Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Civil War Reenacting: Bayonets

By Matthew Pizzolato

At a civil war reenactment, after we march out of camp and get into position for a battle, the next thing we do is to hurry up and wait.  We always get there early and have nothing to do but stand around.  Of course, the bayonet comes into use then so that we can stack arms, which is the only use we have for one at a reenactment.

During the War, however, the bayonet was the equivalent of a multi-purpose tool.  While it was used on the battlefield, bayonets are generally believed to have caused between 1% - 2% of the wounds suffered during the conflict.

General John Gordon wrote of the bayonet, "The bristling points and the glitter of bayonets were fearful to look upon as they were leveled in front of a charging line, but they were rarely reddened with blood."

Three-sided socket bayonet
There are many different kinds of bayonets, but the one most commonly used by both sides during the War was the three-sided socket bayonet that fit over the end of the Enfield rifle used by the Confederate forces or the Springfield used by the Union

Everyday Use

The bayonet saw much more use during the every day life of the soldier.  They were used around camp as an entrenching tools or tent pegs.  Soldiers used them as roasting spits or even meat tenderizers.  Bayonets sometimes saw service as can openers and fire pokers. 

Bayonet attached to rifle
Once darkness fell, soldiers often drove the pointed ends into the ground and placed a candle in the socket end for reading or writing letters home. 

Their use did not end in camp life.  Bayonets have been recovered that were heated over fires and shaped into hooks.  This use was much gorier.  A lot of soldiers of did not like touching bodies, so these "hooks" were used for dragging dead men from the battlefield. 

Combat Use

When they were used in combat, it was primarily as a weapon of intimidation or of desperation, if the regiment was out of ammunition.  Not many men would withstand a bayonet charge. 

The most popular bayonet charge of the War would probably be the one made by the 20th Maine at Gettysburg on Little Round Top, but occurrences like that were few and far between.

Matthew Pizzolato's short stories have been published online and in print. He writes Western fiction featuring his antihero character, Wesley Quaid, that can be found in his story collection, The Wanted Man and the novella Outlaw.  

Matthew is the editor and webmaster of The Western Online, a magazine dedicated to everything Western and can be contacted via his personal website: or he can be found on Twitter @mattpizzolato


  1. Matt, this is very interesting info! I tell you, if it was me, I'd turn tail and run at the sight of those bayonets. LOL That would strike more fear in my heart than being hit by a bullet. And I never thought about them being used so much as a tool, but I'm sure they came in very handy, with all the uses you mentioned. Great post!

  2. This is great information, Matt! I never knew about the men turning their bayonets to hooks, gruesome but innovative.


  3. Hey Matt, Great post. I, like a lot of others, didn't know all those things about bayonets.

  4. A most informative post. Unless you have reason to use one of these it would not occur to you how useful they could be. Thank You.

  5. Thank you, Cheryl. A lot of men did run from a bayonet charge because unlike a gun, a bayonet is always loaded.

    It was pretty gruesome, Kirsten. Thanks for commenting.

    Thanks, Jerry. I'm glad you liked the post.

    A bayonet was pretty useful, Renaissance. Thank you.

  6. Bayonets are frightening because that is up close and personal attack. Interesting post, Matt.

  7. Great post, Matt. Very grisly about the hooked bayonets. One cannot imagine the horror of such hand-to-hand combat.

    Apparently, at the Battle of Culloden in Scotland in 1746 (During the '45 Rebellion) , the government forces beat the Jacobite army partly by having had bayonet training. The Jacobite army, under Bonnie Prince Charlie had been famed for their highland charge. They ran at the enemy waving their 'claymores,' or their dirks, with their target shields on their other arm. The redcoats were trained to attack not the man directly coming at him, but the man on their left, while the man on their right went for the highlander that was directly attacking him. That way the bayonet was used to stab the exposed highlander's chest before he could slash down with his claymore. It would clearly have demanded iron nerve and total trust in one's comrades. Yet it proved to be highly successful.

    Was that sort of tactic used? I guess it wouldn't have had the same potential against someone coming at you with a bayonet rather than a broadsword.