Friday, 10 July 2015

Gettysburg, The Last Invasion - Allen C. Guelzo

I have started reading the so far excellent book “ Gettysburg – The Last Invasion “ by Allen C. Guelzo and have reached page 45 ( finger burn on your pointing finger does slow you up) . There are a number of points he has raised in his pre-amble that have interested me, the main one of which is at the end of this comment.

Firstly the discontent prevalent among both sides;  for example the Southern command viewed the Georgian and North Carolina troops suspiciously as being very lukewarm towards the cause and more prone to desert than other states forces. On the Union Side he outlines how the steep division between the Corps commanders worsened once McClellan was relieved of command by Lincoln, already badly split along party lines there was now the pro and anti ‘McClellan’ commanders. The author suggests that Lincoln deliberately chose the most ‘anti-McClellan ‘ general  in the army , Hooker , to replace Burnside ( pro-McClellan) to try and get some control back over the army .

More interesting was his mention of the effectiveness of early volunteers.

One Illinois regiment lined up to target shoot at a barrel 180 yards away, only 4 shots out of 160 tries hit it. In the 5th Connecticut forty men firing at a barn 15 ft high from only 100 yards managed to score a mere 4 hits and only 1 was the height of a man.”
“Even among the regulars of the 12th US the troops knew very little about principles and practice of firing, ours was very bad, the rear ranks sometimes firing into and killing the front ones.
. William Izlar, 1st SC remembered a fierce exchange ( 1st Bull Run) of volleys at a distance of no more than 100 yards in which the chief casualties were the pine cones from the extreme top of the trees. I guess that only 1 round in 500 ever hit anyone “

“A Federal captain watched in disbelief as his men fired off at an angle of 45 degrees
And the instances of them firing into each other are by no means rare”

Getting to my main point; I am sure that we have all seen some of the Waterloo re-enactment that took place recently and were surprise by not only the volume of smoke which was generated by even a small amount of people but the fact that it hung around spoiling everyone’s pictures , 50 years later smoke was still a problem.

“Soldiers on the firing line quickly found the smoke from their rifles hanging about them in clouds and it was not uncommon for officers to have to get down on all fours to peer under the smoke bank to confirm enemy troop positions.”

And here it is:

“At Fredericksburg, artillery gun crews ran laps around their guns waving their arms in an effort to dispel the powder smoke from the guns discharge.”

Top marks to any manufacturer who brings out models representing this.

Lets hope the next 427 pages are just as interesting


  1. Some really interesting points here Steve, particularly from a more general "horse & musket era" point of view. I have often thought that musketry in rule sets is very much more potent that would have been the actuality, particularly among the majority of poorly trained infantry.

    Certainly most Napoleonic infantry did not aim their weapons, given the difficulty getting the eye to close to a priming pan and the associated flash when fired. Thus they were reduced to simply pointing the barrel in the general direction. Most infantry barely received target practice on ranges with live rounds which only compounded the problems. It sounds like those issues persisted into the ACW despite the improvements in technology.

    The problem of smoke obscuring potential targets is another aspect that very rarely gets accounted for in rule sets. There are, like these, numerous accounts in memoirs from eye witnesses during the Napoleonic period, that the white smoke from firing could, on a still day, quickly accumulate and hide the enemy from view.

    Napoleonic cavalry could use this potential plus the folds in the ground to close in on unsuspecting infantry.

    The pictures from the recent Waterloo re-enactment has emphasised this problem, with some of the audience complaining they could hardly see any of the action, let alone the participants.

    Given these problems, I think we should be looking at reduced firing ranges, reduced spotting ranges for charges, thus ability to react and reduced command and control ranges.

  2. You only have to read contemporary 18th & 19th century accounts to see how badly smoke affected accuracy. Participants regularly report firing in the general direction of the the enemies last seen position, due to the "fog" that black powder weapons produced. I wonder if this is another advantage of platoon firing over volley fire ?

    Given that smokeless powders did not enter general service untill the early 1890's, the horse and musket period was entirely in the black powder era, yet you rarely see rules give any range or accuracy penalty to units that have previously fired. Rather they give a bonus for first fire and leave subsequent volleys as pretty effective (first fire often being given for unfouled weapons).