Civil War Saturday: Bayonets

A private of the 33rd New Jersey Infantry. Probably taken late 1861 or early 1862.

A private of the 33rd New Jersey Infantry. Probably taken late 1861 or early 1862.

In American Civil War literature, no single item of equipment has had such a poor treatment as the bayonet. First appearing in the 17th century, the first known examples were said to have derived their name from the French Town of Bayonne, where it is alleged they were developed. Hard to say for certain.

What can be said for certain is that, by the time of the Civil War, the bayonet was still seen as an integral part of the Infantryman’s kit, and many descriptions of both fact and fantasy were given of bayonet charges, coupled with cries of “Give ‘em the cold steel, boys!” by writers and politicians alike.

However, after the civil war, and interesting thing happened. Historians started to report that, despite all it’s reputation, the bayonet was hardly used at all! How could this be? How could so many period letters and accounts be so wildly inaccurate?

The allegation of the rarely-used bayonet is a case of examining a fact out of context. The claim is based upon fact: The Surgeon General of the Army of the United States, in 1870, caused a series of books to be printed entitled The medical and surgical history of the war of the rebellion, (1861-65) . These books, in several volumes, outlined all of the actions, capabilities, results, orders and letters of both armies during the course of the war. Among the many fascinating tidbits is a table of types of wounds treated in Federal Hospitals. Fewer than 1,000 bayonet wounds are listed.

Historians jumped upon this and began to proclaim that far, from being the decisive weapon, the instrument of close-order combat, the bayonet was by and large an impediment to the soldier, who had little use for it other than as a tool about camp or bivouac. Other writers, following the initial wave of books and articles, continued to report the same, and it has influenced many an arm chair general’s discussions of ACW period combat.

Yet, there remains all those pesky letters, diaries, and other contemporary accounts, such as Jonathon Newcomb’s letter regarding his unit (3rd Maine Infantry) and their actions during the 7-day’s battles of 1862. Newcomb writes that the 3rd was posted in line of battle behind a rail fence, half-obscured with tall grass and ordered to lay prone. As the 8th & 11th Alabama approached, the 3rd Maine “Rose up and fired a volley, then pitched into them with bayonets and clubbed muskets and drove them back for nearly a mile.

The answer to the question is elegantly simple and involves the bayonet itself. The weapon was an 18″ long steel triangular shape, with fluted blade which tapered into a solid triangle, attached to a socket via a curved steel shank. It was not sharpened, and was designed for thrusting and parrying. It’s cross-section created a wound that would not close easily, and as a result, was normally fatal. Yes, fewer than 1,000 wounds from bayonets were treated at federal Hospitals during the war. That is because most wounds were fatal, or were so slight that surgeons could deal with it and return the man to his unit without having to go to the hospital.

Litter bearers only picked up the wounded. Burial details only rarely remarked upon the nature of wounds. Thus, they were not included in the statistical abstracts put out by the Surgeon General’s Office.

Bayonets were used, and often with deadly effect. At times, the sight of a determined force advancing with fixed bayonets was enough to cause the other side to skedaddle before they came to close-quarters. However, the myth that bayonets were never actually used in combat should be put to rest alongside those of the ‘ragged Reb’ and the ‘well-fed Yank’ and others I will address in coming posts.


  1. I read somewhere, years ago, an account by a doctor from either the Brit or American army(I DID say it was years ago) saying that he rarely saw a bayonet wound; that when it came to bayonet-point the unit that either had less discipline or who’d been worse injured in the volleys would retreat or break and run(depending on remaining discipline). Those who didn’t… well, you made the point about only treating wounded who were alive and might remain so.

  2. “Few men are killed by the bayonet, many are scared by it. Bayonets should be fixed when the fire fight starts”
    – General George Patton Jr, “War as I knew it” 1947

    I can see them getting some nasty use in the era of muzzle loaders. Spears had been amung the king of weapons for a long time until firearms came along, so it just seems a natural evolution.

    Nowadays, it would seem like Bayonets are merely something thats just meant to frighten until you really need one, in which case you “really” need one. Being ex AF though, I’ll leave that one as merely conjecture. Hah!

  3. “… as British troops swarmed the mountaintop and drove the Argentines out, at times fighting with fixed bayonets. Major Kiszely, … , was the first man into the enemy position, personally shooting two enemy conscripts and bayoneting a third, his bayonet breaking in two.” (14 Jun 82)

    Also: “He said: “I decided the best way to attack was a full-frontal assault. It was my decision to fix bayonets.””

    Bayonets are still quite useful.


  4. I was going to make the same point General Patton already made more succinctly. I would add that the men fixing them are encouraged and motivated by the action, and there is no mistake in your intentions when it is affixed.

    Didn’t I read somewhere that in the early days of OIF than the Marines had to issue a quiet reminder that bayonet charges are not part of the house clearing doctrine after they briefly came into fashion?

  5. Marines still spend a lot of time training with the bayonet. Even our current diminutive bayonets can make a horrendous wound when the 5 Killing Blows are properly applied. I can imagine infantry Marines deciding to clear houses with the blade – I can also imagine them succeeding and freaking out the insurgents in the process.

  6. Civil war era bayonet training was still hit or miss.

    Units got bayonet training only if their commanders thought it was important. Nationalized state militia units often had none at all. Newly formed Black units usually got fully trained, since it was in the drill manual.

    Yes there were exceptions, but this was still usually the case. There were exceptions to the thin as a rail Johnny-Rebb rule too ( and these always get trotted out when an overweight re-enactor wants to do a confederate impression … heh ), but the stereotype was still valid.

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