Archive for September, 2009

Advance Copy of “The Maps Of Chickamauga”

September 25, 2009

Today I got a great treat in the mail. It was an advance copy of my new book (with outstanding digital cartography by my partner, Dave Friedrichs) “The Maps Of Chickamauga.” For those of you who have seen other titles in this series by Savas-Beatie, you know the basic format. A map on one page, the supporting text on the facing page, each taking you step-by-step through a battle.

Chickamauga is an amazingly complex battle, with often very confusing interactions. As such, it took a lot of maps to get right. I think we succeeded. Also, at $39.95 for a 300 page hardcover full color atlas, I think it is an incredible bargain. I don’t know what skeletons Mr. Ted Savas had to bury in various closets to get this kind of pricing, but I am glad he did – I hope it moves off the shelves of bookstores for a long time to come.

On a personal note, I have had wargames published, articles in various magazines, and led a number of tours large and small. One’s first book, however, delivers a unique sense of accomplishment, if I do say so myself.

Copies should be available soon for sale at all the usual outlets, online and otherwise. I will let everyone know once the Publisher tells me it is available for sale.

I will be gone all next week, leading tours and doing some communing with my favorite field. I hope to get a post or two in here at the blog, but that depends on how tired I am after a day of battlefield tromping.

The “Chickamauga Rule”

September 20, 2009

Yes, today is September 20th, the 146th Anniversary of the 3rd day of the battle of Chickamauga. (I count September 18th as the first day, just so you know…)

The park always does a good job with their limited resources to provide walks, ranger-led driving tours, and living history displays for the anniversary. I usually try and attend, but that, of course, all depends on the ‘Real Job.’ You know, the one that pays the bills. I am going to be down at Chickamauga the entire last week of the month, and thus, cannot make this weekend as well.

The park also has a volunteer co-ordinator now, and one of my friends, Scott Day, has been doing a lot of volunteer guiding this summer. He’s been there this weekend, so I look forward to hearing how the tours went this weekend.

On the whole, September 20th was a memorable day for both sides. For the Confederate Army of Tennessee, it was a brief moment of real triumph amidst a long, four year career of defeat, retreat, and might-have-been. For the Federals, it was about a defiant stand that snatched victory – of a sort – from the jaws of disaster, and any Army of the Cumberland Vet, should you have been so lucky as to have met him on the sidewalk on this date and had the presence of mind to ask him about the battle, would have been quick to tell you that the Federals, not the Rebs, ended up possessing the objective of the campaign (Chattanooga) at the end of the day.

Three regiments of Yankees had a particularly bitter end to their weekend (in 1863, September 19 and 20 were also a Saturday and Sunday) that fateful day. They were the 22nd Michigan, 21st and 89th Ohio. None of them were serving with thier proper commands, and their fate helped inspire Dr. Glenn Robertson’s famous “Chickamauga Rule,” well known to any who have walked the ground with Glenn. Basically, the “Chickamauga Rule” simply states that when a commander has the choice of tasking either his own troops or some temporarily attached force to handle a dirty job, the attached force gets the work every time.

In this case, as the dark gathered on Horseshoe Ridge and the Federals began to retreat, someone had to be the rear guard. Brigadier General James B. Steedman’s 1st Division of the Union Reserve Corps included the 89th Ohio, on loan from the 14th Corps, and the 22nd Michigan, recently ordered up from Nashville. In addition, the 21st Ohio had been loaned by Major General James S. Negley to Brigadier General John Brannan, to help defend Brannan’s right – and then Negley took the rest of his command off the field.

At the end of the day these three regiments were ordered to hold the ridge at all costs even while the rest of the Federals fell back. They had no ammo, but were told to hold the hill at the point of the bayonet. By 8:00 p.m., as the Rebels made one last effort to take the high ground, the remainder of these three regiments were captured. Their final sacrifice was needless, and they all could have gotten away with the rest of the army, but they were effectively orphans.

Long months of imprisonment awaited them.

Dave Powell

The Condundrum of the Rifle, part III

September 19, 2009

Brigadier General James A. Deshler’s Brigade of Texans, in Pat Cleburne’s Division, experienced two very different engagements on September 19th and 20th, 1863. The first, an almost bloodless night action that resulted in the capture of several hundred Federals, was a heady experience, while the second, a static firefight against an entrenched enemy, proved fruitlessly deadly. they also participated in the final assault on the Union Kelly Field line at the end of the day on the 20th, but since the Federals were already retreating, they faced very little actual opposition in this last effort.

Deshler’s men were all trans-Mississippians: seven regiments of Texas infantry and dismounted cavalry formed into two units for tactical reasons, and two regiments of Arkansas infantry similarly consolidated. Thus, Deshler’s brigade operated as three regiments with a combined infantry strength of 1693 officers and men. Based on their ammunition consumption, about 1/3 of them were likely armed with smoothbores, the rest carried rifles.

Initially on the morning of the 20th, Deshler’s regiments formed on Cleburne’s right, but circumstances would eventually place them in the center of the division. Major General A. P. Stewart’s line shifted north, at Longstreet’s orders, in order to link up with Deshler’s line, but mistakenly, Stewart’s men masked the front of Deshler’s line instead. As a result, when Cleburne was ordered forward between 9:30 and 10:00 a.m., Deshler’s men had to move to their right and fall in behind Brigadier General S. A. M. Wood’s Brigade, then occupying Cleburne’s center. Wood – who had already performed poorly the evening before – promptly lost contact with Brigadier General Lucius Polk’s Brigade, on his right, and halted in confusion. Deshler’s line came to rest behind Wood.

Sometime after 10:30, Cleburne found Wood and sent him into the fight alongside Stewart’s men, who faced the Federals in Poe Field. The command system had broken down; Bragg was ordering divisions into action peicemeal, and Stewart requested support from Cleburne. Wood’s brigade shifted to their left to come up on Stewart’s right, which opened a hole in Cleburne’s center. Deshler’s men were sent to fill that gap.

By the time Deshler’s troops advanced , the rest of Cleburne’s Division had already been repulsed. Polk’s large brigade had been in action for nearly an hour and was already retreating, having made no headway against the Union line. Wood’s brigade was fragmented and also in retreat, severely crippled by a deadly Federal crossfire at the north end of Poe Field. Deshler’s men would now act as a rear guard for the other two brigades.

Dutifully, the brigade advanced to within 200 yards of the Union line, reaching the crest of a wooded ridge from which part of Wood’s Brigade had been driven earlier. So far, they advanced under Union artillery fire, but losses were slight (15 or 20 men.) As they crested the ridge, however, they found themselves about 200 yards from the main Union line, held here by the men of Brigadier Generals Charles Cruft and William B. Hazen, formed in a double line behind breastworks, and supported by two batteries of artillery.

At the crest of the ridge, the brigade halted, to advance no farther. Deshler was killed almost immediately, cut in half by an artillery round. Cleburne ordered Colonel Roger Mills to hold on, but not attack. All of the OR reports cite the distance as 200 yards; and since the Rebels held the ground the next day, the commanders had a chance to examine the position after the fight was over. their estimates were pretty good: the actual distance from where Deshler’s brigade tablet now stands to the line of Union monuments marking Hazen’s position is 240 yards.

The Rebels held this ground for several hours. Mills initially ordered the brigade to return fire, but then quickly ordered them to lie flat, and once their ammunition was largely expended, he retired the bulk of the brigade behind the ridge and held the crest only with sharpshooters. Initial exposure was probably something like 15 minutes in line, and another 45 or so while prone. By far the heaviest loss happened early in the fight. Jim turner of the 6th Texas noted that “the enemy’s fire was simply terrific.” Lt. R. M. Collins of the 15th Texas echoed that sentiment: “as we reached the crest of the hill in our front, we struck the same sawyer that had knocked Wood’s brigade out at the first round. The rain of lead that the Federals poured into our lines was simply terrific. Our loss in officers and men for the first few minutes was alarming in the extreme.” Sam Moore, of the 17th Texas, remembered that “the Yanks had two batteries a playing on us as well as the infantry pouring minnie balls at us as fast as they could load and shoot.”

Deshler’s Brigade lost 447 killed, wounded, and missing over the course of the battle. Of those, approximately 400 fell here, most in the first few minutes; for a loss rate of 25%. the Federals opposed Deshler with approximately 2000 infantry, but with no more than 1000 rifles on line at any one time. Hazen later reported his own losses for the entire action at no more than a dozen men, which he attributed largely to the breastworks hastily erected that morning; Cruft suffered similarly lightly.

Certainly the two Union artillery batteries had an impact, but the majority of fire came from the infantry. Artillery, even rapid firing double canister, would only be throwing 54 projectiles per tube per minute, (about 650 per minute for all twelve guns) and could keep that up only for a couple of minutes before they ran out of the proper ammo. 1000 infantry would add between 2000 and 3000 rounds per minute, assuming a normal rate of fire, and with 100 rounds apiece, and another 1000 men in support ready to step up when the front line emptied their boxes, the infantry’s fire could be sustained for a much longer time.

Of course, the initial volume of fire would taper off quickly to a more sustainable pace, until by midday, it had dwindled to sniping and the occasional harassing volley. But we do have here a very strong argument that infantry fire could be very deadly at between 200 and 250 yards. This instance alone would add 3 Confederate and 8 Union data points to any regimental range database, all at over 200 yards, even factoring in things like monument placement.

The Conundrum of the Rifle: Part II

September 8, 2009

First, let’s look at a theoretical example of an infantry fight. With smoothbores, the defender would likely open on the attacker at 100 yards, closing 33 yards – the ‘decisive’ range Griffiths cited. That means that an attacker might be under fire for about 75 yards – a minute for most Continental Napoleonic infantry, and just under that for the French. At three rounds per minute (the theoretical standard rate of fire for both the smoothbore and rifle-musket) an attacker will face no more than three volleys. More likely, especially if the defender is poorly trained or nervous, he will face only one or two shots.

Every attacker of the gunpowder era has had to solve this problem – How to get through the beaten zone to close with the defender and destroy or drive him off. This remains true even in the modern era. The size of the beaten zone increases, but the core problem remains the same.

Let’s bump this up to the American Civil War. Only Griffiths strives to differentiate between “opening” and “decisive” range. Hess, Nosworthy, and Grimsley, for example, average their examples to give a theoretical ‘range’ of between 116 and 90 yards. All we really know is that this average is about 50% longer than similar Napoleonic averages, (according to Nosworthy) but we lack important details.

Still, let’s assume that the defender now opens at approximately 200 yards. Again the attacker closes to “decisive’ range of between 33 and 50 yards, based on the examples cited: thus the beaten zone is now 160-177 yards. And, moving at the double-quick, Hardee has the attacker still facing a one-minute exposure.

Of course, all sorts of factors influence this equation. For most of the war, the troops aren’t trained to estimate range. Not every unit fires rifled muskets. Especially early in the war, smoothbore .69 caliber weapons are very common in both armies. Untrained officers can give the order to fire either too soon or too late. Conversely, nervous troops can trigger off too soon, wasting their best shot. Tree cover can block lines of sight, while fences or abatis can slow attackers. There are a host of factors that can affect this basic equation.

But we do have an important asset that can help us answer this question in more detail. So far the examples provided have all pretty much come from primary sources (mostly the OR) which are important, but have not been meticulously field-checked, despite the presence of so many National Military Parks. The parks were created not just as monuments to heroic struggles and historic events, but also to serve as field laboratories for precisely this kind of military education. Since their creation, these parks have been studied in often-minute detail, as historians and veterans tried to work out the details of how these battles were conducted.

While it is true that troops generally were not trained in range estimation until the latter third of the war, if at all; primary sources do still abound with important details concerning range. First, while men might not always give exacting measurements of distance, they often note significant terrain features. On July 1st, 1863, the 6th Wisconsin charged Davis’ Mississippians in the Railroad Cut. It was a dramatic moment, with the 6th coming up from the rear of the brigade to stave off a flanking threat to the rest of the command. Several Badgers noted enemy fire splintering the planks of the fences lining the Chambersburg Pike as the 6th reached that point. Similarly, the Mississippians recalled the Railroad cut and how they aligned in it to open fire upon the Federals facing them. This immediately gives us two fixed reference points – The fences lining the pike and the cut itself – with which to measure an engagement range. Similarly, men from Walthall’s Brigade talked about sheltering in a swale in Winfrey Field (actually the road bed for the Brotherton Road) as they assaulted the Federals in the woods to the north. Since we know both were the road bed are and where Scribner’s Federals formed that morning, we have another easily verifiable range at hand.

As an aside, anyone who spends much time with those primary sources soon comes across references to “rods” as a measure of distance. Bear with me if you already know all this, but I think the explanation that follows is important.

At first, I had no idea what a rod was, so some years ago I looked it up. A rod is an archaic measurement usually used in surveying: 1 rod equals 5.5 yards, or 16.5 feet. The term was very common in the 1800s, and farmers’ acreage was measured in rods. A quarter mile was 80 rods, or 440 yards. Acreage was allotted by section, and a section was a square a mile on a side. A quarter-section was 160 acres, or a half-mile on a side. A 40 acre plot (as in ‘40 acres and a mule’) was a one eighth of a mile on a side, or 40 rods. And these are armies of farm boys. Having spent enough time behind a mule and a plow, they know how far 40 rods is. They’ve walked it enough times in their lives.

In our first example, above, Lt. Col. Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin does provide a distance as he described his encounter with the Mississippians. He reported that he charged 40 rods to close with the Mississippians – 200 yards. If we go back to the field, we find that Dawes is fairly accurate: that’s just about the distance between the RR Cut and the roadbed.

One of my goals is to break down a couple of battles by engagement, to tease out these details of opening range, final range, and other factors affecting the firefight. Of course we can only get approximations: as many a park ranger will tell you, the monuments sometimes aren’t the last word in reliability, nor will we always be able to verify positions with great precision. What we can do, however, is vastly reduce the amount of guesswork needed to extrapolate some better details of this interesting question, and gain a better understanding of civil war combat at the sharp end.

Next time, using Deshler’s Brigade on September 20th, I will provide a more concrete example to work with.

The Conundrum of the Rifle: Part 1

September 5, 2009

We all know the argument: By the 1860s, rifled-muskets changed warfare by increasing ranges, thus rendering old-style Napoleonic close order tactics obsolete. Civil War generals had to learn this lesson the hard way, unfortunately, and their men paid the price. Along comes Paddy Griffith, with his tactical snippeting, and voila – range is not nearly the factor we thought it was, standing the conventional wisdom on its head.

However, Griffiths’ argument can be suspect. Sometimes he plays fast and loose with his numbers. For example, he offhandedly cites an infamous Spanish volley at Talevera, noting that they opened fire at 1,000 yards, without also noting that the fire did no damage to the French and frightened the Spanish so completely that the troops in question immediately broke and fled the field. There are also discrepancies between the typical ranges for smoothbores Griffiths cites in his earlier work on Napoleonic tactics and in his later writing on the Civil War; in the latter work he extends the typical ranges for smoothbores by a small but significant distance of about 50 yards.

Griffiths wasn’t wrong, however – and much better recent scholarship has backed him up. Brent Nosworthy’s, Mark Grimsley’s, and most recently Earl Hess’s work on just this subject have also shown long range fire to be far less common than earlier historians assumed it to be. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that on this specific question, history has been satisfactorily revised.

Is that really the end of the inquiry, however? Personally, I believe that it isn’t. We are really wrestling with a three-part problem:

1) Did rifle-armed infantry engage at longer ranges than smoothbore-armed troops?

2) Did rifles deliver more accurate fire at all ranges, not just long range?

3) If rifles did open the range by even a small factor or provide more accurate fire at close range, what effect did this have on attacking troops?

The third question is especially important, because it introduces morale into the equation. So far, few of our new class of tactical historians have discussed how unit morale might be affected by rifles, if at all. Instead, the discussion has focused on the mechanical aspects of trajectory, training, and the like. Very useful stuff, of course, but not the whole of the problem.

Then there’s the question of sampling. In each work, the range sample numbers are pretty small – 119 for Griffiths, just 39 for Hess, for example. Basically, these follow the same pattern: cite a regiment at a battle where the OR report or some other source provides some discussion or range, and interpolate from there. Usually these examples are spread out over a number of battles, further reducing the tactical “snapshot” to a mere 2-5 examples per battle.

Hmm. At Chickamauga, the Union army had 129 regiments engaged. Bragg had 157 infantry formations in action. Most of them engaged in discrete actions at least once per day, sometimes twice per day. Thus, at this battle alone, we have something like between 900 and 1200 “actions” to draw data from. Hess cites 6 examples.

Off the top of my head, I can think of 20+ ‘snippets’ at Chickamauga alone where regiments experienced fire (and effective fire, meaning at least some loss was suffered) at between 150 and 200 yards. Plug that data into any of the above statistical databases and you would significantly affect the average. Prior to Chickamauga, I studied Gettysburg in similar depth, and I can still think of a number of examples from that battle, as well. Sure, close range examples abound, and you won’t find much useful work being done at 400 yards or more, but what if we are just talking about doubling the effective engagement range from 100 to 200 yards? I think that is significant.

In reading Hess, I was struck by his comment that “There is no evidence that the rifle musket was more accurate than the smoothbore musket at close range.” (see Hess, p. 107. In fact, there is such evidence, just not from American sources. In 1807, the Prussians studied this exact question, and found that at 160 yards, their rifle was 2.5 times more accurate than their musket – but since a rifle took at least twice as long to load, muskets remained the preferred arm for all but specialist troops. The Minie system, of course, solved the loading problem. In the era between the end of the Napoleonic wars and the introduction of the rifled musket as a standard shoulder arm, other studies by other European armies show similar results.

Pre-war theorists were aware of the potential of the rifle-musket. Their solution was speed. In the 18th century, infantry formations moved slowly – about 75 yards per minute. The French revolutionized infantry combat when they sped up – to 87.5 yards per minute. (Hint, a modern day funeral march moves at about 90 yards per minute.) In 1855, Hardee’s tactics – which were largely copied from the most up-to-date French tactics of the time – adopted the French pas gymnastique, which expected infantry to close with defenders at 165 yards per minute. In short, if the rifle doubled the effective beaten zone, the solution would be to double the pace at which troops crossed it.

In practice, things weren’t that simple, however. More on that next time.