La Belle Dame Sans Merci

By Joe Craig, Park Ranger

Visitors to Saratoga National Historical Park seem to have a variety of reactions to the resources of the site and stories it tells. The views from the visitor center (when not obscured by summertime haze) elicit appreciative gasps over the beauty of the valley. Newborn fawns in the spring bring out maternal (and paternal) instincts in even the gruffest individual. The huge twelve pounder cannon receive wide-eyed wonder that such monsters were dragged through the wilderness roads in 1777. All of these are understandable, but sometimes visitor reactions are a bit unexpected

When many visitors examine a musket­ original or reproduced­ the comments are uniformly positive. Some wax a bit eloquent, noting the beauty of the gun’s lines and form: the British Land Pattern Muskets are especially handsome pieces with their walnut stocks and brass fittings. For these visitors a musket is a work of art to be savored. Admittedly, muskets have a gracefulness not found in modern weapons which are produced without any aesthetics involved.

However, take the same visitor and show them an 18th century medical tool­ say, a capital knife or amputation saw ­and the reaction is far different. Usually, the visitor winces, sometimes shudders, and occasionally turns away and assumes the color of curdled pea soup. This is somewhat puzzling as the items in question also have more graceful lines than their modern counterparts, as with muskets. More importantly, the medical tools have the purpose of saving lives as opposed to the musket’s use of wrecking lives.

Some visitors when presented with this notion reassess their appreciation of muskets. Others will blithely point out that muskets weren’t that accurate, and make it sound as if it was unlikely that anyone got hurt. Muskets become quaint dead ends in the history of weapons development. The same sort of thinking relegates the War for Independence to being almost cartoonish: a bunch of guys in wigs and short pants involved in a non-lethal sort of affair. The historical record, unsurprisingly, is a bit different.

That muskets were not noted or designed for accuracy is borne out by the tactics of the18th century. Armies formed up in lines and blasted away at each other with abandon, hoping something would connect with the other side. It’s difficult to say exactly how many hits were made, but one observer during the age of smoothbore muskets noted:

“A soldier’s musket…will strike the figure of a man at eighty yards; it may even at 100; but a soldier must be very unfortunate indeed who shall be wounded by a common musket at 150 yards….”

Colonel George Hanger, British Army, 1814

 

Of course, when someone was hit their day went extremely bad and very quickly, at that.

For all its reputation as being all an exercise in futility, muskets were respected military weapons: Smith’s Universal Military Dictionary (1779) noted that a musket was “the most useful and commodious fire-arm used by an army”. The musket had one purpose and that was to put someone on the ground, dead or incapacitated­ and could do the job.

Muskets fired a lead ball over one half inch in diameter (more than .50 calibre). By comparison the modern AK-47 assault rifle fires a much smaller projectile, just under 1/3 of an inch (7.62mm or .308 calibre). Musket balls left rather noticeable alterations to the human body as the results of a modern ballistics experiment shows:

“The first experiment was designed to simulate the effect of the musket shot [19mm diameter, about .75 calibre] hitting a man in the torso at 150 yards… An entry wound 38mm across was inflicted [in a mass of ballistics gel] and an exit wound of 65mm…Next, the effects of the musket shot hitting the chest of a man at 75 yards were measured…The entry wound was 48mm across and the exit was around 55mm….”

A Detailed Study of the Effectiveness and Capabilities of 18th century Musketry on the Battlefield”N A Roberts, J W Brown, B Hammett & P D Kingston, From Bastions and Barbed Wire, 2008

It’s not necessary to convert millimeters into inches to realize that it was a Very Bad Thing to be hit by a musket shot. There were more than a few folks who discovered this during the battles of Saratoga.

Compared to the horrid bloodletting of the American Civil War, the casualty rates at Saratoga seem but a paper cut. Burgoyne’s and Gates’ armies were much smaller than those fielded in the 1860’s: the total dead of the three day battle of Gettysburg just about equaled Gates’ forces at the time of their arrival at Bemus Heights. Yet, the smaller numbers doesn’t mean that the battles of Saratoga were free of injury and death.

For example, when one examines the casualty rates at the battle of Freeman’s Farm on 19 September 1777, the percentages make it evident that the battle was a fierce one. Some American units may have suffered as much as 10% of their strength: literal decimation. The battalion companies of the British 62nd Regiment of Foot lost close to 50% of their strength (killed wounded, captured). The Royal Artillery contingent at Freeman’s Farm suffered about 75% casualties of the 48 officers and men on the field. Both armies meant business as they fought, and people got hurt.

The numbers may contradict some modern opinions of muskets as ineffectual weapons, but the same statistics sanitize the real effects of a hit from a musket shot.   Numbers never quite portray the human suffering of smashed tissue and shattered bone:

“Well the next day after the battle [8 October 1777] I saw a sight that was shocking indeed; a good many both of our men and the enemy lye dead at Gen Gates’ head Quarters; others very badly wounded just a dying and everything looked sadly with regard to poor Wounded Creatures; some shot almost through the body crying to God, to Jesus &c. to take away their lives; poor miserable Creatures indeed….”

Private Ezra Tilden, 3rd Suffolk County Regiment, Massachusetts Militia

Yes, the muskets used in the Revolutionary War had aesthetic qualities. But to completely ignore their lethal purpose would leave one “being so enchanted by the tiger’s fur as not to notice its claws”.

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