The Bayonet

The Bayonet

In American Civil War literature, no single item of equipment has had such a poor treatment as the bayonet.  Appearing in the 17th century, the first known examples were said to have derived their name from the French Town of Bayonne, where it is alleged they were developed. Hard to say for certain.

What can be said for certain is that, by the time of the Civil War, the bayonet was still seen as an integral part of the Infantryman’s kit, and many descriptions of both fact and fantasy were given of bayonet charges, coupled with cries of “Give ‘em the cold steel, boys!” by writers and politicians alike.

However, after the civil war, and interesting thing happened. Historians started to report that, despite all it’s reputation, the bayonet was hardly used at all! How could this be? How could so many period letters and accounts be so wildly inaccurate?

The allegation of the rarely-used bayonet is a case of examining a fact out of context. The claim is based upon fact: The Surgeon General of the Army of the United States, in 1870,  caused a series of books to be printed entitled: The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, (1861-65) .  These books, in several volumes, outlined all of the actions, capabilities, results, orders and letters of both armies Medical Departments during the course of the war.  Among the many fascinating tidbits is a table of types of wounds treated in Federal Hospitals. Fewer than 1,000 bayonet wounds are listed.

Historians jumped upon this and began to proclaim that, far from being the decisive weapon, the instrument of close-order combat, the bayonet was by and large an impediment to the soldier, who had little use for it other than as a tool about camp or bivouac. Other writers, following the initial wave of books and articles, continued to report the same, and it has influenced many an arm chair general’s discussions of ACW period combat.

Yet, there remains all those pesky letters, diaries, and other contemporary accounts, such as Jonathon Newcomb’s letter regarding his unit (3rd Maine Infantry) and their actions during the 7-day’s battles of 1862. Newcomb writes that the 3rd was posted in line of battle behind a rail fence, half-obscured with tall grass and ordered to lay prone.  As the 8th & 11th Alabama approached, the 3rd Maine “rose up and fired a volley, then pitched into them with bayonets and clubbed muskets and drove them back for nearly a mile”.

The answer to the question is elegantly simple and involves the bayonet itself. The weapon was an 18” long steel triangular shape, with fluted blade which tapered into a solid triangle, attached to a socket via a curved steel shank. It was not sharpened, and was designed for thrusting and parrying.  It’s cross-section created a wound that would not close easily, and as a result, was normally fatal. Yes, fewer than 1,000 wounds from bayonets were treated at Federal Hospitals during the war. That is because the majority of bayonet wounds were fatal, or were so slight that surgeons could deal with it and return the man to his unit without having to go to the hospital.

Litter bearers only picked up the wounded. Burial details only rarely remarked upon the nature of wounds. Thus, they were not included in the statistical abstracts put out by the Surgeon General’s Office.

Bayonets were used, and often with deadly effect. At times, the sight of a determined force advancing with fixed bayonets was enough to cause the other side to “skedaddle” before they came to close-quarters. However, the myth that bayonets were never actually used in combat should be put to rest alongside those of the “ragged Reb” and the ‘well-fed Yank” and others I will address in coming posts.


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2 Responses to “The Bayonet”

  1. January 26, 2010 at 16:50

    I mind something Gen'l Patton is supposed to have said: "Few are wounded by the bayonet, but many are scared by it." It _is_ scary, which is why it's used in riot control. Rationally, a bullet is more likely to kill me, but I confess that I am more scared at a lizard-brain level by the thought of someone waving a knife than I am of someone waving a pistol.

  2. January 26, 2010 at 17:15

    It is, indeed, as much a psychological weapon as a physical one. One of the things that John Keegan pointed out in his book "The Face of Battle" is that the defender can, in linear combat, see only a handful of his friends to either side, but he could plainly see the several thousand of the enemy advancing towards him. If they have bayonets flashing in the sunlight, that certainly would give one pause.

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