Results 1 to 18 of 18

Thread: Primary source accounts of swords and their use in the American Civil War

  1. #1

    Primary source accounts of swords and their use in the American Civil War

    The article and discussion in this thread prompted me to look into period (or close to period) accounts of swords and their use in the American Civil War (ACW). I thought a thread on the subject would be fun and informative. If you have any primary source (19th century) material on swords and their use during the ACW, please share them here!

    I will start with two passages from Minty and the Cavalry: A History of Cavalry Campaigns in the Western Armies by Joseph G. Vale (1886). There are several other relevant passages, so please click on the link and search for "saber" for further accounts.

    Note that in the first passage, the lieutenant mentioned is the author of the book!

    Another side note--Robert H.G. Minty was an interesting man. More on him here.

    (click images to enlarge)
    Name:  Swords in the ACW 1.jpg
Views: 168
Size:  116.1 KB Name:  Swords in the ACW 2.jpg
Views: 138
Size:  112.5 KB
    Last edited by J.G. Hopkins; 05-05-2012 at 10:29 AM.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Feb 2002
    Location
    Nipmuc USA
    Posts
    12,186
    Extracted from a thread elsewhere
    http://civilwartalk.com/threads/sabe...e.22856/page-3

    Here is some information regarding cavalry tactics as it pertains to the use of saber and pistol put together by Alonzo Gray of the 14th U.S. Cavalry published in 1910 titled Cavalry Tactics Illustrated by the War of the Rebellion Together with Many Interesting Facts Important For Cavalry to Know. This information is based on his study of both Confederate and Union reports.

    Saber used as a cutting weapon Wilson’sRaid April 1, 1865:
    Ext. No. 41 So far as the author’s observation goes, he never remembers an instance in which the saber charge, resolutely pushed failed to drive the pistols…The saber is a weapon that requires constant practice to keep one’s hand in, and our cavalry officer as a class are entirely deficient in the practice. In all instances during the war in which the saber proved ineffective it may be safely asserted that it was owing to two things-want of fencing practice and blunt sabers…The true use of the revolver lies in irregular warfare, where single combats and sudden encounters of small parties take place on horseback, in narrow lanes, among woods and fences…In pursuits, patrols and surprise it is superior to the saber. In line charges in the field, the latter is always conqueror if sharp. But one thing that should be impressed upon every man-never to try long shots when on horseback. Frederick Whittaker, 6th N.Y. Cavalry

    Wooded country not suitable for the use of saber by large bodies of cavalry:
    Ext. No. 44 During the thick of the melee it [saber] was still to be preferred; but when the melee began to dissolve into individual combats the saber was or should have been exchanged for the revolver. This exchange can be effected by throwing away the saber, returning it to the scabbard or by dropping it an letting it hang attached to the wrist by a sword knot. The second method of getting rid of it is quite impossible, when in motion while the third will be accompanied by some danger to the trooper if the weapon is as sharp as it should be. Up to the present time, therefore, there is no satisfactory way to exchange the saber for the revolver while in action…In individual combat the revolver will be the winner in almost every case… All references to the saber as a thrusting weapon which were observed, have been extracted… It will be noticed that it was so used by officers, who are presumably better instructed in its use than the enlisted men. Sheridan’s Memoirs

    Comments by author regarding saber charges:
    It will be noticed that the saber was the only weapon used for shock action except when the ground was unfavorable, such as a close or wooded country. Ext. No. 62 Lieut. Col Thos. M. Browne To secure favorable and decisive results a cavalry commander must make quick decisions an quickly take the initiative…A timid cavalry leader will usually fail where a bold one will succeed. In many cases a bold and sudden attack will result in small losses. Ext. No. 50 Col E.M. McCook A charge should always be met by a charge. Ext. 58… Jos. Wheeler A charge will be most destructive if the enemy can be caught in the act of maneuvering. Ext. 68 J.E.B. Stuart
    I will post more of Gray if there is interest.
    Hergt, Mar 25, 2011


    The book can be searched and read in whole
    http://books.google.com/books/about/...d=mKFDAAAAIAAJ

    Cheers

    Hotspur; Gettysburg accounts mention a fair amount of swordplay but I don't have anything bookmarked
    Last edited by Glen C.; 05-05-2012 at 11:19 AM.

  3. #3
    Fantastic, Glen! Thank you! My ACW knowledge is really shameful. These passages are quite illuminating and have motivated me to educate myself on the ACW.

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Feb 2002
    Location
    Nipmuc USA
    Posts
    12,186
    General Hardee ordered Colonel Morgan to take his command to the extreme left of the line, and to charge the first enemy he saw. Reaching the left of the line, we met some of the Kentucky brigade charging across an open field. We entered this field at a sharp trot. Our left flank was exposed, and the enemy was in strong force, moving where one of their camps wa:situated. The Kentucky brigade charged upon them so closely that it seemed as if bayonets must cross befpre the enemy gave way. The roar of musketry in this charge was so tremendous that it drowned the thunder of artillery. The Federals withdrew rapidly to the cover of the woods near by, followed closely by the victorious Confederates. The squadron and the Eighth Texas Rangers were close up. We lost several men in this charge. It was here we encountered Captain Byrne's battery, whose men were being picked off by some concealed sharp-shooters. We went forward at a headlong charge against some skirmishers, and captured and killed a number, causing their hasty retreat through the woods. We followed closely and suddenly came upon the infantry. This regiment, in scrambling through the woods, had lost its compact formation; fortunately for us, we were close upon them before they fired. They delivered one stunning volley, the blaze almost reaching our faces, and the roar rang in our ears like thunder. Next moment we rode through their ranks. Some of our men, in trying to cut down the enemy with sabers, made ridiculous failures, though doing real execution with their pistols and guns. We lost in the charge 7 killed and 13 wounded. The affair was soon over.

    Page 62

    Four years with Morgan and Forrest
    By Thomas Franklin Berry 1914
    http://books.google.com/books?output...AAAYAAJ&jtp=62

    Cut would perhaps infer sharps but it is not clear. In a diary of four years with Morgan and Forrest, the preceeding is the only mention of sabers at all.

    I have some other great old books on Missouri but swords are nary/barely mentioned. For instance, the massacre and following battle in the cornfield outside Centralia. Anderson shouting to his troops "not one revolver in sight" as the dismounted federals are then pretty much destroyed by the mounted Confederates with pistols.. Not one mention of swords from numerous eyewitness accounts of the day either in town at the rail station or at the cornfield. Also, contrary to the mythology, only federal soldiers were attacked in town.

    Cheers

    Hotspur; more if I bump across them

  5. #5
    Exactly! Anyone who reads ALL of the memoirs of Federal and Confederate cavalrymen will find little or no mention of sabre fighting. The Minty book is an exception, and is full of Yankee-aggrandizing b.s., as are all other claims of the superiority of the sabre over the revolver or the repeating carbine. This is not only substantiated by the accounts of honest combatants and observers, not sensationalistic or propagandistic journalists and artists and self-aggrandizing Federal officers, but by the reports of surgeons. After the first year of the war, most Fed cavalrymen either abandoned the sabre altogether or preferred the revolver and carbine, which the Confeds were generally using from the very beginning. These three quotes sum up the honest observations and reports of many others: (Cont'd)

  6. #6
    Gen. Stephen D. Lee, C.S.A.: "The sabre was done away with by the Confederate States' Cavalry pretty well, and rarely used in action by either party. ... The sword is a good weapon, though but little used during the recent war; it has lost much of its effectiveness by the improved revolver. ... My experience was, that the cavalry man was timid with his sabre in fighting against the revolver, and for the least excuse, will drop the sabre for the revolver. ... In every instance under my observation, the revolvers replaced the sabre."
    Col. Henry T. Noyes, U.S.A.: "The medical records of the war show that of all wounds treated, only about one-fiftieth of one per cent. were saber and bayonet wounds. ...In commenting on saber and bayonet wounds, the compiler of the medical records of the Civil War says that a large proportion had their origin in private quarrels or were inflicted by sentinels of the guard." (Cont'd)

  7. #7
    Col. Heros von Borcke, C.S.A.: "These accounts of bayonet-fights are current after every general engagement, and are frequently embodied in subsequent 'histories,' so called; but as far as my experience goes, recalling all the battles in which I have borne a part, bayonet-fights rarely if ever occur, and exist only in the imagination."

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Mar 2008
    Location
    Hudson OH
    Posts
    688
    In the ACW, bayonets helped break up the ground for digging, skewered meat, held candles, staked tents, etc. But, they were most needed to stack muskets.
    Last edited by T. Graham; 05-08-2012 at 12:17 PM.

  9. #9
    Join Date
    Dec 2002
    Location
    Ottawa, Canada
    Posts
    932
    Not from the time of the war but a saber duel between two former Union officers in st-Louis.

    http://hemamisfits.com/2014/04/20/a-...e-of-the-west/

  10. #10
    Join Date
    Apr 2015
    Location
    Hamburg, Germany
    Posts
    4
    The University of Missouri and the University of Kansas play for the "Border War Sword", which is supposed to be a Civil War Relic. I saw a story about it in the news. Pretty cool tradition. The winning team runs to the sword, unsheaths it and takes it to the crowd.

  11. #11
    Join Date
    Mar 2011
    Location
    Santa Barbara, CA
    Posts
    321
    Quote Originally Posted by J.G. Hopkins View Post
    The article and discussion in this thread prompted me to look into period (or close to period) accounts of swords and their use in the American Civil War (ACW). I thought a thread on the subject would be fun and informative. If you have any primary source (19th century) material on swords and their use during the ACW, please share them here!

    I will start with two passages from Minty and the Cavalry: A History of Cavalry Campaigns in the Western Armies by Joseph G. Vale (1886). There are several other relevant passages, so please click on the link and search for "saber" for further accounts.

    Note that in the first passage, the lieutenant mentioned is the author of the book!

    Another side note--Robert H.G. Minty was an interesting man. More on him here.

    Small world...on the 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry, I am fortunate to have found a presentation sword given to Lt. (Capt) Heber Thompson. There are quite a few references to him in this book. He also wrote his own book "The Firs Defenders" . His diary is also published. The diary describes his capture at Lovejoy Station when his horse was shot from under him and prisoner life. He went on to oversee the Memorial to the saber regiment at Chicamauga. This was quite fitting as he was in the first skirmish which precipitated the battle.
    Attached Images Attached Images       
    Last edited by Simon R.; 04-29-2015 at 04:50 PM.

  12. #12
    Join Date
    Feb 2005
    Location
    L'abbaye de Theleme
    Posts
    781
    Interesting thread. I have heard often than machine-gun killed the cavalry saber/sword at WW1, but from the comments above it seems that it was the revolver who did it.

    If bayonets seemed not useful, that could be because cavalry were not coming close enough, so they were actually useful...

    If 1860-1870 is a turning decade, it will be helpful to hear about Crimea and Franco-Prussian war experiences. Possibly cartridge revolvers are the real change. It will be informative to know about ammunition expenditure.
    Last edited by Javier Ramos; 04-30-2015 at 02:24 AM.
    La vida amable, el enemigo hombre fuerte, ordinario el peligro, natural la defensa, la Ciencia para conseguirla infalible, su estudio forçoso, y el exercicio necessario conviene al que huviere de ser Diestro, no ignore la teorica, para que en la practica, el cuerpo, el braço, y los instrumentos obren lo conveniente a su perfeccion. --Don Luis Pacheco de Narvaez.

  13. #13
    Join Date
    Oct 2007
    Location
    Kingston area, Ontario Canada
    Posts
    3,453
    The mention of bayonet wounds comes from men found in hospital, survivors of a bayonet wound. I have not found any to mention fatal wounds.
    This suggests to me that the bayonet could have been used more than recorded, possibly most bayonet wounds were fatal, one would receive several stabs, not just one. Debatable.

  14. #14
    Join Date
    Feb 2002
    Location
    Nipmuc USA
    Posts
    12,186
    Casualties from disease far outstripped the numbers caused by bladed weapons.

  15. #15
    Join Date
    Oct 2007
    Location
    Kingston area, Ontario Canada
    Posts
    3,453
    Disease very true, though deserters had allergies to cold steel and lead. A firearms main purpose is to distance yourself from the enemy. No one wanted to get close and personal if they could avoid it. Few people are expert at self defence.

  16. #16
    Join Date
    Feb 2002
    Location
    Nipmuc USA
    Posts
    12,186
    Quote Originally Posted by Will Mathieson View Post
    The mention of bayonet wounds comes from men found in hospital, survivors of a bayonet wound. I have not found any to mention fatal wounds.
    This suggests to me that the bayonet could have been used more than recorded, possibly most bayonet wounds were fatal, one would receive several stabs, not just one. Debatable.
    http://www.civilwaracademy.com/civil-war-bayonet.html

    Some other accounts and numbers here
    http://civilwartalk.com/threads/bayo...vil-war.72834/

    http://civilwartalk.com/threads/charge-bayonets.24428/

    http://civilwartalk.com/threads/hand...vil-war.94460/

    http://civilwartalk.com/threads/deadly-artillery.1025/

  17. #17
    What are we to make of the numerous officers, common soldiers, surgeons, and civilian observers who claimed, from the 18th century onward, that they rarely or never witnessed or participated in a bayonet charge or a bayonet fight, and rarely or never saw bayonet wounds? Anyway, one thing's for certain: the bayonet, if nothing else, was an effective "psychological weapon" - a humane deterrant - and therefore saved many lives!

  18. #18
    P.S. The same contradictory evidence applies to swords in the ACW!

Bookmarks

Posting Permissions

  • You may not post new threads
  • You may not post replies
  • You may not post attachments
  • You may not edit your posts
  •