According to Brent Nosworthy, on average 0.68% to 1.5% of shots discharged in Civil War battles hit its intended target, an enemy soldier. (The Bloody Crucible of Courage, 182, 587-592.) According to Earl J. Hess, the average rate of fire for Civil War soldiers was about 1 shot per two minutes. (The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat, 103). The more a soldier fired or increased rate of fire did not increase odds. So a typical soldier in the Civil War, during about 20 minutes of constant firing, would maybe hit an enemy soldier in 1 out of every 10 shots, or something like that.
One thing I have noticed that is still taught in High School history classrooms today when dealing with the Civil War is the explanation of the bloody results of the fighting as something along the lines of tactics not keeping up with technology. Better guns and firepower, while using outdated (rank and file) European style tactics, led to exposure to massive amounts of fire; which, if we trust the new(er) studies, is simply not true. Yet I have seen this taught consistently in many schools.
A prime example that supports Nosworthy can be found in a letter just recently added to SoldierStudies.org:
On Thursday night we went over into Virginia. We went about 5 miles to a little town where there is 30 cavalry comes to breakfast every morning, but they did not come all together as they usually do. There came 4 at first and the others came behind. We was waiting for to get them all in and the 4 found out that we was there and they put spurs to horses and ran by past our men before they could get out of a barn. We fired about 50 shots at them but did not kill any of them. Wounded one. It was a middling dangerous job to go over with so few men, about 40.
Of about 40/50 shots fired, only one wounded (hit) its intended target during this attempted ambush. Lots of factors above conspired to reduce accuracy, but nonetheless the data is supportive of the argument that Civil War soldiers were not very effective with their muskets and this had many reasons.
As we know from the work of Mark Grimsley and others, the Civil War was not the first modern “total war,” and this goes for Sherman’s March to the Sea. Yet again, this line of thought is still strong in many history classrooms.
After doing a quick google.com search there can be fund numerous education website like this one (from the Smithsonian) in regards to a famous Sherman painting, commented that, “Sherman’s March to the Sea is considered the first example of total war because it resulted in wholesale destruction of the countryside, much like a modern bombing raid.”
From the University of Houston’s Digital History website, describing the important developments of the Civil War, “It also brought vast changes to the nation’s financial system, fundamentally altered the relationship between the states and the federal government, and became modern history’s first total war.”
Still another, this one from the CivilWar.org history education/classroom website, “Total War: A new way of conducting war appeared during the Civil War. Instead of focusing only on military targets, armies conducting total war destroyed homes and crops to demoralize and undermine the civilian base of the enemy’s war effort. (Sherman in Georgia or Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley, for example.)”
If you look deep enough into google.com you will find university and military schools alike still teaching that the Civil War was the first modern “total war” in history and that tactics did not keep up with technology and led to the bloody nature of the war.
What we see with the usage of “total war” is the varying types of definitions; which is problematic. We need to teach the right definition of total war as: the breakdown in the recognition between combatant and non-combatant (or something like that), and then the understanding of what “modern” total war is compared to what might have seemed like total war.
So this raises a question that I have raised before, was the Civil War, taken on its own terms and without “presentism,” a war that was as “total” as war could have been at that time, place, and situation?