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The Devastating Effects of Small Arms Fire

Photograph of Private Frederick A Bentley, Company A 185th New York Infantry, wounded at Petersburg, Virginia on March 29th, 1865. Bentley enlisted at age 15 in 1864, and survived his wounds, living until age 71. (National Museum of Health & Medicine)

Students of Civil War history often recoil from the image of military surgeons who seemed all too eager to subject wounded soldiers to primitive medical techniques, such as amputation, during the war. Much of this modern criticism is based on hindsight. In reality, most Civil War surgeons did the best they could granted the limitations of the science of their time, and often under very difficult circumstances.

The soft lead bullets used during the Civil War inflicted devastating wounds that would be difficult to treat even today. The conical small arms projectiles expanded upon impact and caused massive damage to soft tissue. The spiraling path of the so-called, “minie ball,” destroyed muscle and tissue and shattered bones in ways that left little alternative for surgeons beyond amputation. As one Civil War surgeon observed: “The shattering, splintering, and splitting of a long bone by the impact of the minie ball is in many instances, both remarkable and frightening.”

Gunshot wounds inflicted by small arms fire (defined as both long guns and pistols) were the predominant cause of battlefield injuries during the war accounting for about 94 percent of the wounds suffered during the conflict. Of 175,000 Civil War soldiers treated for gunshot wounds, medical records indicate that 31 percent of the wounds were to arms, hands, or upper extremities, 23 percent were to the torso or trunk, and 15 percent were to the head, face or neck.

Opium bottle recovered from field hospital site on the Gettysburg battlefield (Credit: Bill Howard Collection)

A soldier wounded on a Civil War battlefield suffered greatly and endured a nightmarish journey from battlefield to hospital. Medical understanding of germ theory was still several years away. Most wounded soldiers were transported from the battlefield to a temporary field hospital established in a barn or private residence where they were triaged by doctors for treatment. The majority of those wounded experienced complications from the medical treatment that they received – most related to infection. A wound to the gut or the intestines was almost always fatal. Surgeons were often compelled to administer opium (if available) to ease the pain and simply spent their time treating other patients while allowing nature to take its course with the more seriously wounded. Writing after the end of the war, surgeon W.W. Keene recalled: “We operated in old bloodstained and often pus stained coats, the veterans of a hundred fights. We operated with clean hands in a social sense, but they were undisinfected hands …. We used undisinfected instruments from undisinfected plush lined cases, and still worse marine sponges which had been used in prior pus cases and had only been washed in tap water. If a sponge or an instrument fell on the floor it was washed squeezed in a basin of tap water and used as if it were clean.”

(Credit: Bill Howard Collection)

Pictured here are several Confederate minie balls that were recovered from the 1862 battlefield of Gaines Mill, Virginia. The bullets are of the Gardner pattern that were manufactured in Richmond. As evidenced by the illustration, minie balls were not balls at all, but rather, conical lead projectiles. The Gardner was manufactured in .577 caliber while the standard minie used by the Union army was .58 caliber. Both measured about ½ inch in diameter and weighed about 43.3 grams. Upon impact, the missiles produced an entry wound of about one inch, but resulted in an exit wound roughly the size of a man’s fist. As noted previously, when striking bone, the minie shattered and splintered any bones in their path. The wounds these minies inflicted were far worse than those made by the larger .69 caliber round balls used in smooth-bore muskets before the war, or even the steel jacket bullets of World War II and Vietnam.

(Credit: Andy Keyser, Gettysburg Relics)

In addition to the Gardner minies recovered from Gaines Mill, also pictured here is an example of a minie recovered from the boulder-strewn area of Devil’s Den on the Gettysburg battlefield. The bullet was once part of the famed Rosensteel Collection and was sold by Andy Keyser of Gettysburg Relics in 2017. The minie shows distinct signs of hitting a rock during the hot firefight that took place on the afternoon of July 2, 1863. Another bullet (pictured below), a British Enfield variety, from this same collection that was also recovered at the Devil’s Den site, is very well preserved and shows indications of soft tissue impact. Often bullets recovered from wooded areas of battlefields show signs of wood grain or even have bits of wood embedded; this minie appears to have hit a soft target and bears stark evidence of its destructive power.

(Credit: Andy Keyser, Gettysburg Relics)

The Civil War was a conflict marked by antiquated tactics employed against advanced military technology. The rifled musket revolutionized warfare and the Civil War soldier paid a terrible price in that evolution. The minie ball used in the rifle musket of the time had a deadly range of 500 yards in comparison to the more conservative 100-150 yard range of the smooth-bore round ball musket. While it is true that many Civil War battles were fought at close quarters, the wounds inflicted by the conical minie were far more destructive than any other type of small arms projectile used to that time. The Civil War rifled musket was, quite simply, the deadliest weapon of the Civil War resulting in the death and disability of hundreds of thousands of Americans during the terrible trial by fire that raged from 1861 to 1865. These bullets bear mute testimony to the ferocious nature of war.

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