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Nathan M Wuorio




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PostPosted: Thu 26 Feb, 2009 12:02 pm    Post subject: The use of swords for combat during the American Civil War?         Reply with quote

Hey,
I'm rather interested in the Civil War and I'm wondering how often sabres were used in actual combat. I know they were given to officers, and I have seen some found at battle sites that look like they have some damage to the edge, but I don't know if fighting with them was common or not. I would also like to know how often a bayonet charge took place, I know painters enjoy using it for an interesting picture, but that does not necessarily reflect how often it was done. I do love those paintings though!

Nathan.
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Sean Flynt
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PostPosted: Thu 26 Feb, 2009 12:28 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

There's a passage in either The Judas Field or The Black Flower (both wonderful, both by Howard Bahr) in which a CSA infantryman finds the body of an officer on the field, sword still in hand, and comments to the effect of, "so you went in with the steel. I'm sure that helped us a lot."

I don't know if it's representative of the general attitude toward the sword in the Civil War, but it probably represents at least the attitude of some. IIRC, by war's end Nathan Bedford Forest's cavalry had abandoned their sabers entirely in favor of the pistol. There's a great passage in Custer's papers (?) in which he describes waiting to charge, nervously switching back and forth between pistol and saber, unable to decide which will be most effective.

I've also read that the famous Confederate D-guard bowies and other large fighting knives we see in so many early-war images were abandoned pretty quickly.

The fact that the British army stopped issuing swords as standard general infantry sidearms before the Am. Revolution is some indication of how long the weapon had been considered obsolete on the field by the time of the Civil War. It was replaced by the socket bayonet, but I'm not sure how effective the bayonet was except as a psychological weapon. I've long heard that there were very few bayonet casualties recorded in the Civil War, but I have no evidence to support or refute that.

-Sean

"Everywhere I have searched for peace and nowhere found it, except in a corner with a book"- Thomas a Kempis (d. 1471)
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Andre Ducote




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PostPosted: Thu 26 Feb, 2009 1:00 pm    Post subject: Re: The use of swords for combat during the American Civil W         Reply with quote

Nathan M Wuorio wrote:
Hey,
I'm rather interested in the Civil War and I'm wondering how often sabres were used in actual combat. I know they were given to officers, and I have seen some found at battle sites that look like they have some damage to the edge, but I don't know if fighting with them was common or not. I would also like to know how often a bayonet charge took place, I know painters enjoy using it for an interesting picture, but that does not necessarily reflect how often it was done. I do love those paintings though!


Hello Nathan,

Sabres were used on occasion in the US Civil War, but in my opinion the use was not common. The official regulations for US and CS cavalry called for sabres. However, some cavalry units, more often Confederate than Union, simply didn't carry them for very long -- or even at all. Keep in mind a few things about arms, the terrain and cavalry in general in the US Civil War. The rifled musket, the breachloading (and repeating) carbine and the revolver had a negative impact on the sabre. The rifled musket could kill at distances much greater than the smoothbore musket, making cavalry charges on infantry more risky. The breachloading and repeating carbine made cavalry usefull as fast, light infantry. At Gettysburg, for example, Union cavarly fought dismounted and held off Heath's Division long enough for Union Infantry to come up and secure the high ground. Which do you think would better suit a cavalryman in cavalry on cavalry action -- a sabre or a couple of six round pistols (or int he case of some -- a doublebarreled shotgun)? In other words, I believe that the advancement of firearms in the US Civil War tended to lessen the importance of the sabre on the battlefield. Also consider the terrain. The US Civil War was fought primarily in wooded farmland. At times it was fought in marshy or mountainous areas. The terrain did not lend itself well to cavalry charges. Finally, consider the role of cavalry in the conflict. Coming out of the Napoleonic Wars, there are typically two general types of cavalry in Europe -- heavy and light. Heavy cavalry (dragoons, cuirassiers, etc) tended to be large men on big horses with long, straight sabres. They were the shock troops, so to speak. Light cavalry (light dragoons, hussars, chasseurs a' cheval) were built for speed. Their role was reconnaissance, raids, harrassment and mopping up. At the commencement of the US Civil War, I believe tha that role of cavalry was undetermined. JEB Stuart's 1st Virginia Horse was used as a shock troops at the First Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas). However, as the war drug on, the role of cavalry became more along the lines of reconnaissance, raids and harrassment. Stuart had a famous raid into Maryland and his also famous and infamous raid associated with Lee's Gettysburg campaign. Earl Van Dorn's 1862 raid to Holly Springs, MS, destroyed Grants supply base and twarted on attempt to take Vicksburg. However, Grierson's raids into Mississippi were of extreme benefit to Grant in his successful 1863 campaign to take Vicksburg. His raid to destroy Confederate supplies and rail lines tied up what little Confederate cavalry there was in Mississippi and pulled troops away from Vicksburg to guard vital rail lines.

On a side note, think also about the soldier in the Civil War. Sabre use takes much training and practice. There was a relatively small standing US Army in 1861. Regular army cavalry units would have been best trained to use the sabre. There was also a militia system that had been in place ostensibly since colonial days. The quality of training and weapons differed from militia unit to militia unit. Past that, Civil War soldiers were voluteers and conscripts. It is quicker to teach a man how to work a carbine and a pistol than the manual of arms for a sabre.

Much of what I believe about the sabre has bearing on the use of the bayonet. Bayonets were affixed to muskets and charges did take place. How often were they used to kill or maim? I'm not sure, but my guess is that they were used more frequently as tent stakes and candle holders in camp. The most famous bayonet charge of the war, in my opinion, is Chamberlain's at Little Round Top. As with a sabre, bayonet use takes training and nerve. It also takes much training an nerve to stand up to a bayonet charge. Nothing bothered the American militia in the Revolutionary War more than a bayonet charge executed by the British Regulars. If I had to rate the two as which occurred more frequently, I would guess that bayonet wounds occurred more just because hand to hand combat was more frequent than cavalry charges.

You are right, though, about artists. Bayonet and cavalry charges are scenes which are quite popular to portray. I think it may have something to do with the fact that when they occurred, it was at a momentous time of a battle and often they had great impact on the day.

Just my thoughts and hope that this answers your questions,

Andre


Last edited by Andre Ducote on Thu 26 Feb, 2009 1:16 pm; edited 1 time in total
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Gary Teuscher





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PostPosted: Thu 26 Feb, 2009 1:02 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I thought I remebered hearing one of the reasons of the sucess of Jeb Stuart's cavalry is they carried a lot of pistols, and IIRC this was different than the union cavalry who carried pistol but also relied on the sword.
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Andre Ducote




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PostPosted: Thu 26 Feb, 2009 1:07 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Gary Teuscher wrote:
I thought I remebered hearing one of the reasons of the sucess of Jeb Stuart's cavalry is they carried a lot of pistols, and IIRC this was different than the union cavalry who carried pistol but also relied on the sword.




At the start of the war, I believe both carried sabres and pistols. Cavalry units in the deep south typically used only pistols, shotguns and carbines. However, I disagree that CS cavalry were more successful than Union cavalry because of the weapons used. What the South had at the start of the war were more natural horseman, the South being an agricultural society. By 1863, the North had caught up with the South and the Union practice of cavalry use was simply better than that of the South.


Andre
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Andre Ducote




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PostPosted: Thu 26 Feb, 2009 1:12 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

To add another point on my previous post, Stuart's cavalry came mainly from Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina and and South Carolina. All those states had plenty of sabres in 1861.
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Andre Ducote




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PostPosted: Thu 26 Feb, 2009 1:25 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Sean Flynt wrote:
There's a passage in either The Judas Field or The Black Flower (both wonderful, both by Howard Bahr) in which a CSA infantryman finds the body of an officer on the field, sword still in hand, and comments to the effect of, "so you went in with the steel. I'm sure that helped us a lot."

I don't know if it's representative of the general attitude toward the sword in the Civil War, but it probably represents at least the attitude of some. IIRC, by war's end Nathan Bedford Forest's cavalry had abandoned their sabers entirely in favor of the pistol. There's a great passage in Custer's papers (?) in which he describes waiting to charge, nervously switching back and forth between pistol and saber, unable to decide which will be most effective.

I've also read that the famous Confederate D-guard bowies and other large fighting knives we see in so many early-war images were abandoned pretty quickly.

The fact that the British army stopped issuing swords as standard general infantry sidearms before the Am. Revolution is some indication of how long the weapon had been considered obsolete on the field by the time of the Civil War. It was replaced by the socket bayonet, but I'm not sure how effective the bayonet was except as a psychological weapon. I've long heard that there were very few bayonet casualties recorded in the Civil War, but I have no evidence to support or refute that.



Sean,

I agree with you. However, Forrest kept his sabre. Enraged by the death of his brother at Okalona, MS in 1864, Forrest pulled his sabre and charged head into the Union cavalry. His troops, seeing that they had to support their commander, followed him. I'm sure they were using pistols, carbines and shotguns.

I think many of the assumptions about the arms carried in the US Civil War come from the period photographs. Confederate and Union soldiers are often depicted bristling with arms. Most of these, however, were props. I believe that after the first 100 miles or so of marching, Johnny Reb and Billy Yank got rid of everything that was unnessary and useless. Bowie knives would fall into that category. That explains why there are a good many of them still seen for sale on the market today. Same thing goes for gladius artillery swords. Many for sale in pristine condition. Why? Turned in to storage because they were useless.

Andre
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Roger Hooper




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PostPosted: Thu 26 Feb, 2009 1:56 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I've heard that US Civil War swords weren't very well made, at least the ones manufactured in the US. There had been a break in the sword making tradition and such things as distal taper had been forgotten. The result was a clunky, and unhandy saber. Please let me know if I'm wrong about this.

I love those D-Guard bowies, some of which had a 19 inch blade. But yes, a soldier that started out with one in 1861 after posing with it for a photograph, soon found that bowie impractical
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Andre Ducote




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PostPosted: Thu 26 Feb, 2009 2:14 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Roger Hooper wrote:
I've heard that US Civil War swords weren't very well made, at least the ones manufactured in the US. There had been a break in the sword making tradition and such things as distal taper had been forgotten. The result was a clunky, and unhandy saber. Please let me know if I'm wrong about this.

I love those D-Guard bowies, some of which had a 19 inch blade. But yes, a soldier that started out with one in 1861 after posing with it for a photograph, soon found that bowie impractical



I guess, Roger, that depends upon the maker. Ames made fine swords. So did Emerson and Silver. Many of the pre-war 1840 wristbreakers came from Solingen. Confederate swords varied by the maker. Some of those produced in New Orleans were very good. However, for the most part, Confederate swords are loaded with faults. Funny thing about it is that those faults, which caused a weakness in the steel are brass, would have been a problem back then, but now they are in demand for collectors.

I tend to believe that the D guard bowie that was posed with was more likely the property of the photographer and not the soldier.

Andre
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Nathan M Wuorio




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PostPosted: Thu 26 Feb, 2009 8:30 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thanks for all of the detailed info! I do remember hearing about a bayonet charge by Joshua Chamberlain when I visited Gettysburg last summer (amazing trip by the way), and for the most part it was effective in driving the Confederate soldiers back and securing the hilltop. If swords were not really used for combat during the Civil War, why were they issued to soldiers? Is it for ceremonial reasons? Or just tradition?
Nathan.
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Andre Ducote




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PostPosted: Thu 26 Feb, 2009 8:43 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Nathan M Wuorio wrote:
Thanks for all of the detailed info! I do remember hearing about a bayonet charge by Joshua Chamberlain when I visited Gettysburg last summer (amazing trip by the way), and for the most part it was effective in driving the Confederate soldiers back and securing the hilltop. If swords were not really used for combat during the Civil War, why were
they issued to soldiers? Is it for ceremonial reasons? Or just tradition?


Nathan,

I think it was because the sword was still a viable weapon. Maybe not the weapon of first choice for the cavalryman in that conflict, but nonetheless a weapon of some use. Tradition also played a roll, but I really think that it was believed at the start of the war that the sabre would play a larger role then it did.
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Jared Smith




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PostPosted: Thu 26 Feb, 2009 10:01 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I suspect the saber made a difference occasionally, Pistols can be discharged pretty quickly. Reloading in close quarters would be hazardous, and some of these conflicts were close in, cavalry attempting to push infantry, lasting too long to conclude with a pistol.

http://www.civilwarhome.com/cavalrybattles.htm

"Custer encountered three brigades of Confederate cavalry under Rosser near Tom's Brook Crossing. Merrit at about the same time struck the cavalry of Lomax and Johnson on the Valley pike, the Federal line of battle extending across the Valley. The fighting was desperate on both sides, being essentially a saber contest. For two hours charges were given and received in solid masses, boot-to-boot, the honors being almost equally divided--the Confederates successfully holding the center while the Federal cavalry pushed back the flanks.
This finally weakened the Confederates, and as both their flanks gave way, Merritt and Custer ordered a charge along their entire line. The retreat of Rosser's force became a panic stricken rout, which continued for twenty-six miles up the Shenandoah valley. Eleven pieces of artillery, three hundred and thirty prisoners, ambulances, caissons, and even the headquarters' wagons of the Confederate commanders were captured by the Federal troops.
Early ascribed his defeat to Sheridan's superiority in numbers and equipment, and to the fact that Lomax's cavalry was armed entirely with rifles and had no sabers; that as a consequence they could not fight on horseback, and in open country could not successfully fight on foot with large bodies of well-trained cavalry."

Absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence!
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Ian Hutchison




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PostPosted: Fri 27 Feb, 2009 6:06 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Jared Smith wrote:
I suspect the saber made a difference occasionally, Pistols can be discharged pretty quickly. Reloading in close quarters would be hazardous, and some of these conflicts were close in, cavalry attempting to push infantry, lasting too long to conclude with a pistol.


Hazardous is right. Colt pistols would have been quite difficult to reload in fierce combat, either mounted or on foot. Remingtons may have been a little easier and Starr revolvers, easier still, but I don't think much reloading occurred in serious fighting. It was probably something you did before/after or if you were just popping away at quite a distance. For this reason, it is not uncommon to hear of confederate cavalry armed a pair of revolvers or two.

As an infantry officer, I would like to have something I can attempt to defend myself with if my pistol is empty, misfires or stops working as advertised. Something is better than nothing as they say. This, as well as tradition and as a further identifier or symbol, is why swords were issued or purchased.


I believe for the most part cavalry evolved during the war into a mounted light infantry role and were mainly used for reconnaissance, which is why we see the widespread adoption of carbines (where possible) but also, exclusively amongst confederates, of cavalrymen armed with full length rifles. Cavalry charges as such were extremely rare. However, I believe there were a few units of lancers, federal and confederate, at the start of the war.

'We are told that the pen is mightier than the sword, but I know which of these weapons I would choose.' - Adrian Carton de Wiart
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Jeff Del Vecchio





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PostPosted: Fri 27 Feb, 2009 6:39 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Andre is accurate according to everything I have read. Sabres, although probably used in a tight spot, were no match for the firearms of the day. Bayonets, imposing as they are, are difficult to wield with any efficency. Adding 18 to 20 inches of thrusting weapon to a 9 pound, 4 foot rifle only works well when you are in a group. Bayonets were commonly used as tent stakes, candle holders (works great), and as a spit for a twist of bread dough. Probably as many soldiers were injured by bayonets as were injured by flying ramrods (accidently left in the barrel).
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Sean Flynt
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PostPosted: Fri 27 Feb, 2009 6:49 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

It's worth noting here that the practical 18th c. theory behind equipping officers (NCO and CO) with swords or spontoons was that you want your officers to keep their heads up, paying attention to the course of battle and situation of their men. If they're using firearms in any remotely effective manner they'll be as consumed as their men with reloading.
-Sean

"Everywhere I have searched for peace and nowhere found it, except in a corner with a book"- Thomas a Kempis (d. 1471)
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Andre Ducote




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PostPosted: Fri 27 Feb, 2009 6:50 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Jeff Del Vecchio wrote:
Andre is accurate according to everything I have read. Sabres, although probably used in a tight spot, were no match for the firearms of the day. Bayonets, imposing as they are, are difficult to wield with any efficency. Adding 18 to 20 inches of thrusting weapon to a 9 pound, 4 foot rifle only works well when you are in a group. Bayonets were commonly used as tent stakes, candle holders (works great), and as a spit for a twist of bread dough. Probably as many soldiers were injured by bayonets as were injured by flying ramrods (accidently left in the barrel).



I agree about the ramrods and the bayonet use, Jeff. We need to remember that the armies of the US Civil War were not professional armies. In the South, units elected their officers. You could go from buck private to captain in a day. In the North, political appointment of officers was rampant. Politician to general overnight. Training was spotty. The best units were those that were baptized by fire.

Ian -- many cavalryman carried more than one pistol. There are some large pinfires of that day that carried up to 12 rounds. A favorite among Confederate officers was the LeMat. All the rounds of a pistol and a shotgun barrell underneath. Many Confederates in the saddle carried rifles -- not out of choice, but out of necessity. Rifles were plentiful, carbines were not. However, that may also be for another reason. Many a Confederate cavalryman found himself serving in the infantry. In the Confederacy, cavalrymen (included enlisted) had to provide their own horses. It was not odd to read about a cavalryman, especially and officer, have more than one horse with them. If you ran out of horses, you were out of luck. There was no depot sending fresh horses to the units.

Andre
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Andre Ducote




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PostPosted: Fri 27 Feb, 2009 7:03 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

[quote="Ian Hutchison"]
Jared Smith wrote:


Hazardous is right. Colt pistols would have been quite difficult to reload in fierce combat, either mounted or on foot. Remingtons may have been a little easier and Starr revolvers, easier still, but I don't think much reloading occurred in serious fighting. It was probably something you did before/after or if you were just popping away at quite a distance. For this reason, it is not uncommon to hear of confederate cavalry armed a pair of revolvers or two.



True. The pistols that would be easiest to reload would be those that have a easily removed cylinder. Troopers would keep several loaded cylinders and just switch them out. Of course, as Ian says, it would be difficult with most of the revolvers. Removing the cylinder on a colt requires the removal of the wedge that secures the barrell to the frame. On the Starr, however, there is a thumbscrew that allows the frame to be broken in half so that the cylinder can be switched out. I think it is highly possible for this to occur in between charges or in breaks in the action.

I haven't held on in person, but I believe that the Kerr pistol's cylinder removes by the release of a pin. If so, it would be easy to switch out cylinders. Pinfires would be the easiest to reload as they used a metallic cartrige that loaded through a hinged flap on the rear of the frame.

I've had a Starr, a Webley wedge frame and several pinfires. I have examined several Colts, Remingtons and other assorted pistols. There is a big difference between the regulation "military" pistols such as the Colt and Remingon Army and Navy models and the Starr single and double action revolvers, and the private purchase "civilian" pistols such as the pinfires, Smith & Wesson, Webley, Tranter, etc. . . . The size and weight of the "military" pistols is immense compared to the "civilian" pistols. I could not see a trooper carrying anymore than two military pistols. However, I could see him armed with two military pistols and two civilian pistols.

Andre
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Ian Hutchison




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PostPosted: Fri 27 Feb, 2009 7:12 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

[quote="Andre Ducote"]
Ian Hutchison wrote:
Jared Smith wrote:


Hazardous is right. Colt pistols would have been quite difficult to reload in fierce combat, either mounted or on foot. Remingtons may have been a little easier and Starr revolvers, easier still, but I don't think much reloading occurred in serious fighting. It was probably something you did before/after or if you were just popping away at quite a distance. For this reason, it is not uncommon to hear of confederate cavalry armed a pair of revolvers or two.



True. The pistols that would be easiest to reload would be those that have a easily removed cylinder. Troopers would keep several loaded cylinders and just switch them out. Of course, as Ian says, it would be difficult with most of the revolvers. Removing the cylinder on a colt requires the removal of the wedge that secures the barrell to the frame. On the Starr, however, there is a thumbscrew that allows the frame to be broken in half so that the cylinder can be switched out. I think it is highly possible for this to occur in between charges or in breaks in the action.

I haven't held on in person, but I believe that the Kerr pistol's cylinder removes by the release of a pin. If so, it would be easy to switch out cylinders. Pinfires would be the easiest to reload as they used a metallic cartrige that loaded through a hinged flap on the rear of the frame.

I've had a Starr, a Webley wedge frame and several pinfires. I have examined several Colts, Remingtons and other assorted pistols. There is a big difference between the regulation "military" pistols such as the Colt and Remingon Army and Navy models and the Starr single and double action revolvers, and the private purchase "civilian" pistols such as the pinfires, Smith & Wesson, Webley, Tranter, etc. . . . The size and weight of the "military" pistols is immense compared to the "civilian" pistols. I could not see a trooper carrying anymore than two military pistols. However, I could see him armed with two military pistols and two civilian pistols.

Andre


Pinfires are an often overlooked civil war pistol. I recently saw Quantrill's pinfires, which he carried during the war, at auction. I do wonder how common a sidearm they really were when you consider the problems with ammunition availability.

'We are told that the pen is mightier than the sword, but I know which of these weapons I would choose.' - Adrian Carton de Wiart
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Andre Ducote




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PostPosted: Fri 27 Feb, 2009 7:13 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Sean Flynt wrote:
It's worth noting here that the practical 18th c. theory behind equipping officers (NCO and CO) with swords or spontoons was that you want your officers to keep their heads up, paying attention to the course of battle and situation of their men. If they're using firearms in any remotely effective manner they'll be as consumed as their men with reloading.



That's a very good point, Sean. Part of the NCOs role was to keep the men in light and run the stragglers back in. Also, keep in mind that in traditional 18th century military courtesy, targeting officers was off limits. This all changed in the American Revolution (actually probably in the French & Indian War). American riflemen were instructed to aim for officers. At that point we see officers and NC0s start to arm themselves a little better. The British even devised a lighter weight, shorter musket for officers and NCOs. However, most of the officer's use of a firearm at that time would be if they were deployed as flankers, skirmishers or in any other light infantry role. When in line in a battalion company, they would be directing their men and watching the field.

I"m not sure what the mindset was going into the Civil War about training and what an army was supposed to do in the field. I do believe that a vast number of volunteer officers, NCOs and enlisted me who entered the conflict in 1861 had dreams of the romantic life of a soldier and that the war would be over in a matter of months.
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Glen A Cleeton




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PostPosted: Fri 27 Feb, 2009 5:18 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Regarding the worth of American made swords makes me thinking of the 1862 ordnance regulations (now online via Google books) There is the page I attach below on proofing swords. and other pages share neat reading as well. Things like packing swords, repair of and spare blades. The whole book is worth browsing.

I see Andre here. Now we're in trouble : Wink Actually glad he has chosen to field some of his information here and enable others to pick his brain.

Cheers

GC



 Attachment: 124.36 KB
page 225 1862 ordnance regulation Lipincott [ Download ]
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