Mystery of loaded muskets

This is in continuation of the previous post where it was asserted that although history glorifies the slaughters of a few generals/kings, the common population by large was peace loving. The soldiers (esp. green ones) would prefer to be killed rather than kill. The 24,000 loaded muskets from the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg are often cited as an example. A lot of people relate to unloaded muskets as peaceful nature of common soldier, but they might be misinterpreting the facts and ignorance of the reality of battlefields.

Both sides were using a popular British army rifle Enfield 1853 which had a .577 bore but the standard American ammo was .58 caliber. This might seem like a small difference, but after 2-3 fires with blackpowder fouling, hangfire or barrel injury was almost guaranteed. Springfield m1861 had a design flaw in the barrel which made it prone to misfire. The machining of gun parts in that era was poor and the shortage of weapons was so rampant that a lot of soldiers brought their own hunting rifles. Many makeshift workshops were created to meet the demand and there was hardly any quality control process. Add to it the stress/confusion of being fired upon, wear-N-tear of the battlefield, damp gunpowder and tedious loading mechanism; you create a concoction for failure. Smokeless gunpowder was not invented and guns often used to get jammed and barrels clogged if not maintained properly. With 46,000 casualties on the day of the battle it was easier for a soldier to salvage a new rifle than to repair one. Hence a large number of “defective” loaded guns would appear in the field.

Guns in those times produced a thick smoke cloud which impairs visibility and aim. Hence commanders would order their troops to follow a synchronized loading and discharge ritual. This way the smoke would clear by the time your troops are ready for next round. While smoke cloud from the synchronized discharge would make it harder for enemy to aim and allow you to gain a few inches (or half a mile of Picket’s Charge with a loaded weapon). So the best time to shoot the enemy is to wait till the smoke clears but not too long that the enemy commander gave orders to fire. As a result the incapacitated enemy was invariably holding a loaded gun/rifle with their hands around the trigger.

Fire, Cool, powder, bullet, ram, aim and shoot again was the sequence. Chances are that you could jam your perfectly well maintained weapon by loading the bullet first and the powder later. The muskets balls were replaced with a tighter fitting Minié/Minnie balls and if you rammed it wrongly or the manufacturing defect made bullet was too large to exit properly and there is no easy way to get it out. The only remedy was to dismantle the weapon, clean it and reassemble it. It is possible to do it in a foxhole but not in the open battlefield march of Gettysburg. The commanders insisted on soldiers continuing to load as a show of discipline and training. Everybody noticed if the neighboring comrade whom you are standing shoulder to shoulder was not firing and were inspired that you still continued to be part of the battle by loading and following orders.

The 95% time to load 5% time to shoot is true for somebody practicing in the safety of their backyard. When people get shot at and feel threatened they get into a kind of adrenaline rush frenzy. The time it takes to perform mechanical tasks like reloading which are part of the muscle memory gets shortened drastically while focus, aiming and precision tasks takes much longer. Commanders of that era accused  solders of over-aiming (reduced rate of fire due to spending too much time to aim). Hence there is a higher chance the person was aiming with a loaded rifle when he was shot.

Lastly one should not underestimate the fact that common foot soldier was underfed, did not have good boots/coat to protect against weather, underpaid and under trained. With poor living conditions, poor hygiene in camps, prevalence of disease, blood and suffering reduced the morale considerably. Desertion was prevalent and these poorly trained militia/farm boys (as the commanders used to mock them as) might not have maintained the weapon properly. Every time you fire black powder, the chances of barrel fouling increases. In the confusion of the battlefield, some would not have been trained enough to know that their weapon was not firing and would load it multiple times. Also who had time to fix a hangfire in the middle of the battlefield.

Whatever is the reason, it is only a speculation and there is no way to truly determine what happened that day. However there are several theories that point that loaded weapons were because of the culture and practices of the battlefield of the time. The loaded muskets are not a reflection of the psychological dilemma faced by a piece loving soldier who was ordered to shoot. If they wanted not to harm, they would have fired in the air rather than repeatedly loading their guns.

Peace loving humans

I held a very traditional view of human ethics and values. I believed:

Throughout history human life did not have any value. The armies and neighboring tribes used to raid, pillage and ransack anybody who could be subdued and without any repercussions. Capturing the weak and exploitation of slaves was rampant. Even the church used to glorify it by labeling it with “White Man’s burden” or “Holy Crusade”. Great Saga on conquests and battles were written with gory details on the pain, suffering and carnage these resulted in.

All these indicate the value of a human life that was not a kin was little (if not zero). However today when education has helped people identify & relate to others. Also the macho charm associated with killing has vanished because swords & horseback charges have replaced themselves with much easier to operate guns, ammo and explosives.

However recently I was challenged and presented with a few facts that made me question these beliefs. The consensus was that causing suffering and taking human life was only a means to achieve the ambition of a few generals. The common soldier (irrespective of whether from the winning or the losing side) would prefer not to kill even at the cost of their own death.

Firstly, the famous story of unfired muskets of Gettysburg (American Civil war, 1863). Of the 27,000 muskets that were recovered, 24,000 were loaded. Considering that it took between 30-90 seconds for a trained soldier to load a musket and pull of trigger to fire it, the fact points that many soldiers was reluctant to shoot/kill. To discount the theory that soldiers were incapacitated before he had a chance to discharge, then one should remember that 12,000 were loaded multiple times and amongst them 6,000 were loaded between three to 10 times. There is one famous musket that was loaded 23 times indicating that the soldier had infinite time and no intention what so ever to fire.

Secondly, a famous book “Men against fire” by General S.L.A. Marshall highlights the fact that during world war 2 only 15-20% of the soldiers actually discharged their weapons. Maximum carnage was a result of an artillery fire or long distance shooting where the soldiers could not see their enemy.

Thirdly there has been no historian or military general who has not ridiculed the green soldiers. The civilians (as many would mock them as) were often compared with mannequins and props whose only purpose seem to be to boost the morale of the enemy through getting killed, desertion or fleeing the battlefield. In the Battle of Cannae 216BC, Rome had amazed the largest army it had. Not only they outnumbered Hannibal 2:1 but also was better fed, trained and had the home territory advantage. Yet Hannibal Barca’s battle hardened army managed to surround them and massacred 75,000 of the green Roman Army in a direct hand to hand combat, while taking minimal losses himself.

The point being that history is glorified and often exaggerated accounts of a few men with the intention to inspire the masses; rally the troop and create lasting memories/impression. Like Bollywood movies they need to be larger than life and might not be the true reflection of cruelty in the society at large.