How Much of a Role Did Bayonets Play in Civil War Combat?

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4a40901rDepending on which side of the bayonet you were, the sight of columns of thousands soldiers moving forward with their bayonets fixed to their muskets could be either awe inspiring—or could scare the bejeebers out of you.

But how much of a role did the bayonet play in combat?

The 1870 Surgeon General’s Medical and Surgical History of the War of Rebellion listed the types of wounds treated in Union hospitals. Because the report listed fewer than 1,000 bayonet wounds, a number of historians then and since concluded that soldiers rarely fought with the bayonet and it hadn’t been of much use as a combat weapon.

During the 150th anniversary of the Civil War that conclusion has come under question.

For example, Craig L. Barry in his article “Mythbuster: The Bayonet” for Civil War News, believes the Surgeon General’s report can be read to mean that bayonet wounds were more often fatal. Therefore, soldiers with bayonet wounds never made it to a doctor:

“Some period accounts state that few bayoneted soldiers survived the trauma due to the heavy loss of blood that resulted in such a short time. Perhaps if there were cause of death or autopsy reports from burial details we would have a different perspective of the damage done by the bayonet, but none are known.”

Certainly, the Poore brothers were familiar with the bayonet in battle.

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A Bayonet Charge, by Winslow Homer, Harper’s Weekly, July 12, 1862.

When Francis M. Poore and the men of the 13th Mississippi arrived on the Manassas battlefield in July 1861, they quickly made ready for battle. They fixed bayonets and loaded their muskets, old flintlocks altered to use percussion caps. Spotting the federal line through drifting cannon smoke, the rebels fired off a volley and then charged the federals on Bald Hill.

In the Antietam cornfield in September 1862, Francis watched as 5,000 Yankees in front of him moved in three lines of battle, their colors flying and bayonets gleaming in the sun.

Before charging into the Gettysburg peach orchard in July 1863, the 13th Mississippi’s colonel called the order to Francis and the rest of the men, “Attention! Fix bayonets! Forward march.”

In hand-to-hand fighting at the Mule Shoe in May 1864 that included William B. Poore, soldiers from both sides jabbed their bayonets at each other or lifted their muskets over the headlogs, pointed them downward and fired.

Despite all the close combat the Poore brothers saw, there is no evidence that any of them ever suffered a bayonet wound. Either they were very lucky or bayonets were not often a part of close combat.

What do you think?

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