I know swords were issued and I think they were used but my impression was that men on horseback (officers?) would simply slash at men on foot. Was swordsmanship actually studied with the idea of facing another person with a sword (as I assume was more important in the past) or were swords wielded without much skill or technique?
Generally speaking, swords were not much used during the civil war due to lack of training, lack of quality swords and lack of well-trained horses (plus, of course, improvements in firearms), but there were some notable encounters nonetheless. While swords were used by officers to signal, sometimes for ceremonial saluting and (by infantry with low-quality swords) even for chopping wood, their use in combat was not common:
The US Civil War was part of the beginning of the end for the production of swords for any practical combat use. Firearms were beginning to become more advanced, but the sword still had certain advantages.
Both advantages and disadvantages were evident at the Battle of Fairfield (July 1863), as detailed in the American Battlefield Trust lengthy account, Battle of Fairfield: Grumble Jones' Gettysburg Campaign Victory. For the most part, though,
Bladed weapons are useful, but they were no match for the state of the art small arms (revolvers and rifles) being developed at the time.
Note also that, among Union soldiers,
The vast majority of wounds documented during the Civil War were caused by the Minié ball, while the rest were from grapeshot, canister or other exploding shells. Few men were treated for saber or bayonet wounds and even fewer for cannon ball wounds.
Source: Terry Reimer, 'Wounds, Ammunition, and Amputation' (National Museum of Civil War Medicine)
The figures from the U.S. Army Surgeon's report on Union wounds conflict with the above on cannon wounds but otherwise paint a similar picture:
- 50.6% (124,921) rifle / musket
- 42.1% (103,829) unidentified shot (rifle, cannon or pistol)
- 5.7% (14,032) cannon
- 1.2% (3,008) pistol / buckshot
- 0.2% (522) sabre
- 0.2% (400) bayonet
Even accounting for possible sampling bias and other problems with the data (as noted by SJuan76 in a comment below), these numbers would require a huge margin of error for swords / sabres to be considered a major source of battlefield wounds compared to firearms.
Nonetheless, many soldiers did carry some form of blade, some initially out of romantic notions of the past, others because blades did, at times, have their uses. Artillerymen, for example,
carried a short sword used mainly for swiping at charging cavalrymen.
More Detailed answer
The American soldier and writer William Gilham, and those before him, asserted that
“Cavalry is seldom called on to use fire-arms,” wrote Gilham in his chapter on how to fight battles. It was his contention, and the contention of every manual writer before him, that cavalry would be held in reserve until an enemy was broken. It would then be sent to charge them down with swinging sabers. Sabers would also be the main weapon relied upon in fights with other cavalry units.
Source: Philip Katcher, 'The Army of Northern Virginia' (2012)
However, in the American Civil War,
Such could not have been further from the truth. In fact, the nature of war had so changed that the mounted arm became not true cavalry in the European sense, but more like dragoons, men mounted to arrive at the fight who then dismounted and went into action on foot with carbines and pistols. The age of the saber-wielding assault on infantry was gone. Fremantle of the Coldstream Guards, who visited the Confederate Army in 1863, noted the Army of Northern Virginia cavalry with a professional’s eye: “I remarked it would be a good thing for them if on this occasion they had cavalry to follow up the broken infantry in the event of their succeeding in beating them. But to my surprise they all spoke of their cavalry as not efficient for that purpose. In fact, [J.E.B.] Stuart’s men, though excellent at making raids, capturing wagons and stores, and cutting off communications, seem to have no idea of charging infantry under any circumstances....The infantry and artillery of this army don’t seem to respect the cavalry very much, and often jeer at them."
On the issue of training:
There was, however, a particularly serious obstacle to the effective use of the saber during the war: the lack of training in its use. In 1861, there was little thought given to attempting to raise volunteer mounted forces comparable to regular cavalry. Colonel Francis Lippitt explained this hesitancy. Since it took three years to train such cavalry properly, it seemed that the undoubted expense of raising such units would be wasted. The war would be over, it was assumed, before they could be deployed.
Source: Gervase Phillips, 'Sabre versus Revolver: Mounted Combat in the American Civil War'
The preference...was to raise light cavalry, ‘of a kind requiring comparatively but little time and training,’ to perform the tasks of outpost duties, patrols, escorts, foraging parties, reconnaissance and providing the advance, rear and flank guards to marching armies. They were not, however, generally trained to deliver charges on the battlefield.
On equipment and training,
Nor was it possible at the beginning of the war to equip all troopers with sabers. In June 1861, Jubal Early, then a colonel in Lynchburg, Virginia, complained ‘there is no company of [Confederate] cavalry here fully armed....For many Civil War troopers, the saber was an unfamiliar weapon; even if they were issued one they were rarely fully trained in its use.
This was readily apparent in the way the weapon was handled in the field. The original regulation saber issued to Federal troopers was a rather clumsy, long, heavy sword, of a Prussian pattern. This was later replaced by a lighter, curved saber, a more suitable weapon for light cavalry but still difficult to master. In combat, officers who had been taught to fence used the point of the blade to deadly effect, but enlisted men tended to hack and slash at the head or upper body, often wounding the enemy but without killing or incapacitating him.
Concerning the quality of horses available,
The generally poor condition of Civil War mounts favored the revolver over the saber in close combat. The cavalryman relying on edged weapons needed his mount to be nimble, fast and strong for he duelled as much with his horse as he did with his blade. When firing a revolver from the saddle, the condition of the horse was far less important.
For the south, the lack of mounts became more critical when they lost control of areas important for horse-breeding, namely Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and trans-Allegheny Virginia.
However, there were some clashes where swords were not only used but also bested opponents using pistols, and some officers firmly believed in the use of swords:
...there were commanders on both sides whose faith in l’arme blanche (‘the white arm’) was unshakable. Their belief transmitted itself to their men; properly trained and with sufficiently high standards of horse-mastery to keep their mounts in ‘hard condition,’ these regiments demonstrated the continued potency of the saber, even in the face if the revolver. Jeb Stuart was one such practitioner of saber tactics. During his audacious three-day ride around the Army of the Potomac, 12th-15th June1862, von Borcke recalled ‘we were obliged to fight all the way through, charging continually with sabres in hand the hostile cavalry forces which in all haste were dispatched to oppose us…’Across the lines, there were commanders in blue with a similar attitude; at Kelly’s Ford, 17th March 1863, Colonels Alfred Duffié and J. B. McIntosh brought the 1st Rhode Island, 4th Pennsylvania and 6th Ohio into line, drew sabers and charged, driving Rebel cavalry from the field ‘in magnificent style.’
Notable is the Battle of Brandy Station in 1863 where sabres were put to serious combat use:
...on June 9 the Confederates were struck by the Union force in a move that totally surprised them. The result was the first true cavalry battle of the war, with both sides fighting mounted and using sabers in a free-wheeling mêlée that went back and forth for hours.
Also, a month earlier in 1863 at Bradyville Pike, Tennessee,
Major-General John Palmer charged 80 troopers of the 3rd Georgia Cavalry: ‘we came on them under a quick fire, but they broke when we got within 100 yards. We pursued them a mile, and have 18 prisoners … The enemy, after they reached the wood, rallied and fought well, but they had no sabers, and only inflicted a few slight wounds.’
Question: Was swordsmanship important in the American Civil War?
No! While, in previous wars, the sabre (a type of sword) was a feared weapon brandished by cavalry; during the Civil War, firearms(pistols) had greater range, accuracy, reliability, and rate of fire. Sabres were slow, and required extremely close quarters. A man on horseback brandishing a sabre could not also carry a firearm(pistol). He was thus disarmed and devoid of offensive ability until he was within feet of his foe. Plenty of time to get shot by a man carrying a revolver rather than a sabre. This is why in the American Civil War, experienced soldiers did not use sabres in combat. They took advantage of inexperienced ones who tried.
There is a quote that roughly states that armies prepare to fight their previous war rather than the next war. That was particularly true during the American Civil War on many levels. One example of that was the use of swords in battle. While the saber and cutlass were feared weapons during the American Revolution, as wielded by Banastre Tarleton's cavalry (see, for instance, the battles of Waxhaws and Fishing Creek), their day had come and gone by the time of the American Civil War. Cavalry was still valued for its mobility however; fire arms (particularly pistols) had gained greater range, reliability, rate of fire, and accuracy. Many cavalry officers on both sides of the conflict started the war with swords and quickly found pistols to be of greater utility, exploiting opposition officers who would never get the chance to learn this lesson.
Colonel John S. Mosby, the "Grey Ghost", was the chief scout for Confederate Civil War brigadier general J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry division and one of the most famous and accomplished officers of the conflict. Here is what he had to say about carrying swords.
I had no faith in the sabre as a weapon. I only made the men draw their sabres to prevent them from wasting their fire before they got to closer quarters. I knew that when they got among them the pistol would be used. My success had been so uninterrupted that the men thought that victory was chained to my standard. Men who go into a fight under the influence of such feelings are next to invincible, and are generally victors before it begins. We had hardly got into position before the head of the pursuing column appeared over the hill, less than 100 yards off. They had expected to see our backs, and not our faces. It was a rule from which, during the war, I never departed, not to stand still and receive a charge, but always to act on the offensive. This was the maxim of Frederick the Great, and the key to the wonderful successes he won with his cavalry. At the order to charge, my men dashed forward with a yell that startled and stunned those who were foremost in pursuit. I saw them halt, and I knew then that they had lost heart and were beaten. Before they could wheel, my men were among them. Those who were coming up behind them, seeing those in front turn their backs, did the same thing. They had no idea they were running away from the same number of men they had been chasing. My men had returned their sabres to their scabbards, and the death-dealing revolver was now doing its work.
As we were far inside the enemy's lines, there was some risk in this; but we were tired and hungry. Our horses had been unbitted, and were eating their corn, and I was lying on the grass asleep, when I was aroused by the cry that the enemy was coming. We barely had time to bridle up and mount before they were upon us. They came full speed on our trail, and were strung out for a long distance on the road. This was my opportunity. A lieutenant was gallantly leading them. I saved myself this time by the same counter-stroke that a few weeks before had rescued me from the brink of ruin in the fight at Miskel's farm. We did not wait for the danger, but went to meet it. There was a gate across the road, between us and the enemy, which I ordered to be opened. We dashed through, and in the moment of collision the lieutenant fell, severely wounded. Several others in the front met the same fate; they had drawn sabres, that hurt nobody, and we used pistols.