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Minie balls were battlefield revolution

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Minie ball design plans from Harpers Ferry.
When it comes to weaponry, the Civil War is best described as the first modern war.

Unfortunately, for the troops, the conflict was generally fought with tactics dating back to Napoleon Bonaparte and with medical care not unlike the Middle Ages.

The era's fighting methods didn't take into account the evolution of small arms ... an evolution, which began with a twist.

That twist was imparted by spiral rifling grooves cut into the bore of what was once called a musket. Frontiersmen had long known that a weapon, like the Kentucky long rifle, was effective at 400 yards and farther, but those weapons were slow to load.

For nearly 200 years, the smoothbore musket had been the standard weapon for soldiers in Europe and then in North America. Those muskets were fast to load, but terribly inaccurate. Their effective range was 100 to 200 yards, but in reality they were only reliable at 40 yards or less.

The term "couldn't hit the broadside of the barn" was literally true when applied to the accuracy of smoothbore muskets. At 300 yards, only 1 shot in 20 would hit a target of 18 square feet. The guns didn't even have an aiming device.

"You might fire at a man all day from a distance of 125 yards without him ever finding it out," Gen. U.S. Grant wrote in his memoirs.

The limitations of the smoothbore led directly to the accepted military tactic of massing troops into lines and firing coordinated volleys. It was even considered bad form to draw a bead on an enemy combatant.

In the mid 1840s, two French Army Captains Claude-Étienne Minié and Henri-Gustave Delvigne developed what was later called the Minié ball (or minie ball), which was the first modern bullet.

The minie ball was shaped like a blunt cone with a hollow base that had three grooves packed with grease. The bullet was slightly smaller than the barrel's diameter so it could be loaded quickly. It came packed in a paper cartridge filled with gunpowder.

To fire it, the soldier would rip open the cartridge with his teeth, pour the powder down the muzzle of the rifle and then ram the minie ball firmly down on top of the powder with a rod. Using this method, a soldier could fire three or four rounds per minute.

Initially, minie balls were adapted for flintlocks, but with the development of weapons like the Model 1861 Percussion Rifle-Musket (better known as the Springfield 1861) resulted in a battlefield transformation.

The Model 1861 was a single-shot, muzzle-loading gun detonated with a percussion cap, which was much more reliable than flintlock firing systems. It fired a .58-caliber minie ball and had a maximum effective range of 500 yards. It's estimated that more than a million Model 1861s were manufactured during the Civil War. It was the most common firearm in use by both Union and Confederate forces.

It was also among the first military weapons to feature iron sights.
But that's not to say all combatants were equipped with Model 1861s. The lack of uniformity of small arms was a tremendous logistical problem for both sides.
Troops at Stones River are a perfect example.

In Maj. Gen. Lovell H. Rousseau's division of the Army of the Cumberland, the 1st Wisconsin carried Springfields, while the 38th Indiana was equipped with rifles made in Austria. Other units were equipped with smoothbores and with Enfields.

British Enfields were considered second to the Model 1861 in accuracy and ease of use and fired a .577-caliber minie ball.

Among the most common smoothbores was the 1842 Springfield. This weapon had a 42-inch-long, .69 caliber barrel. It fired one solid .69 caliber round lead ball along with three small buckshot, making it more effective in close range.
None of the troops had repeating rifles during the Battle of Stones River. However, one unit of the Army of the Cumberland was the first to use the 7-shot Spencer repeating rifle in battle. Wilder's Lightning Brigade unleashed the firepower on Confederates at the Battle of Hoover's Gap on June 24, 1863.

So why were these small-arm developments so crucial?

Most Civil War battles were fought at close range ... 400 yards or less ... and well within the effective range of rifle-muskets. A soldier could look at a charging enemy, take aim and drop him. That was something new in warfare.
The minie ball was a particularly deadly round, tearing an enormous wound on impact. Abdominal or head wounds were almost always fatal, and a hit to an extremity usually shattered any bone encountered. Those shattered limbs often had to be amputated.

Surgical tents following a major battle were a nightmare.

"Tables about breast high had been erected upon which the screaming victims were having legs and arms cut off. The surgeons and their assistants, stripped to the waist and bespattered with blood, stood around, some holding the poor fellows while others, armed with long, bloody knives and saws, cut and sawed away with frightful rapidity, throwing the mangled limbs on a pile nearby as soon as removed," one witness wrote.

Of the approximately 175,000 wounds to the extremities received among Federal troops, about 30,000 led to amputation; roughly the same proportion occurred in the Confederacy.

While some 110,000 Union and 94,000 Confederate men died of wounds inflicted during battle, disease was actually the biggest killer during the Civil War. Infection caused by bullets carrying dirt, fabric and germs into a wound was just part of the problem.

Physicians of the era generally had little formal training, often just two years or less with little clinical experience. Medical laboratories were non-existent. Harvard University, for instance, did not own a single stethoscope or microscope until after the war.

That's not to say physicians were incompetent or uncaring, but the level of medical technology and knowledge was almost medieval.

While minie balls killed and maimed thousands, artillery firing canister was the most feared weapon on the Civil War battlefield.

Canister was the "modern" replacement for grapeshot artillery rounds, which contained nine balls. Canister was a thin metal container loaded with layers of lead or iron balls usually packed in sawdust.

When fired, the canister disintegrated and the balls exited the muzzle of the cannon like a giant shotgun blast. Within its 400 yard range, canister was able to mow down dozens of advancing soldiers with one blast.

Even more deadly was "double canister," where two rounds were loaded into a cannon and fired at the same time. "Double canister" was fired by Union artillery at Stones River to help stop the Confederate advance on the 'Round Forest' during the first day of the battle.

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