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NEWS OF 150 YEARS AGO

November-December 1861

From The Missouri Democrat, Wednesday, November 6, 1861.

Delusions as to Bayonet Wounds.

The popular idea of soldiers in a bayonet charge struggling hand to hand and face to face with fixed bayonets, is likely to be exploded, like many other delusions. We find by referring to “Guthrie's Commentaries on Army Surgery,” that these struggles never occur. We quote from that eminent authority:

A great delusion is cherished in Great Britain on the subject of the bayonet-a sort of monomania very gratifying to the national vanity, but not quite in accordance with matter of fact. Opposing regiments, when formed in line, and charging with fixed bayonets, never meet and struggle hand to hand, and foot to foot, and this for the very best possible reason-that one side turns round and runs away as soon as the other comes close enough to do mischief; doubtless considering that discretion is the better part of valor. Small parties of men may have personal conflicts after an affair has been decided, or in the subsequent scuffle, if they cannot get out of the way fast enough. The battle of Maida is usually referred to as a remarkable instance of a bayonet fight, nevertheless the sufferers, whether killed or wounded, French or English, suffered from bullets, not bayonets. The late Sir James Kempt commanded the brigade supposed to have done this feat, but he has assured us that no charge with the bayonet took place, the French being killed in line by the fire of musketry; a fact which has of late received a remarkable confirmation in the published correspondence of King Joseph Bonaparte, in which Gen. Regnier, writing to him on the subject says:

“The First and Forty-second regiments charged with the bayonet until they came within fifteen paces of the enemy, when they turned, et prirent la fuite. The second line, composed of Polish troops, had already done the same.”

Wounds from bayonets were not less rare in the Peninsular war. It may be that all those who were bayoneted were killed, yet their bodies were seldom found. A certain fighting regiment had the misfortune, one very misty morning, to have a large number of men carried off by a charge of Polish lancers, many being also killed. The commanding officer concluded they must all be killed, for his men possessed exactly the same spirit as a part of the French Imperial Guard at Waterloo. “They might be killed, but they could not by any possibility be taken prisoners.” He returned them all dead, accordingly. A few days afterward they reappeared, to the astonishment of everybody, having been swept off by the cavalry, and had made their escape in the retreat of the French army through the woods. The regiment from that day obtained the ludicrous name of the “Resurrection men.”

The siege of Sevastopol has furnished many opportunities for partial hand to hand contests, in which many have been killed and wounded on all sides, but I do not learn that in any engagements which have taken place regiments advanced against each other in line and really crossed bayonets as a body, although the individual bravery of smaller parties was frequently manifested there, as well as in the war in the Peninsula.

 

For a comprehensive view on this subject and other period Civil War tactics, see the book The Bloody Crucible of Courage, by Brent Nosworthy, New York: Carol & Graff, 2003.

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