Saturday, October 18, 2008

Civil War in Middletown

Civil War reenactors from Company G of the 14th Regiment Connecticut Volunteer Infantry were in town today, behind the General Mansfield House of the Middlesex County Historical Society. We had an interesting chat with Sergeant Paul Martinello (left), who answered questions about the life of the ordinary Connecticut volunteer in the mid nineteenth century. Especially interesting were the details he provided about the standard issue Springfield rifle-musket that his unit was equipped with, as well as other firearms from the period. The Springfield rifle-musket was, as the latter part of its name implies, a muzzle loading weapon. Sergeant Martinello added that it was not dissimilar to the Enfield rifle-musket which began to see use in the 1850s in the British Empire. This struck a chord with me, as the Enfield is famous in Indian history for being a major cause of the Indian 'Mutiny' of 1857 (Hindu and Muslim soldiers strenuously objected to having to bite the greased cartridge that was larded with cow and pig fat).

Many North American soldiers used the Enfield as well as the Springfield: since the calibers of the weapons were almost identical (.58 for the Springfield versus .577 for the Enfield), the ammunition was practically interchangeable. The term 'rifle' or 'rifled' refers to the patterned grooving cut into the interior of the barrel wall, which caused the projectile, an early version of the conventional missile shaped bullet called the 'Minié ball' (after the French inventor of the same name), to spin rapidly as it exited the barrel. Note that even though it was called a 'ball', the projectile was really bullet shaped. Prior to the Minié ball, ammunition was spherical and the tolerances were fairly low (i.e., the diameter of the ball was significantly smaller than that of the barrel); as a result the ball would ricochet up the barrel and veer off in whatever direction was dictated by the last contact with the barrel wall. The spinning motion of the Minié projectile and the precision sizing of the bullet and barrel dramatically enhanced accuracy and range, so much so that proper gun sights were being introduced at this time for sharpshooters. The range was about 300 to 500 yards, with up to 1000 yards for sharpshooters with sights. The Minié ball was made of lead and was heavy, and on impact it spread out. This did extraordinary damage to the body, and was responsible for the large number of amputations during the Civil War, since a bone could not be easily repaired after being shattered by the expanding bullet. The increased range and effect naturally changed the nature of battle.

The Springfield and Enfield might be thought of as a transition from the old muzzle-loading muskets like the Brown Bess (range about 100 yards) to the breech-loading rifles that we are familiar with from Hollywood Westerns like 'The Rifleman'.

Company G demonstrated how the weapons were loaded and fired. It's a complicated process, involving nine discrete steps. According to the National Park Service website for Vicksburg, 'a soldier on the drill field would be expected to load and fire a musket 3-4 times a minute,' but 'in combat it was much different.'

A particularly nice feature of Company G is that it has a mess cook who prepares Civil War dishes for the soldiers. Sergeant Martinello told of having eaten rabbit at one reenactment. We were starting to get pretty hungry just standing there listening to his war stories, so it was a good thing we left when we did. I don't imagine the unit would have taken too kindly to us raiding the pot.

Photo credits: Pearse and Vijay Pinch

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Amazing photos! Perfect shot of the shot.