How to Use
Reading 1: Surviving on the Battlefield, 1865
New weapons technology and a stubborn adherence to old tactics were responsible for most of the Civil War's casualties. The new technology consisted of the gun most Civil War infantry soldiers carried and its bullets. The gun was the rifle musket, a single-shot weapon that measured almost five feet long and weighed a little less than ten pounds. Inside the barrel of the rifle musket were spiraling grooves called rifling. The grooves caused the bullet--a heavy cylindrical lead slug called a minie ball--to spin as it left the gun. This spinning motion made the bullet travel farther and with greater accuracy.
Rifle muskets, which came into general use only a few years before the war, could kill at three times the range of the older muskets they replaced that lacked rifling. The older muskets fired simple round bullets and were accurate only at short range, so that troops using them had to advance shoulder-to-shoulder to within yards of the enemy and fire in mass in hope of hitting anything. The tactics designed for these earlier weapons did not change after the introduction of the deadlier rifle musket and minie ball. Civil War commanders continued to mass their troops for close-range attacks on enemy positions. These obsolete tactics, combined with the increased accuracy and range of the rifle musket and the minie ball, caused terrible losses during the war.
After several years of combat, however, troops on both sides learned how to better protect themselves in combat. To hold a position against an attack, they fought from behind "works," battlefield fortifications of earth, logs, or fence rails that could shelter individual soldiers or entire armies. In front of works would be various obstacles, such as sharpened branches called abatis (pronounced "aba-TEE," from a French term meaning "to beat down"), to slow attackers and expose them to deadly gunfire. Soldiers learned from hard experience that frontal attacks on the enemy's works cost many lives and often failed. To avoid fortified positions, veteran soldiers would go around one end, or flank, of the enemy's line. This maneuver, called "flanking," would bring attacking troops across the side of their foe, where they could pour gunfire along the exposed line of the enemy and inflict heavy casualties on them or force them to retreat.
On February 2 and 3, 1865, an outnumbered force of Confederate troops delayed the march of a part of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's Union army through South Carolina at a place called Rivers Bridge. The Confederate troops who defended Rivers Bridge were veterans; they knew how to choose a good site for defense and make it even stronger. They had fortified a bluff overlooking the Salkehatchie River with earthen trenches and trained their guns on the single narrow road that crossed the thick Salkehatchie swamp. The Union soldiers who attacked at Rivers Bridge were veterans, too, experienced in flanking the enemy out of strong defensive positions. After a frontal assault along the road was repulsed on February 2, Union troops picked their way through the swamp, flanked both ends of the Confederate line, and forced the Southerners to retreat. The Union victory at Rivers Bridge left Sherman a clear path to the state capital of Columbia.
Questions for Reading 1
1. What new technology did Civil War infantry begin using? How was this an improvement over the older muskets?
2. What made combat in the Civil War so deadly?
3. What did Civil War soldiers do to protect themselves on the battlefield?
4. How would soldiers flank an enemy position?
5. What tactics did the Confederates at Rivers Bridge use to defend their position?
6. What tactics did the Union troops use to attack their defenses?
7. Why might Columbia have been an important target for Sherman's troops?
Reading 1 was compiled from J. Tracy Power and Daniel J. Bell, Rivers Bridge State Park Visitor's Guide (Columbia, S.C.: S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism, Division of State Parks), 1992 and other general sources on Rivers Bridge.