Civil War Weapons
From rocks to rifles, find out how Civil War soldiers armed themselves
By Catherine McNiff
This country’s bloodiest war, the Civil War killed more Americans than all other wars from the American Revolution through the Korean War. And recent scholarship by Dr. J. David Hacker, a demographic historian, questions the commonly held number of 620,000 total deaths, making a claim for a number up to 850,000—a number that far exceeds the combined total of all fatalities in America’s history.
How Did They Die?
While weapons are the tools of war, they are not the only cause of death. Disease killed more men in the Civil War than were killed in battle by a ratio of 5:3. Those healthy enough to fight were not always guaranteed a functioning weapon; shortages, obsolescence, and a complete absence of quality control left the common soldier often unarmed, and always vulnerable.
Tools of War
When armed, what weapons were likely carried or used by a Civil War soldier?Rifled firearms (longarms): the closest thing to a standard Civil War firearm was the Springfield 1861 rifle. It was a percussion rifle musket which used the minié ball, a conical-shaped bullet invented in 1849 which increased distance and accuracy.
Swords and bayonets: as hand-to-hand combat was rare in the Civil War, the sword or bayonet was often viewed as anachronistic, adding only weight to the infantryman’s arsenal. More often than not, the sword or bayonet was used as a multipurpose tool, such as cooking food over an open fire.
Pistols and revolvers: many soldiers brought a handgun with them when they entered the war, the handgun being popular for personal defense in the young country. Effective only at close range, most handguns were discarded or traded early in the soldier’s career, or when they could get their hands on a longarm. Popular handguns were made by Colt and Remington.
Smoothbore muskets: less expensive, easier to get, and less effective than rifled firearms, the smoothbore musket had a barrel that was completely smooth inside and was extremely prevalent at the start of the war. The Confederacy, which had fewer resources (armories, foundries, import options, finances) than the Union, relied on the smoothbore musket as their primary firepower for a lot longer than the North.
Breechloading Carbines: In the face of improved accuracy and range of the longarm weapons that came into use during the Civil War, mounted cavalry abandoned their historic use of the sword in favor of the carbine. The carbine could be fired with one hand and could repeat ten times in a minute. Sharps, Burnside, and Spencer were common manufacturers.
Artillery: field, or light, artillery batteries were mobile units that set up quickly to support the infantry or cavalry and consisted of guns (6-pounders, referring to the weight of the cannonball used) and howitzers (12-pounders) in the early stages of the war, and then Napoleon gun-howitzers with 12-pound loads (the Confederates continued to use the older guns throughout the course of the war). The guns were fixed to carriages and pulled by 4- or 6-horse team. It took 6 or 7 men to set up, load, and fire the guns. Heavy artillery consisted of the larger guns, with sizes ranging from 18-42 pound loads. Because they were so heavy and difficult to move, these guns were usually set up around fortified defenses such as cities and ports.
Improvised Weapons: Neither the North nor the South could be considered well-funded during the war; both sides suffered from consistent shortages of weaponry, food, supplies, manpower, and ammunition. Sometimes a soldier’s best weapon was whatever he could find. Some enlistees showed up with farm tools, soldiers often trained with pikes and lances, Confederates scoured battlefields after an encounter to “capture” weapons, and, in one famous incident at Second Manassas, the troops under “Stonewall” Jackson threw rocks at the enemy when their ammunition ran out.
Monuments dedicated to fallen officers depict them riding their horses. If the horse is shown with front feet off the ground, the soldier died in battle. The officer whose horse has one hoof raised died of his wounds. And the officer sitting a horse on all fours did not die of a war-related cause.