Effects of the Minie Ball on Civil War combat
by Mike Rinehart
During the Civil War the generals of both sides used old battlefield tactics which called for the men to march in tight formations (shoulder to shoulder) and attack the enemy across open ground. This made the attacker an easy target for the defender. These tactics worked great during the Revolutionary War when rifles were only effective under 100 yards. The Civil War changed that.
The French army officer Claude-Etienne Minié invented the bullet that would bear his name in 1849. The Minié bullet, a cylindrical bullet with a hollow base that expanded when fired, proved lethally accurate over relatively long distances, and was soon used to devastating effect by the British army against Russian forces during the Crimean War. After the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, both Union and Confederate soldiers used the "minnie" bullet (as they called it) in their muzzle-loading rifles. (Click here to look at how the rifles of the Civil War differed from the American Revolution).
Here is a Minie Ball:
This bullet had a devastating effect on troops. When it hit a soldier it often shattered or splintered bones in the process. Here is the actual bone of a Civil War soldier that was struck by a Minie Ball. Notice how the bullet penetrated the bone rendering the bone useless and unhealable.
Since the bone could not recover, if a bone was stuck in the way above, a surgeon had no choice but to remove the wounded limp be it a arm or a leg. If the limb was not removed the patient would automatically suffer a infection and die anyway.
The KEY thing to understand is the weapons of the Civil War were way ahead of the tactics (battle strategies) that the generals used. Look at the sketch below. This was the usually attack formation that both sides used. The plan is for these men to march (walk) across a open field to an enemy waiting for them on the other side of a field. This formation worked fine in the American Revolution or even in the Mexican War when armies used smoothbore muskets which were ineffective at any target over 100 yards away. The Minie Ball gave the advantage to the defenders because by adding the accuracy and range this formation will soon be eaten alive by enemy fire. This led to many of the high casualties of Civil War battles.
Here is a actual photograph of some Civil War surgeons posing how an amputation would take place. Usually more people would be utilized to hold the patient down while the limb (a leg in the photo) would be SAWED off. This process was dangerous and sometimes would kill the patient since in these days or primitive technology the surgeons would not clean their tools. This would spread infections. More soldiers would die of disease in the Civil War than via any other method. Some of them perished because of infections resulting from amputations.
Civil War medical kits looked like the following. Notice the saw that today somebody would use to saw wood with. Imagine that cutting into your bone!! Yes I know it is a dreadful thought!
Hopefully you see now that war isn't all glory like it is portrayed in movies and in video games. War means death, mutilation and suffering.
More information on weapons of the Civil War can be found here.
More information on Civil War surgeons can be found here