I GOT YOU … NO YOU DIDN’T!! How can we solve the hit taking problem?

When we were all boys playing at Cowboys and Indians every battle ended up grinding to a halt with the argument of just who was shot and who was not. Since no one wanted to be dead, the question usually went unresolved. Then we grew up… and now every civil war battle reenactment ends with BOTH sides complaining that the other side did not take any hits. Oh, sure there is always that one silly unit that seems to specialize in taking mass hits from artillery resulting in 90% causalities but it seems that we have not advanced very far since our childhood days of the never empty six shooter and the enemy that always seems to be shooting high. Why is this so? Why can’t we seem to arrive at a satisfactory level of causalities based upon civil war tactics, arms effectiveness and number of troops involved?

I believe that we are all suffering from several deficiencies. First, we do not have an accepted process for assessing hits. Second, we have a thorough lack of knowledge of how battles were waged. And third, we lack an understanding of how effective the muskets and artillery that we are to be reacting to really were. I hope to address these points and help to establish some solutions

Over the years several methods for taking hits have been employed at one event or another. One idea used in the past is the process of putting a black colored cartridge in the cartridge box of each Infantryman to assess causalities. With this idea, when a man pulls the black cartridge from his box in battle he fires it and takes a hit all on his honor. There is no guarantee, however, that the individual man will, indeed, take his hit and no way to verify the compliance of such a system. The black cartridge idea also abrogates the actual conditions on the field killing too many troops or not enough at all the wrong times. Other events have created scenarios so overly complicated that they tell the commanders how many hits to take and at what stage of the battle to do so, sometimes down to the minute. These overly written scenarios rely too heavily upon the commanders remembering the entire script and it’s timing. I am sure that we ALL have participated in events where the plan went horribly awry leaving the commanders to “wing it”. That is when all hits cease and it is every man for himself. Lastly, we have the old standby system of leaving the causality rates up to the individual reenactor. With this old system we have a random mix of taking hits or not taking hits as the whim of the reenactor dictates. Consequently, relying wholly on the decision of the individual man to take a hit is the least reliable way to simulate battle causalities. It appears that leaving hit taking up to each individual without supervision is the most common way events are operated. Still, we have yet to arrive at a reliable way to take the hits needed to portray a battle in progress. It is quite amusing, though, to note all the old veterans of 6 or more years in the hobby being the first to take hits while those who have less time in seem to go on forever. It seems that shooting the ol’ musket does not hold the same fascination to the old timers as it does for the rest, does it? I have often wondered one thing about the guys who fire only two or three rounds before taking a hit, though. Are your muskets any cleaner, really?

To begin to create a formula for assessing battle causalities we must go back to the history books and look at the causality rates suffered by the contending forces and calculate what an average battle loss might be for engaged troops of the war. We need to look at army and corps losses to determine what a simulated total causality rate for a reenacted battle would be as well as company losses to determine what each company might loose. That is not the only factor in determining a causality rate, however. We also have to factor in the tactics, number of opposing troops, placement of artillery and, finally, the distances from which directed fire is being taken.

We should start by correcting one enduring myth of the civil war. I am sure that you have all read at one time or another that the civil war was the “first of the modern wars” based on the fact that the rifle musket was the chief infantry arm of the war. At first thought the idea has some merit as the tactics employed by the armies using Napoleonic formations of massed columns of attack were based upon the use of the smooth bore musket. A smooth bore musket is hardly accurate over 80 yards and the principle was that the contending forces would march toward each other as close as they dare, deliver a volley or two of fire and rush in to decide the conflict with the bayonet and hand to hand combat. Ostensibly, the rifle musket is supposed to be accurate to 300 or even 400 yards. Consequently, massed columns of attack should be ruined by the distance this firearm can achieve way before the bayonet can be utilized. The accepted axiom, therefore, is that the tactics used were obsolete with the use of the rile musket and that is why we have such shocking rates of battle loss. We are left to imagine that civil war causality lists far exceed those of previous wars because of this incompatibility of tactics and weapons.

But is it true that the civil war was the first war to use long range and accurate rifle fire, thereby counting grossly larger battle causalities then ever before? Let us consider that European conflicts using smooth bore muskets in the 1850’s and earlier such as Solferino in 1859, where over 40,000 causalities among three armies were racked up in just 12 hours, had shocking totals as well. Borodino in 1812 had losses of over 75,000 and in the biggest Napoleonic battle of it’s time, the battle of Leipzig in 1813, the loses climbed to 127,000 in three days. These are just as shocking as the totals in our war, even more so for single battles. So, we must learn two things from history to solve our problem. How were the tactics of the war employed and just what is the effective distance of the rifle musket and the limitations of it’s use?

The battle tactics of the civil war did not take advantage of long distance rifle fire, that much can be asserted without a doubt. Napoleonic principles were still being employed within the tactical manuals during our war. Commanders were taught that the enemy could not resist a massed charge if delivered correctly. The war with Mexico drove this concept home in our country as the Mexican forces were barely an impediment to further advance during most all the battles of that war and this is where many of the senior commanders of the civil war received their battlefield training. Additionally, the continued use of the muzzle loading rifle by the standing armies of the United States and it’s single shot capabilities argued effectively for the use of massed ranks to continue being employed. Consequently, the officers of the civil war typically withheld fire until the enemy was much closer than was necessary for the rifle musket to be effective. In his book Battle Tactics of the Civil War, Paddy Griffith asserts that the average distance that an Infantry fire fight was conducted ranged between 40 and 150 yards. He further states that at very few times do battle records claim that any mass firing was done at farther distances; those over 200 yards. Obviously Infantry firing was not generally done at longer distances over 150 yards and the supposed long distance accuracy of the Springfield and Enfield rifle musket was not a factor in the tactics employed by the armies in most cases and was not a factor in their tactical thinking.

A recent article assessing the ballistic abilities of modern replicas of the Springfield and Enfield rifles was published in the Shooting Times (May 1999) and the results shed further light on the use of these weapons during field conditions. In this article field editor Mike Venturino’s tests prove that the firearms that we have been told were so accurate at such long distances are not nearly so effective as historians have contended or imagined by pure statistics of design. He tested the long distance accuracy of these arms by placing a man sized target of plywood at 300 yards and fired 10 rounds at the target. With those ten rounds he was able to connect three out of ten times from a sand bag bench rest with the Enfield (a Navy Arms model 1853) but only one with the Springfield (a Dixie gun works model 1861). Now, remember, this was from a bench rest not held free handed. Mr. Venturino also tested a shorter distance of 100 yards with these weapons. He was able to consistently get a 3 1/4 inch grouping with the Enfield and a 5 inch grouping with the Springfield. However, he made several concessions for accuracy that were not available to the civil war soldier concessions which would alter such accuracy in a tremendous way. He wet swabbed and dry swabbed the barrels after every three shots, every minnie ball was well greased with bullet lubricant AND all shots were made from a bench rest. This was not and could have been done by the soldier in the civil war. Each round fired by the civil war soldier was not lubricated and the barrels were not cleaned of fouling until after the battle ended. (With the exception of the “William’s cleaner” round whose purpose was to clean out the musket while being fired. The effectiveness of this round is in question, however, and it was not a Confederate issue item.) So, if we factor in the actual firing conditions of the civil war soldier and add the psychological stress that the soldier would be under his accuracy rate must certainly decline precipitously. Additionally, target practice was not an aspect of the training of the average civil war soldier as use of cartridges outside of battle were usually charged to the regiment or, even, the individual soldier himself. Sure the soldier was shown how to load and fire but improvements in the accuracy of the soldier’s ability to hit a target was not considered a part of his training. This is why you may recall in reading accounts of the war that many officers were often heard to caution their men to aim low in battle so that their rounds would not sail harmlessly over their enemies heads.

Knowledge of real battle losses during the war is another item that must be understood before a formula for assessing causalities in the hobby can be attained. A quick perusal of average losses per company in most battles will show that companies rarely lost more than 4 or 5 to Killed in action and 8 or so wounded out of the average 80 or so men that they went in with. If we can use 80 men as an average number then we have 13 removed from active service after a battle. This is under a 20% loss. Certainly we can all find times when a company had 50% or more causalities, but these were the exception rather than the rule. Additionally we see that there is an average of 20% losses in most major battles for the contending forces, as well. For instance, both Polk’s and Hardee’s wings in the battle of Perryville, KY lost around 20% during the battle. And while U.S. commander Lytle had 32% lost the Federal armies lost a total of less than 20%. A few more battles for comparison: At Shiloh the U.S forces lost 16% and the C.S. lost 24%; during the seven days battles the Federals lost about 11% and the Confederates lost 20%; at Fredericksburg the U.S. lost 11% of it’s forces and the C.S. forces suffered a 6% loss;at Murfeesboro the U.S. lost 22% and the C.S. lost 26%; at Gettysburg we see the Federals loosing 22% and the Confederates loosing 30% and at Chickamagua the U.S. lost 20% and the C.S. 25%. We get an average loss of 14% for the Federal forces and a loss of about 24% for the Confederates during the war. (Statistics from Attack and Die, by McWhiney and Jamieson)

So, what does this mean for us on a reenacted battlefield? Using these statistics we might assume that out of an average company of 25 reenactors we would not loose more than four guys in an average battle. Perhaps one dead and three wounded. A far cry from the masses of dead that many of us assume that we should see on the field. Additionally, we must assume that losses should be held to an overall loss of 20% at the end of the battle.

Now that we have a basic rule of thumb of 20% losses during a battle arrived at how and when do we take these hits? Certainly when we operate our battles at distances between 50 and 100 yards we should begin to assess these causalities at those times. But we should also realize that we need to hold our fire until this distance is realized. Therefore, we should assume no causalities early in the movement and take them when we get closer. Further, we need to take in to consideration the forces confronting us. Skirmishers should inflict few and receive few hits while massed infantry should absorb most of the hits from other massed infantry.

Artillery should not mow whole companies down unless they are only 50 yards distant in a recreated battle, either. Artillery was much more a psychological factor to infantry than a directly damaging one it should be remembered. Artillery underwent the same advance in accuracy and distance as did the infantry long arm during the civil war era but the tactics still did not take advantage of this ability. It was generally accepted in the artillery that if you could not see it you could not hit it. Air and radio direction for the long distance firing of artillery was still in the future and artillery was more often used in the closer quarters of 1,000 yards using canister to thin the enemy’s ranks than otherwise. In other words, artillery against artillery was not the main use of the arm during the war as it seems to be used in the hobby of battle reenactments. Especially on the Confederate side as their artillery corps had less advantage for long distance than their Federal counterparts.

I would hope it goes without saying that groups of 6 or 8 men would not stand pat in the face of several companies oncoming, either. Sometimes we see on our reenactment fields a slight lack of understanding of force against force. It absolutely must be drilled into all of our heads that battles were usually conducted in a see-saw, back and forth manner. But that is another story, I think

And what about cavalry? I would endeavor to say that infantry should never take more than one hit, what ever the size of the infantry force, from a band of cavalry. Cavalrymen were smart enough to realize that an attack on static massed infantry was suicide and a cavalry against infantry charge happened so infrequently as to be not worth mentioning or doing much on a reenactment field. Certainly we should not see horsemen coming too close to a standing body of infantrymen in this hobby unless these reenactors are adept at falling off their animals.

Another thing to keep in mind is that we operate in a scaled down version of civil war engagements. Where real civil war companies had between 60 and 100 men we have less. Where they had battles encompassing hundreds of acres, we do not. we must try to remember to scale our thinking down to the proper size.

Now we come to the last and most important question, who is the one who apportions the causalities on a reenacted battle field? It is absolutely and completely up to the officer in charge of the battalion or, lacking a battalion organization on the field, the company officer to decide the amount of causalities and make the men of his organization take the hits needed. We cannot expect the men to have all these factors in their heads during a battle. Safety, firing their muskets and listening to their officers is all they should be charged with. We cannot expect the overall battle commanders to be everywhere at once on a field to make sure hits are taken, either. Only the battalion commander in charge (or company commander in the absence of a battalion organization on the field) can effectively assess the resistance he is up against, the type of arms he is facing and the distance from which he is taking enemy fire. It is up to that man to tell company commanders how many hits to take using the criteria enumerated above.

We should be able to rely upon a battalion commander to have the ability to to undertake this task. After all, he is the one in charge of his men, has taken the time necessary to learn the rudiments of battalion evolution and has the position, command experience and the area of the field in his front under direct supervision putting him in the perfect position to be able to assess causalities.

In conclusion, we need to train all battalion and company commanders in these procedures if we expect to begin seeing realistic reenacted battlefield causalities at our battles.
By Warner Todd Huston