During the American Civil War, which lasted from 1861-1865, over 620,000 accounted soldiers were killed. Known as the “the first modern war”, historians generally agree that the reason for this was because this was a time of transition for the military. Armies and Navies were still using tactics where they would gather large forces of firepower to bear on the enemy. At the same time, weapons were being developed which were accurate and lethal well beyond any arms of the earlier conflicts. As a result of these two conditions many more casualties were sustained.
Add to that the lack of medical knowledge of disease and infection and the numbers truly began to grow. This paper is an overview of the types of weaponry that was used during this time. Artillery generally falls into three basic categories; guns, howitzers and mortars. The main difference between them being the trajectory of the round fire. A gun has a high muzzle velocity and a very flat trajectory. Normally a gun is used in a direct fire mode where the target can be seen and penetration is desirable. Good targets for a gun would be things like brick or earth forts, ships, buildings, and targets in tree lines.
Howitzers have a somewhat lower muzzle velocity and arc their shells onto a target. They are used in both a direct fire and indirect fire mode. Keep in mind with the limited range of the pieces available during the Civil War there was no indirect fire such as we know it today. Targets were generally always within the line of sight of the artillery men. This is especially useful when an enemy is concealed behind a prepared position or the artillery men desire to have a shell explode over an enemy’s head.
The air-burst does less damage to hardened targets such as masonry walls, and redoubts, but causes many more human casualties due to the shrapnel covering a large area. Mortars have a very pronounced arc of flight. They have a relatively low muzzle velocity and are unsuitable for direct fire. Their principle value comes from being able to lob shells behind an obstacle such as a fort or a hill. Unlike modern mortars, those used during the Civil War were bulky devises and mounted at a fixed angle usually between 45 and 50 degrees.
They were not very accurate and depended solely upon the amount of propelling powder to determine their point of impact. Shells, hollow ammunition filled with gunpowder and equipped with a fuse, were the most common type of explosive artillery round used during the Civil War. Fuses could be either timed so the round would explode after a certain number of seconds had elapsed, or were percussion so the ammunition would explode upon striking an object. Shells were generally used as long range rounds, meant to explode among an advancing enemy or used to blow apart enemy forts.
Solid shot was a kinetic energy round. Its speed and mass were used to penetrate walls, fort and armor. To produce any type of casualty effect, the round would have to actually strike the target. Solid shot was particularly used against ironclad ships where a shell would do little or no damage. During one test an 8 inch Brooke rifle with 16 pounds of powder fired a 140 pound ball 260 yards and penetrated eight inches of iron backed by 18 inches of solid wood. While there are many accounts of troops charging bravely into a “hail of grape” there is little fact in this.
Grape shot was used very little on the land battlefield during the Civil War. The ammunition encountered by the soldiers was called canister, one of the war’s most deadliest rounds. Canister was basically a tin packed with sawdust and musket balls which, when fired, spread out and turned the artillery piece into a giant shotgun. At close range against masses infantry this round was devastating, cutting huge swaths through the attacking men. Grape shot was widely used in the 19th century wars, but by the time of the American Civil War, grape was primarily used by navel gun crews.
Similar to canister, grape shot consisted of meat balls, but unlike canister which fired 76 balls, a round of grape shot consisted of nine or so balls and were usually not packed in cans. A standard round consisted of three tiers of three 2 inch diameter balls separated by iron plates and held together by a central rod which connected the bottom plates. Another design consisted of an iron bottom plate with a central pin around which the balls were stacked. A cloth bag, usually of canvas, covered the balls which was in turn lashed around with a cord.
The resulting round of ammunition looked like a bunch of grapes, that’s where the name “grape shot” came from. Grape shot, like canister, would spread out with a shotgun effect once leaving the muzzle of the gun, though with a much greater range than canister. During the early 1800’s most guns were muzzle loaders. In 1948, Christian Sharps invented a rifle that loaded from the breech, or back end, of the barrel. He was, however, not the first to create rifles that loaded in this manner. In his rifle the breech block moved down when the trigger guard was moved down.
A paper or linen cartridge with powder and bullet was placed into the receiver. The bullets used were . 54 caliber. Then the breech block was moved back up it tore off the paper exposing the powder and fired using a percussion cap. During the Civil War about 100,000 of these rifles were supplied to the Union army. Between 1836 and 1873 over 540 patents for breech loading rifles were issued. Many of these were guns manufactured and sold to the U. S. government during the Civil War. The best known model was the 1863 Sharps Carbine.
The rifles first became famous as “Breechers Bibles” in the fighting in Kansas and Missouri. It was replaced, however, by the Spencer carbine rifle, which held seven metallic cartridges. The Confederates used captured Sharps and made 5,000 copies themselves in Richmond. In 1860 alone fifteen patents were issued for breech loading rifles. Overall, the most standard weapon used by both North and the South was the Springfield rifle. This muzzle-loader was fired by a percussion cap and shot a . 58 caliber bullet.
Its rifled barrel gave it better accuracy and penetration. It fired a Mini ball, which was a lead bullet with a hollow tail. When it fired, the pressure caused the lead to expand into the grooves. In addition to keeping the bullet on a straighter course this expansion minimized the escape of gas, which increased its range. The Union could have taken advantage of the machine gun but, again were reluctant to try new weapons. In June of 1861 J. D. Mills showed President Lincoln his machine gun.
It was mounted on wheels and had a tray that held cartridges which dropped into the rotating cylinder as one turned a crank. Lincoln called it “a coffee-mill gun,” while Mills called it “The Union Repeating Gun. ” The name of the inventor is not known, but many believe it was Edward Nugent or William Palmer. Again the Union army did not want to issue this gun into the US artillery. In October of 1861 Lincoln bought ten “coffee-mill” guns, without consulting anyone, at a price of $1,300 each. It was the first machine-gun order in history.
Dr. Richard J. Gatling, a North Carolina farm boy, patented a six-barrel machine gun on November 4, 1862. He later adapted it to use steel-jacketed cartridges. The rate of fire for the gun was 250-300 rounds per minute. General Ben Butler ordered twelve Gatling guns for the Union. Gatling, however, was a “copperhead”, a Northerner who sympathized with the Confederacy. His reputation did not help sell the gun to the Union, especially since he was thought to sell some to the Rebels. The Union had chances to get the Gatling gun but did not take advantage of it.
In 1862, Governor Morton of Indiana saw the gun being tested and wrote to the Secretary of War suggesting that the gun be officially used by the North, but nothing was done. Later, the Navy adopted the gun in 1862 and so did the Army but not until 1866. My conclusion is that I would not want to be shot by any of these guns. They used very heavy ammunition that devastated what ever it hit. I guess that is why the American Civil War was called the bloodiest war of all time. Not only are you trying to kill your opponent, you are trying to kill a fellow American which must of been tougher.
Also, if we adopted the Gatling gun, I feel that the war would of been over a lot faster than it was. To be able to fire 250 to 300 rounds in one minute is devastating. That gun was very mobile because it could be moved around by the horses because it was on wheels. I give these men lots of credit for going out there and fighting like they did. Many really did not know why they were fighting and they still fought with courage. And with a total of 620,000 casualties, a lot of men did not come home.