In Combat

Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Jim Taub


When you first begin seriously studying the Civil War, you quickly learn that the tactics employed in the Civil War, particularly by the infantry (foot soldiers), were profoundly out of date, especially when considering that the weapons had advanced so far. The failure to adapt to modern technology was the apparent cause of the horrendous casualties seen in the battles of the Civil War. Soldiers marched in lines, in wide open fields towards the waiting enemy, generally to try and take high ground. The troops were expected to move through galling fire of both muskets and cannons to take their objectives. The result, as many historians have argued, was complete slaughter.

Yet when you read what these soldiers, and their officers wrote, you can get a better sense of why it was important to maintain these linear formations in a Civil War battle. Because the particular instances within bloody battles are so famous, people tend to forget that most units did not have such high casualty rates in most of their battles. Episodes such as the 1st Texas at Antietam (82%), or the 24th Michigan at Gettysburg (73%) were just not normal in Civil War fights. The men who fought using these tactics have very interesting things to say about them, and are often unheeded. This US belt buckle clearly shows the danger of rifle fire in the civil war, but, it turns out that civil war rifle fire was extremely inaccurate. There were, actually, very few casualties for the number of rounds fired. Whoever was wearing this belt buckle became a casualty, but as you will see, he became one of the poor unfortunates who caught one of the millions of projectiles flying around.


The Civil War soldier, in all honesty, was a horrible shot. Allen Guelzo in his book Gettysburg: The Last Invasion quotes a calculation done by Union General William S. Rosecrans after the Battle of Stones River fought from December 31st, 1862, to January 2nd, 1863, in which General Rosecrans concluded that for 2 million small arms rounds fired by the Union soldiers in the battle, only 13,832 Rebels were hit. For every 20,000 rounds of artillery fired at Stones River, only 728 men were hit. Doing the math, these figures show that at the average Civil War battle, such as Stones River, it took 27 rounds from a cannon or 145 from a rifle to inflict a single casualty. [2] These statistics show that it was simply not a case of entire regiments or companies being mowed down by other regiments; for fire to have any effect at all it needed to be massed, just as in the days of Napoleon or Washington. And still the casualties on a unit by unit basis were generally low. So, when you think about it, Civil War battles were not so horribly deadly because the soldiers used linear formations, but, instead, simply because the armies were so big – their sizes, just like the casualties, had been unheard of in America’s previous wars.

Company D 149 PA 1864





Co. D., 149th PA Inf. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

It is also important to note that unlike many Hollywood or reenactment portrayals, while a regiment may have started a fight in a perfect, by the book line of battle. When the firing began, especially in regiments who had already ‘seen the elephant’ (a period term for having been in combat), the organization became less tight as men tried to keep in a line, but really moved as they so pleased. Lieutenant Charles Fuller of the 61st New York saw this happen to his veteran regiment in the Wheatfield, perhaps the bloodiest part of the battlefield, at Gettysburg.

“In battle the tendency is almost universal for the men to work out of a good line into clumps. The men of natural daring will rather crowd to the front, and those cast in more timid or retiring molds almost automatically edge back and slip in behind. Hence the necessity of not alone commissioned officers in the rear to keep the men out in two ranks, but sergeants as well.”[3]

Sure, we think about men fearlessly marching into battle but, as indicated by Fuller, not all of the men who fought in these battles were soldiers at heart. One of the many things forgotten about the average Civil War soldier was that he was usually a volunteer. While the soldiers of the war are idolized and praised for their valor and bravery in combat, they were still human, with the same fears and cautiousness anyone would experience after being placed in a combat situation.


A good historian must always learn to take things with a grain of salt. This is the case with much of what is perceived about combat in the Civil War, as well as with many other topics throughout history. While we constantly hear the harrowing, first person accounts of how intense the fighting was, we need to remain objective. We have to take these accounts and then apply scientific and mathematical resources to verify them. Applying this technique to the Civil War, we know that while there were tons of projectiles flying through the air, it was not the case that they all hit their target. In fact, the vast majority in fact didn’t. Civil War battles were truly horrific events, but there was much more to how they were fought, and how they were won, then how many men were getting hit.

1 Response to In Combat

  1. Earl Hess in his “The Rifle Musket in the Civil War” is an important source on the topic of combat and casualties. The rifle musket had a parabolic trajectory as opposed to the smoothbore’s flatter trajectory. Consequently, there was a lot of over-shooting.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!