Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Mess of Things

Someone please hit me over the head and put me out of my misery.  My thoughts are spinning 'round and 'round, swirling in a vortex filled with floor cloths, dress designs, domestic manuals, oil lamps, stone churches and chickens.  Yes, chickens.

Mr. Flattery and I are in the midst of planning out our new first person characters for this upcoming summer season at The Museum.  We will be working in the house I have called "my" house for the past year and a half, but this will be the first time we are officially together.  Heck, this will be the first time I have been officially placed with anyone, our staffing doesn't normally allow more than one person per site, but this year my house is getting re-vamped to better represent a working farm and thank God and all that is holy, someone in management actually realized that there is no way one person could manage all there is to do alone.

The museum has been portraying "The Years", meaning an 1861-1865 cycle.  I came in at the end of  '64, Mr. Flattery at the end of '65.  Now we have cycled back to '61 to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and will get to experience things from the start.  A fresh start and a new farm project, I have a feeling we have our work cut out for us.

I have the tendency to go overboard in my planning for anything and everything, and creating a new character is no exception.  There is so much to think about, I've always said doing first person requires you to have a lifetime of memories to draw from that don't actually exist, and one must be able to do so at a moment's notice.  For us our personas will develop during the summer months and will culminate in the fall with the "Supper Season".

The museum hosts historical dinners set in different eras, one of which takes place in my (sorry Mr.Flattery, OUR) house.  They last about 3 hours during which you are in character constantly.  You had better have a lot to talk about or it's going to be a loooong night.  It's not a one-shot deal either, for each era there are around 6 different dates visitors can choose from to attend, so we can be doing this 3 hour-dinner upwards of 6 times.  Again, very important to have plenty of conversation material.

If you have seen the cheerleading movie "Bring it On" you may remember the head cheerleader Torrance (played by Kirsten Dunst) saying that for their squad, cheering at a football game is more like a practice.  What they are really preparing for is the big cheerleading championship they win every year.  That's how I feel about this year- the summer season is really a long drawn-out rehearsal for the Suppers.  We lost several of our experienced first-person staff recently and I'm feeling the pressure to be in the lead for the new people.  Is it hot in here?  I feel a slight panic attack coming on.

I do sincerely apologize if my this post is not very eloquent or even making any sense, but as I said my mind is a swirling vortex.  As I am writing I keep thinking about how I want to do more research on painted wood floors.  By the way,thank God for my iPhone.  Whenever one of these research attacks hits me and it feels like I want to know the answer RIGHT NOW I can always pull out my iPhone and Google it.  Ahhhh, Google. I have a feeling Mr. Flattery is going to have to sedate me on a regular basis to prevent first-person-persona-planning overload. I have even begun to have conversations in character in my head.  Is it possible for my new character to develop into a multiple-personality disorder?  Again, someone please knock me out!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Problem with Civil War Handguns

One question about the Civil War that I get quite often from people (my dad, for one) pertains to the use of revolving pistols. In movies like Gettysburg we see the officers blasting away with their pistols and the question often arises: if it can shoot so quickly, why weren't all the soldiers issued a sidearm? Well, there were actually a lot of reasons why - but first let me apologize to the Civil War gun affectionados out there who may stumble onto this article: while I have read up on the subject and find it interesting, I am in no way claiming to be an expert. So go easy on me if the terminology is a little off. On the other hand, feel free to chime in if there is any pertinent information that I left out.

Two of the most common handguns in the Civil War and the types I'm referring to in this post are the Colt Army Model 1860 used most often by Union troops and the Colt 1851 Navy Revolver preferred by the Confederacy. However, it appears that most if not all handguns at the time were the same basic idea. The first and usually most obvious drawback to these types of weapons was their range. Various sources argue that the maximum effective range was anywhere from 50-100 yards. Not horrible, but as rifled muskets became more of the norm this range became increasing useless; for instance the Springfield Model 1861 musket was still very accurate even at 400 yards, meaning someone using a revolver would be under fire for 300 yards before they could shoot back and actually have a remote chance of hitting something. Additionally, that is the maximum range; whether or not a particular soldier was accurate with a handgun at 100 yards is a different story. This disparity in range and accuracy also implies that if you were on the defense you would essentially be waiting for a bayonet charge before you could use your pistol, as your opponent would have little reason to get within 100 yards of you when they could simply stay out of your range and blast away. Ignoring the fact that hand-to-hand fighting was fairly rare during the American Civil War, that leaves a pretty small window of opportunity for using the gun unless you're unit is constantly on the offensive and storming the ramparts.

To be fair, most people I talk to seem to be implying that the revolver could have been used as a sidearm only for occasions such as bayonet charges; in the mean time, they could still use a rifled musket for long-range fighting. The problem with this though is the added weight. A soldier would already be carrying their rifle, ammunition, and other various possessions (canteen, bedroll, etc.). Adding an extra gun with the ammunition and maintenance tools it would require would be added weight and take up space in a soldier's pack on the march, something soldiers were already griping about. It would also make movement and efficiency in battle clumsier. Apparently, though, a number of soldiers did buy their own revolvers during the war but ended up selling or even tossing them aside the next time they went on the march. When you consider that marching occupied most of the army's time during a campaign, the name of the game would be weight loss, not addition.

In addition to individual efficiency, the supply and cost were added headaches for officers and quartermasters who were always battling inefficiency. If individual soldiers were issued handguns as well, each man would require two different calibers of ammunition. This is not only added confusion for an already confused system of supply, but also added cost. Most revolvers were sold in the $15-20 range: a huge investment for an entire unit and more than a month's pay for an individual soldier. In the instances during the Civil War when soldiers were issued repeating rifles and handguns they occasionally found that the heat of battle caused them to shoot more recklessly; essentially, a faster rate of fire entails that ammunition will be expended faster. So while a particular unit might hit their opponent harder at the onset, they will end up taking themselves out of the fight faster as well by running out of ammunition if they are not extremely disciplined with their rate of fire.

The last, and perhaps the biggest, downside to the use of revolving handguns in the Civil War was the reload time. Apparently the rather simple method of placing pre-made slugs into the chambers had not been invented yet, or if it had it must not have been perfected for widespread use. The process during the war was fairly lengthy, meaning that once you fired all of your rounds the gun was useless until there was a break in the battle. First, a measured amount of black powder was inserted into each chamber from the muzzle end of the revolver. After that the bullet was added and packed in firmly with the loading lever. Then a variety of materials could be used to seal each chamber so that when one was ignited it would not cause the other five to misfire. Finally, caps had to be placed on the nipple of every chamber. This video shows the process.

I've never been shot at before, but I imagine the process is rather difficult to do in the thick of a firefight. And as I pointed out earlier, if you can only use it in close quarters combat it really becomes difficult to reload once you fire your six shots.

The American Civil War came at a crossroads in military history. Many repeating weapons, particularly sidearms, just weren't quite there yet. For officers, whose purpose was to command not fight, they were useful in certain circumstances (if only in those "Oh, shit!" moments during a firefight). However, for the common soldier they were impractical to buy, carry, and use.