The Lamar Rifles


"The Cold Steel"
Observations on the use of the Bayonet

T.R.Wheeley

After having determined to write this article upon the subject that McClellan fittingly described as "the brave man's weapon it was mentioned to me that perhaps the article should be entitled 'the brave man 's subject!' To my dismay, I soon discovered this to be true, for it is indeed a very ambiguous and contentious aspect of civil war combat. Nevertheless, somewhat enthused by the subject's historical elusiveness, I continued. I propose this article not to be definitive nor conclusive, rather, it serves to make some observations about, and perhaps to stimulate some discussion upon, the subject of the use of the bayonet.

 

'An intimate weapon'

Developments in black powder weaponry from its first invention, it has been argued, progressively "made virtually all previous forms of weapon obsolete. This applied especially to edged weapons." (1) Despite this fact however the use, and indeed the need for edged weapons was not completely eclipsed, the development of the bayonet from sword, to plug-bayonet and finally to socket-bayonet and the fact that the bayonet is still employed today pays testament to this point. It is however often pointed out that as the 'distance' of warfare increased, there was less and less need for the employment of the 'cold steel'. Equally so, it seemed more and more that combat was loosing its 'human aspect', that is, it was becoming impersonal - "all you do is move that finger imperceptibly." (2) .But was the impersonality of war absolute? In a word, no, it was not. As Joanna Bourke correctly comments in her excellent book 'An intimate history of killing peoples' imagination of war is often of grand charges and bayonet wielding soldiers, heroic and personal. Indeed, in terms of the American Civil War, the recruiting posters of 1861 portray this psychology well, and often echo a somewhat romantic image in which the 'cold steel' draws parallels with medieval gallantry and chivalry, combat between good and evil and the enemy as the 'ultimate other'. It was the dawning of reality, the realization that war was not wholly made up of grand bloodless charges, and the overstating of the historical myth that edged weapons had become ineffective against the modernity's of the battlefield, that went someway in perpetuating the belief that the blade was an archaic and somewhat anachronistic throwback of earlier centuries.

On the contrary however, the bayonet offered the personal touch that soldiers often believed the battlefield was losing. Bourke uses the example of the First World War, in which troops in the trenches were "keen .for intimate struggle... They were willing to go over the top with a penknife." (3) Relatively recent first hand accounts from WWI reveal the true feelings of working with the bayonet. Bourke quotes the words of a British soldier the first time he stuck a German with his bayonet, he described it as being "gorgeously satisfying... Exultant satisfaction ". Another found that bayoneting Prussians was "beautiful work", whilst a New Zealand sapper reported bayonet work as "sickening yet exhilarating butchery [that was] joy unspeakable." In reality, the bayonet proved to be too personal in some cases. One soldier who was open about killing prisoners "delicately distanced himself from the narrative when mentioning the bayonet - 'one' killed with the bayonet as opposed to 'I' or 'we' " (4) Such descriptions of bayonet work in civil war memoirs are however far and few between - most civil war historians never coming across such openly shocking descriptions and admissions. This however does not mean that the 'joy' felt by combatants in the civil war was any different from that felt by WWI combatants. Although veterans when asked about war "hated it so much, it was so terrible that they would prefer it to remain buried", often, it has been proved, it is the fact that "somewhere inside themselves, they loved it too", that was behind their reasoning in wanting to bury their memory of it. (5) Therefore this is a phenomenon that is not confined just to WWI, but rather a pattern that is present in any conflict from the beginning of time, to which the civil war is no exception. It is the social context and conditioning of the period that has led to such comments on face to face fighting to remain hidden in the memory of those that participated, as indeed is the case with most wars, even today. For a veteran to admit to the joy of killing would have been frowned upon then the same, if not more, as it would be today. More importantly however, this highlights that the bayonet was in no way eclipsed during the civil war.

 

'A useless archaic anachronism?'

One of the most commonly quoted facts about the use of the bayonet in the civil war is that according to casualty returns, only 0.4% of all casualties were inflicted by edged weapons. (6) However, this figure requires the historian to raise certain questions. Is this percentage a total of all casualties, including those that died of fever and those that died in prison camps - if so, it is hardly a fair reflection upon the number of men that died in hand to hand combat on the actual field. Also, how can this figure be comprehensive when nobody counted the cause of death of all those lying on the battlefield and interred in the mass graves? Therefore, one must be wary of such a figure, which has ultimately been plucked from some official returns and used to emphasize the deadliness of modern weapons such as rifled muskets and rifled field pieces.

This argument is supported further when one examines the nature of hand to hand combat in the civil war. Almost every action in the civil war had some detail of hand to hand fighting. To take just a few obvious examples; the charge of the Black Horse Cavalry at First Manassas, the railroad cut at Second Manassas, the Angle at Gettysburg - the list is endless. When almost every action saw hand to hand fighting of some sort, then why is the number of casualties officially recorded to have been inflicted by edged weapons so low? Apart from the reasons already stated above, ultimately, when in close quarters, the blade was not the only weapon. The combatant could also call upon his musket as a club, his bare fists and also his loaded musket as means by which to defeat his foe, none of which would leave an injury that could be described as having been inflicted by an edged weapon. Therefore, although the combat was initiated by one side executing a bayonet charge - the casualties were not necessarily caused by the bayonet.

On the other hand however, if the figure was taken from wounds tended in the field hospitals, then not only is the figure unreliable in terms its restricted 'pool', but also at a more basic level. It would presuppose that casualties from hand to hand combat were as likely to be carried to the rear as those who received their casualties during say, a fire-fight. In reality this would not be so. The area in which close combat would have taken place would generally have been one which was of high importance strategically (thus justifying the need for a bayonet charge) and therefore in the front line in the 'hot' action - too 'hot' for non-combatants to carry the wounded to the field hospital. Also, the ferocity and sheer deadliness of hand to hand fighting that eyewitnesses describe would probably not have left many wounded - most would be hors de combat. These reasons also help show that perhaps generally accepted figures in relation to close-quarter fighting are somewhat dubious.

Another reason that helps explain low casualties for edged weapons or hand to hand fighting other than the fact that the figures themselves are probably misleading - who would go around the field examining how every soldier died anyway? - is the fact that combats were often short and sweet. True melees were rare, most close quarter action only lasting perhaps a matter of minutes. Far more commonly, one side would break before a true bloodbath could begin. Sam Watkins in describing the attack upon a Union battery in the action around Atlanta comments on how the presence of heavy support would often sway a charge one way or the other, ensuring that close combat was over quickly;

"But being heavily supported.. The Federal lines waver, and break and fly leaving us in possession of their breast works, and the battlefield" (7)

Equally so, the very force of seeing a charge coming on would sometimes be enough for one side to break, the threat of impending combat being too much for one side to bare. James 0. Bradfield of the 1st Texas pays testament to this in his description of the fighting on 2nd July at Gettysburg;

"The enemy stood their ground bravely, until we were close on them, but did not await the bayonet." (8)

Hence, it can be seen that figures regarding casualties inflicted by edged weapons should be treated with a certain degree of suspicion. In a very real sense the belief that the bayonet charge was an obsolete reminder of Napoleonic warfare upon the 'modem' battlefields of the civil war could well be regarded a 'civil war myth'. The unreliability of casualty figures, the intimate nature of hand to hand fighting and the fact that a bayonet charge would not always result in close combat all go someway in disproving the 'myth' that personal struggle, or even the threat of it, was rare in the civil war.

 

'Re-enactorisms'

Other myths, or rather re-enactorisms that occur in relation to the bayonet is the position of the musket during a charge, and hence, how a charge should be executed. Perhaps the most common re-enactorism present in today's ACW re-enactment community is the practice of the rear rank assuming the position of Right Shoulder Shift. In no drill manual is this practice specified. D.D. Bello, in his article on 'Charge Bayonet' offers the a potential source for this common mistake. In his description of the Battle of Antietam, John B. Gordon pays attention to a federal attack on the sunken road in which he states that the front line came to Charge Bayonet, and the rear lines came to Right Shoulder Shift. This has probably sometime been taken as endorsement for the mistake which is sometimes strangely justified as a safety measure. However the point that has been missed is that Gordon is describing an attack column - the front line (a two ranked regiment) at Charge Bayonet, and the rear lines (supporting regiments, each of two ranks) at Right Shoulder Shift.

Bello in his article, also points out that none of the drill manuals point out how a bayonet charge should be carried out in the field, or as one Lazyjack put it using a driving analogy, 'they teach you how to use the steering wheel, how to change gear and what to do with the accelerator, but they don't teach you how to conduct yourself on the road.' Using Scott's tactics and manuals, Bello comes to the conclusion that a charge should be conducted thus;

i. The line moves forward at Arms-Port, and...

ii. Only when the line reaches the enemy does the front rank, and only the front rank, come to Charge bayonet... The rear rank should be ready to assist the front with their bayonets, and this is best done from the position Arms-Port.

iii. The command "Charge Bayonet" does not even have to be given in an actual charge - the front rank coming to charge bayonet when they meet the enemy (not necessarily all at the same time). In practice, could the men hear the command anyway?

This argument can however be rejected on a number of points. Firstly, it would be unlikely that troops drilled in either Casey's or Hardee's tactics would execute a charge at Arms-Port as both Casey and Hardee removed Arms-Port from school of the soldier, both however prescribe the position of Charge Bayonet - why would troops execute a maneuver that they had not been drilled in whilst neglecting one that they did know? Secondly, by its very definition, troops executing a 'bayonet charge' would naturally feel inclined to lead with the intended weapon - the bayonet. Whilst Charge Bayonet is a very aggressive position, Arms-Port in comparison is rather passive, and would hardly help to intimidate the enemy. Also if the troops had loaded weapons which they were intending to discharge on impact, then Charge Bayonet would be a much more suitable position for the musket than Arms-Port. Thirdly, charges would often break up before hitting home as Bradfield of the 1st Texas describes;

"without awaiting orders, every man became his own commander and so sprang forward toward the top of the hill at full speed." (9)

Again, leading with the bayonet would be natural when the troops intend to 'give 'em the cold steel', especially if not formed in ranks. Fourthly, a point that both Ed Beaton and Richard O'Sullivan have made is that although Hardee instructs the soldiers in one rank, when considering firing he makes clear the differences between the positions of the front and second rank. Why then, would he not specify such a big difference as Arms-Port when instructing the troops in charging their bayonets? The absence of any other instruction can only lead one to the Conclusion that both ranks come to the position of charge bayonet. Lastly, most images and descriptions of using the bayonet fail to reflect or mention anything about Arms-Port, rather, they all describe both ranks coming to Charge Bayonet. Alexander Hunter of the 17th Virginia remembered some of the action at Frazier's Farm that illustrates this point well;

"At last, a little after 4 o'clock, the whole brigade, in line of battle swept forward... The men advanced at a run, one straight unbroken line, with the guns before them at a charge, the bayonets like lances projecting forward and fencing off the rays of the sun, the colors waving proudly, while thousands of feet beat the earth in rhythmical time, the officers well in front with their unsheathed swords in hand "

It could therefore be argued that instructing re-enactors to adopt Arms-Port in a charge is merely replacing one anachronism with another, the latter being just slightly more plausible. Ultimately though, the weight of evidence does point towards the fact that when carrying out a bayonet charge, both ranks should charge with their muskets at Charge Bayonet. This is not really any more dangerous than any of the other positions if everyone takes care, and even to a certain degree, if the attacking troops are taking casualties as they advance, then dropping the musket from the Charge Bayonet position is a lot safer than either Right Shoulder Shift or Arms-Port.

 

'An instrument of fear'

The importance of the bayonet in civil war combat, as in any other war, was not simply limited to its ability to inflict casualties, but also, and perhaps more importantly, as a psychological weapon. The threat of the 'cold steel' as has already been demonstrated, was such that often the defending force would break before impact came about. Thus, although the bayonet charge was far from certain to inflict casualties, especially when one considers the fact that if contact is reached then one would probably receive just as heavy casualties from one's foe. The psychological effect of the bayonet was not entirely one sided either. As well as being detrimental to the enemy's morale, the use of the bayonet would also prove to be positive in boosting the attacking forces morale. Troops even today pay testament to the fact that they feel more inclined to advance against the enemy with the-reassurance of 18 inches of steel on the end of their weapons. Indeed, the fact that the bayonet was used to carry and defend vitally important positions, often as a last resort, then the order to fix bayonets would doubtless have instilled in the men the gravity of the situation.

The procedures that surround the bayonet often reflect its standing as a psychological weapon. When bayonets are fixed, the soldiers keep their muskets in the position with the butt upon the ground rather than shouldering arms as a when each man has done so. This ensures that when the order Shoulder-Arms is given, then the whole unit does so as one man. It could be argued that this is done for effect upon the field of battle, and not just through the needs of military precision. For the enemy watching a line of battle preparing to charge, what they would see would be a line of hundreds of men suddenly as one man come up to the shoulder in a flash of bare metal with the entire line topped with glinting steel, as if to say 'we're coming to get you!' - enough to send a shiver down even the bravest man's spine. Frank Haskell, a federal soldier on Cemetery Ridge on July 3rd wrote this description of the confederates as they formed for the assault, it gives a good idea of the effect that massed bayonets could have;

"None on that ridge now need be told that the enemy is approaching... More than half a mile their line extends,... man touching man, rank pressing rank, and line supporting line. The red flags wave, their horsemen gallop up and down, the arms of 15,000 men, barrel and bayonet gleam in the sun, a sloping forest of flashing steel... Magnificent, grim, irresistible."

Equally so, the process of Charge bayonet is a psychological one. To see two advancing ranks bring their muskets down to the charge would have as much impact as seeing them go up to the shoulder before the attack began, and it is likely that this was done when the line was close enough to the enemy for this to have a good impact - perhaps 50 yards. Bello on the other hand, argues that only the front rank should come to the charge when only two or three yards from the enemy. Doing this however would somewhat diminish the psychological impact of a bayonet charge, for when within two or three yards of each other, the defending force by that time would have made the conscious or unconscious decision whether or not to break and run. Also, in terms of the attacking force, if only the front rank came to the charge, it would mean that the psychological buffering of having the physical support of the rear rank's bayonets protruding to your sides would be lost. Sam Watkins in his memoirs of the action around Jonesboro in 1864 shows how Charge Bayonets was used to spur on the troops
as they were expecting to go into action;

"We expected to be ordered into action every moment and kept seesawing backward and forward, until I did not know which way the Yankees were or which way the Rebels. We would form line of battle, charge bayonets, and would raise a whoop and yell, expecting to be dashed against the Yankee lines." (11)

All re-enactors and living historians when carrying out Charge bayonets make a loud 'hurrah' or cheer. Whilst the drill manual does not specify that this should be done, in reality it is very plausible that this would be carried out as it would aid the psychological impact, and it also allows the troops to express the pent-up emotion of wanting to close with the enemy. In fact Sam Watkins mentions in passing the 'hurrah' of Charge bayonets when describing a charge;

"We gave one long, loud cheer, and commenced the charge. As we approached their lines... Confederate and Federal meet. Officers with drawn swords meet officers with drawn swords, and man to man meets man to man with bayonets and loaded guns." (12)

Therefore when considering the impact of the bayonet upon the battlefield the historian must remember that its importance was in no way proportional to the number of casualties that it inflicted. Indeed, its psychological impact must not be underestimated.

 

'The employment of the bayonet in defense and attack'

Another minor mistake that is often made with bayonet drill is the difference between Charge bayonet and Guard against infantry. Apart from the obvious, that Charge bayonet is an offensive employment of the bayonet whereas Guard against infantry is a defensive one the main difference that is not always recognized is the position of the feet and arms. Hardee illustrates this with plates and text in the 'School of the soldier'. In Charge bayonet, the feet should make a half right face with only three inches between the feet and with the legs straight, whereas in Guard against infantry the feet, whilst making a half right face, should have twenty inches between them, with the knees slightly bent. Also, in the former, the musket should first be brought up slightly with the right hand from the Shoulder arms position until the lock is at the point of the cap pouch, and then using that point as the pivot, the musket should be brought down with the left hand so that the point of the bayonet is at the height of the eye. In the latter however, although the musket is brought up slightly, when it is brought down, the arms should fall naturally at their full length, with the point slightly elevated at the height of the waist. The same differences are true of the defensive position of Guard against cavalry except for the point being at the height of the eye, or rather the height of the horse's chest. Both defensive positions require the feet to be placed far apart with slightly more weight resting upon the back foot in order that the line could absorb the impact of the enemy line coming in at the run.

 

' "Trust to the bayonet"'

Despite all the controversy over the use of the bayonet in the civil war, one thing is certain - the commanders of the day were of the opinion that the bayonet was a highly valuable weapon. It was a weapon that despite its archaic nature was considered to be the weapon that could make that decisive blow and could win or lose the battle. Indeed, perhaps it was the rustic appeal of the cold steel that echoed something of the chivalry of centuries passed that ensured the bayonet's position of reliability and highly personal nature. General A.S. Johnston's speeches at Shiloh in preparing his troops to charge the 'Hornet's nest' reveal something of the emotions that the bayonet could evoke in both the commanders and the men and the trust that was put in its effectiveness to shift an enemy;

'Men of Arkansas! They say you boast of your prowess with the Bowie knife. Today you wield a nobler weapon - the bayonet. Employ it well." (13)

Minutes later he rode further along the lines until he came to the 45th Tennessee, the regiment that he would lead into the action, and at the bead of which he would receive his mortal wound, here, he reiterated his belief in the need to employ the bayonet to win the day;

'Men they are stubborn; we must use the bayonet. I will lead you!" (14)

Johnston is only one example of many. Stonewall Jackson is another who realized what a powerful weapon the bayonet could be. Minutes before he won his immortal 'title' he was reported to have uttered these words to a fellow officer;

"Sir we'll give them the bayonet... Trust to the Bayonet." (15)

 

'Conclusion'

As was stated at the beginning, this article is intended not to be either definitive or conclusive, however it has proved to highlight certain aspects about the bayonet that are often forgotten or dismissed. Particularly its status as a weapon that could provide the intimacy that combatants would crave, its archaic aspirations and smacks of chivalric combat, the dubious nature of casualty figures that may well underestimate the ability of the bayonet to inflict injury. Also notice has be drawn to re-enactorisms and myths concerning the bayonet, and has hopefully gone someway in exploring these. Indeed one of the most valuable conclusions that could be drawn is that the bayonet's importance as a psychological weapon is in no way proportional to the number of casualties that it could inflict. Thus, the trust that commanders placed in its ability to implore a higher sense of duty was well founded. However, if only one conclusion was to be drawn from all of this, it is that when one couples its fighting capabilities with the secondary uses for which the bayonet was employed, such as for stacking arms, as a roasting spit, as a candlestick or as a tool to dig a hole, then the bayonet was an invaluable item of the soldier's accoutrements, and so the common belief that soldiers would throw away their bayonets at the first opportunity is completely without foundation and is merely another 'civil war myth'. As with all things however, the civil war soldier found humor in the bayonet too. The closing quotes illustrate this. The first is a description of bayonet drill by a federal private, ant the latter should serve as a warning to drill instructors when carrying out Charge bayonets - always do it when facing away from camp!

"[Bayonet drill was like watching]... a line of beings made up about equally of the frog, the sandhill crane, the sentinel crab, and the grasshopper: all of them swinging, stirring, jerking every which way, and all gone mad." (16)

"Even such a wearisome proceeding as drilling was not without its humorous side. Sometimes in making the soldiers charge bayonet in line, they would increase their speed and keep on, and never stop until they reached their camp, when the whole force would Disappear!" (17)

 

1.Davis W.C. The illustrated history of the Civil War Bramley Books 1997 p206
2.Bourke J An intimate history of killing - ch. 1 'The pleasures of war' p2
3.Ibid p17
4.Ibid p24
5.Ibid p1
6.Davis W.C. The illustrated history of the civil war p215
7.Watkins S Co.Aytch New York 1997 p183
8.Ed. Cannan J War on two fronts: Shiloh to Gettysburg Conshocken PA 1994 p366
9.Ed. Cannan J. War on two Fronts: Shiloh to Gettysburg p367
10.Hunter A. Johnny Reb and Billy Yank New York 1904 p188-89
11.Watkins S. Co.Aytch p207
12.Watkins S. Co.Aytch p183
13.Troiani D & Pohanka B.C. Don Troiani's Civil War Stackpole Books 1995 p20
14.Ibid p20
15.Davis W.C. The illustrated history of the civil war p210
16.Ibid p210
17.Hunter A. Johnny Reb and Bill Yank p79

Bibliography

Bello D.D. Notes on Charge - BAYONET http://33rdwisconsin.civilwarmuseum.com/33articles/chargebay.html 1998
Bourke J. An intimate history of killing - ch.1 'The pleasures of war'
The Blue & Grey Press The Photgraphic History of the civil war Vol. I Secaucus 1987
Ed. Cannan J. War on two fronts: Shiloh to Gettysburg Conshocken PA 1994
Davis W.C. The illustrated history of the Civil War Bramley Books 1997
Eds. Davis W.C. & Wiley B.I. The Image of War: 1861-65 - Vol II: The Guns of '62 New York 1982
Hunter A. Johnny Reb and Billy Yank New York 1904
Troiani D. & Pohanka B.C. Don Troiani's Civil War Stackpole Books 1995
Watkins S Co. Aytch New York 1997

 

 

 

 

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