Technology in the Civil War: COLD STEEL!

By Sid Sidlo
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: At the time this article was originally published in The Charger in the winter of 2002, Sid Sidlo, a long-time friend of the CCWRT, was editor of the North Carolina CWRT’s newsletter, The Ramrod.

It is a truism that by the time of the Civil War, the bayonet had outlived its usefulness in combat. Yet like many truisms, it tells only part of the story. Certainly the bayonet was not used in the 1860s as it had been before then. Up through the war with Mexico, the last conflict fought with smoothbore muskets, the bayonet’s value was as a “shock tactic” to disorganize the defenders and take the ground, but not necessarily to win by killing. Men would often break and run from an attack of gleaming bayonets. Most, if not all, of the casualties would be caused by rifle fire, but in a sense the victory belonged to the bayonets.

The Civil War started out with just that tactic in mind, but the superior range and accuracy of the rifled musket, developed between the wars, changed everything. The charging line would be stopped in its tracks before it was close enough to use bayonets. It was only at times of desperation, when a unit under heavy attack ran out of ammunition and the options were to turn and run or make a desperate charge with cold steel, as did the 20th Maine at Gettysburg, that a bayonet charge would be ordered.

The bayonet originated in the 16th century when the dagger used for hand-to-hand fighting was inserted into the muzzle of the harquebus, the first gun fired from the shoulder, and its successor, the musket, to form a long lance. This “plug” bayonet had a cross-guard and a straight double-edged pointed blade.

A 16th century harquebus without its plug bayonet

In the latter part of the 17th century, British and French armies shortened the blade and extended and tapered the hilt to fit different calibers so that the handle could be inserted into the mouth of any firearm, eliminating the need for separate units of infantry pikesmen carrying “pikes,” or long spears.

Sword bayonet and scabbard

Toward the end of the 18th century the sword bayonet was replaced by the angular socket, or ring, bayonet, with a sleeve that fit around the barrel and was held in place with a slot and stud. Also called a “spike” bayonet, it was about 14 inches to 18 inches long, round or triangular in shape, lighter in weight than a sword bayonet, and did not interfere with firing. Full-length arms, such as the Springfield rifle, were equipped with the socket bayonet, which was standard equipment for both sides during the war.

As terrible as bayonets may seem, few in the Civil War ever died from bayonet wounds received in combat. Gen. John Gordon wrote: “The bristling points and the glitter of bayonets were fearful to look upon as they were leveled in front of a charging line, but they were rarely reddened with blood.”

Socket bayonet: standard equipment for both sides during the Civil War

To be effective, the bayonet had to be aimed to reach a vital spot, deep in the body or protected by bone. (They were also hard to pull out.) While bayonet wounds were frightening and painful, they were generally not as devastating as bullet wounds.

During the ten months of Grant’s Overland Campaign, from the Wilderness to Sailor’s Creek, only some fifty bayonet wounds were treated surgically at Union army hospitals. In his Regimental Losses, Fox claims that of 250,000 Union wounded treated in hospitals, only 922 (0.4 of 1%) were victims of cavalry sabers or bayonets.

In the years since the Civil War, the bayonet has had many modifications, but has not disappeared as an infantry weapon. One model of rifle had a permanently attached folding bayonet. During World War I, the British preferred the knife bayonet, the French the spike bayonet, and the Germans a knife bayonet with a saw at the rear to be used for construction. Yet World War I had about the same percentage of bayonet victims as the Civil War.

World War II-era knife bayonet

By World War II, with the notable exception of the Russians, who carried very long spike bayonets when they attacked German lines, the knife bayonet had become standard issue for most armies. It had been further shortened, and provided with a hand grip as well. Japanese soldiers carried very sharp knife bayonets with a hooked ring that would catch the opponent’s blade. For hand-to-hand fighting, they usually held the bayonets in their hands and used them as swords. A common tactic for small attack forces in World War II was to creep up to the enemy line, unleash a shower of hand grenades, then charge with bayonets fixed.

Rather than say that the Civil War made the bayonet obsolete, it is fairer to say that the tactic of charging with bayonets alone, except in desperate situations, ended with the Civil War. But because of its usefulness in hand-to-hand fighting, the bayonet is still a valued member of the arsenal of military weapons.