The Long Roll and The Lost Cause

Discussions about the American Civil War

One Shot, One Kill: The Whitworth Rifle

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During the American Civil War both Union and Confederate armies created special military units which performed similar roles as modern-day snipers. The South’s version of these early sniper units were known as Whitworth Sharpshooters, named for the unique long-range rifle they used – the Whitworth Rifle. Although the stories about the feats performed by these firearms (and the men who carried them) sometimes border on the mythical, the Whitworth Rifle was, in reality, an incredibly accurate and effective piece of military hardware.

The Whitworth Rifle was developed in 1857 by English engineer and inventor, Sir Joseph Whitworth. It was developed to be a more accurate replacement for the standard British Army rifle and that time, the Pattern 1853 Enfield. Despite the fact the Whitworth Rifle was significantly more accurate than the competition,it was rejected by the British government due to higher production costs and because it was prone to fouling more quickly than the Enfield. However, Whitworth was able to find numerous other militaries which were interested in buying the rifles, one of which was the Confederate army. The British government chose neutrality during the Civil War, however, it did not require the same of its arms manufacturers. Whitworth and others helped meet many of the military needs of the Southerns.

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A Whitworth Sharpshooter in action

The Whitworth is typical of most Civil War rifles in appearance and function. It has an external side-lock, is muzzle-loaded with black powder, is fired with a percussion cap and weighs roughly 9 lbs. The rifle differs radically from other period firearms because it features a revolutionary twisted hexagonal bore with no rifling. It fired a special twisted hexagonal bullet made from a hard lead-tin alloy which deformed less on firing (and because the rifle had no grooves for a soft lead bullet, like a Minie ball, to expand into). The .451″ caliber, elongated bullet (smaller in diameter and longer in length than most period rifle bullets) coupled with a tighter twist of the barrel, 1:20″ (the Enfiled was 1:78″) produced an exceptionally stable and long-range round. There were a number of variants of the Whitworths used by the South (even one with a four power telescopic sight) but most common had a barrel length of 33 inches and featured open sights with an adjustable front blade.

The Whitworth Rifles were used primarily as part of a strategy designed to counter the Union’s larger artillery force. Conferderate sharpshooters positioned themselves on the battlefield to harass and eliminate opposing artillery crews. They were used to attack command-and-control elements of the Union army by targeting Northern officers during engagements, most notably (and the highest ranking officer killed in the entire war) Major General John Sedgwick at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse in 1864.bulletdiagram

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Whitworth bullet left – Enfield bullet right

According to many stories, soldiers using Whitworths made kill shots at ranges over 2000 yards, although these claims are most likely possible, they are highly unlikely. However, what the gun is actually capable of doing is very impressive:

At a range of the 500 yards:
— Whitworths were capable of shooting 4.5″ groups
— 1853 Enfields were capable of shooting  27′ groups

At a range of the 1100 yards:
— Whitworths were capable of shooting 28″ groups
— 1853 Enfields were capable of shooting  96′ groups

At a range of the 1800 yards (1 mile):
— Whitworths were capable of shooting 12′ groups (although that is a large group it is consistent, and lethal)
— 1853 Enfields were not capable of shooting measurable groups at this distance

The Whitworth Rifle was made obsolete shortly after the end of the Civil War, (as with most muzzle loaded weapons of the day) it was soon buried in the rise of the metallic cartridge tide. However, nearly 80 years later on the other side of the world, during WW2 the Germans brought back the concept of the polygonal bore with the MG-42. Since its revival, many rifles as well as pistols, have used some variant of this 150+ year old design.

For an in depth read on the Whitworth Rifle – visit FirearmsHistory.Blogspot.com.

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The Civil War – In Color

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While researching topics for a future post, I stumbled on to some colorized Civil War images on Retronaut. Normally, I am not a big fan, no one ever seems to get the technique right, they tend to look like colorized movies from a few years ago. However, these (or most of these) look better, almost like a modern color photo.

Apparently, the colorizing is done by someone named Zuzah from Denmark, I found a post by him on CivilWarTalk.com with a tutorial on his technique.

A Tale of Two Generals

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Union General Oliver. O. Howard (left) and Confederate General Leonidas Polk (right)

I live a few miles west of Kennesaw Mountain, smack in the middle of the route which Union and Confederate armies took as they battled their way from Chattanooga to Atlanta. The area around my house (about a 5 mile radius) is covered with Georgia State Historical Markers noting places of significance in the half dozen or so major battles that took place there in the spring and summer of 1864. I learned from one of these markers that a nearby house, served as the last headquarters of Confederate general, Leonidas Polk. I had previously read-up about Polk’s life and career after learning he had been killed during the war at a location about 2 miles from my house.

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State historical marker indicating site of Howard’s headquarters

One evening while stuck in traffic, about one quarter of a mile west on the same road as, and in sight of, Polk’s final headquarters, I happened to notice a historical marker I had never seen (at the time the marker was overgrown with vines). The plaque noted the site had been used as a headquarters by Union general Oliver O. Howard a few days after Polk’s death and a few days before the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. I didn’t think much about the sign or it’s significance, I was familiar with Howard as a general, but really knew no specifics about his life before or after the war.

A few weeks later I happened to read an article about Howard University and its founder, Oliver O. Howard. Based on my previous knowledge about Polk, I was immediately struck by the differences between the two men and the coincidence of location of their headquarter sites. I was driven to investigate the lives of both men more in more detail, as I did, I realized they had nearly as many significant similarities as they had differences. Both men represent an ideal contrast between North and South, and an ideal first posting for this blog…

Both men’s backgrounds reflected the extremes of Southern and Northern societies:

  • Polk was born in Raleigh, North Carolina to a prosperous planter family which owned numerous slaves (some sources indicate several hundred).
  • Howard was born in Leeds, Maine and, prior to West Point, attended Bowdoin College, one of the major centers of the abolition movement (Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the campus of the college).

Both men excelled at West Point and graduated high in their respective classes:

  • Polk graduated in 1827, 8th out of a class of 38.
  • Howard graduated 1857, 4th out of a class of 46.

Both men experienced a religious conversion around their time of graduation from West Point:

  • Polk resigned his brevet lieutenant commission six months after graduation to attend the Virginia Theological Seminary to become an Episcopal minister.
  • Howard converted to evangelical Christianity shortly after his first posting and considered resigning his lieutenant commission to become a minister.

Both men acquired sobriquets related to their religious devotion:

  • Polk was known as “The Fighting Bishop” (he had been the Episcopal Bishop for the state of Louisiana before the war) and was adored by the troops under his command.
  • Howard was known as “The Christian General” a name that was rarely used without derision.

Both men founded major universities based on their regional and philosiphical ideas (both of which are still in existence):

  • Polk founded University of the South – known as “Sewanne” (in Sewanee, Tennessee) which he intended to become the Oxford University of the Southern U.S.
  • Howard founded Howard University in 1867 to provide college education for freed slaves.

In the end:

  • Neither Polk nor Howard were highly regarded by their contemporaries (or by modern military historians) for the military skills.
  • Polk was killed before the end of the war when a shell fired by the 5th Indiana Light Artillery nearly blew him in half. The battery was part of the 4th Corps, commanded by General Howard.
  • Howard survived the war and went on to become the first commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and agency created to help recently freed slaves. Although Howard was sympathetic to the plight of slaves, he did share the same sentiment with Native Americans. In particular, he disregarded long-standing treaties and forced the surrender of the Nez Perce indians onto a small reservation.