User avatar
Calvin809
Private
Posts: 24
Joined: Fri Feb 28, 2014 12:25 am
Location: MN, USA

How much Hand-to-hand combat actually occured?

Mon Mar 17, 2014 7:51 am

So the accepted wisdom about combat during the Civil War is that there was not much up close hand-to-hand fighting with bayonets, clubbed muskets, and swords because of the advancement of technology especially the rifled musket. There also seems to be a camp that believes there was quite a bit of hand-to-hand combat during the war. The one side uses Union hospital records for wounds treated during the war and only 1000 (it think it is) were treated for bayonet wounds during the entire war. The other side uses the writings of the soldiers that fought the war as evidence that there was quite a bit of hand-to-hand combat since it is mentioned a lot. They also say that treated wounds are not a good indicator of hand-to-hand combat because a bayonet wound or sword wound would be fatal and no studies were done of the dead to see how they died.

What side of the argument do you fall on?

I think I am somewhere in the middle. I think there was quite a bit of hand-to-hand combat but even so it was still a small part of most battles when you think of the size of an entire battle (it also depends on what battle you are looking at).

User avatar
GraniteStater
AGEod Guard of Honor
Posts: 1778
Joined: Thu Oct 09, 2008 5:16 am
Location: Annapolis, MD - What?

Mon Mar 17, 2014 3:29 pm

Very interesting. I would say, when sources conflict or contradict, more research needs to be done - Master's thesis, anyone?

From my readings, I can't recall a lot of instances where HtH carried a prepared position. Lack of success could lead to fewer attempts being made. OTOH, there were certain instances, well known even to us amateurs, which were ordered as a "close with the enemy assault". Of course, a HtH doesn't have to be ordered to have occurred.

Somebody probably has written a thesis or dissertation on this - do some spadework, it's probably in some school's academic archives.
[color="#AFEEEE"]"Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!"[/color]
-Daniel Webster

[color="#FFA07A"]"C'mon, boys, we got the damn Yankees on the run!"[/color]
-General Joseph Wheeler, US Army, serving at Santiago in 1898

RULES
(A) When in doubt, agree with Ace.
(B) Pull my reins up sharply when needed, for I am a spirited thoroughbred and forget to turn at the post sometimes.


Image

khbynum
Major
Posts: 220
Joined: Wed May 02, 2012 8:00 pm

Mon Mar 17, 2014 4:18 pm

Hi, Calvin809. My reading indicates it was pretty rare and I think Union hospital records are a good indication. There are a few convincing eyewitness accounts that it did occur, usually during the storming of forts. Ft. Gregg (2 April 65) west of Petersburg comes to mind. As to fatalities, it is hard to see how a bayonet wound could be more fatal that a musket ball. As far as I know, data on what caused battlefield deaths were not collected. Anecdotal accounts of hand to hand combat by people who didn't actually participate in it are common, but so are accounts by infantry officers of "storms of grapeshot". A definitive study, based on a careful reading of soldier's accounts, would be a useful addition to Civil War literature. If I find one, I'll post it.

User avatar
GraniteStater
AGEod Guard of Honor
Posts: 1778
Joined: Thu Oct 09, 2008 5:16 am
Location: Annapolis, MD - What?

Mon Mar 17, 2014 4:50 pm

As to fatalities, it is hard to see how a bayonet wound could be more fatal that a musket ball.


Peritonitis, I believe. Before the 1930s and 'sulfa drugs', if you were gutshot or had a perforated intestine in any way, you were dead within 72 hours. No effective treatment before then, afaik.
[color="#AFEEEE"]"Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!"[/color]

-Daniel Webster



[color="#FFA07A"]"C'mon, boys, we got the damn Yankees on the run!"[/color]

-General Joseph Wheeler, US Army, serving at Santiago in 1898



RULES

(A) When in doubt, agree with Ace.

(B) Pull my reins up sharply when needed, for I am a spirited thoroughbred and forget to turn at the post sometimes.





Image

User avatar
Calvin809
Private
Posts: 24
Joined: Fri Feb 28, 2014 12:25 am
Location: MN, USA

Mon Mar 17, 2014 5:35 pm

It seems the main argument (among the online sites I have found) on bayonet lethality is based on the triangle shape of the bayonet making it harder to close a wound and also the chest or abdomen being the main target. The bayonet would also make long winding wounds and would need a lot of force to pull it out due to suction.

A quick search online came up with this article which is the best I have found in a quick search:

http://www.civilwarnews.com/watchdog/wd_091001.html

Also for specific battles Spotsylvania seems to be the battle for hand to hand. The attempt by Upton and then Hancock to do what seems to be a Napoleon style attack column led to a lot of hand-to-hand and bayonet fighting.

http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/spotsylvaniacourthouse/spotsylvania-history/the-unions-bloody-miscue-at.html


If I were in grad school for Civil War history I would have my thesis that's for sure. :thumbsup:

User avatar
Jim-NC
Posts: 2981
Joined: Wed Feb 25, 2009 4:21 pm
Location: Near Region 209, North Carolina

Mon Mar 17, 2014 5:46 pm

I would think that it became more common in the later war (with the rise of trenches and trench warfare). I will say that it captures the imagination, and is in a lot of paintings/drawings.
Remember - The beatings will continue until morale improves.
[SIGPIC][/SIGPIC]

khbynum
Major
Posts: 220
Joined: Wed May 02, 2012 8:00 pm

Mon Mar 17, 2014 6:23 pm

Jim-NC wrote:I would think that it became more common in the later war (with the rise of trenches and trench warfare). I will say that it captures the imagination, and is in a lot of paintings/drawings.


That's my impression as well. There was no point in stopping to exchange volleys with troops protected by fieldworks. As Calvin809 points out, at Spotsylvania the Union tried something different, but I am unclear as to how much the fighting was actually hand to hand as opposed to musketry at very close range.

An Enfield with bayonet attached is better than six feet long and not particularly handy in close quarters. A better idea might have been to arm the first wave with swords and revolvers, though infantry was not trained for that. As I recall, the marines tried it at Ft. Fisher and were badly hurt, but then they weren't trained to fight as infantry.

khbynum
Major
Posts: 220
Joined: Wed May 02, 2012 8:00 pm

Tue Mar 18, 2014 1:36 am

Calvin809 wrote:What side of the argument do you fall on?

I think I am somewhere in the middle. I think there was quite a bit of hand-to-hand combat but even so it was still a small part of most battles when you think of the size of an entire battle (it also depends on what battle you are looking at).


Calvin809, I apologize for hijacking your thread with my speculations on tactics. I'll give you my impressions as a generalization of my reading of Civil War history (and probably be chastised for my sloppy logic). The average Civil War soldier did not want to cross bayonets with anyone. With an empty musket, it's not worth the risk. The bayonet is a fearsome weapon up close, but you don't need to get up close. Better to run and let the guy get entangled in undergrowth while you stop and reload. Civil War tactics at the company/regiment level were quite sophisticated by the late war, especially with the appreciation of the roll of skirmishers. It came as close as you could get to open order infantry tactics given the rate of fire of rifle muskets. Some of the generals may have been fools, but the junior officers and soldiers figured out what worked. That famous bayonet charge by the 20th Maine? Leaving aside Chamberlain's well-known penchant for self-aggrandization, the Johnnies did exactly the right thing. Run. The Yankees had the morale that day, they won fair and square. No need to get stuck to a tree with 18 inches of steel.

I think, in the absence of definitive studies, that fighting with bayonets and clubbed muskets was rare and limited to situations where there was no other choice and bravery outweighed prudence. Ordering troops to charge fortifications with unloaded muskets sometimes worked (Spotsylvania) and sometimes didn't (Ft. Stedman). Given such an order, I'd have waited until the sergeant wasn't looking and loaded my musket.

Which thought leads me to another hypothetical, but I think I've pressed my luck too far already.

User avatar
GraniteStater
AGEod Guard of Honor
Posts: 1778
Joined: Thu Oct 09, 2008 5:16 am
Location: Annapolis, MD - What?

Tue Mar 18, 2014 2:23 am

Given such an order, I'd have waited until the sergeant wasn't looking and loaded my musket.


Yes, certainly something no one would notice, going through the steps required to load one of those muskets. Furthermore, deliberate disobedience of a direct order while in the presence of the enemy could well lead you to a very intimate acquaintance of the steps required, as you viewed them performed by a squad facing you.

Leaving aside Chamberlain's well-known penchant for self-aggrandization


Oh, yes, a renowned braggart, undoubtedly.
[color="#AFEEEE"]"Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!"[/color]

-Daniel Webster



[color="#FFA07A"]"C'mon, boys, we got the damn Yankees on the run!"[/color]

-General Joseph Wheeler, US Army, serving at Santiago in 1898



RULES

(A) When in doubt, agree with Ace.

(B) Pull my reins up sharply when needed, for I am a spirited thoroughbred and forget to turn at the post sometimes.





Image

User avatar
Pocus
Posts: 24711
Joined: Wed Oct 19, 2005 7:37 am
Location: Lyon (France)

Tue Mar 18, 2014 10:05 am

Another subject deserving its own thread (lets not hijack this one) is disobedience, mutiny, desertion. Anyone wanting to chat about that and how widespread it was?
Image


Hofstadter's Law: "It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's law."

User avatar
Keeler
Captain
Posts: 152
Joined: Fri Oct 29, 2010 10:51 pm

Tue Mar 18, 2014 3:42 pm

Here's my off-the-top-of-my head list:

-Gettysburg, First Day, The Railroad Cut
-Gettysburg, First Day, Herbst Woods
-Gettysburg, Third Day, Pickett's Charge
-Spotsylvania, The Bloody Angle
-Petersburg, The Battle of the Crater
-Petersburg, Fort Steadman
-Petersburg, The April 2nd Attack

The definition of hand-to-hand combat is tricky. Large scale hand-to-hand combat between organized units under command was pretty rare, but my hunch is that hand to hand combat between small groups was more common. Read accounts of soldiers trying to capture colors and you see a pattern: colors become advanced or isolated, a small group sees this, makes a spontaneous decision to try to make a capture, runs at them, and gets into a hand to hand fight. But even in these cases, the combatants get shot or clubbed rather than stabbed. Despite the hand to hand nature of the fighting, the men were still being shot. So I would guess that there was hand-to-hand combat, on a small scale, during nearly every battle- I can't imagine that there wasn't hand-to-hand fighting in the Wilderness. It is true however, that the bayonet (and the sword, for that matter) accounted for very few wounds. The musket-butt, when swung as a club, was an equally lethal weapon.

[Quote=khbynum]There was no point in stopping to exchange volleys with troops protected by fieldworks.[/quote]

We would think that, but it happened all the time. Why? Because there was even less of a point in assaulting troops protected by field works. Later in the war, Union veterans under orders to assault would advance a short distance, usually to a relatively safe area with cover, fire, and then move no further. More than one veteran left the impression this was done intentionally, at a subconscious level, to avoid being massacred. Read the Rhea books on the Overland Campaign and see what I mean.
"Thank God. I thought it was a New York Regiment."- Unknown Confederate major, upon learning he had surrendered to the 6th Wisconsin.

aariediger
Sergeant
Posts: 85
Joined: Wed Jan 16, 2013 11:14 pm

Tue Mar 18, 2014 4:58 pm

We would think that, but it happened all the time. Why? Because there was even less of a point in assaulting troops protected by field works. Later in the war, Union veterans under orders to assault would advance a short distance, usually to a relatively safe area with cover, fire, and then move no further. More than one veteran left the impression this was done intentionally, at a subconscious level, to avoid being massacred. Read the Rhea books on the Overland Campaign and see what I mean.


I've started my way through Rhea's series, and the impression I had was a little different. Early in the war, an attack would be at a quick pace, but light enough so that the men wouldn't be too tired to fight when they got there, and if they ran into a hail storm of bullets, they would retreat and reform, to try it again. Later in the war, attacks are being delivered at the run, and when the fire gets too hot, instead of fleeing to the rear, the men drop down and begin to return fire from a prone position.

Rhea shows that there were all kinds of new tactics being tried in the Overland campaign, from Longstreet's heavy skirmish line in the Wilderness, Upton and later Hancock at Spotsylvania, and at Cold Harbor. There Grant's grand infantry assault fails, but he then has the idea to use siege tactics to try and dig his way up to Lee's lines. He abandons the idea after leaving for Petersburg, but it was still a newish idea, McClellan on the Peninsula had tried something similar but didn't get to try it out then either. At Petersburg, Burnside comes up with something even crazier still, although it failed, and there was plenty of blame to go around. Eventually, the Spencer was the weapon that broke the stalemate, as Sheridan's men simply rolled over defenders with overwhelming firepower, at Yellow Tavern, Haw's Shop, the Valley, Five Forks, and Sayler's Creek. James H. Wilson thought that a charge with Spencer's was impossible to resist, and an attack against them was madness.

User avatar
pgr
General
Posts: 529
Joined: Fri Jan 24, 2014 9:33 pm
Location: Paris France (by way of Wyoming)

Tue Mar 18, 2014 8:11 pm

Calvin809 wrote:So the accepted wisdom about combat during the Civil War is that there was not much up close hand-to-hand fighting with bayonets, clubbed muskets, and swords because of the advancement of technology especially the rifled musket. There also seems to be a camp that believes there was quite a bit of hand-to-hand combat during the war. The one side uses Union hospital records for wounds treated during the war and only 1000 (it think it is) were treated for bayonet wounds during the entire war. The other side uses the writings of the soldiers that fought the war as evidence that there was quite a bit of hand-to-hand combat since it is mentioned a lot. They also say that treated wounds are not a good indicator of hand-to-hand combat because a bayonet wound or sword wound would be fatal and no studies were done of the dead to see how they died.

What side of the argument do you fall on?

I think I am somewhere in the middle. I think there was quite a bit of hand-to-hand combat but even so it was still a small part of most battles when you think of the size of an entire battle (it also depends on what battle you are looking at).


I for one think relying on statistics of mortality by bayonet (or even wounds) to evaluate the frequency of hand to hand combat is misleading. A lot of folks will say the bayonet charge was obsolete at the time based on the numbers, but the reality is that the tactic was used.

Now of course, we should define "Hand-to-hand" combat. In a large sense, every assault is theoretically about closing on the enemy position and driving him off the spot. In that sense, the attacker has every interest to close the distance to hand to hand combat as quickly as possible in order to achieve surprise and minimize losses to defensive fire. This is even more true siege operations, where attackers dig siege approaches to get as close to the enemy works as possible and then launch an attack to close to hand to hand as quickly as possible.

The thing with hand to hand combat, it doesn't last very long. If the two forces close to contact, one would usually break quickly (or better yet, surrender). Take Chamberlain's charge down the round top. The hand to hand combat lasted as long as it took them to run down the hill. It could have been bloody if the Alabama troops had stood and fought every inch, but they were caught off guard by the momentum of the thing and there wasn't much real fighting.

And of course, a big body of troops rushing in with bayonets fixed at the right time could make defenders break before contact was even made. So I would suggest that hand to hand combat... or at least the threat of it, remained significant.

User avatar
Keeler
Captain
Posts: 152
Joined: Fri Oct 29, 2010 10:51 pm

Wed Mar 19, 2014 12:12 am

aariediger wrote:I've started my way through Rhea's series, and the impression I had was a little different. Early in the war, an attack would be at a quick pace, but light enough so that the men wouldn't be too tired to fight when they got there, and if they ran into a hail storm of bullets, they would retreat and reform, to try it again. Later in the war, attacks are being delivered at the run, and when the fire gets too hot, instead of fleeing to the rear, the men drop down and begin to return fire from a prone position.


I think we're making similar but slightly different points. Adding to the confusion I mixed up the Rhea books with some Iron Brigade books I read more recently, in which the point about veterans being more practical about assaulting fortified positions comes out a bit more. And I should have pointed out that Rhea comes to the conclusion there was not an intentional or coordinated refusal by Union soldiers to attack at Cold Harbor, as some other historians have claimed. In any event I think we're in agreement: battlefield experience led to changes in behavior by both soldiers and commanders ordered to attack enemy positions, and that they often stopped to fire at enemies- even those in fortifications.

The night before the Mine Run assaults were to being, an officer on the 2nd Corps staff put on an overcoat and slipped into the front lines to figure out what the men's opinions were on attacking. A soldier in the 1st Minnesota told him "I'm going as far as I can, but we can't get two thirds the way up that hill." This was the sort of mindset that was beginning to influence the rank and file by the end of 1863.

pgr wrote:I for one think relying on statistics of mortality by bayonet (or even wounds) to evaluate the frequency of hand to hand combat is misleading. A lot of folks will say the bayonet charge was obsolete at the time based on the numbers, but the reality is that the tactic was used.

Now of course, we should define "Hand-to-hand" combat. In a large sense, every assault is theoretically about closing on the enemy position and driving him off the spot. In that sense, the attacker has every interest to close the distance to hand to hand combat as quickly as possible in order to achieve surprise and minimize losses to defensive fire. This is even more true siege operations, where attackers dig siege approaches to get as close to the enemy works as possible and then launch an attack to close to hand to hand as quickly as possible.


The thing with hand to hand combat, it doesn't last very long. If the two forces close to contact, one would usually break quickly (or better yet, surrender). Take Chamberlain's charge down the round top. The hand to hand combat lasted as long as it took them to run down the hill. It could have been bloody if the Alabama troops had stood and fought every inch, but they were caught off guard by the momentum of the thing and there wasn't much real fighting.

And of course, a big body of troops rushing in with bayonets fixed at the right time could make defenders break before contact was even made. So I would suggest that hand to hand combat... or at least the threat of it, remained significant.


All excellent points.


For anyone interested in reading accounts of hand-to-hand combat, I'd recommend looking up the various accounts of Frank Wallar's capture of the 2nd Mississippi's flag at Gettysburg.
"Thank God. I thought it was a New York Regiment."- Unknown Confederate major, upon learning he had surrendered to the 6th Wisconsin.

User avatar
GraniteStater
AGEod Guard of Honor
Posts: 1778
Joined: Thu Oct 09, 2008 5:16 am
Location: Annapolis, MD - What?

Fri Apr 04, 2014 9:35 pm

Maps and Mapmakers of the Civil War has a captioned commentary on one map that states (paraphrase): "Bayonet wounds were rare and hand-to-hand fighting was uncommon." Page 183, somewhere around that point.
[color="#AFEEEE"]"Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!"[/color]

-Daniel Webster



[color="#FFA07A"]"C'mon, boys, we got the damn Yankees on the run!"[/color]

-General Joseph Wheeler, US Army, serving at Santiago in 1898



RULES

(A) When in doubt, agree with Ace.

(B) Pull my reins up sharply when needed, for I am a spirited thoroughbred and forget to turn at the post sometimes.





Image

hanny1
Lieutenant
Posts: 149
Joined: Sat Jan 02, 2016 11:57 am

Re:

Thu Mar 16, 2017 5:24 pm

GraniteStater wrote:Maps and Mapmakers of the Civil War has a captioned commentary on one map that states (paraphrase): "Bayonet wounds were rare and hand-to-hand fighting was uncommon." Page 183, somewhere around that point.


Or you can read the Surgeon General report for the War, For the entire war the record counts 37,498 wounded soldiers from lacerations and incisions, 30% did not survive treatment. 282,000 wia, so 13% of those treated in hospital bore close combat cutting wounds, witha mortality rate of 30%. Hardly rare or littel close combat, but that is clwear to anyone reading a book on the WBTS.

khbynum
Major
Posts: 220
Joined: Wed May 02, 2012 8:00 pm

Re: How much Hand-to-hand combat actually occured?

Sat Mar 18, 2017 6:13 pm

Those are interesting numbers, hanny1. I would have expected the percentage of such wounds to be more like 5%. I wonder if the relative lethality of different kinds of wounds might not be a factor. If wounds from edged weapons were less immediately lethal, the victims would show up at field hospitals in relatively greater numbers. I know of no data on the cause of death of soldiers killed on the field, as opposed to died of wounds. You posted that 30% of soldiers with such wounds died. Are there data on what percentage of soldiers wounded by gunfire or artillery died of their wounds?

User avatar
Morgan
Conscript
Posts: 17
Joined: Sat Mar 18, 2017 3:10 pm
Location: North Carolina
Contact: Twitter

Re:

Sun Mar 19, 2017 12:01 am

GraniteStater wrote:Peritonitis, I believe. Before the 1930s and 'sulfa drugs', if you were gutshot or had a perforated intestine in any way, you were dead within 72 hours. No effective treatment before then, afaik.


I remember reading a history of the Battle of Stalingrad, and it said that the most feared wound among the German soldiers during the encirclement was an abdominal wound. A man could recover from a wounded limb, and a bullet in the head or chest would usually be an instant death, but an abdominal wound meant a long, painful death.

User avatar
Durk
Posts: 2125
Joined: Thu Apr 28, 2011 4:36 am
Location: Wyoming

Re: How much Hand-to-hand combat actually occured?

Sun Mar 19, 2017 2:21 am

Though some modern analysis have clarified much of Livermore's data, his Numbers and Losses in the Civil War in American is the most reliable place to start.
https://archive.org/details/numberslosses00liverich

hanny1
Lieutenant
Posts: 149
Joined: Sat Jan 02, 2016 11:57 am

Re: How much Hand-to-hand combat actually occured?

Tue Mar 21, 2017 8:49 am

khbynum wrote:Those are interesting numbers, hanny1. I would have expected the percentage of such wounds to be more like 5%. I wonder if the relative lethality of different kinds of wounds might not be a factor. If wounds from edged weapons were less immediately lethal, the victims would show up at field hospitals in relatively greater numbers. I know of no data on the cause of death of soldiers killed on the field, as opposed to died of wounds. You posted that 30% of soldiers with such wounds died. Are there data on what percentage of soldiers wounded by gunfire or artillery died of their wounds?
of course it's the best numbers we have, since it only contains those recieving treatment, since close combat casualties who survive and are taken pow we don't have them, or those that don't survive. No one really knows if it's 5 or 13%, it's just the best we can do from the data that exists. Surgeon general reports, 3 vols is available online and breaks down wounds by calibrate and location with survival rate, unsurprising a 69 calibrate wound to the torso is 69% fatal, higher than lower calibres. one that amazes me is the photo of the serving cs soldier of Minnie ball to forehead!.)There are models that predict post combat mortality rates based on nations historical data, in fact wbts medical services and roman were almost a wash in survival rates post battle as its infection that's doing the killing, some engagements have good enough data as well, 7 days for instance over half the ccsa win survive and return inside weeks to service. Try a search for medical and surgical history of the war of the rebellion and get the Us data on wounds etc from that free download

Return to “ACW History Club / Histoire de la Guerre de Sécession”

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest