Myths of the Revolutionary War

April 20, 2018

Smithsonian “Castle”

I stumbled across this site while researching the years just prior to the Revolutionary War. It’s a Smithsonian site and deals ably with several myths about that war. I thought you might enjoy it–I did. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/myths-of-the-american-revolution-10941835/

Here are the myths that historian John Ferling debunks:

“Great Britain did not know what is was getting into.”

“Americans of all stripes took up arms out of patriotism.”

“Continental soldiers were always ragged and hungry.”

“The militia was useless.”

“Saratoga was the war’s turning point.”

“General Washington was a brilliant tactician and strategist.” 

“Great Britain could never have won the war.”

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Revisited Myth # 142: During the Civil War, wounded soldiers bit bullets against the pain.

March 14, 2018

Rhonda Florian wrote: “I’m hoping you can help me with some information. I am a living historian. I keep running into what I believe is a history myth—that soldiers used to bite on a bullet during surgery. I always scoff at the idea. I ask the person, “What’s going to happen the first time you scream?” Besides, I ask, what would be the purpose of biting a bullet even if it were humanly possible? But then there’s always that person who says they’ve seen a Civil War bullet with teeth marks on it. Undeniable proof, they exclaim.”

I can only point to an excellent response to this question, written by George Wunderlich, executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, here. 


Revisited Myth #139: The association of black-eyed peas with good luck comes from Sherman’s March to the Sea during the the Civil War

January 14, 2018

Pat McMillion from Burritt on the Mountain, Huntsville, AL, wrote to ask if I would take on this story behind the tradition that black-eyed peas eaten on New Year’s Day would bring good luck. (Actually, I had mentioned it back in July of 2013, but this week we’ll give it full court press.)

The story told throughout the South is that the tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck dates back to Sherman’s March to the Sea in the fall of 1864, when the Yankees laid waste to the Georgia countryside, stealing, killing, or burning everything in their wide path. Survivors faced starvation, until they realized Sherman’s men had left silos full of black-eyed peas, thinking it was food fit only for livestock, as was the case in the North at that time. And since there was no more livestock, there was no use for the peas, so theYankees left the beans alone, and the South was saved from starvation. Hence the good luck. (The relationship to New Year’s Day is fuzzy.) 

Anyone knowledgable about history would surely raise their eyebrows at this lame story–silos full of black-eyed peas in 1864? According to footnoted references in Wikipedia, the first modern silos were invented in Illinois in the 1870s, but we’ll leave that aside, assuming the story doesn’t really mean silos but rather “storage.” It’s just hard for me to picture Sherman’s troops being quite that carefully judgmental as they loot and burn a wide swath of territory for over a month. All the soldiers who came across storage bins with black-eyed peas came to the independent conclusion that they could be left in place because they were no use to anyone but animals? Not logical. Another flaw in the story: the Yankees actually did confiscate animal fodder–millions of pounds of it–either for their own animals or to ship North as contraband. 

But never mind common sense, we must search for hard evidence! (Excuse the enthusiasm, I’m having a glass of wine as I write.)

Black-eyed peas are native to Africa and/or the Far East, and they figure prominently in Southern African-American cuisine. It’s logical that the African-born slaves brought food-related customs with them (“cultural baggage”) long before General Sherman marched to the sea. But black-eyed peas also belong to a 2,500-year-old Jewish custom that links the food to a celebratory meal at Rosh Hashanah. Martha Katz-Hyman, curator at Yorktown Victory Center, sent an informative link to a Jewish article which points to the Babylonian Talmud. “Now that you have said that an omen is significant, at the beginning of each year, each person should accustom himself to eat gourds, black-eyed peas, fenugreek….” Each of the foods (nine in total) represents something different for the year ahead; the black-eyed peas symbolize good fortune.” Read more: http://forward.com/articles/112887/at-rosh-hashanah-black-eyed-peas-for-good-fortune/#ixzz3OMoliuUG. The good-fortune/New Year link to black-eyed peas, this article states, likely arrived in America with the Sephardic Jews who moved to the South. The traditions of the Jews and the African slaves, who did much of the cooking in Southern homes, overlapped with black-eyed peas.

Sharon (no last name) wrote in July of 2013 that “if 18th c. Jews traditionally ate beans for Rosh HaShana, it wasn’t for luck. Rosh HaShana is a two-day “yom tov” or holy day, and Jews are not allowed to light fires or cook on holy days. So it was a long-standing tradition to assemble a casserole, usually something like a pot of beans, and set it among the banked coals on the hearth before the holiday starts, so it will slow-cook like a crock pot meal, and still be hot a day or (even two days) later. However I seriously doubt that anyone in the American South learned this from their Jewish neighbors as a “New Year’s” tradition. Rosh HaShana is in September or very early October, and non-Jewish southerners would almost certainly not have understood enough about the holiday to make the connection to their own New Year’s celebrations.” Good point, Sharon, but Rosh Hashana is the Jewish new year, so the connection is there.

Another article in Forward.com, the Jewish Daily, explains a mixup between fenugreek and black-eyed peas (although I note the quote from the Talmud mentions both, so there, at least, is no mix up.). “Fenugreek is a little seed that the Talmud calls rubia, which sounds like yirbu, the word for “to increase” — as in, to increase luck. But it actually increased confusion, says [food historian] Gil Marks, because the Sephardim got it mixed up with lubia, the word for black-eyed peas. So the Sephardim began eating black-eyed peas rather than fenugreek for good luck in the new year, a tradition they brought with them when some of them up and moved to the colonies. There, non-Jewish Southerners picked up the tradition, too, which is why — Marks swears — to this day, many of them eat black-eyed peas on Rosh Hashanah.” Thank you, Mr. Marks.

Read more: http://forward.com/articles/142762/for-rosh-hashanah-eat-these-symbolic-sounding-food/#ixzz3ORjEzzpS

Another reader of this blog, a “Southerner married to an Englishman,” chimed in. “In northeast England it is traditional to eat carlings on New Years for good luck. Carlings [or carlins] are a black-eyed pea. This tradition is older than the U.S. Civil War and comes from an old Catholic tradition during Lent. Carlings began to be seen as good luck, period. The history of the Carling Festival and Carling Sunday [during Lent] might help with understanding why southerners eat black-eyed peas for good luck at new years.” 

So . . . as we enter the new year, let’s view this myth with some skepticism. The association of black-eyed peas and good luck seems to date back before the American Civil War, and it seems to have existed in at least two distinct societies: northern English and Jewish. I can’t provide definitive proof that it is a myth, and you needn’t be convinced, however, I am. (Pass the wine bottle.) And may the new year bring you good health and much happiness! Cheers!

 

6 previous Responses to Myth #139: The association of black-eyed peas with good luck comes from Sherman’s March to the Sea during the the Civil War.

  1. Pat McMillion says:

    Thank you so very much!!! I knew that logically this was a myth but just didn’t have the proof! I hope to meet you some day so I can give you a hug of thanks for all you do!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. Thank you, ma’am. Your blog is always a good read. I was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia (which is a lot further South than it looks on a map), and I have never heard that Sherman story. Is it really that widespread?

    • Mary Miley says:

      I’m in Richmond too, and no, it isn’t THAT widespread. Mostly in Georgia, I expect, with that General Sherman angle. I hadn’t heard it myself until a couple readers sent the story to me. One reader said she had heard it as a youngster and she was from Mississippi.

  3. Hanley, Kevin says:

    Actually, Mary, they could very well have referenced silos! Though, as you state, the modern silos as we know wasn’t invented until the 1870’s in Illinois, aboveground silos were known before that. In the 1850’s, in France, they built some of masonry, lined with sheet iron. Prior to that, underground silos, were all the rage, going back to Greek (siros) and Roman (sirus/syrus) times. Both early terms referred to pits for storing grain. Its from those roots that the term “silo” evolved from. Remember the scene in the “Ten Commandments” when Charley Heston a/k/a Moses breaks open the Egyptian priests granary. Those mud brick storage bins were silos. So those southerners may have had underground “silos” on their farms. Civil War texts refer to the Georgian crowd, as with many southern farmers, burying their goods: crops, the good silver, etc., underground to hide them from those da*ned Yankees.

    BTW, no I’m not a silo historian. In the research for info about the Wick and Ford family farms here at Morristwon NHP, I wondered if they may have had such “silos”, and came across a whole bunch of neat stuff about silos (especially an 1880’s British book about the proper storage of their fodders. Those Brits really dug their agriculture! Course, what they did with their mudders we’ll never know. Sorry, couldn’t resist!)

    Kevin Hanley Park Ranger, MORR

    • Mary Miley says:

      Thanks for the information, Kevin. I’m afraid my brain leaped directly to tall, cylindrical silos when I read this term. Of course other grain storage facilities have been around for millennia, and I’m sure that’s what the story was referencing.

  4. i know I’m rather late, but the other factor people tend to ignore or just flat out miss is that Sherman had contact with Federal units from Tennessee and Kentucky at least during the battle of Atlanta, so I’m sure that he was well informed about black-eyed peas.


Revisited Myth #118: Golf “caddies” were named by Mary Queen of Scots.

April 23, 2017

Some say that the term “caddie” was originally coined by Mary Queen of Scots in 1552. Here’s the story: She was the first female to play the game of golf. When she was living in France during her youth, it was traditional for French military cadets to carry the clubs of royalty. The cadets carrying golf clubs actually came to be called caddies due to the French language. The word cadet in French is pronounced “ca-dee,” thus the term. The word traveled to Scotland when Mary returned there in 1561.

The first problem with this is that the French word is NOT pronounced Cadee, but more like something between Caday and Cadeh. Another is the claim that she was the first woman to play golf. Possible but highly unlikely. 

However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, caddy or caddie does come from the word “cadet,” from the French, meaning a younger son or younger brother, or the junior branch of the family. The first known written use was 1610, when it meant, “a gentleman who entered the army without a commission to learn the military profession and find a career for himself (as was regularly done by the younger sons of French nobility before the French Revolution).”

Caddie definition #1 from the Scots, 1730, “lad or man who waits about on the lookout for chance employment as a messenger, odd-job man, etc.” 1817 “a caddy came with a large parcel to Mrs. Hogan’s house.”

Definition #2, 1634, from the Scots “a young gentleman latelie come from France, pransing . . . with his short skarlet cloake and his long caudie rapier.”  Or 1776 “with his sword by his side like a cadie.”

1908 #3 caddy: verb, to act as caddy for a golfer  

While we can’t know whether Mary Queen of Scots was really the first woman to play golf, the word origin part of the story seems largely true. 


Revisited Myth #115: In the Revolutionary War, the Americans used guerrilla tactics to beat the British, who fought standing in straight lines.

March 26, 2017


The myth, which is reinforced in textbooks, at historic sites and battlefields claims that during the Revolutionary War, the American army used guerrilla tactics and hid behind rocks, trees, and walls, and mowed down the British who stood in nice straight lines out in the open. Ben Swenson, historian and former reenactor, comments on this myth, as does John Hill, Supervisor of Military Programs for Colonial Williamsburg. Thank you, gentlemen.

“There were a couple battles where the colonial militia, not the regular American Army (an important distinction), used these tactics, but in most battles, both sides used the classic linear tactics,” says Swenson. “It was the way that armies met on the field of battle then, and General Washington wanted more than anything to be recognized as a legitimate commander of a respectable military, so he used the conventional tactics of the day.”

John Hill agrees. “First of all, I hate the term guerrilla warfare [in this context]. In 1775 the British 1764 manual of arms was approved for all Virginia troops. Virginia regulars in Williamsburg and elsewhere were trained using the British model. However, it is interesting to note that although conventional tactics were the focus, one day each week the troops were marched from their Williamsburg camps to places like Queen’s Creek in order to practice woods tactics or Indian tactics. What determined which tactics are to be used? The action’s intended objective, troop strength in relation to the enemy’s, type of terrain and positions of the armies, types of weapons and ammunition available, types of soldiers available (infantry, dragoons, artillery, naval), and weather conditions are all important factors.

“Conventional linear tactics of the 18th century were accomplished using muskets, quick reloading by the use of paper cartridges, and if necessary sweeping the field with bayonets. Linear tactics made it possible for officers to deploy large numbers of soldiers into action in specific areas. Linear tactics allowed for good communication and control of the soldiers. This tactic was extremely effective in overwhelming a weaker force.

“Woods or Indian tactics were usually dictated in situations where the force was significantly smaller in number and mostly armed with civilian weapons (rifles, fowling pieces, tomahawks) rather than military weapons (muskets, bayonets, cannon). Although rifles were much more accurate than smoothbore muskets, they took longer to reload. Therefore, civilian firearms lacked the fire power of military firearms. Small bodies of troops utilizing woods tactics could cause great harassment and embarrassment to an occupying army, but displacing or defeating of an army of greater size armed with muskets and bayonets would be impossible.

“There are a few accounts in the Southern Campaign where both sides were largely using woods tactics such at Kings Mountain. These involved mostly militia: Loyalist vs. Rebels. I am unaware of any major battle of the American Revolution where an army using conventional warfare was defeated by an army using woods tactics.”

A wonderful, detailed article on this topic, titled “Of Rocks, Trees, Rifles, and Militia” (click on the title) was written by Christopher Geist, professor emeritus at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University for the Colonial Williamsburg Journal. I particularly like the opening where Geist reminds his readers of the Bill Cosby routine that I remember fondly (even though I no longer have fond thoughts of Bill Cosby himself). 

“Suppose way back in history if you had a referee before every war, and the guy called the toss. Let’s go to the Revolutionary War.”

[Referee speaking] “British call heads. It’s tails. What do you do, settlers? . . . Settlers say that during the war they will wear any color clothes that they want to, shoot from behind the rocks and trees and everywhere. Says your team must wear red and march in a straight line.”

We laugh because Cosby tapped one of the most tenacious and cherished myths of the Revolution: American colonists prevailed in the conflict against, arguably, the finest military force of the era by using frontier tactics.

 

Previous Comments:

Grant says:
May 18, 2013 at 6:24 pm (Edit)
It would be equally mythical to suggest that the British, who had fought a battle or two in broken terrain before, didn’t have quite capable light infantry.

I enjoy a good debunk myself over at the Eagle Clawed Wolfe. Currently perceptions of old age in history are in my (Pattern 1776 Rifle) sights.

http://eagleclawedwolfe.wordpress.com/2013/05/12/a-brief-history-of-old-men-and-women-part-one-steel-bonnets-on-grey-pates/

Reply
oldud says:
May 19, 2013 at 7:30 am (Edit)
I agree. Both sides employed light infantry and rifle units in the revolution. The drill and use of light infantry is quite different than line infantry. It concentrates on smaller units and individual maneuver, as well as the use of cover and concealment during skirmishing in support of line units. However, massed line infantry was the machine gun of the time and the bayonet was the infantry weapon of decision. And the only way the bayonet could be effectively deployed as a decisive force was by a disciplined, well drilled mass formation of infantry. As you point out, the British had developed and incorporated infantry tactics to combat the French and aboriginal forces in heavily wooded and broken terrain during the F&I War; not much chance hard learned lessons like those would be forgot by the time of the American Revolution. Not to mention that GW, as commander of the Continental Army, wanted a conventional army to match that of the British.

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Grant says:
May 19, 2013 at 8:13 am (Edit)
All history is, of course, to a lessor or greater extent mythologised. The American Revolutionary War and War of 1812 probably more than most, as the cornerstone of of the American foundation narrative whilst it is almost ignored by British historians, which might give it balance. I think the British military was pretty functional in both wars- they were just wars which couldn’t be won and no tweaking of infantry tactics was going to change that.

“The Wolfe” on a similar lopsided view of history:

http://eagleclawedwolfe.wordpress.com/2012/10/09/carlisle-castle-border-reivers-and-awkward-questions/

oldud says:
May 19, 2013 at 10:30 am (Edit)
I agree. Growing expenses for both conflicts, the loss of trade and failing public support led a pragmatic British government to end it’s attempt to retain the American colonies and in the case of the War of 1812, declare victory and go home.

oldud says:
May 19, 2013 at 10:40 am (Edit)
I have changed my mind on cartridges. Failing to find explicit orders to recruiting officers and sergeants to specifically look for opposing teeth in recruits, I can not say it is not a myth. Having all of my teeth and never having “gummed” a cartridge, I can not attest to whether or not it could be done. However, I am now very interested in this detail of musketry and intend to learn more about paper cartridges than I knew before.

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Mary Miley says:
May 19, 2013 at 1:31 pm (Edit)
Good luck! Let us know the results.

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Sharon Ferguson says:
May 19, 2013 at 11:08 am (Edit)
One major point here: it is a truth that the American’s (colonials, what have you) DID prevail. They won. Period. The British surrendered. Ignoring that fact isnt going to change it. The British Parliament continued to shunt responsibility for the colonies to priorities that worked to their benefit, not for the empire, and the American colonies said theyd had enough of it. FACT.

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Travis says:
May 19, 2013 at 11:14 pm (Edit)
I don’t see where anyone called that into question, Sharon. No one is ignoring any facts here, just dispelling one of the most long-held misconceptions of how the war was fought – one that has been repeatedly reinforced by popular media and films like the Patriot but has little basis in reality. That’s fact.

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mehh says:
December 1, 2013 at 5:57 pm (Edit)
Actually, one of the primary reasons the British surrendered to the American Army was that they (the British) had another war going on with Napoleonic France at the time, and they prioritized that war over some uppity colonists.

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Mary Miley says:
December 1, 2013 at 6:21 pm (Edit)
Very true. Sometimes we Yanks give ourselves too much credit . . .

picard578 says:
June 6, 2016 at 6:38 am (Edit)
Actually, you are mistaken in one detail. British had a war with France going on, but it was a war with Royalist France – US War of Independence ended in 1776 IIRC, and Napoleon didn’t come into power until 1790s. There was a war between Britain and US during the Napoleonic wars, but that one was the War of 1812, in which Canadians with very little help from British kicked American butts when Americans decided to add Canada to the glorious USA.

oldud says:
December 2, 2013 at 11:21 am (Edit)
The British never surrendered in the War of 1812. The strategic objectives of the British were:

1. Retain Canada as a British colony by preventing a successful American invasion-successful.

2. Create a buffer reservation for aboriginal nations in the Old Northwest (current states of Ohio, Indiana and Michigan)-failed.

3. Split the US from it’s western territories obtained in the Louisiana Purchase by gaining and maintaining control of the Mississippi River from it’s headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico, thus preventing the western expansion of the US-failed.

And a bonus point; possibly prying New England away from the US through succession.

The war with the US had come on the heels of the Napoleonic wars and the British public had pretty well had enough of martial conflict. And since they only accomplished one of their three strategic objectives* in the war, they just declared victory, signed the treaty of Ghent and sent their army and navy home; except for a defense force in Canada.

But the United States did manage to defend it’s self against the most powerful military in the world and survive. This meant our independence as a nation had been verified and our dependence on any other government was forever severed.

*Failure to capture the upper Mississippi by the British occurred before the Treaty of Ghent was signed and the failure at New Orleans occurred afterward.

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Sean Corcoran says:
May 22, 2016 at 1:22 pm (Edit)
What seldom gets mention why the British Government decided to negotiate a peace settlement is the fact that Spanish forces had taken three key British bases in the Gulf ,Baton Rouge, Natchez, Pensacola which gave them West Florida. There was a good chance that Britain could lose Jamicia as a result. In addition Britain had to keep land and naval forces close to home in the event of France and Spain attempting military actions in the Channel. As mentioned above the higher priority was in Europe.

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Revisited Myth #114: You had to have two opposing teeth to join the army in early America, so you could tear off the end of the cartridge.

March 20, 2017

This is not a myth. (Revised 4/25/2017)

John Hill, Supervisor of Military Programs for Colonial Williamsburg, says, “I have heard many reenactors note the need for two opposing teeth as part of their musket-firing interpretations. Such a requirement isn’t mentioned in any of the drill manuals of the period. I don’t recall seeing anything requiring two opposing teeth in any of the recruitment documents or officers’ guides.” 

Hill is probably correct about drill manuals from the Revolutionary War, however, a recent (2008) book does provide some documentation for the Civil War. (Thanks to Steven Poole for bringing this to my attention.) A History of Dentistry in the U.S. Army to World War II, by John M. Hyson, DDS, Joseph W.A. Whitehorse, PhD, and John T. Greenwood, PhD., page 29: Many potential enlistees were rejected during the [Civil] war because of dental deficiencies. As part of the physical examination given to drafted men or their substitutes (the 1863 conscription act allowed a drafted man to hire someone else to perform his military service), the surgeon was to determine “whether he has a sufficient number of teeth in good condition to masticate his food properly, and to tear his cartridge quickly and with ease.” Revised regulations were even more specific, stating that “total loss of all the front teeth, the eye-teeth, and first molars, even if only of one jaw” was cause for rejection.” (The footnote attributes these to “Disqualification for military service in the Civil War on account of loss of teeth,” authored by Edward Bumgardner (DDS), published in 1894 in a journal called “Dental Cosmos.”)

Other European countries had similar dental requirements. On page 23: In the French army, the manual for the recruiting service, the Aide Memoire, listed the following dental causes for the rejection of an applicant: Loss of the whole or part of either jaw-bone, deformities of either jaw-bone interfering with mastication, speech, or the tearing of the cartridge; Anchylosis of the jaws; Loss of the incisor and canine teeth of both jaws.” The British army regulations mention the “loss of many teeth or teeth generally unsound,” and “extensive deficiency, particularly of the front teeth” as reasons for rejecting a recruit, but without any direct mention of why. In the book’s introduction (page v), Deputy Surgeon General Joseph Webb, a major general in the U.S. Army, writes, “The need for military dental care was first recognized, interestingly enough, in the eighteenth century when it was critical for the European and American musketeer to possess strong front teeth to pull the cap off wooden gunpowder tubes before bringing the charge to the musket’s muzzle. Arms manuals of the day showed that little had changed 250 years later as America became caught up in civil war. At that time, infantrymen needed enough strong teeth to tear open the paper cartridge that contained musket ball and powder.”

P.S.  It is likely that, during time of great need, such details were overlooked in the rush to build up armies. 

 

 

Previous Comments:

Melissa Nesbitt says:
May 12, 2013 at 10:29 am (Edit)
That one was a new one to me. It’s so odd what people will believe these days. And along the lines of “everyone” having rotten teeth, I grow tired of the assumption that “everyone was shorter” in those days. I think you may have already addressed that one though.

Reply
Megan says:
May 12, 2013 at 3:04 pm (Edit)
If you haven’t covered the “everyone was shorter” myth, I wish you would! I get tired of people saying that too, and then I have to find a way to nicely tell them they’re wrong without having actual research to back me up…. some people were certainly as tall as we are today!

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Mary Miley says:
May 12, 2013 at 5:06 pm (Edit)
See myths 108 and 8. Also #8 Revisited, when I learned some new information that was intriguing.

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Dudley Toelke says:
May 12, 2013 at 3:18 pm (Edit)
I can assure you that you have to have at least two opposing teeth to tear a cartridge. The paper used for cartridges in the early 19th century was intended for durability to hold the ball and powder and would NOT have been pre-torn. Safety was a matter of accomplishing the mission, even then; the are a lot of sparks flying around when firing in close ranks. Firing commands are quite specific, as far as loading procedure, include “tear cartridge”. Having done so many times, you can not “gum” a cartridge” open. All of that said, it would be good to have primary source documentation for the assertion. I will try to find some.

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Mary Miley says:
May 12, 2013 at 5:08 pm (Edit)
Mr. Hill did not say the cartridges would have been pre-torn, he said theoretically, someone could have “pre-torn” them.

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oldud says:
May 19, 2013 at 7:43 am (Edit)
I have researched the inspection of recruits in the early 19th century and the only orders for oral inspection was for the regimental surgeon. However, having physical experience with tearing cartridges, they could not have been “gummed”. And as to pre-torn cartridges, if the offender would not have been caught by his sergeant, his line buddies would have known and corrected the error; exploding cartridge pouches don’t add to the efficiency of the unit and well being of those in the burst radius of it.

Roger Fuller says:
August 9, 2013 at 9:04 am (Edit)
There was not one single type of paper used for cartridge-making in the world in the black-powder era. Anything from newsprint paper to the equivalent of bond paper to waxed paper was used, and everything else in between.

I’ve seen original cartridges still extant, found in cartridge pouches. The paper is easily torn. You could even rip paper with your fingers, if you had to.

However, as to whether “Two/four opposing teeth” was a condition to joining the army- any army, remember, anybody who has no teeth at a military age is probably somebody who’s not very healthy to begin with.

This is a lovely reenactor myth, that many of our fellow reenactors have got attached to saying, but until somebody comes forward with credible multiple primary sources from different ears saying “you needed two/four opposing teeth in order to bite open cartridges, to go in the army”, I’m going to chalk this one up to “reenactor logic”. It’s right up there with the three-sided bayonet myths.

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Mary Miley says:
August 9, 2013 at 11:33 am (Edit)
Roger, For some strange reason, your comment isn’t making its way to my blog page. And I want it there–it’s a good bit of information! Would you mind cutting and pasting it and trying again? I can’t imagine what’s wrong . . . Thanks. Mary Miley Theobald Writer and Historian

5 Countryside Court Richmond, VA 23229 (804) 288-2770 http://www.marymileytheobald.com

Blogs: http://www.marymiley.wordpress.com http://www.historymyths.wordpress.com http://www.stuffafterdeath.wordpress.com

Keith says:
May 14, 2013 at 9:09 am (Edit)
I had heard tihis said for the British army during the Nepolianic wars by severeal british historians interviewed for telivision programs. The continental army may not have been so picky. I also know a renactor with no upper front teeth and he manages quite well. Also, a good deal of tooth loose was from scuvy not caries.

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oldud says:
May 19, 2013 at 7:50 am (Edit)
Once again, it depends on the paper he is using for blanks. I’ve even seen a fool that tried to get through a safety inspection with powder rolled in cigarette papers. Easy to tear but a hazard to himself and others.

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Roger Fuller says:
August 7, 2013 at 4:26 pm (Edit)
What British historians, and what sources did they mention?

Mom Wendel says:
May 15, 2013 at 9:45 pm (Edit)
There is a certificate of exemption for Rufus Downs of Ramsey, Minnesota, stating he was not eligible to serve or be drafted into the army during the Civil War. The reason for his disqualification was “by reason of not having teeth in his upper jaw.” The certificate is in the Anoka County Historical Society museum.

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Mary Miley says:
May 16, 2013 at 7:48 am (Edit)
Interesting! But does that pertain to cartridges?

oldud says:
May 19, 2013 at 10:40 am (Edit)
I have changed my mind on cartridges. Failing to find explicit orders to recruiting officers and sergeants to specifically look for opposing teeth in recruits, I can not say it is not a myth. Having all of my teeth and never having “gummed” a cartridge, I can not attest to whether or not it could be done. However, I am now very interested in this detail of musketry and intend to learn more about paper cartridges than I knew before.

Reply
Mary Miley says:
May 19, 2013 at 1:31 pm (Edit)
Good luck! Let us know the results.

Reply

Reply

Brian Zawodniak says:
August 6, 2013 at 3:12 pm (Edit)
Is that a woman in uniform firing a musket? If so, that is so not historically-accurate unless that unit historically had a woman hide her gender.

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Mary Miley says:
August 6, 2013 at 3:22 pm (Edit)
I can’t answer that question because I can’t see the person’s face. However, I will say that Colonial Williamsburg has had to bend to modern employment requirements and allow girls to serve in the Fife and Drum Corps and hire women to work as costumed carriage drivers, so it is possible. In these cases, they are supposed to conceal their hair and wear men’s clothing.

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Will says:
August 6, 2013 at 5:35 pm (Edit)
Women did not serve in the military during these time periods out in the open. When they did see combat, it was in disguise as a man. If they were found out by superiors, they were removed from service. There are about 400 documented cases of women serving in combat in the American Civil War, and there were well over 3 million men serving between both armies. The ratio of women serving to men is very small…..

Brian Zawodniak says:
August 6, 2013 at 3:14 pm (Edit)
Also, pre-tearing a cartridge would have the powder leak out! Using your hands to tear a cartridge takes time away from the whole process of loading thus making one slower. Where is the musket in all of this hand tearing? Gumming your cartridge? Boy….

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Lindsey says:
August 6, 2013 at 9:20 pm (Edit)
Yes, people make this claim at ACW battlefields, often that draft dodgers knocked out their own teeth to be unfit for service. They often add that the “draft board” would just put you in the artillery.

They neglect to remember that the Confederate Army of Tennessee’s Kentucky Brigade (the so-called Orphans) included a man with a “deformed mouth” who could not speak and had no teeth. No was an infantry private.

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Dale Kidd says:
August 7, 2013 at 3:09 pm (Edit)
I can’t speak for the American Army, but this definitely WAS a documented condition of enlistment in the British Army during the Georgian era.

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Mary Miley says:
August 7, 2013 at 3:34 pm (Edit)
Can you cite a source for that? (Without going to a great deal of trouble . . . )

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Marc Schaftenaar says:
August 7, 2013 at 4:08 pm (Edit)
People are a bit eager to dismiss this as a “myth”, but the exercise is quite clear: the cartridge is opened by tearing it with the teeth. Any old soldier losing his teeth over time surely would not be kicked out immediately, -nor were woman, after discovery,- but I can’t imagine the old and teethless being accepted as new recruits.

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Marc Schaftenaar says:
August 7, 2013 at 4:12 pm (Edit)
Also, saying something like pre-tearing and gumming a cartridge “might be possible” is also not a valid argument.

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Craig Schomp says:
August 8, 2013 at 11:25 am (Edit)
Perhaps you think it is a myth because the search term was wrong? Try “4F”… http://directionsindentistry.net/4f-unfit-for-service-because-of-teeth/

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Roger Fuller says:
August 9, 2013 at 8:52 am (Edit)
I dunno….an unsourced website on the Internet is not sufficient proof. This isn’t how historical research is supposed to work. It’s a secondary source at best. Anybody can put something on the Internet. Whether it’s true is another matter. It needs either a source from a period document or a picture of an original document confirming this assertion, preferably multiple sources, to give more credence to the assertion. If I passed this in for a grad school class, I’d get an F. Or in this case, “4-F”.

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Roger Fuller says:
August 9, 2013 at 6:53 pm (Edit)
Hi, Mary, I’ll try it again.

“There was not one single type of paper used for cartridge-making in the world in the black-powder era. Anything from newsprint paper to the equivalent of bond paper to waxed paper was used, and everything else in between.

I’ve seen original cartridges still extant, found in cartridge pouches. The paper is easily torn. You could even rip paper with your fingers, if you had to.

However, as to whether “Two/four opposing teeth” was a condition to joining the army- any army, remember, anybody who has no teeth at a military age is probably somebody who’s not very healthy to begin with.

This is a lovely reenactor myth, that many of our fellow reenactors have got attached to saying, but until somebody comes forward with credible multiple primary sources from different ears saying “you needed two/four opposing teeth in order to bite open cartridges, to go in the army”, I’m going to chalk this one up to “reenactor logic”. It’s right up there with the three-sided bayonet myths.

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Daisiemae says:
December 3, 2015 at 9:55 pm (Edit)
I heard a reenactor today say that people often knocked out their front teeth in order to avoid serving in the army! I simply cannot believe that.

The same reenactor told the old “bite the bullet” myth and he was saying something about being stabbed with a 3-sided bayonet, but I couldn’t hear exactly what he was saying. What is the 3-sided bayonet myth?

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Mary Miley says:
December 6, 2015 at 10:35 pm (Edit)
Re: a 3-sided bayonet–such things did exist. I’ve seen them. I’m no expert on historic arms, so I can’t comment further. I don’t know what the myth is.

As for knocking out one’s own teeth to avoid military service, I find that hard to believe if only because so many people had missing teeth. (We don’t see it too often today, what with implants and dentures, but travel to a third-world country and you’ll notice a big difference. When I was in India, for instance, it seemed that almost all adults were missing a tooth or three. In 18th- and 19th-century America, it was probably the same.) If many (or most) adults were missing teeth, I doubt that missing one’s teeth would make one ineligible for the army.

Perhaps a military historian could better respond to this one?

Jake Pontillo says:
August 1, 2016 at 4:07 pm (Edit)
The standard military Bayonet was triangular in cross section. A wound via such a weapon would be difficult to suture. Also It is not absolutely necessary to tear open a cartridge with the teeth. One can be ripped easily with the fingers.

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Roger Fuller says:
August 4, 2016 at 10:07 am (Edit)
As anyone who has ever sewn up wounds can tell you, you just use more stitches. Ever seen somebody who went through a car windshield? They look far worse than an some body with an even-sided wound, and those poor victims get stitched up successfully, too.

The “three-sided bayonet as especially cruel weapon of war” myth seems to have come from the late 1950’s or so, at least as Dave Jurgella recalled it for me years ago, who related that, in the dawn of Civil War reenactment, when reenactors were asked, why does the bayonet have three sides, they had no answer. Not knowing they answer, reenactors guessed at it, so as not to come off looking ignorant of the subject. (But, really, the honest thing to do is say, I don’t know. Get the person’s contact info, research it, and get back to them with whatever info you find. You learn new stuff that way, I find!) The guess got added to by further guesses (AKA reenactor logic), and became holy writ.

The reality is that the three-sided socket bayonet was a compromise between metal used and bending strength. Four sides are too heavy, two sides might snap, but three sides meant the blade might bend but not break, if slammed against a hard object. The flutes along the sides are not “blood gutters”, but fullers that impart bending and twisting strength, such as the inner surfaces of a railroad rail or I-beam do.

Unfortunately, old myths die hard, since reenactors get very attached to them. For instance, the Geneva Convention, which supposedly banned such weapons, had nothing to do with weapons. It was mostly about prisoner exchanges and prisoner treatment in war. The Hague Conventions didn’t ban them, either, since they we long out of service by about thirty years, when the first convention took place. But again, it makes a potent myth that folks like to tell credulous crowds at reenactments who ooh and gasp when they hear these myths.

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oldud says:
August 4, 2016 at 10:42 am (Edit)
The triangle has an excellent strength – weight ratio.

oldud says:
May 19, 2013 at 10:40 am (Edit)
I have changed my mind on cartridges. Failing to find explicit orders to recruiting officers and sergeants to specifically look for opposing teeth in recruits, I can not say it is not a myth. Having all of my teeth and never having “gummed” a cartridge, I can not attest to whether or not it could be done. However, I am now very interested in this detail of musketry and intend to learn more about paper cartridges than I knew before.

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Mary Miley says:
May 19, 2013 at 1:31 pm (Edit)
Good luck! Let us know the results.

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Revisited Myth # 103: Civil War soldiers underwent surgery with no anesthesia.

October 1, 2016

 

civilwarhospital

The National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, MD, tries to debunk the widespread medical myth that anesthesia did not exist during the Civil War.

Gaseous ether and chloroform were both widely available and their therapeutic impact was well known in both Union and Confederate medical services. (Both had been used since the 1840s.) Major surgery was carried out using these anesthetics if they were available. It is estimated that greater than 90% of all major surgery was carried out with anesthetics. See http://www.civilwarmed.org/articles/myth_busters/

But neither ether nor chloroform was available before the 1840s, so Revolutionary War-era medical practices did not include the use of anesthetics.

Other medical misconceptions from the pre-anesthesia era abound. Ben Swenson, a historian and re-enactor who worked at Yorktown, VA, a Revolutionary War site, says visitors often approached him with incorrect assumptions. Something “we heard all the time that was patently false was that they would get soldiers rip roaring drunk before amputating an arm or a leg. There are actually a couple of misconceptions here. First, despite popular belief, they did not just take a hacksaw to peoples’ limbs. It was actually quite an intricate procedure involving skin and muscle knives, muscle retractors, saws, cauterizing irons, etc. And the alcohol thing is Hollywood history. Alcohol dilates the blood vessels and they knew that. They would not have wanted their patient to bleed to death. Besides, being drunk doesn’t dull the pain, it only changes your reaction to it. So no alcohol. And no again, they didn’t give someone a bullet to bite on…when someone cuts into you, you scream, and that bullet goes down the gullet. A stick would probably have been used to keep someone from biting his tongue off.”

So the absence of anesthesia is a myth if it’s said to pertain to the Civil War, but true during the Revolutionary War.

 

Earlier Comments:

janice says:
January 8, 2013 at 4:21 pm (Edit)
well, thank you. yes, the movies have influenced my thinking. i never questioned this. also they make you feel that the conditions of surgery was barbaric. i remember seeing a house in a tour of a civil war battlefield that they indicated was used as a hospital for wounded. i wonder how few really lost limbs, after reading this.

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Mary Miley says:
January 8, 2013 at 5:23 pm (Edit)
Soldiers certainly did lose limbs, but the circumstances were not as primitive as the movies would lead us to believe.

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azambone says:
January 9, 2013 at 9:21 pm (Edit)
Reblogged this on Notanda and commented:
ALZ Comments: Another historical myth that frosts my clock. Like most historical myths, it believes that our ancestors were much, much less intelligent than we.

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Carole Kingham says:
November 3, 2013 at 7:05 pm (Edit)
Being a Respiratory Therapist in my real world job, and a Confederate Doctor at events, I love the bite the bullet myth and usually address it when asked…my take is that pre modern age, teeth were not a thing to be taken lightly and without floride in the toothpastes were pretty soft in comparison to a hard lead bullet. A bite down on the bullet would probably lead to cracked and/or broken teeth, which would lead to a scream and probably inhalation of said bullet and fragments of teeth…causing a different form of lead poisoning, lol! And that anesthesia of both types were pretty available during the war.

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Daisiemae says:
January 8, 2016 at 9:09 pm (Edit)
I was expounding upon this myth on Facebook when a Friend informed me that her brother-in-law owns a “Civil War bullet with teethmarks on it.”

I said that whatever marks are present on this bullet must have come from something else.

Does anyone have any light to shed on these supposed bullets full of teethmarks?

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