Civil War News Review

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Memorial Day

            History, for individuals like myself, is a melancholy tapestry woven in threads of struggle and laziness; success and failure; joy and sorrow; heroism and cowardice – the entire gamut of the human experience. Consequently, I view commemorative events, like Memorial Day, with very mixed emotions. I often think we civilians tend to abuse the word “hero.” Joining the military does not necessarily make one a hero. Dying in a senseless act of murder, like the horrific destruction of the World Trade Center, does not necessarily constitute heroism. Dying in a tragic accident does not necessarily translate into heroism.

            Heroism involves doing something extraordinary in the face of insurmountable odds and, often, at the risk of one’s own life or career. I often think we civilians use the word to assuage our private guilt over having not served ourselves. Heroes often find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and do what is right, nonetheless.

            Who are my heroes?

            My Mom, Rita Marie Priest, who protected us from a very hostile home environment, who clung to her faith in the face of mockery, and who saved our lives by divorcing our father despite facing excommunication from the church she loved.

            My grandmother, Florence Beryl Tresselt, who despite being married to a man of very questionable character, persevered, raised us to do what was right, and taught us to never blame God for what happened to us.

            Corpsmen and medics, who in the face of certain death, and put their own safety aside to save the lives of the wounded.

            Those disabled persons, who despite debilitating physical conditions, struggle every day to overcome their circumstances, and who encourage those around them to savor every day of life.

Those men and women in the military, law enforcement, and public safety who, in the face of possible injury or death protect and save those in peril, most of whom they do not know.

Teachers, who during the performance of their “normal” routine have died or been injured while trying to save their colleagues and/or students from eminent peril.

Parents and guardians, who willingly give of themselves, their hearts, their time, and love to their children, knowing that it may never be reciprocated.

Politicians, who, regardless of political affiliation, and despite knowing that their stance will, in all likelihood, cost them their careers, do what is right for those whom they represent and for their country. Those individuals seem to be in short supply today.

Those plagued with mental illness, and who are struggling every day to deal with life, who do not wallow in self-pity and who fight its loneliness and stigma with determination, humor, and dignity. 

Real heroes will be the last ones to recognize themselves as being heroic. They will often answer queries as to why they did what they did with – “someone had to do it” – they “did not think about it,” they just “did it” – “it was the right thing to do.” Heroism comes from within and is born out of necessity and genuine love. Many heroes recognize the bravery of others while denying their own. I suppose, it is like “beauty in the eyes of the beholder.” The swan, which still sees itself as the ugly duckling. Heroes do not ask to be heroes. Circumstances compel them to step forward.

So, on Memorial Day, remember those who touched your life in a very special way. Pay attention to the personal heroes as well as the famous ones. Remember those extraordinarily special people in your life who have sacrificed and endured so much to make your life safer and better because it was the right thing to do.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Don’t Do That!

Recently, Colonial Williamsburg has been running an advertisement in which living history volunteers are firing a small Revolutionary War cannon while the men at the muzzle of the piece are standing across from each other between the barrel and the wheels. I shudder every time I see this. It violates the most basic of safety rules when firing a piece. Even with a blank round, they are risking a chance of getting powder burned. Hollywood artillery firing is generally inaccurate and very dangerous.

Basic Safety Rules for Firing Civil War Artillery
1.      Do not smoke around the gun.

2.      Do not look down the muzzle at anytime.

3.      Place the guns in battery with 9 – 14 yard intervals between the wheels of each gun.
a.       Cannons recoil, some more violently than others.
b.      Cannons bounce – sometimes up and down, sometimes from one side to the other, or both.

4.      Never stand near the muzzle when firing. The men handling the loading of the gun - #1 and #2 – should stand clear of the wheels and back of the muzzle so that the muzzle blast does not burn their facial hair off, or worse.

5.      When sighting the piece, the gunner should never straddle the trail. In the movies, it looks neat but in reality, the gun’s recoil would severely injure the gunner should it fire prematurely. Stand to the left side of the trail to adjust the elevation and sight the gun.

6.      Use friction primers to ignite the charge, not torches.

7.      When the #4 man goes to snap the lanyard, make sure he turned away from the gun.

8.      Make sure everyone is clear of the piece before firing.

9.      Sponge down the bore to extinguish any smoldering embers and run the worm down the tube to remove any unburned flannel from the powder charge.

10.  Do not rapid fire. The tube needs to cool between rounds to prevent accidental firing. Even during the Civil War, gunners preferred loosing one shot per minute and at the most two.

    While these safety tips are not all inclusive, they need to be practiced when servicing a piece             whether the crew is firing live rounds or blanks.

      Basic Safety Rules for Firing Muzzle Loading Muskets or Rifled Muskets

1.      Do not smoke on the firing line.

2.      Do not stand with the muzzle under your chin or with your hand reading on top of it.

3.      Do not ever look down the muzzle.

4.      Do not stand with the barrel resting in the crook of your arm.

5.      When preparing to load place the weapon in front of you with the ramrod toward you, not away from you.

6.      Before loading, spring the rammer: remove it from the stock with two fingers and drop it down the barrel. You should get a little bounce out of it and hear some kind of metallic sound.

7.      When handling the rammer use only two fingers to draw it, ram the cartridge, and return it. Do not use your entire hand when ramming a cartridge. If it fires, you will get seriously hurt.

8.      Never return the rammer with your palm.

9.      Do not pound the round to seat it. It will damage the round, which will affect its accuracy.

10.  Do not prime or cap the piece until you are ready to fire.

11.  Never bring the hammer to full cock until you are ready to fire.

12.  No matter what – always treat any firearm as if it were loaded. Never assume it is not.

Proper Use of a Powder Flask or Powder Horn

1.      Do not prime the piece until you are ready to fire.

2.      Pour the powder into a measure not directly down the barrel. If it discharges prematurely, you could be killed. Handle a powder horn or a powder flask with respect.

3.      Use only two fingers to pour the charge down the barrel.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Sounds of Battle

            When writing military history, I like to include the sounds, which the veterans’ acute hearing detected in battle. Under the constant stress of combat, throughout history, soldiers specifically described what they saw and heard with meticulous detail. Whether it was Paul Baumer in All Quiet on the Western Front, describing the changing pitch of the huge “Coal Boxes” rumbling over head like a train at full throttle, or John Hersey in Into the Valley talking about the sharp crack of the Japanese Nambu rifles, the ability to distinguish between the type of rounds being fired or the dull thump of a mortar being fired, could save lives because they gave the men seconds to instinctively respond. This holds true during the Civil War as well.


            Both armies used field artillery during the war: generally, bronze smoothbores and iron rifled guns. Bronze guns used a lot more powder then the iron field pieces and they “rang” when fired. Their projectiles, because of their lower velocity than the rifled round, “sizzled,” “hissed” or “whooshed” through the air. 

Rifled guns, using less powder, as a rule, “cracked” because of the intense pressure created within the tubes when the rounds engaged the rifling. Consequently, their projectiles “screamed” and changed in pitch in flight much like a person hears in a World War II moving when the incoming artillery round “whistles” in, starting with a low pitch and climbing to a shrill one as they reached their zeniths and began their descent onto the target.

During many battles, the men could distinguish what kind of artillery lay in front of them, and in many instances, they could see the rounds coming in, and growing in size, the closer they got. Shells and case shot (shells filled with musket balls) often left sulfur streamers behind them and at night, their burning fuses looked like fireflies fluttering through the air.

Different types of projectiles created different sounds. The iron shards of bursting shells and case shot “slapped” the ground, kicking up stone and dirt. The musket balls from case “spatted” the ground. Canister, properly fires, “skipped” across the ground, like a stones across the smooth surface of a pond, followed by a “rattling” sound as they impacted the target. Sometime they “ripped” or “tore” through the ranks.

Small Arms

            Muskets and rifles created their own distinctive sounds. Rifles “cracked” and muskets dully “thumped.” The minie balls, used in rifled muskets (rifles), because of their higher muzzle velocities, “zipped,” if they were properly molded. Misshapen “minies” tumbled in flight and repeatedly “key-thumped.”  Musket balls, being slower, “buzzed.” Volleys, firing en masse, “roared” and “crashed.” The rounds “clattered like stones hitting a tin plate.” Firing at will created sporadic noises, which the men called “peppering.” No matter what weapon fired it, a ramrod made a prolonged “ri-i-ng.”

Miscellaneous Sounds

            Bones loudly “cracked” or "snapped” when hit. Chests “thunked” or “thudded” like a person running into a solid object headfirst. Ignited cartridge boxes “popped” like a string of firecrackers. Bullets “spatted” or “slapped” into rocks. A line in step rhythmically “swooshed.” The rapidity of the “swooshes” and the uniformity of them told veteran regiments not only how fast the unit was moving but also how well trained it was. Ramrods “clattered” down bores, while bayonets “clanked” when being attached to musket or rifle muzzles. When marching, tin cups and canteens “clanked” or “rattled,” with every step, the rapidity of which indicated the speed of the unit. Men apprehensively listened for the breaking of twigs, and the sucking sound of mud. Cavalry formations “thudded” or “thundered.” One sailor on an iron clad described the repeated “spat, spat, spat” of a 64 pounder decapitating the men on several gun crews as it ricocheted through the gun deck.

            In battle, because of the horrendous noise, officers and men alike screamed or shouted. They did not, as a rule, speak quietly. The air during a battle generally consisted of a sulfuric cloud, which stained the men black, smelled like rotten eggs, and tasted sour.

            The AK-47 makes a different sound than an M-16. The Japanese Nambu does not sound like an ’03 Springfield or an M-1 Garand. A water-cooled machine gun is different from an air-cooled one. Distinguishing the various sounds save lives. A burp gun and the Thompson submachine gun produce very distinct noises. When writing about battle during and before the Civil War, the author should interject those sounds to replicate what the men in the field experienced and so vividly described.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori

            Erich Maria Remarque, in the forward to his life changing All Quiet on the Western Front, wrote:

This book is to be neither an accusation, nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure for those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men, who even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.

                Critics have sometimes complained about the vivid portrayal of combat in my books and the lack of critical analysis in my works. I am a reporter, a crime scene investigator who collects evidence, presents it as honestly and as vividly as possible, and lets the readers draw their own conclusions. I do not think like a general. I am a lousy chess player. I write to capture the myopic, narrowly focused perspective of war through the eyes of the men who did the killing and dying. There is nothing romantic or heroic about either. It is brutal, vicious, and often senseless.

            During the centennial of the Great War, I think it is time to dust off the works of Erich Remarque, Wilfred Owen, Sigfried Sassoon, Alan Seeger, and Isaac Rosenberg  and read them in a dark corner of a dreary room and take the time to silently weep and pray for those who perished and those  who unrelentingly relived the war in their nightmares.

            As I walk the fields of Antietam, I often reflect sadly upon the similarity between the apocalyptic destruction of the Western Front and that of a Civil War battlefield.  During the battle, for instance, at the Bloody Lane, the adjutant of the 5th New Hampshire had to pull his men off a dead rebel hanging on the top fence rail on the southern side of the road. The poor fellow had at least 40 bayonet and bullet holes in him. Think about it. Somebody bothered to count them. Similarly, Adjutant Hermann Haase (49th New York) died on May 12, 1864 front of the Bloody Angle, riddled by some 32 rifle balls. Again, somebody has ghoulishly counted them.

            After the rebels overran the West Woods at Antietam, they callously bayoneted or shot a large number of the wounded Yankees. At the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania, a Confederate sharpshooter tied the corpse of a dead comrade upright against a tree, before perching himself in the branches over head. The Yankees repeatedly shot the dead man, thinking him to be the sniper firing into their ranks.

            At Fredericksburg and at the eastern end of the Bloody Lane, Union soldiers protected themselves from incoming fire by stacking the dead in front of them. At Fredericksburg, they used their own dead and at Antietam, dead Confederates.

            The Poilu (French soldiers) during World War I responded to photographers with “Go ahead. Take a picture of the dead.” Alan Seeger, while serving with the French penned his fatalistic, “I Have Rendezvous With Death.” He died in the wire in 1916. A little over 50 years earlier, the soldiers of both armies went into battle with their weapons at “right shoulder shift” and leaning forward into the incoming rounds, hoping to get hit in the head to avoid the surgeons’ tables. In the trenches of Petersburg, exhausted soldiers deliberately stood atop the trench parapets inviting death as a sharpshooter’s hand. 

            It was not so much death before dishonor as it was an inevitable fact. When Wilfred Owen wrote:

 If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
 Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
 Bitter as the cud
 Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
 To children ardent for some desperate glory,
 The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
 Pro patria mori. 

            He spoke for the thousands upon thousands of soldiers who had preceded him who could not escape their wars and who often questioned whether, “It is sweet and right to die for one’s country.”