Civil War News Review

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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.

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