Home Forums Horse and Musket American Civil War Fields of Honor

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    I knew about Ed Bearss for many years and recall his appearance in Ken Burn’s Civil War documentary. Who could forget his highly unique verbal style? I took a bunch of books out of the local library for the winter and one was his Fields of Honor, based on his programs giving guided tours of 14 ACW battlefields. I’m part way into it, up to Antietam at the moment. I will have to see what else he wrote.


    If you are an ACW nerd (as I am) this guy is required reading. His knowledge is encyclopedic. I am aware that Sherman did not get along well with Hooker when Fighting Joe was sent out west. I did not know that before the war when Sherman was trying to run a bank in California, Hooker borrowed money and stiffed him, along with others he would serve with during the war.


    I knew that Ricketts and Griffin’s batteries were sent forward at First Bull Run/Manassas and came to grief. I had always assumed it was because they were operating within long range of rifled muskets. I wondered about this since Griffith, Hess and Nosworthy all say the effective range of rifled muskets in the hands of most troops wasn’t that much greater than smoothbore muskets. I tend to think the greenhorns at that early battle were clueless at estimating ranges. Bearss says the Union guns had two problems; no infantry support much of the time, and operating within canister range of the 13 smoothbore guns that coalesced in front of Jackson’s brigade. That makes a lot of sense.


    I have found walking battlefields reveals things most books don’t mention. Bearss notes that some ground overlooks part of the Bloody Lane held by the Confederates. Union troops on it effectively enfiladed that part of the enemy line. Little wonder that the collapse came there when a badly shot-up Confederate regiment blundered and marched out of the line, leaving a hole that was rapidly exploited.


    I haven’t read any of his other books and am only part way into this, but if you are steeped in ACW stuff, read this and get even more deeply steeped.

    This too shall pass

    Nathaniel Weber

    One of the things I love about ACW history is the small world aspect of 19th century America—all the people who knew each other in other contexts before the war. I am reading Chernow’s Grant biography and apparently Grant’s father was friends with John Brown’s father, and Grant was acquainted with the family who purchased and then freed Dred Scot after the Supreme Court decision.

    Those books sound very good. In regards to the arty/long range rifle issue, I wrote a research paper on that topic my 2nd or 3rd year of grad school and primary documents from the war definitely attest to the problem of rifle fire preventing the offensive use of canister a la the Mexican War and Napoleon’s time. I think it definitely was a major issue, despite the Griffith et al thesis that rifled muskets were ineffective past smoothbore ranges.


    I’ve walked the Bull Run battlefields many times, in particular the 1st Bull Run loop.  After gaming the battle in Ultimate General Civil War computer game, I paid particular attention to the features.  Usually computer programs exaggerate terrain features.  The hill s surrounding Rte 29 are not insignificant.  It’s a wonder McDowell did not use the hill above Stone house to deploy Rickets battery and support the attack on Henry hill that way.  The distance is less than a mile so the rifles would easily have been in range.

    Regarding muskets: It is a forgone conclusion that the Mk-I eyeball is the limiting factor here.  Firefights develop at 300 yards.  This is actually a modern axiom.  Back in the day, the rifled musket could shoot accurately up to 500 yards but was rarely employed at ranges greater than 300 yards.  The smooth bore musket of the time was somewhat more accurate than the earlier ones.  Maximum effective range is probably about 150 yards.  The practical range is probably closer to 100 yards.  Regardless of accuracy of the rifle, single shot weapons are slow to reload and the officers wanted every shot to count so 200 yards and closer was probably the Civil War fire fight range.

    Similarly, smooth bore artillery can hit a target at out to 1500 yards but these were much more effective at firing shell and canister so were rarely employed at ranges greater than 1000 yards.   Rifled artillery, on the other hand, could easily hit a target at ranges out to a mile with a trained crew.  So artillery was often employed at ranges over 1000 yards from the front line, usually on an elevated position.

    Thank you for the pointing out the book. I will probably check it out at some point.


    "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."

    --Abraham Lincoln


    I walked First Bull Run over 20 years ago. Being reminded that Jackson had 13 guns makes it clear that he had a lot of firepower for a single brigade, especially so early in the war. It seems the guns from the brigades that had retreated rallied on his position.


    Once this plague clears up I need to visit Gettysburg again. While I’m there, Antietam too.

    This too shall pass

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