The Cold Steel The Forgotten Art of the Bayonet Exercise ---By Craig L. Barry
"Sir we shall give them the bayonet... Trust to the Bayonet." (1) Stonewall Jackson (1861) Unlike the knife which was often carried for defensive purposes by civilians and soldiers alike, the bayonet as a weapon has always been strictly military in nature. Civilian rifles typically have no provision for a bayonet. In fact, the US Model 1841 percussion rifle was produced without any provision for the bayonet, but it was the exception to the general rule. To the martial mind of the 19th century, the bayonet was seen as the fourth form of fencing, along with foil, epee’ (dueling sword), and dueling saber. It was (according to George McClellan) "the brave man’s weapon." The first official training bayonets were issued in 1858. In training with the bayonet, soldiers would learn to affix and remove it on command and how to guard against cavalry and infantry using the rifle mounted with bayonet as a pike. They also would drill the motions of bayonet fighting as a group drill using the actual blades. When it came time to practice assaulting (fighting), soldiers would wear a plastron (jacket), mask, and fencing gloves. The blades were affixed to old service rifles, rather than risk damage to new long arms. Dick Cheney, at the time Vice President of the United States of America said during his speech at 145th Chickamauga last year: "Civil War battle re-enactors aren't just people who like to make noise and fire off black powder -- although that's a pretty good thing to do. What they want to bring to an observance like this is a sense of history. They want to have a glimpse of the past as our ancestors would have seen it. They want to keep alive the camaraderie that sustained units of men, kept them strong, and held their spirits up even in moments of struggle and desperation. The re-enactors among us today are paying homage to the memory of everyone who got into that fray…" With all due respect to the former Vice President, taking his comments at face value results in a leap across an enormous chasm between re-enactors being "people who like to make noise and fire off black powder" (most) all the way over to bringing "a sense of history…a glimpse of the past as our ancestors would have seen it" (the rest). Are we covering everything from soup to nuts with no stops in-between? Actually, these are two very different levels of participation and barring any intervening action they could well be mutually exclusive. What connects them are the training activities which provide a bridge across that gap. The reality is that there is a little grunt work to be done getting from point A to point B if we wish to be well rounded living historians with a firm grasp on the life of the vigilant soldier. For the very few who chose to learn a skill that will never be put to practical use in any Civil War (re)enactment or living history, there is nothing quite like an afternoon spent with George Brinton McClellan’s Manual of Bayonet Exercises (1852). According to A.N. Hardin, writing in American Bayonets, 1776 to 1964, "The bayonet is a special weapon in the American arsenal. Like the sword, the rifle bayonet harks back to the Renaissance, where the bayonet came to replace the short spear or pole arm. English military men in the 1600’s liked this new weapon as "it could give hurt either near or at range", but the early bayonet was little more than a long dagger rammed into the barrel of your rifle, and you could not shoot with it in place…" This was a design feature which betrayed the tactical purpose of the infantry. By the Revolutionary War, the bayonet had evolved into a "spike" measuring sixteen to eighteen inches long that attached via a locking socket fitted over the muzzle of the barrel. Some bayonets were rounded, others triangular in cross-section, still others had more of a cruciform shape to create a wound that would not heal, but all were similar in that they were powerful stabbing weapons. The spike-type bayonet was a popular design, and would stick with us in one form or another from the First War of American Independence all the way through to the end of the Nineteenth Century. Hardin continues, "A second type of bayonet that became popular in America after about 1840 or so was the sword or saber bayonet. True to their name, these bayonets looked like small swords or sabers, depending on how much curve they had to the blade. They had between twenty to twenty-six inch blades, and were capable short-swords in their own right. After about 1860, a new style of knife influenced sword bayonet also starts to be seen, which is similar to the saber bayonet, but with a larger belly and the Bowie knife’s characteristic clipped point. Though all these sword and saber bayonets looked fierce, they were probably better utilized as hand weapons than on a rifle." Additionally longer saber bayonets had the purpose of matching the length of the (three band) rifle-musket, a necessary feature so as not to put the user of a short rifle at a reach disadvantage in dueling hand-to-hand with his long rifle toting counterpart. The Bayonet Exercise from McClellan is chiefly from the French manual of M. Gomard, an eminent French teacher of the art of fencing. It was designed to incite the offensive sprit (élan) and stimulate aggression in its participants. McClellan wrote in the preface of his Manual of Bayonet Exercise as follows: "After an examination of the systems of Selmnitz, Pinette, Muller, etc., the superiority of Gomard's was very evident. It is, in its arrangement, very analogous to the Infantry Tactics, and of such a nature that it can readily be taught by the non-commissioned officers. In addition, it is far the simplest system of all. In the others are to be found many different "guards," very inefficient thrusts, and an almost infinite number of parries, against the lancer, dragoon, hussar, cuirassier, infantry soldier, etc., ad infinitum… Gomard lays it down as a principle, that the most formidable antagonist an infantry soldier can encounter is an infantry soldier; that the bayonet is more formidable than either the lance or the sabre. This assertion may seem surprising, but trial will convince any one of its truth, and of the consequent fact that an infantry soldier who can parry the attacks of a well-drilled infantry soldier has nothing to fear from a cavalry soldier." It was an impressive work well written, and overall Commander Winfield Scott proudly presented it to the Secretary of War with his recommendations as follows: Head-quarters Of The Army, Washington, D. C., Dec. 31, 1851. Hon. C. M. Conrad, Secretary of War. Sir : Herewith I have the honor to submit a System of Bayonet Exercise, translated from the French, by Capt. Geo. B. McClellan, Corps Engineers, U. S. Army. I strongly recommend its being printed for distribution to the Army; and that it be made, by regulation, a part of the "System of Instruction."The enclosed extracts from reports of the Inspector General, etc., show the value. I have the honor to be, sir, With high respect, Your most obed't serv't, (Signed) Winfield Scott. Approved. (Signed) C. M. Conrad, Secretary of War. January 2, 1852. Copy. R. Jones, Adjutant General. (2) A Union soldier noting the absurdities of some of McClellan’s gymnastics noted that "bayonet drill was like watching a line of beings made up about equally of the frog, the sand hill crane, the sentinel crab, and the grasshopper: all of them swinging, stirring, jerking every which way, and all gone mad."(3)
How often and how exactly were bayonets used? Post-bellum there was a tendency to downplay the role of the bayonet in close quarter fighting. The 1870 Surgeon General’s Medical and Surgical History of the war of Rebellion (1861-1865) (4) on Civil War injuries contained a table that listed the type(s) of wounds treated in Federal hospitals. There were fewer than one thousand bayonet wounds noted there. Connecting the dots, historians have long since concluded that the bayonet was little but an impediment to soldiers who were issued them (not all were), and used primarily as candlestick holders or cooking implements. This is not necessarily a conclusion that can be drawn. There are of course first person accounts of soldiers discarding their bayonets as excess weight while on the march, but soldiers also discarded other essential pieces of equipment like their canteens and knapsacks. Estimates of up to 50% of equipment issued to soldiers were noted as discarded on the march. However, when one lends weight to the letters and diary entries that mention use of the bayonet in battle, a clearer picture emerges. Sam Watkins wrote in Company Aytch, "We gave one long, loud cheer, and commenced the charge. As we approached their lines...Officers with drawn swords meet officers with drawn swords, and man to man meets man to man with bayonets and loaded guns." (5) A soldier of the 3rd Maine Infantry noted during the Peninsula campaign, "We rose up and fired a volley, then pitched into them with bayonets and clubbed muskets and drove them back for nearly a mile." (6) Joshua Chamberlain at Little Round Top carried the day and perhaps saved the Army of the Potomac by ordering that famous bayonet charge at Gettysburg. He notes in his report the following:
"My ammunition was soon exhausted. My men were firing their last shot and getting ready to "club" their muskets. It was imperative to strike before we were struck by this overwhelming force in a hand-to-hand fight, which we could not probably have withstood or survived. At that crisis, I ordered the bayonet. The word was enough. It ran like fire along the line, from man to man, and rose into a shout, with which they sprang forward upon the enemy, now not 30 yards away. The effect was surprising; many of the enemy's first line threw down their arms and surrendered. An officer fired his pistol at my head with one hand, while he handed me his sword with the other. Holding fast by our right, and swinging forward our left, we made an extended "right wheel," before which the enemy's second line broke and fell back, fighting from tree to tree, many being captured, until we had swept the valley and cleared the front of nearly our entire brigade." (7) The day of the bayonet was far from over. One must also consider the well documented effect on morale that a company of gleaming bayonets has advancing steadily on defenders. The British command for fixing bayonets features a movement where the weapon is held overhead for an instant, to communicate the threat it represents. It was a "shock tactic" designed to influence an opposing force to lose confidence, then break and run. It was especially effective to control civil unrest as well, often dissipating a crowd of rioters without firing a shot. Rather than concluding that the bayonet was obsolete, it is fairer to say that the tactic of charging an entrenched position with bayonets alone should have ended with the Civil War. And yet it did not. The continued use of the bayonet charge by the British and Australians during World War I contributed to the horrifying casualty rates at the Battle of the Somme, and Gallipoli. However, because of its usefulness in hand-to-hand fighting no matter how infrequent or impractical, the bayonet remained a valuable part of the infantry soldier’s equipment to the modern day.
-Craig L. Barry, is the author of "The Civil War Musket: A Handbook for Historical Accuracy, Lock, Stock, & Barrel" and was the co-editor of the Watchdog Civil War Quarterly (with Bill Christen) from 2003-2008. He is also a member of the Book Review Staff of the "Civil War News". Craig currently resides in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
"The Cold Steel: The Forgotten Art of the Bayonet Exercise" copyright by Craig L. Barry, 2009.
1. Anecdotal: Confederate General Thomas J. Jackson at First Manassas in mid-July 1861 giving his standard response to information that ammunition was running low.
2. McClellan, George B. Manual of Bayonet Exercise, J.B. Lippincott & Co. (1862) p. 3
3. Davis, William C. Illustrated History of the Civil War, Bramley Books (1997), p. 210.
4. This information can be interpreted another way, i.e., only those injured were treated in hospitals and the casualties of the bayonet were left dead on the field. There is some weight to the argument since the weapon was primarily used in hand to hand fighting. Such close quarter fighting provides a ratio of mortal bayonet wounds to recoverable injuries which is expectedly very high indeed. Some period accounts state that few bayoneted soldiers survived the trauma due to the heavy loss of blood that resulted. There are no known autopsy or burial detail reports which discuss the cause of death for those unfortunate souls who were killed in action and left on the battlefield.
5. Watkins, Sam. Company Aytch or a Sideshow of the Big Show, Touchstone Publishing Co., (2003) p. 183
6. Letter written home by Jonathan Newcomb, July 1862. (www.murdoconline.net)
7. Report of Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, Twentieth Maine Infantry. Gettysburg Campaign, July 6, 1863 (O.R.--SERIES I--VOLUME XXVII/1 S# 43).
(Photo) "Bayonet Drill" used with permission from the photo collection of Rufus Guy, copyright, 2009.
(The soldier in the photograph is reenactor Tony Gilardi of the 6th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Company A)
Page designed and layed out by Rufus Guy.