Confederate Pikemen of the Civil War

A Macedonian pike formation. Part of the army that Alexander the Great used to conquer the known world.

A Macedonian pike formation. Part of the army that Alexander the Great used to conquer the known world.

The pike is an ancient weapon. Essentially a long spear, it has been used effectively by such varied armies as those of Alexander the Great, William Wallace’s Scots, the Swiss, and just about every other Renaissance era fighting force. During those eras, when the pike was used in a dense formation of well-trained men, it was almost unbeatable in both defense and offense. The dominance of the pike on the battlefield only ended in the 1700s when firearm technology became more effective. It didn’t take a genius to realize that a musket had better range than a really long spear, and soldiers largely abandoned their ancient weapons in favor of the modern.

However, just because pikes were outmoded didn’t mean that people did not return to them in desperation. One such instance occurred in 1862, during the Civil War, when Governor Joe Brown of Georgia commissioned the state’s blacksmiths to forge 10,000 pikes.

 

Joe Brown’s Pikes

The pikes governor Joe Brown planned to arm his men with were about 6 or 7 feet long, with a clover-leaf shaped blade. They were meant to be paired with an 18 inch long knife. Rather than expecting his soldiers to stand their ground, Governor Brown envisioned the weapon as an offensive tool to be used to augment bayonet charges by better armed companions. He argued that a long pike would be superior in close quarters to the comparatively short rifle/bayonet used by regular troops, giving his pike-armed troops a decided edge once fighting devolved into a melee. He envisioned arming every able-bodied man in the state, first with pikes and then when they were available, rifled muskets.

Mind you, he was talking about arming men with spears in a war that became infamous for industrialized death. The rifled muskets used by both sides were accurate at up to 100 yards, and fired either musket balls or the deadly Minie balls, the latter of which often tumbled during flight and shattered bones. This isn’t even counting the improved artillery, rudimentary land mines, and primitive grenades.

A soldier, facing all of this, would have thought his Governor was insane to ask him to charge onto the battlefield armed with an anachronism. However, Joe Brown might not have been quite as crazy as people believed.

 

Desperate times call for desperate measures

The Joe Brown pike.

The Joe Brown pike. Image Source: Smithsonian Institution

When Governor Brown came up with his plans to arm Confederate forces with pikes, the South was doing well against the Union on the battlefield. It might have seemed odd to look toward arming every able-bodied man with a spear when the Confederacy had been trouncing their enemies, but Brown seems prescient in retrospect.We now know that, on paper at least, the Union’s victory in the war was assured. More men, more money, and an ability to produce more and better weapons. It doesn’t take a military genius to see that the odds weren’t in the South’s favor.

Which makes the South’s strategy, again with the benefit of hindsight, sound insane. Outnumbered, the South sought to end the war with an aggressive strategy, crushing the Union forces on the field and forcing Lincoln to come to the negotiating table when the high cost of the war was too much for the public to bear. That, or simply take the Union capital and cut the head of the snake (this is a vast oversimplification of a complex issue, of course, but I don’t have the time or space to delve into a more in depth analysis.)

Governor Brown, and likely others at the time as well, seemed to realize what more modern Civil War buffs and military theorists know 150 years later: the South didn’t have to win the war, it just had to not lose. Look at Vietnam; an enemy with vastly inferior military power was able to defeat a super power by simply wearing out its far superior enemy over time using innovative tactics (most famously, the Mongols and the United States.)

That was what the South could have done. Simply invite the North in and close the jaws, as it were. It would have been devastating and the war probably would have gone on longer, but a victory could have been possible then.

What would that have to do with Joe Brown’s pikes? Well, a war like that would have involved the entire Confederate population fighting tooth and nail against the northern aggressors. Arming men with simple weapons that could be used with little training and, more importantly, used in a stealthy manner would have been paramount.

But then, it’s easy to know what should have been done with 150 years of hindsight. The fact is that the thinking of the time was heavily influenced by Western European warfare, with its neat battle lines and formal rules of war. There were some instances of guerrilla style tactics used by both sides, especially on the frontier, and there was a fear in the North that the Confederate forces would take to the hills and extend the war for years after 1864. But for the most part, those tactics weren’t part of the thought process of the era.

So, Joe Brown’s pikes were seen largely as a curiosity. Troops hated them, preferring more modern weapons, and critics of the governor railed against him for wasting scarce war resources on useless weapons. All told, about 7099 pikes were made in Georgia during the war, but there is no record of them ever being used in battle.

Sources:

Gilpin, R. Blakeslee. “A Fight to the Last Pike.” NYTimes.com. March, 2, 2012. The New York Times. Accessed: January 22, 2014. Retrieved from: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/02/a-fight-to-the-last-pike/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

Griffith, Joe. “Joe Brown’s Pikes: Southern Steel in Close Quarters.” hsng.org. November 10, 2008. The Historical Society of the Georgia National Guard. Accessed: January 22, 2014. Retrieved from: http://hsgng.org/legacy/pages/joebrownpike.htm