in May, not November, but the farmer who owns said cornfield probably wouldn't care for several dozen men trampling his newly-planted crop. And a few dozen men is all there were to reproduce the battle, so your imagination did have to do some of the work. But it was a good reenactment, and when the shock wave from a 12-lb cannon passes through your body from half a mile away, your imagination has something to build on.

The battle of Raymond was a relatively small affair in itself, but the larger campaign against Vicksburg was crucial. Suffering under a naval blockade, the Confederacy badly needed the produce from its western half. But by spring of 1863, the Union army had captured the entire Mississippi River both downriver from Illinois and upriver from New Orleans, except for Vicksburg. If it fell, the rest of the Confederate states would be even poorer and hungrier.

Sitting atop a high bluff and overlooking a tight bend in the river, Vicksburg was unassailable from the West, unapproachable from the North, and unpassable via the river due its heavy artillery. So formidable it was, that General Grant had his engineers try to dig a channel and reroute the river so as to cut off the loop that Vicksburg commanded, leaving the city literally high and dry; the effort failed.2 Finally, a handful of gunboats and transports made a dangerous, but successful, dash past the guns in the dead of night. Once downstream, they established a ferry point across the river; the rest of the army then marched south past the city, and crossed over the river. Now Grant could march back north and approach the city from the east and, with the river now at the city's back instead of its front, lay siege and starve out the defenders. Which is exactly what happened.

The Battle of Raymond occurred when the Confederates attempted to stop one of Grant's columns on its march north from the ferry point. Outnumbered 12,000:4,000, they made a good showing, but had little chance of stopping the Federals. Four or five hundred men were killed or wounded on each side in several hours of fighting, before the Rebs were finally driven out of the way.

I haven't been able to find an exact length of time for the battle, but if it did last four or five hours, that works out to a hundred casualties per side per hour, or about one man going down on either side every forty seconds. That's quite a bit slower than you'll see in the movies, but it also seems to have been pretty typical of a Civil War battle: despite the horrific casualties, the rate of killing during the actual fighting is surprisingly slow.

Paddy Griffith, in his book Battle Tactics of the Civil War, crunches some numbers and, by comparing the amount of ammunition to the number of casualties, concludes that armies usually fired 75-100 bullets for every man they actually hit. What's most remarkable about that figures is that, while many history books speak of the deadly accuracy and long range of the rifles in this period, Civil War infantry didn't fight at long range. Instead, they marched forward until they were less than 100 yards from the enemy, frequently to within 30 yards, and then they started blazing away, hoping that a large mass of men at close range could blow away the enemy before they were themselves blown away. The defenders generally waited until the attackers were under that 100 yard range before they fired their first shots. It was all about massed firepower at short range.

Given those tactics, how incredible is it that so many shots missed? We're being asked to believe that two lines of men could stand 30-50 yards apart, packed almost elbow to elbow, and miss each other almost 99% of the time. But the numbers seem to bear it out. What could account for such futility? And if the shooting was that bad, how did so many men get killed?

Several factors are probably to blame. First, many of them didn't know how to shoot, because they never got to practice.3 Second, and more importantly, they were scared shitless. Those bastards were shooting back and no doubt the overwhelming impulse was to try to match the volume of fire that as coming from the enemy. So our man was probably trying to fire back as quickly as possible and not taking time to aim (and as close as 50 yards sounds, it's fairly easy to aim a little too high or low to hit a 6'-high target at that range). Yes, he'd been instructed to aim carefully, but c'mon -- that's asking a lot from a guy whose heart rate is probably well over 150.

A final consideration, which Griffith doesn't discuss, is evident in the photo above: gunsmoke. Black powder produces an amazing amount of smoke and even the general with a great vantage point would easily lose track of the action because he couldn't see what was happening on the battlefield, other than that there was a whole lot o' shootin' goin' on. Likewise for the men on the front lines. I can imagine that many soldiers blazed away at the smoke on the other side, thinking it better to send a large volume of bullets the other way, rather than waiting for a good target to become visible.

According to the written accounts, many battles were fought this in just this way, with men blazing away at almost point blank range for half an hour, or even two or three hours, with minimal effect. The casualties mounted not because the weaponry was used effectively, but just because the firefight went on so long; with neither side pressing to a conclusion. According to Griffith, this was the great error in American military thinking during the Civil War: they would close to firing range, but then stop and rely on firepower rather than pressing home the charge in order to disorganize and defeat the enemy. Battle were often inconclusive, and even when a side won a clear victory, it was rarely decisive. Despite the gradually mounting casualties, both sides could remain in fairly good order and just keep on fighting. So the war dragged on and on, a slow and brutal exercise in attrition, battle after battle. Had a few battles been bloodier still, but more decisively won, perhaps the war would have ended sooner.

1. You might be surprised that it's only one "great," but that's the truth. My dad was nearly 40 when I was born, his mother was 33, and she was born to 48-year-old veteran William Anderson Burke - who promptly died just a year later. Perhaps combat was less stressful than raising seven children.

2. This isn't as silly as it might sound, as the Federals had already used this tactic to successfully bypass some fortified islands upriver. As it turns out, had they been willing to wait a century or so, nature did some of the work for them: the Mississippi itself no longer makes such a long loop and doesn't run directly under the high part of the city any more.

3. Ammunition seems to have been too expensive to waste on target practice , so while they were well-drilled on marching and loading their weapons, soldiers who didn't already know how to shoot well weren't going to learn after joining the army. That's a major reason why units didn't fire at long range, despite the capabilities of their weapons. Commanders just didn't think their men could hit anything at less than point blank range and they probably weren't wrong.


James Hanley said...

Very interesting post. Having fired a rifle a few times, I agree with your point that at 50 yards it would be easy to point your gun too high or too low for a 6' target (actually, more likely a 5'6" target).

But it seems to me that the math on this shouldn't be too complex. Assuming a 6' target at 50 yards (and using a simplifying assumption of a straight, non-parabolic, direction for the bullet), what would be the range of degrees for hitting the target? 90 degrees plus or minus how much?

Scott Hanley said...

I hadn't thought to calculate it that way, but the geometry is simple. The angle between hoof and head would be the arctangent of 2 yards/50 yards, or slightly over 2 degrees. A good marksman taking his time might keep his error below that most of the time, but the average Johnny or Billy probably couldn't.

Griffith also mentions that some commanders instructed their men to aim at the knees, despite the parabolic fall of the bullet. Apparently the impulse to fire too high was quite pronounced.

James Hanley said...

A mere 2 degrees? That explains a lot, for sure.

In fact a good marksman taking his time could nearly always keep it in that narrow range, but as you note, neither of those requisite qualities necessarily existed, and there were a whole lot of complicating factors that would make it damned difficult even for the good marksman. v

Scott Hanley said...

This discussion reminds me of something I learned from Peter Brancazio's Sport Science. He calculated that a basketball player who is hitting the front of the rim from the free throw line needs only one ounce more force to start making the shot. But anyone who practices can learn to exercise that much control.

James Hanley said...

By the way, let me clarify. You don't mean 90 degrees +- 2 degrees, but 2 degrees total (90 degrees +- 1 degree), correct?

And I dispute that "anyone" who practices can learn to control the force on a few throw to within an ounce. You know damn well how bad my free throw shooting was, is, and always will be.

Scott Hanley said...

Yes, +/- 1 degree from the midpoint.