Blunt Swords and the American Civil War July 31, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback
An old and dear friend of this blog Stephen D., to whom many thanks, sends in this bizarre extract from Battles lost and won: essays from [American] Civil War history .ed. John T Hubbell and an essay there by Stephen Z. Starr, ‘Cold Steel’. What were the Union cavalry thinking?
A most curious situation involving the saber was the existence of a pronounced difference of opinion in the Union cavalry on the question of whether the weapon should be used as issued, with a rounded edge incapable of cutting or whether it should be ground to a sharp edge.
Stephen D. confessed himself confused by this and I’m flabbergasted but the author continues…
Generally the former view prevailed [i.e. not to sharpen], but a sizeable minority insisted that a sharp saber was as necessary to a cavalryman as were a swift horse and good spurs. In April, 1862, General John P. Hatch ordered his cavalrymen in the Shenandoah Valley to grind their sabers; they collected all the grindstones from the neighbourhood of their camps and ‘had a regular old-fashioned ‘grinding bee’.’ General D. S. Stanley, chief of cavalry of the Army of the Cumberland, ordered his three brigades to sharpen their sabres; he was of the opinion that the possession of sharpened sabers increased the confidence of his men [wth?!?!].
However, what would the Confederates say to this ungentlemanly behaviour.
When a short time later Colonel R. H. G. Minty had the men of his brigade grind the edges of their sabers to a ‘razor-like degree of sharpeness’ it led to ‘a tremendous furor’; the Confederates having learned of Minty’s order, made an official protest. The asserted, recalled the brigade historian, ‘that the use of sharpened sabers was barbarous, and contrary to the rules of modern warfare, and threatened instant death to all officers and men captured possessing them… The matter was finally determined by a general order authorizing their use and notifying the rebel commanders that any execution of prisoners by them would be met by retaliation in kind.
And it gets worse…
The experience of the first Ohio was similarly confusing. In the absence of Colonel O.P.Ransom, one of the officers ordered the men to sharpen their swords. When the Colonel returned he was very ‘indignant’ and ordered the sabers reground to their pristine dullness, because, he said, sharpened sabers were not only ‘against the rules of civilized warfare’ but were dangerous for drilling besides.
If Beach had read this on a blog instead of in a chapter by a reputed author he’d look for the 1 April dateline. But there is no get out… What were they thinking? Stephen D. sums up our perplexity beautifully:
I can’t really account for it: except that blunt sabres may have been the rule in peacetime garrisons, an early example of elf’n syefty… Perhaps some cavalry officers, not being as a class famous for rapid thought, didn’t really appreciate they were at war?
Any other thoughts? drbeachcombing AT yahoo dot com
1 August 2013: Mark Davis writes I was told by a Civil War reenactor that the sabers were blunt because they tended to stick into bone and catch if sharpened.Keeping them blunt prevented this and also prevented weakness in the blade from over sharpening.Remember,sharp or not this thin metal rod would crack skulls open…especially from horseback. MC writes: Ah what a kettle of fish we have here. I have nothing conclusive to offer, but in general, the nineteenth century saw long and bitter debates about the role of the modern cavalryman, and whether the cavalry sabre was to be regarded as a slashing or a stabbing weapon. This debate was going on worldwide, with troopers being equipped with differently designed swords every few years and having to be retrained for a different fencing style … again. As late as 1913, an obscure second Lieutenant named George S Patton wrote a manual of swordsmanship called “The Form and Use of the Saber”. He wrote : “In the Peninsula War the English nearly always used the sword for cutting. The French dragoons, on the contrary, used only the point which, with their long straight swords caused almost always a fatal wound. This made the English protest that the French did not fight fair. Marshal Saxe wished to arm the French cavalry with a blade of a triangular cross section so as to make the use of the point obligatory. At Wagram, when the cavalry of the guard passed in review before a charge, Napoleon called to them, “Don’t cut! The point! The point!” In the end, stabbing won. One of the last major sabre designs issued to any major army was the 1908 Trooper’s sword (and the related 1912 Officer’s pattern that is still carried in the British Army on ceremonial occasions). It is a purely stabbing weapon that is widely regarded as the perfect cavalryman’s weapon. Of course, it was introduced just as cavalry was finally becoming totally obsolete. So what you are seeing here is probably an internal squabble between combatants who had been to the same military academies, been indoctrinated into the same military thinking du jour, and now one side is proposing to do something contrary to accepted doctrine, introducing an element of surprise. It’s just not gentlemanly! JCE writes: Regarding the question of dull American sabres/sabers in the American Civil War (ACW), I was surprised to learn there was controversy associated with the practice of blade sharpening. I was aware of the American peccadillo about sabres although am unaware if it was widespread. I know that British cavalry usually sharpened their sabres in the days after the ACW, and I think it was the practice in British units in the Napoleonic Wars. For example, I know some of Napoleon’s cavalry feared and objected to the use by English dragoons of their deeply curved 1796 Pattern Light Cavalry Sabre , which delivered devastating slashing cuts. The French themselves generally preferred less curved sabres with sharpened points , particularly in the case of their cuirassiers’ perfectly straight, long sabre blade. Tactics was behind the preference, as the French taught their cavalry to thrust with the sabre, which delivered a highly lethal piercing wound; while the English opted for the chopping, hacking and slashing with their scimitar-like blades. The outcome was that the French method led to higher lethality, but the English way resulted in far more, and more grievous, wounds, which were often permanently disabling. I don’t know where the practice would have come from in American units, but their officers tended to worship European military practice, particularly those associated with the Napoleonic Wars. So I can’t understand where the penchant for fighting with dull blades came from. if indeed it was more widespread than an isolated practice. I had assumed that it was a tactical preference, not a moral choice. I had thought, and perhaps had read many decades ago, that a blunt sabre was preferred by some because it posed little chance of biting too deep into flesh or bone, and thus getting stuck and disarming the bearer. I guess the theory is that a sharpened blade might bite too deep, like a sharpened ax might get stuck in green wood. I have my doubts that a sharpened saber would bite to the point of being irretrievable. I do know that of the relatively few sabre wounds treated in the US Civil War, they seemed to be crushing rather than cutting wounds. I fail to see how a completely fractured arm or a depressed fracture of the skull is in any way more humane than a deep, clean cut to flesh or bone. Perhaps it had to do with the relative inability to stop bleeding in the ACW. They could deal with broken bones and crushed skulls; but a trooper who had an artery severed by a sharpened sabre in the field was almost certainly a corpse before a surgeon could treat him. I came across some web pages of sword enthusiasts in which the dull sabre question is bandied about. I think they may discuss some of the answers I suggest. This link, which appears to deal with, uh, zombies and sabres, has a pretty detailed general discussion of sabre tactics and the history of the thrust vs. cut controversy. I’m unsure which method is more effective with zombies. But the whole issue is made all the more irrelevant because of the bias against sabres in the ACW. I know the ideal is of the beau sabreur, clad in plumed hat and thigh-high boots, flashing his sabre in a gallant charge across a field to do battle with his counterpart, but I think reality is different. Cavalry troopers of both sides preferred firearms, either carbines or multiple multi-shot pistols. It was not unusual to see troopers go into battle armed with two brace of revolvers, or even more. They would fire at close range while moving or nearly so, replace the empty pistol in a holster and then choose another to continue firing and riding. Wade writes: My Dad was a Civil War buff and had a pretty good library. I remember reading somewhere that US and Confederate calvary troops mostly fought with carbines and pistols, so that the saber was almost a relic weapon for them. This post mentions that the sabers came unsharpened from the factories. Fifth post down by Jim McDougal Here is an interesting aside from Wikipedia on Nathan Bedford Forrest and saber sharpening: At six feet, two inches (1.88 m) tall and 210 pounds (95 kg; 15 stone), Forrest was physically imposing and intimidating, especially compared to the average height of men at the time. He used his skills as a hard rider and fierce swordsman to great effect. (He was known to sharpen both the top and bottom edges of his heavy saber.) KHM writes: The key phrase here seems to be “civilized warfare,” an oxymoron in our thermonuclear era. The notion that war can be civilized primarily derives from Christian sources dating back to Medieval times. The church then was successful in prohibiting war activity on Sunday, on church lands, and gave sanctuary to those fleeing to places of worship, for example. It also expounded on what a “just war” would entail. However, with the advent of cannons and firearms, especially since the time of Napoleon, considerations of this sort have been in serious decline; and after the experience with Hitler, we look with astonishment at the idea that sabers should be deliberately left blunt. It gives us a realistic idea of how brutal and inhumane war has become in the last 150+ years, but the bright side is that medicine has correspondingly made great advances in treating battle wounds with anesthetics, blood plasma, antibiotics, etc. Chris from Haunted Ohio Books writes: I always thought cavalry sabers were primarily decorative/ceremonial, like a field marshal’s baton. My great-great grandfather, who was just a private, used his for bashing at the enemy’s sword, rather than cutting off heads and limbs. But it didn’t do you any good if you couldn’t hold onto the blessed thing: On an expedition to Knoxville, Tennessee, Company M [Third Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Cavalry] charged a company of Georgia cavalry and Private Jacob Kreis selected his man. As they came in collision and their sabers clashed, Jake’s saber flew out of his grasp, but with great presence of mind he spurred his horse close to his enemy; seized him by his long hair, dragged him off his horse and captured him. As Jake said, “When I goes for you, I takes you.” He had herculean strength, and the rebel was not his equal. From the History of Morrow County [Ohio], p. 173 It was said that Nathan Bedford Forrest always sharpened his sabers on both sides for better efficiency. But of course, he wasn’t noted for being sporting. If the US cavalry wanted efficiency, they should have adopted the Japanese tachi. Thanks to Chris, Michael, KMH, Wade, Mark and Stephen D again!
31 August 2013: Ruthunstoppablycurious writes ‘You can still get a very nasty cut from a dull sabre–especially when swung from the back of a horse at full gallop. The dam Yankees hadn’t figured out that it was war, not a war “game”, as in “We’ll just scowl at the Southerners and wave our swords and they’ll all go home and cower.”. (Though one could say that about most wars at the beginning, no one takes the aggressor seriously until things are getting serious and bloody.) The South was also at the let’s all pretend we’re gentlemen until things get serious. The whole thing was a stupid waste of men and resources because one area was gaining on the other when it came to manufacturing, slavery was only a side note and a way to rally people to the cause. Yes, it should have been abolished, but there were peaceful ways of doing it. Sorry I got off the subject here!’ Thanks Ruth!