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Monday, November 1, 2010

A Dimunitive Rebel Ponders Close-Quarters Combat

Nervous thoughts on bowie-knife fighting in the Civil War from Johnny Reb and Billy Yank (1904) by Alexander Hunter. The following section describes sentiment in Alexandria, Virginia, after a regiment was raised but before its first battle:
A popular fallacy existed: that a warrior's fitness was measured by his size. A brawny six-footer was the pride of the ladies, the admiration of the street gamins and the envy of his smaller companions. As he marched at the head of his company, his head towering above the others, his hat cocked in a defiant way, his features set in martial frown, he looked not unlike Mars leading mortals to battle.

In the bar-room the big man was always surrounded by a group of admirers, who listened to him with open-mouthed wonder; the big man knew what war was and he knew what he was going to do; he did not want ammunition, his weapon was the bayonet or bowie-knife—give him that! And here the big man looked so terribly blood-thirsty that the timid ones shuddered with absolute terror.

It was amusing to see the big man pat the young, slender boy on the shoulder and tell him to cheer up, that a year or so in camp would spread him out and then he could hope to be a fighter too; then the big man would roll up his sleeve and let us measure his arm and strike him in the breast.
The boys and little men were laughed at, they did not brag; a warlike sentiment from anything under five feet eight was derisively laughed down, and so they sensibly held their tongues. What availed a quiet voice where the hoarse tones from the big man completely drowned it? If the boy or small fellow spoke, he was squelched. "Wonder what he will do when we close with them Yankees with bayonets and bowie-knives, where will he be then?" At that the big man would give his mustache a ferocious pull, and walk off, leaving the smaller soldier utterly extinguished.
After the First Manassas, when Southern troops charging with bowie knives were said to have caused a Union rout, the belief in the conclusiveness of hand-to-hand combat seemed to have been confirmed.
[T]he volunteer, discussing in his barracks the future, expressed the honestly felt desire to meet the foe in combat; a foe he had come to despise; a foe he felt certain would never stand long enough to look him in the face. Imaginative battles were rather of the "Iliad" order--a few rounds, then a rush of cold steel, and all was over. It was agreed that Company A should go into action with each man carrying a revolver in his belt and a bowie-knife in his bootleg; it would look decidedly war-like and unique, we thought, to see the handle protruding from the leggins. The pistols were intended for close quarters, and when each chamber should have done its deadly work, the bowie, conveniently carried between the teeth, would be expected to step in and carve up the foe. Thus we sat in earnest conclave, day after day, fighting our coming battles. We mapped out our program to suit our untutored fancy. The most harmless fellow amongst us, who would have hesitated to kill a fly, talked by the hour of bayonet charges, until the blood in our veins ran cold.

There was one little fellow, a private named Hunter, who grew meditative as the discussions waxed more thrilling, and spent many a sleepless night communing with himself. This bowie-knife business might be a very good thing, he thought, for immense fellows like Raymond Fairfax, or for one of those big Irishmen, but for a sixteen-year-old soldier of ninety-seven pounds fighting weight, it might not prove so very amusing after all. In a tight place, when cold steel was letting out blood, might it not be advisable, after having stood up to the fight like a man, to drop down on the ground for a little while and pretend to be dead? The big "Bowie-knife" would hardly stop to stab such a little corpse. A boy in battle, he continued to reason, could discharge firearms with the biggest, and do damage enough; having this advantage besides, there would be so little of him to hit; but as for an advance, --who would be hurt, the big blue? Not he! And making up his mind that until he had grown bigger, the question of cowardice would not be involved; and his anticipations of the future assumed a brighter aspect.


  1. In the beginning of the article it states 'a popular fallacy existed: that a warrior's fitness was measured by his size', but it never gives evidence to the contrary. Any more info?

    1. it's common sense. you can be really big, but not be fit. look at the majority of the american population today. big is such a broad term, you could be tall, fat, stocky, you could have a big head...

  2. Great site, by the way...

  3. I interpret it as meaning that in the Civil War battles were not determined by brute strength. Any soldier fit enough to carry his musket and fire it was as deadly an opponent as a muscular man six-foot or more--and the fact is, the latter is a bigger target. In WW II, some of the toughest fighting was done by paratroops and commandos who were not necessarily large men. Look how much respect the Gurkhas were given, and they are mostly of small stature, though tough.