Fear the Ramrod
It is difficult to imagine what a soldier who fought in the American Civil War endured. Firearms were virtually relics at the start of the war. Soldiers fought with arms they brought from home, which were typically muskets used for hunting. These firearms were very slow to fire and were usually ineffective, and sometimes dangerous, because they were difficult to aim, load and fire. During the course of the war, increments became far more effective and deadly. Here’s an explanation of how the early muskets were used.
Civil War soldiers were taught to load and fire their muskets using the “Nine-Steps.” They were drilled for hours to ensure every soldier would know each step without thinking. Step No. 6 was “return rammer” and while all of the steps were important, this one could have serious consequences if it was skipped.
Pvt. Arminius Bill of the 66th Illinois Western Sharp Shooters, recorded an incident in his diary about a man who skipped step No. 6. It was on Dec. 2, 1861,during a “sham battle” between Union forces at Benton Barracks near St. Louis. Artillery roared, cavalry galloped, and tens of thousands of blank rounds were fired. “One infantry man was killed by the man behind him in the rear rank who became excited & forgot to withdraw his ramrod. The gun went off & drove the ramrod through the head of the man in front.”
At the battle of Tupelo, July 14, 1864, Captain Theodore Carter cheered on his men of the 14th Wisconsin as they fired while lying down. Suddenly a private rose to his feet and began to hurl curses across the open ground to the Confederates. A rammer had streaked across the field and skewered his bicep, and he paused to pull out the long bloody piece of steel. “It was ludicrous to see hear him use strong invectives against the ‘rebel’ who was so careless as to leave his ramrod in the gun after loading.”
Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned, “I shot an arrow in the air, it fell to earth, I know not where.” A beautiful poem, he was certainly not thinking of Pvt. Alexander Downing of the 11th Iowa Infantry, and an incident on April 6, 1862, during the battle of Shiloh.
“My musket became so dirty with the cartridge powder, that in loading it the ramrod stuck fast and I could neither get it up nor down, so I put a [percussion] cap on, elevated the gun and fired it off. But now I had no ramrod, and throwing down my musket, I picked up a Belgian rifle lying at the side of a dead rebel, unstrapped the cartridge box from his body, and advanced to our company, taking my place with the boys.”
Longfellow’s arrow was found unbroken in an oak; whatever happened to Downing’s?
Shiloh National Military Park
(Thanks to Trent Lewis)
(Article courtesy of the Southern Comfort, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Samuel A. Hughey camp #1452, Volume 43, Issue 5, May 2019 ed.)