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American Civil War

American Civil War

Everything about the period of the American Civil War, 1861-1865, is vast. Just looking at the numbers involved, the distances, the casualty rates and the sheer weight of weaponry brought to bear during the four years of the conflict, it is easy to understand how and why the war invokes such an interest. For example, in Britain, there is the Southern Skirmish Association (www.soskan. co.uk) and the American Civil War Association (www.acwa.org). Around this time there had been large numbers of immigrants entering the country from across Europe, including Russia, many of whom would become involved in the war. This has led to the creation of re-enactment societies in countries such as Germany, Poland and France.

Advantage north

The territorial area held by the opposing sides was about equal, but it was the disparity between resources which made all the difference. Firstly, the manpower levels, which in the southern or Confederate States, numbered approximately one million men between the ages of 18 and 45 years, eligible for military service. The Union States of the north had over three times that number. In the south, a rail network of more than 8,500 miles extended across the eleven states which would engage in the fighting, while in the north there were over 22,000 miles of track. There were only around 18,000 factories in the south that could produce material for the war effort, compared to the over 110,000 in the north, which produced uniforms, equipment and weapons, including all the gun foundries for producing artillery.

Against such overwhelming odds, it is incredible that the Confederate States were able to pursue the war over four long years. The fact they did says much for the tenacity of its troops, despite the superior numbers of troops and weaponry deployed by the north. To compensate for the lack of weaponry, the Confederates had to import firearms from overseas armaments manufacturers, such as the privately-owned British companies of Whitworth and Armstrong. French armaments were also obtained.

There were numerous skirmishes along with the dozens of large-scale, pitched battles such as Shiloh, Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Richmond. At each of these, the usual array of fighting units were deployed, including cavalry, artillery and infantry, using swords, rifles and pistols along with artillery, to inflict heavy casualties. These engagements provide great opportunities for re-enactment groups to recreate battle scenarios using authentic-looking replica weapons of the period. Massed volley fire by muskets supported by artillery gives a good representation (greatly scaled down) of battles such as Appomattox, which was fought on 9th April 1865 and brought about an end to the war.

The imports

The Union mounted a naval blockade of the South, which was meant to prevent the Confederates from importing weapons to make up for the shortfall of firearms production. Even so, they still managed to import over 600,000 from European sources, including France.

From Britain, the Confederates bought over 120,000 Enfield rifles of .577” calibre, along with more from companies such as Vickers, Whitworth and Armstrong. Indeed, it is widely accepted that it was with a Whitworth hexagonal bore rifle that a Confederate sniper shot and killed, Union Major-General John Sedgewick at the Battle of Spotsylvania on the 9th May 1864, at an estimated range of 800 yards.

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The Union, with its massive factory capacity, produced more than 2.5 million firearms, including pistols and rifles, such as the Springfield Model 1861 of which some 1.5 million alone were produced. The standard version measured 55.75” in length and weighed almost 9 lbs with a calibre of .58”. The war saw the flintlock musket being replaced by percussion-cap weapons and the introduction of other weapons, including the first practical machine guns such as the Ager and the design invented by Richard Jordan Gatling of North Carolina, after whom it was named. Another weapon widely issued to Union troops was the Spencer rifle, which was demonstrated to be capable of firing 120 shots in less than six minutes, an incredible rate at the time and was greatly feared by the Confederate soldiers.

The pistols

At the beginning of the war, Samuel Colt was already known for his pistols, such as the .44” calibre third ‘Model Army’ revolver, which he introduced in 1848. By the end of the war, over 150,000 Colt revolvers had been issued to Union troops, including a .36” calibre version known as the ‘Navy’ Model 1851. This would later be used by some infamous figures, including the Australian ‘Bushranger’ Ned Kelly, and ‘Doc’ Holliday of Gunfight at the OK Coral.

Other types of revolvers were also
carried, with British manufactured designs such as Webley, Beaumont- Adams and Tranter. Cavalrymen sometimes carried three or four revolvers along with several pre-loaded cylinders. Once all had been fired, the expended cylinder was removed and replaced with a pre-loaded one, very much like changing a magazine. To compensate for their lack of firearms, Confederate troops picked up weapons on the battlefield, such as the 3,000 rifles recovered after the Battle of Hemp Bales in September 1861. At the Battle of Winchester, in June 1863, Confederate troops captured 300 wagons loaded with supplies and 200,000 rounds of ammunition.

Of great interest

Today, almost 160 years after the Civil War ended, it has gained an international interest beyond that of just re-enactment. For example, members of historical societies in Britain, Germany and France have managed to trace members of their families and prove they took part in the war. Collectors can pick up items at specialist militaria fairs, ranging from personal letters and photographs, to items of uniforms and equipment, swords, bayonets and even firearms.

Historians can begin their research into the war with a visit to the paper mills at Wookey Hole in Somerset (www.wookey. co.uk), to learn how the site produced paper for the printing of Confederate currency. During the war, Confederate gunpowder manufacturers visited the site of the Royal Gunpowder Mills at Waltham Abbey (www. royalgunpowdermills.com) where they were given advice by staff.

At the site of the former shipbuilding company of John Laird at Birkenhead in Liverpool, which today is a ship repairing yard, the CSS Alabama was built by British workers. Launched in 1862, many of her original crew were locally recruited seamen. The ship was armed with British-built guns, including six 32-Pounder cannons, one 110-Pounder and a single 68-Pounder.

It’s incredible to think that so much history connecting the two countries can be discovered right here in Britain. In fact, around 50,000 British emigrants are believed to have fought in the war along with some 200,000 Irish. The numbers of emigrants from other countries who fought in the war include 90,000 Dutch and thousands from Mexico, Italy and Sweden, making this a war fought by international volunteers. Some raised their own units such as the Polish Legion, Swiss Rifles and Garibaldi Guard. Finally, there were more than 210,000 African-American troops who fought on the side of the Union.

The cost of the war was enormous in financial terms, but it was the human tragedy that makes it the most costly in terms of lives lost. The Union suffered about 360,000 casualties, with 280,000 wounded, while the Confederates sustained some 260,000, with 137,000 injured. Some sources claim the figure may be much higher, but they agree that only about one in three deaths were attributable to battlefield causes, with the rest being due to sickness and disease. It is a conflict that continues to hold a fascination for so many different interest groups and provides so much material for historians to write about.