Echoes of War Evolved

A photograph of a British 1865 Gatling gun at ...

A photograph of a British 1865 Gatling gun at Firepower - The Royal Artillery Museum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Knowledge in all academic fields progresses incrementally, building on past achievements. This is probably most evident in science and engineering, but occasionally it happens with history too, giving us new insights about the past. Blogger Indian Jen has posted this: (emphasis added)

The American Civil War was the most devastating American Conflict in our history. New research indicates that the death toll was significantly higher than previously determined.

“The Civil War left a culture of death, a culture of mourning, beyond anything Americans had ever experienced or imagined,” David Blight, Yale University.

Previous estimates had put the death toll at around 620,000 (with most dying from infection and disease). New research puts than number at 750,000 (more than 21% higher than previous determinations).

(Follow her link for the source of the information.)

Coincidentally a related article that corroborated Gatling’s idea caught my eye in this month’s Military Officer magazine. Author Mark Cantrell relates the history of machine guns, noting their origin in the Civil War:  (emphasis added)

When the bamboo “hand cannon” was invented in China around 1250, its creators had no idea the crude weapon someday would revolutionize warfare. From that first invention came muskets and cannons and, later, pistols and rifles. But until the mid-19th century, guns shot single projectiles, one at a time. After the Civil War began in 1861, however, a man named Richard Gatling patented an invention that represented a quantum leap in the evolution of firearms.

Gatling was born on a farm in Hartford County, N.C., in 1818 and followed in his father’s footsteps as an inventor. After earning a medical degree in 1850, he moved to Cincinnati, where he lived near a railroad station. There he saw the bodies of Civil War soldiers returning from the battlefield, and he noted more of them had died from illness than from bullet wounds.

The sight sparked an idea: Gatling would create a weapon so devastating and superior in its firepower that opposing armies would have no chance of victory. In an 1877 letter to the niece of Samuel Colt, he wrote: “It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine — a gun — which could by its rapidity of fire enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a large extent supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease [would] be greatly diminished.”

Gatling’s first gun had six barrels, which fired .58-caliber minié balls, connected to a gearing system with a hand crank. In the spring of 1862, Gatling demonstrated his gun in Indianapolis before thousands of people, including Army representatives and the governor of Indiana. The presentation brought him financial backing, and Gatling enlisted Miles H. Greenwood and Co. to produce six prototype guns at its Eagle Iron Works factory in Cincinnati.

The day after he paid Greenwood $6,000 for the guns, however, the factory burned to the ground, melting his prototypes into lumps of brass and destroying all his plans. Undaunted, Gatling came up with an even better design that used rimfire ammunition and soon had 12 more prototypes under construction. Union Gen. Benjamin F. Butler was so impressed with the guns he bought them with his own funds and used them in the siege of Petersburg, Va., from 1864-1865.


Gatling Gun GAU-8 on A-10

Gatling Gun GAU-8 on A-10 (Photo credit: ykanazawa1999)

Gatling’s notion about a more efficient weapon making war safer and shorter seems to make sense given the nature of it at the time. Dying young from a variety of causes, even infections of minor scrapes, was pretty common in those days. I’m sure they had “shell shock”, a.k.a. PTSD, then too, but just getting home alive would have been a big deal.  For context though I’m thinking more about Steven Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage.  What would Gatling have thought about modern weaponry, suicide bombers, roadside bombs and an 11-year war, I wonder?

The MOAA article follows the development of the machine gun through the present time, for those who want to know more about it.  It’s not a long article.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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3 Responses to Echoes of War Evolved

  1. PiedType says:

    Yep, gotta kill more people faster to stop the war. Gotta burn the village in order to save it.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Right. You know, after I posted this one I got to thinking, in a way Gatling was successful. Eventually. While men were mowed down like poppies by his invention in later wars, it has now evolved to the point where covert bombings are the method of choice. Trench warfare and frontal assaults are so twentieth-century.


  2. ansonburlingame says:

    To all,

    I did a quick online check to see the KIA during the Franco-Prussian war and found a figure in the range of 250,000. Considering the size of both countries, that is a big number. However while our Civil War lasted 4 years, killing 750,000, the FP war only lasted about 9 months.

    Railways, artilery and the machine gun were huge technology advances in both wars allowing the rapid deployment of large armies, much longer range of destruction and of course the ability to “sweep” the battlefield of massed formations using the machine gun.

    Auch continued up to and through WWI. The new technology of the tank became more dominant after the end of WWI. Then both tanks and air power dominated the battle field in WWII with again higher casualty rates. If nothing else new technology demanded new battle field tactics.

    You can do the same parallel thinking about war a sea with the progression of ship’s of the line under sail, battleships, then submarines and aircraft carriers over the decades.

    Now we see the advent of nuclear weapons onto the world stage of warfare as well.

    Technology will always “drive” warfare to find a “better” way to win and win more quickly by simply overwhelming the enemy. I see no way to stop such technical progression.

    The key is how can politics develop to prevent the need for war, of any kind. The simple fact that a nuclear weapon has not been used since WWII shows some progress in that arena, to me.

    But I would hasten to add that disarmament has never worked to prevent war. Just look what happened about 20 years after WWII.

    To me wars are prevented or limited in scope through deterrence, not weakness or calls for humanitarian needs.

    Now if you want to consider some real slaughter, consider the turmoil in Africa to first get rid of colonialism and then the slaughter of Africans on Africans (regardless of race). And it continues today. Now go try your humanitarian appeals on say Rober Mugabe or pick anyother dictator in Africa today.



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