Saving Lives, Many Bullets at a Time

The American Civil War was the nation’s bloodiest and deadliest in its history.  In total, there were just over 1 million casualties, comprising 3% of the nation’s population. Over 600,000 soldiers died (some estimate as many as 850,000), with roughly two-thirds of them dying from disease. The Civil War’s death toll was higher than the number of American deaths in all other wars, combined.

During the war, an inventor — who, by training, was a medical doctor — noticed one of these stats, specifically the tidbit that the vast majority of soldiers in the war were killed not by bullets, but by illness.  He surmised that if he could keep people off the battlefield, those who stayed home (or, at least, at the base) would be less prone to disease, and therefore, the death toll from wars would go down.  Way down.  So he proposed a solution:

A gun which could do the job of multiple soldiers.

The man’s name was Dr. Richard Jordan Gatling, inventor of the Gatling gun, pictured above.  After inventing the weapon, Gatling wrote, “It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine – a gun – which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a large extent supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease [would] be greatly diminished.”

Whether history has proven Dr. Gatling correct is an open question, but in at least one case, the weapon was decisive. In 1898, American and Cuban forces defeated Spanish troops in the Battle of San Juan Hill of the Spanish-American War.  The American/Cuban forces numbered roughly 15,000 troops — and four Gatling guns.  The Gatling guns were able to do the work of the rest of the army combined, firing 18,000 bullets in just eight and a half minutes. However, the relatively high number of causalities suffered by the U.S. in the battle led the army, in part, to retire the Gatling gun in favor of a subsequent innovation: a smaller, hand-held machine gun — one which allowed for even more efficient killing than the Gatling gun provided.


Bonus fact: While the Gatling gun saw itself phased out due to its use in the Spanish-American War, something else found itself entering American culture: the t-shirt.  According to Wikipedia, crew-neck, short-sleeve undershirts were issued to navy midshipmen during the war, and when temperatures got too hot for the overshirts, the sailors ended up wearing  these shirts as their main ones. They became popular after the war and have stayed popular since.

From the ArchivesThe Price of Freedom: At the close of the Spanish-American War, the U.S. gained control of the Philippines. Andrew Carnegie tried to buy their independence.

Related: “Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel: The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It” by Julia Keller. Mixed reviews but probably the singular best resource on the topic.

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