The Condundrum of the Rifle, part III

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.

9 Responses to “The Condundrum of the Rifle, part III”

  1. Mike from Ottawa Says:

    Neat stuff, Dave. Almost enough to make me consider leaving you in peace in 2012 rather than urging you to run for President.

  2. Carl Williams Says:

    Dave, good stuff!

    At first I could hardly believe it’s possible these rifle-dissing assertions ever got started. But the issue of real effectiveness versus theoretical effectiveness was an interesting point, due to the fact that these Enfields/Springfields etc were low velocity weapons compared to modern firearms, and were pretty tricky to deal with. In other words, low velocity equals a very arched trajectory as opposed to modern high velocity/flat trajectory weapons, and it clearly took some training to avoid shooting over the heads of the enemy at closer ranges and dealing with complete inaccuracy at longer ranges when that range is mis-estimated only slightly.

    I would say it needed to be examined, and surely many assumptions were too easily accepted about the rifles being such a quantum leap over the musket. It’s good and reassuring to see you have found such evidence. You hear of some units not being as effective as others with the rifled musket, that has to be true.


  3. Carl Williams Says:

    BTW in hunting with Muzzleloaders, it seems to be quite common that the effective range gets over-estimated, with many a chagrined hunter realizing he has buried his round at the feet of the game shot at, trying to take those long shots. Shooting over game at short range is happening too.

    And wind! Accuracy starts to disappear quickly with much wind.


  4. Bryn Says:

    I’m not convinced that this proves the efficiency of the rifle, especially since two batteries of field artillery (12 guns I assume) were also engaged. An alternate hypothesis would be that the guns did the vast majority of the killing and that the rifles were just ancialiaries. I hypothesise this because I’ve destroyed similar arguments with respect to Antietam, where there several references in the OR’s to ranges above 200 yards, but inspection shows them all to be artillery fire.

    Assuming canister (and bear in mind, roundshot accounts for 44% of combat deaths in the civil war by the figures in the Medical and Surgical Records, the remaining 56% are mainly bullet and shrapnel injuries from small arms and artillery firing spherical case and canister) at 200 yards then each blast of canister with statistically hit 6 people (assuming close order double rank infantry). The hit rate for the infantry is almost certain sub 1 round in 200 (approximately correct if firing at 100 yards), so 1,000 rifles will average 5 hit per volley. Since both have about the same rapid rate (2rpm), the 12 guns represent about 94% of the [b]effective[/b] firepower coming in against the Confederates.

    Anderson (OR 1, 32(2), 192-3) describes the Union fire as “a severe and disasterous fire of shell, grape and musketry”, Wilkes (ibid, 194) describes “a most terrific fire of shot and shell, grape and canister”, Taylor (ibid, 195) describes “a continuous and galling fire of grape, canister and small arms”. The attached battery commander ascribes the positions untenability to the two enemy heavy batteries that dominate it (ibid, 196). Mills, the acting brigadier ascribes the killing to the two enemy batteries (ibid, p188), he also describes Deshler as not being sniped by a rifle, but hit by a shell. Dismissing the guns in this situation does not seem warranted, those under their fire didn’t. Some of the commanders fail even to mention any musketry, only mentioning the guns.

    The “slight losses” under Union artillery during the advance was in fact during the approach march and is only a couple of rounds (which conforms to the statistical effectiveness of canister). The 15-20 losses are before the “destructive fire” was opened.

    It is an equally valid, in my opinion more valid, hypothesis that the rifles contribution to this killing was very limited, and Deshler’s brigade were totally dominated by 12 artillery pieces which they could not reply effectively too.

    If we make the bold and unsupported statement that the artillery had no effect then we have an odd situation. You suggest the Union defenders put 200,000 small arms round downrange for 400 hits, even this is only 1 round in 500 taking effect. This is an abyssmal rate. That a brigade could lay under the fire of at least a thousand muskets and 12 guns for almost 4 hours and only suffer 400 casualties paints a picture of very ineffective fire.

  5. David Puckett Says:

    My great-great Uncle Thomas Puckett died in Sept., 1863 at Cherokee Springs, GA. It is my understanding that there was a field hospital at Cherokee Springs. Therefore, I am assuming (I have no proof as yet) that he was mortally wounded in the battle of Chickamauga
    Thomas enlisted in the Confederate army May 1, 1862 in Bradley County, Arkansas. His older brothers, John W. (my great grandfather), Daniel and Ephraim (some records misspell as Ephrim) all enlisted June 10th, 1861 in Helena, AR and were members of the 2nd Arkansas Infantry, Company G. I am not sure at the moment which Arkansas unit Thomas was a part of since he enlisted later, but odds are good that he was one on Deshler’s men.

    • David Puckett Says:

      Actually, after further research I found a CSA OOB, it appears the 2nd Arkansas Infantry was part of Liddel’s Division, Liddel’s Brigade, under Col. Daniel C. Govan.

      • Dave Powell Says:

        David, I wondered about that, but I thought you were implying that Thomas was with another unit, since he enlisted later than the rest of the family. Dave

  6. tsiprelle Says:

    Reblogged this on Civil War Perspectives.

  7. Canister and our silly notions about canister | To the Sound of the Guns Says:

    […] quote is from a blog entry by Dave Powell from 2009.  In context, Powell was discussing a specific circumstance in the battle of Chickamauga in which […]

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