The Minie Ball

The development of this half-inch lead rifle bullet revolutionized warfare, while the slowness of Civil War military leaders to adapt their tactics to adjust to the new technology was greatly responsible for the overwhelming number of battlefield deaths.
        Before the introduction of what soldiers commonly called the "minnie ball"-even though it was indeed bullet-shaped-the use of rifles in battle was impractical and largely limited to corps of elite marksmen. Expensive, tight fitting projectiles had to be jammed into the grooves of the rifle's muzzle, a time-consuming process.
        In 1848, however, French army Captain Claude F. Minie created a smaller, hollow-based bullet that could far more quickly and easily be rammed into the bore, expanding when the weapon was fired to catch in the rifling and be shot spinning out of the barrel. That spin made the mini ball, like other, more expensive and unwieldy rifle bullets, a highly precise and far traveling projectile. They could reach a half-mile or more, and an average soldier could easily hit a target 250 yards away.
        By 1855, Harpers Ferry Armory worker James H. Burton had honed an even cheaper version of the minie ball, which, along with the rifle itself, soon became widely used in the U.S. Army. It was the standard bullet for both sides in the Civil War, although neither anticipated the enormous difference this would make on the battlefield. Against a defensive line using musket fire-requiring a 25-second reloading period and accurate to only 50 feet or less-a frontal infantry charge was likely to be successful if the assaulting force moved quickly enough.
        The widespread use of the minie bullet, however, shifted the balance greatly to the defense's favor. Nevertheless, Civil War generals continued ordering such attacks, learning only after hard and bloody battlefield experience-from the assault on Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg to Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg-that their strategy would have to be altered.







Siege of Port Hudson, La.
May 21-July 9, 1863.

Hand Grenade

12lb Reed Shell




Submarines were used in both the American Revolution and in the Civil War. In 1776, during the Revolutionary War, American ship maker David Bushnell built a strange submarine made of oak. It had two hand-cranks to provide power. To submerge, the operator flooded the craft with water until it was heavy and dense enough to slip below the surface.  However, the operator was knee-deep in water! A hand pump was used to remove the water so the craft could surface. Colonists hoped to use the submarine to break the British naval blockade of New York harbor, but they were never able to do it.


In 1864, during the Civil War, the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley made the first "successful" underwater attack. It carried a crew of eight who used hand cranks to power the propeller. The ship moved slowly through the water at 4 knots (that's about 4 mph). Air was provided to the crew by two four-foot pipes. There was enough air to be under water for only about 30 minutes. To attack, crewmen used a pole to push a torpedo out of the submarine and toward the Union's ship. The torpedo hit its target, the USS Housatonic, but the explosion was so great it sank both ships!

Since then, great progress has been made in submarine technology. Today, submarines are still used mostly for military purposes, but scientists also use "submersibles" for research and to rescue people or objects that may be trapped thousands of feet below the surface.



On September 24, 1861, Lowe ascended to more than 1,000 feet (305 meters) near Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, DC, and began telegraphing intelligence on the Confederate troops located at Falls Church, Virginia, more than three miles (4.8 kilometers) away. Union guns were aimed and fired accurately at the Confederate troops without actually being able to see them—a first in the history of warfare.


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    The Union could have taken advantage of the machine gun, but, again, were reluctant to try new weapons.  In June of 1861 J. D. Mills showed President Lincoln his machine gun.  It was mounted on wheels and had a tray of that held cartridges that dropped  into the rotating cylinder as one turned a crank.  Lincoln called it "a coffee-mill gun," while Mills called it "The Union Repeating Gun."  The name of the inventor is not known, but Burke Davis believes it was probably Edward Nugent or William Palmer.  Again, General Ripley did not want to issue this gun into the U.S. artillery.  In October of 1861 Lincoln bought ten "coffee-mill" guns, without consulting anyone, at a price of $1,300 each.  It was the first machine-gun order in history.  In December 19 of the same year General McClellan bought fifty more at $735 each.  Two of the guns were tested under Colonel John Geary.  He was, however, not impressed, saying they were "inefficient and unsafe to the operators."  Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, of the Confederacy, reportedly captured seventeen "revolving guns" from the Union stores in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (Davis 56-60).  Another crank operated machine gun was invented by C. E. Barnes in 1856.  It was ahead of its time, but similar to other machine guns invented later.  Although it was invented before the outbreak of the war, there is no evidence that it was used by either side (Lord 159).

    Dr. Richard J. Gatling, a North Carolina farm boy, patented a six-barrel machine gun on November 4, 1862.  He later adapted it to use steel-jacketed cartridges.  The rate of fire for the gun was 250-300 rounds per minute.  General Ben Butler ordered twelve of Gatling guns for the UnionGatling, however, was a presumably a Copperhead, Northerners who sympathized with the Confederates.  He supposedly was part of a secret plot to seize border states for the Confederacy.  His reputation did not help sell his gun to the Union, especially since he was thought to sell some to the Rebels (Davis 61).  The Union had opportunities to get the Gatling gun but did not take advantage of them.  In 1862 Governor Morton of Indiana saw the gun being tested and wrote to Assistant Secretary of War suggesting that the gun be officially used by the North, but nothing was done.  Gatling asked Army Chief of Ordnance that the weapon be tested and adopted by the army, but this, too, was refused.  One of Gatlings representatives, however, did convince General B. F. Butler to purchase twelve guns for $12,000, including 12,000 rounds of ammunition.  The Navy adopted the gun in 1862.  The Army did not adopt it until 1866 (Lord 160).



Early in September of 1862, General Robert E. Lee careful laid out his plans for the Confederacy's first invasion of the North. Along with sparing Virginia the continued ravages of war, Lee hoped to win a decisive victory and bring about foreign recognition for the South. However, on September 13, Union Private Barton W. Mitchell of the 27th Indiana found a copy of General Lee's Special Orders No. 191 in an envelop wrapped around 3 fine cigars. Realizing the importance of his find, he reported the find to his superior with the contents quickly making their way to Union Major General George McClellan. The orders included plans for the upcoming campaign including the splitting of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Stonewall Jackson's Corps would proceed to Harpers Ferry and "take possession of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad". With assistance from a detachment from Longstreet's Corp, he would then "endeavor to capture the enemy at Harpers Ferry and vicinity". With the Confederate Army divided, General McClellan, already with a decided numbers advantage, now had the opportunity to defeat Lee's separate wings in detail. The Union General is reported to have responded, "Here is a paper with which if I cannot whip Bobby Lee I will be willing to go home. "



Battle of the Crater

During the siege of Petersburg, Virginia, the armies were aligned along a series of fortified positions and trenches more than 20 miles long, extending from the old Cold Harbor battlefield near Richmond all the way to areas south of Petersburg.

After Lee had checked Grant in an attempt to seize Petersburg on June 15, the battle settled into a stalemate. Grant had learned a hard lesson at Cold Harbor about attacking Lee in a fortified position and was chafing at the inactivity to which Lee's trenches and forts had confined him. Finally, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, commanding the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry of Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside's IX Corps, offered a novel proposal to solve the problem.

Pleasants, a mining engineer from Pennsylvania in civilian life, proposed digging a long mine shaft underneath the Confederate lines and planting explosive charges directly underneath a fort (Elliott's Salient) in the middle of the Confederate First Corps line. If successful, this would not only kill all the defenders in the area, it would also open a hole in the Confederate defenses. If enough Union troops filled the breach quickly enough and drove into the Confederate rear area, the Confederates would not be able to muster enough force to drive them out, and Petersburg might fall. Burnside, whose reputation had suffered from his 1862 defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg and his poor performance earlier that year at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, gave Pleasants the go-ahead, hoping to restore his reputation.

Mine construction

Digging began in late June, and progressed steadily. Earth was removed by hand, and the floor, wall, and ceiling of the mine were shored up with timbers from a local wood mill. The shaft was elevated as it moved toward the Confederate lines and fresh air was pumped in via an ingenious air-exchange mechanism near the entrance. This precluded the need for ventilation shafts and served well in disguising the diggers' progress. On July 17, the main shaft reached under the Confederate position. Rumors of a mine construction reached the Confederates, but despite countermining attempts, they were unable to discover it.

The mine was in a "T" shape. The approach shaft was 511 feet long. At its end, a perpendicular gallery of 75 feet extended in both directions. The Federals filled it with 320 kegs of gunpowder, totaling 8,000 pounds. The explosives were approximately 20 feet underneath the Confederate works. On July 28, the mine was completed.


On the morning of July 30, 1864, Pleasants lit the fuse. After no explosion occurred at the expected time, two brave volunteers from the 48th Regiment (Lt. Jacob Douty and Sgt. Harry Reese) crawled into the tunnel. After discovering the fuse had burned out at a splice, they spliced on a length of new fuse and relit it. Finally, at 4:44 a.m., the charges exploded in a massive shower of earth, men, and guns. A crater (still visible today) was created, 170 feet long, 60 to 80 feet wide, and 30 feet deep. Between 280 and 350 Confederate soldiers were instantly killed in the blast.

The plan was doomed from the start, however, due to Meade's interference on the day before the battle. Burnside had trained a division of United States Colored Troops (USCT) under Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero to lead the assault. They were trained to move around the edges of the crater and then fan out to extend the breach in the Confederate line. Then, Burnside's two other divisions, made up of white troops, would move in, supporting Ferrero's flanks and race for Petersburg itself.

Meade, who lacked confidence in the operation, ordered Burnside not to use the black troops in the lead assault, thinking the attack would fail and the black soldiers would be killed needlessly, creating political repercussions in the North. Burnside protested to General Grant, who sided with Meade. Complying with the order, but showing a remarkable lack of professionalism, Burnside selected a replacement white division by having the commanders draw lots. Brig. Gen. James F. Ledlie's 1st Division was selected, but he failed to brief the men on what was expected of them and was reported during the battle to be drunk, well behind the lines, providing no leadership.

Ledlie's untrained white division went across the field to the crater and, instead of moving around it, yielded to their curiosity and moved down into the crater itself, wasting valuable time while the Confederates, under Maj. Gen. William Mahone, gathered as many troops together as they could for a counterattack. Soon, they had formed up around the crater and began firing down into it, in what Mahone later described as a "turkey shoot". The plan had failed, but Burnside, instead of cutting his losses, sent in Ferrero's men. They also went down into the crater, and for the next few hours, Mahone's soldiers, along with those of Maj. Gen. Bushrod Johnson, and artillery slaughtered the IX Corps as it attempted to escape from the crater.

The Confederates reported losses of 1,032 men in the battle, while Union losses were estimated at 5,300. About half of them were from Ferrero's division, to which many of the Confederates offered no quarter (so vicious were the Confederates in targeting the black soldiers that white Union soldiers in the crater began shooting their black comrades to diffuse the Confederate rage)[1]. Burnside was relieved of command. Although he was as responsible for the defeat as was Burnside, Meade escaped censure. As for Mahone, the victory, won largely due to his efforts in supporting Johnson's stunned men, earned him a lasting reputation as one of the best young generals of Lee's army in the war's last year.


Despite the battle being a tactical Confederate victory, the strategic situation in the Eastern Theater remained unchanged. Both sides remained in their trenches and the siege continued.




  • The Roanoke Valley was the site of an important Civil War battle, "Hunter’s Raid" of 1864, of which took place where Peters Creek empties into the Roanoke River. It was an important prelude to the Battle of Hanging Rock, near Salem, becoming a Confederate victory. Union General David Hunter, notorious for his hatred of slave-holding states, was driven to retreat.

  • The Battle of Hanging Rock in Salem is marked by a monument on Rt. 311. Confederate forces under General John McCausland won a substantial Southern victory here against General Hunter, who was ultimately beaten in Lynchburg. General McCausland’s grandson is Dr. Alexander McCausland, a Roanoke physician.

  • Soldiers weren’t the Civil War’s only victims. Following General Hunter’s retreat, 700 horses died of exhaustion trying to climb massive Potts Mountain in Craig County on the way to West Virginia. It took local residents two weeks to bury them all.

  • The Village of Bonsack, on U.S. 460 near Vinton, was the site of two important woolen blanket mills during the Civil War. One was burned by Yankees; the other was saved when its owner promised not to sell any blankets to the Confederate traders at the Roanoke depot. Legend has it that the latter owner’s fingers were crossed as he made his vow.

  • January 30, 1860 - Captain Abraham Hupp enrolled the first members of the Salem Flying Artillery on the lawn of the Roanoke County Courthouse. Hupp's Battery later fought in the War Between the States.

  • April 1861 - As the Civil War began, the Roanoke Grays, under Captain Madison P. Deyerle, departed from Salem's courthouse green to join Confederate forces at Lynchburg.
  • August 14, 1863 - James E. Stover was hanged across from what is now Oakey's field on Main Street east of the Brown House; his offense was the slaying of a patrolman while attempting to desert the Confederate Army. Stover was transported to the Main Street gallows riding on top of his coffin.

  • December 15-16, 1863 - Federal forces under Brigadier General William W. Averell moved into Salem from the north, destroyed quantities of flour, wheat, saltpork and other supplies housed in the town, burned the depot building and a nearby mill, and destroyed several bridges. Thomas H. Chapman, 26, son of a prominent Salem family, was killed by the Federals as they advanced on Salem.

  • June 21, 1864 - Federal forces under Major General David Hunter, retreating from Lynchburg, burned railside buildings at Salem; Confederate cavalry attacked the Federals in the Battle of Hanging Rock, and both sides suffered casualties.




Hanging Rock Was Surprising Confederate Victory

By John Long

The recent dedication of Salem's new Hanging Rock Battlefield Trail, running along the old railroad bed on Kesler's Mill Road, is a reminder that the Roanoke Valley, while not Gettysburg or Antietam, has a neglected Civil War Heritage to preserve.

The trail commemorates the Battle of Hanging Rock in June of 1864. As Civil War battles go, it was a minor affair, which certainly did not turn the tide of the war. Nonetheless, it is a notable piece of local history, being a surprising Confederate victory late in the war and the only actual engagement in Roanoke County during the War between the States.

The story of the battle begins actually in Lynchburg some days before, where Union General David Hunter had made a two day attempt to break through southern defenses and cut the vital railroad link in that town. The outnumbered Confederate forces had repulsed Hunter's Lynchburg attack, forcing him to reconsider his strategy and begin a retreat back to friendly territory in West Virginia, doing as much damage as possible on the way (Hunter was infamous for his brutal scorched earth tactics). His path took him through Liberty (Bedford), Big Lick (Roanoke), and finally Salem, where his men burned the depot, raided homes for food, and tore up several miles of railroad track which had only recently been replaced after Averell's raid six months before (see adjoining book review).

An interesting coincidence saved Roanoke College from plunder: one of the Union officers had heard David Bittle, president of the college, speak at a Lutheran church in Pennsylvania some years before; he protected the college and the Bittle home from hungry soldiers.

Hunter was aware that his retreat (the Great Skedaddle, as Confederate forces called it) was being doggedly pursued by rebel generals Jubal Early and John McCausland. He therefore hastened out of Salem, along modern day Craig Avenue to the gap at Hanging Rock, where Va. 311 begins today. He found the road to New Castle blocked by fallen trees, which severely retarded his progress (to this day it is unclear who blocked the road; probably local militia units or possibly miners from the Catawba area). While the infantry were sent ahead to clear the road, the slower moving supply wagons and artillery limbers were forced to lag behind at Hanging Rock, virtually undefended. It was there that McCausland's Confederate cavalry caught up with the retreating enemy.

McCausland, a former colleague of Stonewall Jackson at VMI, had the potential to inflict significant damage on Hunter's forces, but a delay in getting his orders from Early, and a failure by other officers to reinforce his attack, meant that he could only hit the rearguard of Hunter's troops, and could only hold the gap for a short while. Even so, the Confederates managed to kill, capture, or wound about 100 Union men (numbers vary greatly), and capture or destroy several artillery pieces, as well as valuable supply wagons. Mason's Creek, according to contemporary accounts, ran red with the blood of horses killed in the engagement. McCausland soon was forced to retreat, however, when Union cavalry (led by none other than the same William Averell who had raided Salem the previous December), hastened back to reinforce the beleaguered rear guard. The vast majority of Hunter's forces made it safely to West Virginia, and the south had achieved only a small victory, letting a larger triumph slip through their fingers. Their achievement was certainly not great enough to reverse, or even significantly slow, the impending defeat of the south.

The Battle of Hanging Rock is notable for another bit of trivia: two of the Union soldiers would go on to assume the presidency after the war: Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley. Some sources also put James Garfield in Salem during the action, but this has not been substantiated, and is more doubtful. While Roanoke County's only battle pales in comparison to Gettysburg or Vicksburg, the efforts of the Hanging Rock Battlefield and Railway Preservation Foundation in opening the new walking trail will assure that this battle will not be forgotten.