Fulton County Reads is a one-book, one-community project conceived by Librarian Jody Newton and Sue Clark, English teacher, of Rochester High School. It was inaugurated in February with A Stupendous Effort, my 1997 book about men from Fulton County and northern Indiana in the Civil War. Those participating in the project received the book to read; then followed three nights of discussion that each attracted more than 50 people. My remarks at those discussions, edited for space limitations, are being presented in a series of columns, the fourth of which follows:

Let me introduce you to the leading killer of the Civil War.

It's this small pellet which I am holding up: the 58 calibre Minie Ball. 90 percent of the casualties in the Civil War came from bullets, which mainly was the Minie Ball.

That means that this one-ounce piece of metal killed probably 180,000 soldiers and wounded about 420,000 more.

It's not a ball, it just was called that by soldiers. It is a rifled lead bullet, and was fired from American Springfield and English Enfield rifles that were used by both armies. When it came spinning out of the rifle's grooved barrel, it made a peculiar whistling sound that soldiers learned to recognize and fear. And it could kill a man at half a mile to a mile.

Even from 600 yards, the Minie Ball could penetrate six inches of pine board. The wound it caused in flesh was neither neat nor was it easy of surgical repair. If it struck bone, amputation was the only treatment. If it hit anywhere in the chest or abdomen, death was certain.

The Minie Ball was invented in 1849 by a French army captain, Claude Minie and later improved in the U.S. It was loaded into the rifle's muzzle along with a cartridge of black powder. You will read in the book of the awkward procedure necessary to fire the Civil War rifle:

"Muzzle loaders were difficult to load unless one was standing. It took a complex series of nine movements before such a gun could be fired. The soldier first tore open a paper cartridge with his teeth, poured its black powder down the barrel, dropped in the bullet followed by the cartridge paper, then rammed the whole into the barrel with his ramrod. The gun then was cocked, a percussion cap taken from the cartridge box carried on his belt and placed on the nipple at the breech. Only then was it ready to fire, which occurred when the trigger was pulled and the hammer hit the cap, exploding its small bit of powder which ignited the charge in the barrel.

"Performing the procedure in the fright of battle was another thing, for a lot of shooting was needed to hit somebody and it often was said it took a man's weight in lead to kill him. Often two or more loads would be found in rifles after a fight; one actually had 13 crammed in. Either the trigger wasn't being pulled or a percussion cap was not being put in place. Excitement, fear and confusion were responsible. Tearing off the cartridge's top smeared the soldier's face with black powder after a time, causing him to swallow some of it and left his mouth even drier than fear made it. And even the best soldier could not fire more than three rounds in a minute."

Until the rifle and the Minie Ball appeared, soldiers in war used muskets with smooth barrels. General U.S. Grant once said that with a musket a man could shoot at you from 150 yards all day long without making you aware that he was doing it.

But with a rifle a good marksman could kill at 1/2 mile to a mile. In this war, that capability presented an entirely new problem for the attackers. Civil War generals never did figure it out. They constantly sent waves of infantry against entrenched defenders, just as Napoleon did 50 years before in the day of the musket. But he could win that way.

With their rifles, Civil War defenders killed attackers in frightful numbers from 300 to 400 yards away. In the entire war, in which there were more than 10,000 engagements, only two or three assaults were successful against defenders. The rifle and the trench ruled Civil War battlefields.

Losses to attackers were appalling. During seven weeks of U. S. Grant's final offensive against Robert E. Lee in the spring of 1864, Grant lost 65,000 killed, wounded or missing. Confederate losses were 35,000.

Two other aspects of a Civil War soldier's life are worth mentioning.

Hardtack is one. It was in every soldier's haversack, 10 to 13 of them issued each day. They were soda biscuits, usually 3x3 inches in size and 1/2 inch thick.

Hardtack was somewhat nutritious and enjoyable when fresh, but when the soldier got it, it mostly was in a hard condition and could hardly be cooked to softness.

Soldiers boiled them, crumbled them into a soup or fried them in grease. Weevils and maggots infested them regularly and had to be skimmed off the surface of the water when hardtack was boiled. One Ohio officer said that eating hardtack was like trying to eat a stove lid.

Also, Union soldiers often called the Confederates butternuts. That was because the Rebels usually wore uniforms of homespun cloth that had been dyed in the brownish juice of butternuts or walnuts. As the book points out, butternut was not a term of respect.



Next: Answering some questions submitted by a reader.

(Copies of A Stupendous Effort are available at The Sentinel's business office for $25 per copy.)