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.