The Biggest Union Error

(August 7, 2018) The post below is a copy of Chapter Two of my book Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies. The book contains an additional ten chapters including one that describes the biggest Confederate error. (Footnotes are available in the book but not the post below.)

*         *         *

One morning in September 1942, Colonel Leslie Groves was walking in an empty hallway of the House of Representatives office building when he met General Brehon Somervell, who almost immediately transformed the colonel into “the angriest officer in the United States Army.”

“About that duty overseas,” said the general, “you can tell them no.”


“The secretary of war has selected you for a very important assignment, and the president has approved the selection.”



“I don’t want to stay in Washington.”

“If you do the job right, it will win the war.”

“Oh,” sighed Groves. “That thing.”

As the army’s deputy chief of construction, the colonel was aware but skeptical of a vague superbomb project. He wanted nothing to do with it. Like most officers, he was eager for combat duty overseas.

Nonetheless, he followed orders to lead the project and was promoted to brigadier general in order to increase his authority. In less than three years, he led the previously floundering Manhattan Project to create uranium and plutonium bombs and reach a production rate of about one bomb per month at the end of the war. Within a day of the hallway meeting, Groves had taken steps to secure 80 percent of the radioactive ores needed to produce the bombs that forced Japan’s surrender. Within a week of the meeting, he activated plans for the Oak Ridge refining plant, a project that would transform a Tennessee forest into a city of eighty-five thousand before war’s end and consume one-seventh of the entire country’s electricity. Due to a copper shortage caused by demands for brass ammunition cartridges, Groves borrowed almost fourteen thousand tons of silver from the US Treasury for electrical wiring. A second plant for plutonium—which did not exist in nature when he took charge—was built in Washington State. It was a year and a half after Grove’s promotion before scientists produced even a few grams of the element for experimentation. Before the war was over, the Manhattan Project employed more than three hundred thousand workers.

The project was a convincing demonstration of the efficacy that government, academic, and industry cooperation can provide for weapons development and production. It enabled the United States to avoid invading the Japanese homeland in order to end World War II. The army chief of staff, General George Marshall, speculated that such an invasion might cause five hundred thousand to one million US casualties “if conventional weapons only were used.”

If the Union had similarly backed a project to produce breech-loading and repeating rifles at the start of the Civil War, it might have won the war in less than two years instead of the four required. According to the memoirs of Confederate Brigadier General Porter Alexander, who famously directed the Rebel bombardment prior to Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, “There is reason to believe that had the Federal infantry been armed from the first with even the breechloaders available in 1861 [the war’s first year] the war would have been terminated in a year.” The story of why it wasn’t is frustrating and fascinating.

In the hands of an experienced soldier, the standard issue Springfield and Enfield rifles used by Union and Confederate infantry could fire at best about three rounds per minute, and likely only two in the heat of combat. That’s because they were loaded through the muzzle one round at a time using paper cartridges and a ramrod. First the powder end of the cartridge was torn open, typically with the teeth, and then poured down the barrel. Next the bullet end of the load containing the projectile (known as a Minié ball) was seated against the powder, with the ramrod pushed from the muzzle. The final step was to position a percussion cap on a nipple that had a hole through it to the breech. Pulling the trigger caused a hammer to crush the cap, thereby injecting a flame from the cap to the powder inside the barrel, which exploded to propel the Minié ball. After firing, the entire sequence had to be repeated before a muzzleloader could shoot a second time. For speed, soldiers typically stood up to reload, thereby transforming themselves into bigger targets than if they remained kneeling or lying down.

Despite the numerical dominance of muzzleloaders, breechloaders and repeaters were far superior weapons because they could shoot faster. Although breechloaders were loaded one shell at a time, their cartridges remained intact, avoiding the need to load powder and bullet sequentially. While some required a separate percussion cap like the muzzleloaders, others with brass or copper cartridges did not. As a result, instead of firing only two to three bullets per minute, a soldier with a single-shot breechloader, such as the Sharps carbine, could fire eight to ten per minute. The firing rate of repeaters was even higher. For example, the Spencer used a magazine of seven cartridges. Each live round was loaded—and each spent round ejected—with a quick lever action. Although all seven could be fired in ten seconds, the barrel became overheated at such a pace. However, a Spencer-equipped solider had no difficulty shooting fourteen times per minute.

The table below estimates the number and type of shoulder arms procured by the Union and Confederate armies. As a category, shoulder arms includes rifles and carbines. The latter are shorter versions of the rifle used by cavalry for easier handling. Although the Union acquired far more weapons, the Confederates reused many by capturing them on battlefields. Nearly all of the shoulder arms procured by Rebel soldiers were muzzleloaders, as were nearly 90 percent of those for the Union troops. Confederates could only purchase breechloaders via imports, whereas they could rarely buy repeaters at all since the weapons were manufactured in the Northern states. Most of the single-shot breechloaders, and nearly all the repeaters, used by Rebels were captured on the battlefield. For example, during the siege of Atlanta in summer 1864, the Rebel Army of Tennessee had about fifty thousand shoulder arms of all types, but only 58 were Spencer repeaters, which was then the most common repeater.

As breechloaders and repeaters were gradually adopted in the Union army, their superiority became obvious to nearly everyone. On March 1, 1865, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton directed that breechloaders be issued to all Union soldiers. If Confederate General Robert E. Lee had not surrendered less than a month and a half later, there’s little doubt that the Confederate army would have had no hope of resisting the bigger Union one once the federals were equipped with such weapons. When an admittedly inexperienced South Carolina regiment attacked federal cavalry armed with breechloaders at Cold Harbor in June 1864, “The regiment went to pieces in an abject rout and threatened to overwhelm the rest of [our Confederate] brigade. [The witness had] never seen any body of troops in such a condition of utter demoralization.” Midway through the war, at Gettysburg in July 1863, the entire Union Army of the Potomac cavalry corps had breechloaders. That is partly why Major General John Buford’s division was able to hold off a superior Rebel force for most of the morning of the battle’s first day. Later, Union cavalry Brigadier General James Wilson, in speaking of repeaters (as opposed to breechloaders in general), said, “There is no doubt that the Spencer carbine is the best fire-arm yet put into the hands of the soldier. . . . Our best officers estimate one man armed with it [is] equivalent to three with any other arm.”

Given the obvious superiority of breechloaders and repeaters, the uninitiated reader may incorrectly assume that they were not invented until the war was well under way. In truth, single-shot breech-loading shoulder arms were invented years earlier. One was even patented in 1856 by Ambrose Burnside when he was temporarily a civilian. He later rejoined the army to become a major general and is unfortunately best remembered for commanding the Union army when it was decisively beaten at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Two future Confederate leaders who served as US secretaries of war during the 1850s, Jefferson Davis and John Floyd, evaluated some breechloaders with good results. While Davis felt the weapons should be restricted to cavalry, in 1860 Floyd concluded more generally, “as certainly as the percussion cap has superseded the flint . . . so surely will the breech-loading gun drive out [the muzzleloader.]” As for repeaters, the Henry and the Spencer were each patented in 1860, the year before the war began.

The most popular Civil War single-shot breechloader was the Sharps, which was patented thirteen years before the war began. It was most commonly used as a carbine by Yankee cavalry because the shorter barrel. It was reliable and capable of being produced in the greatest volume. After an 1853 fight between US dragoons and Indians, Captain Richard Ewell, who later became a high-ranking Confederate general, said the Sharps was “superior to any firearm yet supplied to the dragoons.” As early as 1850, an army ordnance board had highly praised the gun. On the eve of the Civil War, in January 1861, another dragoon captain with years of experience using the firearm informed the US Army Ordnance Department that the weapon was “exceedingly efficient.” During the 1850s settlement of Kansas, abolitionists led by clergyman Henry Ward Beecher sent crates of Sharps guns, euphemistically called “Beecher’s Bibles,” to free-state settlers for use against settlers favoring Kansas’s admission to the Union as a slave state.

Although Sharps carbines began to be widely deployed among Union cavalry by the midpoint to the war, there were also early advocates for a long-form rifle of the weapon. Two months after the war began, Hiram Berdan formed two regiments of elite sharpshooters, which were a part of the Army of the Potomac. After Berdan selected the best marksmen, his next task was to choose a shoulder arm. He was disappointed that the ordnance chief, Brigadier General James Ripley, insisted that the rifles be muzzleloaders instead of breechloaders similar to the ones some of Berdan’s men owned when they arrived. His encampment quickly became popular among Washington-area sightseers. In September 1861, President Lincoln visited with a group of generals and other officials. Among the group was Assistant War Secretary Tom Scott, who was hostile to Berdan’s breechloader request. He asked Berdan to demonstrate his marksmanship on a dummy target in the shape of a man labeled “Jeff Davis.” Berdan hit the dummy in the right eye at six hundred yards. Lincoln laughed at Scott and told Colonel Berdan, “come down tomorrow and I will give you the order for the breechloaders.”

Lincoln’s promise was not enough. The sixty-seven-year-old ordnance chief considered breech-loading rifles “new fangled gimcracks” and refused to order them. Ripley had been in the army forty-seven years after graduating from West Point. In 1832, he commanded one of the forts in Charleston harbor that might have been required to suppress a rebellion if South Carolina failed to repeal its nullification of the Federal Tariff of Abominations. For thirteen years, from 1841 to 1854, he was superintendent of the nation’s weapons manufacturing armory at Springfield, Massachusetts, where he earned a reputation as a strict disciplinarian, if not a tyrant. Rebellious workers hanged him in effigy three times. He even fired workers who subscribed to a newspaper criticizing him. When the Civil War broke out, he was in Japan on a mission that was supposed to continue on to Europe, but he got the first ship home, where he replaced an even older officer as chief of army ordnance.

For the next two-and-a-half years, Lincoln was open-minded about new weapons and frequently visited the ordnance chief. But Ripley failed to budge from his goal to maximize production of proven instruments because Union armies were too big to be supplied by domestic manufactures alone. Until the fall 1862, more than half of the arms issued to federal soldiers were imports. Consequently, he felt the infantry should be armed with muzzleloaders such as the Springfield, which was designed at the Massachusetts armory during his tenure there. He also felt that repeaters and even single-shot breechloaders would encourage soldiers to waste ammunition. His only concession to more modern weapons was that cavalry should be given breech-loading carbines. As a result of Ripley’s foot-dragging, none of Berdan’s soldiers were issued Sharps rifles by December despite Lincoln’s September promise. Ripley didn’t even put any Sharps on order until February 1862. It took another couple of months for the first deliveries to arrive.

Ripley’s avoidance of repeaters is especially frustrating for four reasons. First, both the Spencer and the Henry were not only invented prior to the war but were even issued prewar patents. Their availability was a matter of scaling production, not invention. Second, the first Spencer order was placed in June 1861, only two months after the war began in April. Third, even the initial military test results of samples early in the war were favorable. Fourth, once the weapons were put into field use, the combat results were immediately convincing.

At the outbreak of the war, Christopher Spencer was a twenty-seven-year-old Connecticut inventor who in March of the previous year had patented a repeating rifle containing a seven-round magazine. A lifelong inventor, at age thirteen he converted his grandfather’s musket into a carbine. At fifteen he built a steam engine. Before he was thirty, he was driving to work in a self-designed steam automobile. At age eighty-seven, he became absorbed in aviation. For seventeen years, he lived near Mark Twain in Hartford, and the author may have modeled his chief character in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court after Spencer. Like Twain’s fictional character, Spencer worked three years at the Hartford Colt works before hiring on at a silk factory owned by three brothers named Cheney. While employed at the silk factory, he invented the repeater on his own time.

Because Navy Secretary Gideon Wells was a Hartford man and friend of the Cheney family, he arranged for the navy to test the Spencer two months after the war began. The chief of naval ordnance, Commander John Dahlgren, tested five hundred rounds with only one misfire. Dahlgren was impressed enough to order seven hundred rifles in June 1861.

A couple of months later,  Alexander Dyer of the army ordnance corps tested the Spencer. He fired it eighty times and simulated extreme combat conditions by burying it in sand and saltwater for twenty-four hours. Afterward the gun was loaded and fired without first being cleaned. In November, Spencer demonstrated the weapon for General in Chief George McClellan, who kept his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac. McClellan ordered the ordnance chief for that army to evaluate the rifle and prepare a report. The testing officer was favorably impressed. McClellan also asked a board of three other officers, including Alfred Pleasanton, who would later command the same army’s cavalry corps, to provide a separate report. Pleasanton and his colleagues also gave the Spencer a thumb’s up.

None of the favorable army evaluations resulted in orders, but they did compel General Ripley to describe his objections. In December he opined that both the Spencer and the Henry were too heavy when fully loaded. He also falsely concluded that neither was superior to existing single-shot breechloaders. In sum, he did not “consider it advisable to entertain or accept either [the Spencer or Henry] propositions.”

The Cheney brothers appealed to a few powerful New Englanders who may have been admitted as shareholders into the Spencer Repeating Rifle Company. Among them were Navy Secretary Welles, Republican leader and future presidential candidate James G. Blaine, and Warren Fisher, a Boston financier. Fisher wrote directly to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, who had a reputation for graft. Whatever—if any—backroom deal applied, Ripley ordered ten thousand Spencers the day after Christmas 1861.

But there were more delays. After a congressional investigation, the questionable Cameron was removed as war secretary. His replacement, Edwin Stanton, reserved the right to review all contracts, while the Cheneys had to admit they could not meet the March 1862 delivery date for the first five hundred because they had only set up a factory in January. As a result, the order was reduced to seven thousand five hundred units, with initial deliveries to begin in June 1862. Left to its own resources, the Spencer company could not even make the June deliveries.

By the time Spencers began to be deployed with combat troops in meaningful numbers, the evidence was overwhelmingly in their favor. Major General William S. Rosecrans, who commanded the Union Army of the Cumberland in Tennessee for about twelve months in 1862–1863, was a strong proponent of repeating rifles. During one nine-month period, he wrote nineteen letters to the secretary of war and other officials requesting breech-loading and repeating rifles for his soldiers. One of his brigade commanders, John T. Wilder, was in full accord. After a frustrating assignment to hunt down Confederate cavalry raider Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan, Wilder was given permission to mount his infantry brigade but was not given any breechloaders. On his own initiative, he wrote to the Henry manufacturer, asking if it would sell repeaters to his troops, which the soldiers would pay for themselves. He was told there was a waiting list. During the wait, Christopher Spencer visited the Army of the Cumberland, where Wilder tested the Spencer. Rosecrans was able to get Ripley to send Wilder’s soldiers Spencers in spring 1863.

While Grant held Vicksburg in a death grip in June 1863, Rosecrans launched an offensive against Lieutenant General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee. He wanted to prevent Bragg from sending troops to fight against Grant and also to maneuver the Rebels out of central Tennessee. Wilder’s brigade was part of the plan. They rode quickly ahead of the army to capture and hold a mountain pass called Hoover’s Gap until a Union infantry corps could be brought up to solidify the position. Wilder’s men did the job on June 25, suffering a total of 62 casualties while inflicting 146. Owing to the Spencer’s firing rate, the opposing Confederate commander thought he was outnumbered five to one. Thereafter, Wilder’s unit was informally known as the Lightning Brigade.

Wilder even more convincingly demonstrated the Spencer’s superiority at the Battle of Chickamauga, September 18–20, 1863. Bragg attempted to launch a surprise attack across bridges along Chickamauga Creek in northern Georgia just south of Chattanooga, Tennessee. In preliminary action on the eighteenth, the Lightning Brigade was guarding Alexander’s Bridge. According to historian Glenn Tucker:

The preliminary affair at Alexander’s bridge, where Wilder with only part of a single brigade and with but four [cannons] of his battery was able to hold off a division with artillery for nearly five hours, was an important milestone in the progress of the war. It confirmed the value in combat of the Spencer repeating rifle.

Shortly before noon on the last day of the battle, a confusing order prompted a mistaken movement by a defending division that left a gap in the Union line. A massed Confederate column promptly charged through the gap. Almost as quickly as wind shifts battle smoke, nearly the entire right (south) wing of the federal army became a disorganized mob. The fleeing soldiers sought cover in Chattanooga or the intact left wing commanded by Major General George Thomas, who is credited with saving the entire army, earning him the nickname “Rock of Chickamauga.” One by one, most of the Union brigades in the south half of the field were routed. But, sustained by confidence in their weapons, Wilder’s was one of the few that stood firm. It even put the Rebel attack off balance with counterattacks of its own. Historian Tucker concluded, “Probably, Wilder’s attacks . . . had given Thomas the needed margin of time to draw a new defense line.” One of Wilder’s men described the Spencer’s effect on the attacking Rebels: “the head of the column, as it was pushed on by those behind, appeared to melt away or sink into the earth, for, though continually moving, it got no nearer.”

Historian Robert Bruce says that by July 1864, “a feeling spread through the Union army that Spencer rifles could end the war in a hurry.” The rifles were universally coveted. Major General Benjamin Butler promised to give the requested arms to only the most deserving troops and as prizes for gallantry. When a small Rebel force under Lieutenant General Jubal Early threatened Washington, DC in July 1864, Ripley’s replacement asked the Union defenders what he could do to help. One colonel answered by requesting that a Massachusetts regiment be issued Spencers. At another battle a Rebel prisoner commented to his Spencer-equipped captors, “It’s no use for us to fight you’ens with that kind of gun.” The British War Office took note of the American experience and set up a committee to evaluate breechloaders. The committee recommended that the entire British army be equipped with breechloaders.

The versatility of the repeater’s ammunition was also an advantage. Historian Richard McMurry relates an incident that occurred when repeater-equipped federal cavalry crossed the last river barrier protecting Atlanta in early July 1864:

The men who made that crossing were armed with repeating rifles that fired metallic, waterproof cartridges. To avoid Rebel bullets as they waded the river, they stooped down in the water, stood up to fire, and then ducked again beneath the surface. The defending Confederates, accustomed only to singe-shot weapons and bullets that came wrapped with powder in paper tubes, were amazed by the “guns that could be loaded and fired under water.” Some of the Secessionists simply ceased shooting and remained to surrender, eager to see the novel weapons used by their enemies.

Although the Spencer was a marked advance in shoulder arms, it was the Henry that evolved into the iconic Winchester ’73, to become known as the rifle that “won the west.” Benjamin Henry worked for the New Haven Arms Company, owned by Oliver Winchester. When Henry joined it, the company manufactured an unpopular repeater that used poorly designed cartridges. He improved the design to use superior copper rim-fire cartridges. Unlike the Spencer, which had a magazine of seven loads in the butt stock, the Henry’s magazine extended underneath the barrel and held sixteen loads. Since few of the rifles and required cartridges had yet been manufactured, Ordnance Chief Ripley ignored the Henry for over a year. Although it had been tested by the navy and the ordnance chief of the Army of the Potomac with favorable results, Ripley refused to place any orders. The first Henrys used in combat were purchased individually on the open market in spring and summer 1862.

Hundreds were sent to Kentucky, where the publisher of the Louisville Journal received one as a gift. He responded by editorializing that one soldier armed with a Henry was equivalent to fifteen using muzzleloaders. After Confederate armies invaded the state in summer 1862, some Kentucky Henrys ended up in Rebel hands. These captured repeaters were less valuable to the Confederates because they used specialized ammunition that could not be produced in the South. Nonetheless, in one episode, a besieged Ohio regiment surrendered to a numerically Rebel force that included one company armed with the repeaters. By January 1863, knowledge of the Henry’s combat value began to spread beyond Kentucky. For example, a number of privately owned Henrys were used during the Battle of Chickamauga. Although federal orders were small, according to author Jack Coggins as many as ten thousand were sold privately to state troops by the end of the war. As 1864 began, Winchester could sell on the public market all the Henrys he could make, but he could not make very many because he depended on subcontractors and was in a rights dispute with Benjamin Henry. Only one thousand three hundred units were produced in 1862, and only two thousand five hundred in 1863.

Nonetheless, during the 1864 Atlanta Campaign, half the soldiers in one Illinois regiment owned the rifles, purchased at their own expense. They helped prevent the Union rear from being overrun at the Battle of Atlanta. Late that year, at the slaughter of Confederates during the Battle of Franklin, one company of the 65th Illinois Regiment armed with Henrys put forth such a rain of bullets that one participant thought it a wonder “that any of [the attacking Rebels] escaped death or capture.”

Oliver Winchester received his first federal government order for Henrys toward the end of Ripley’s tenure as ordnance chief in September 1863. The order came from Colonel Lafayette Baker, who organized Lincoln’s Secret Service and wanted the arms for a four-company ranger unit he was forming in the second half of 1863 to support his detective force. Although Ripley pared the order to 250 rifles, Ripley’s successor increased it by eight hundred.

There is no doubt that single-shot breechloaders and repeaters such as the Spencer and Henry were far superior weapons to the standard muzzleloaders like the Springfield and Enfield. In fall 1864, then Ordnance Chief Alexander Dyer concluded that all soldiers should have breechloaders. Moreover, the superior shoulder arms were a virtual Union monopoly. Repeater manufacturing was an absolute Yankee monopoly, and the Northern states had much of the world’s production capacity for the best single-shot breechloaders. Finally, based on the combat record, it’s unlikely that Confederate armies could remain in the field for more than a few months after the majority of Union soldiers possessed such weapons. The central dispute is whether the Union could have deployed them more rapidly.

Critics often blame Ripley for the slow adoption of breechloaders and repeaters, partly because Lincoln evidently blamed him, since the general was replaced a month after the president test fired a Spencer in August 1863. Although Ripley was undeniably reluctant, his defenders argue three points. First, he agreed that breechloaders were the right choice for cavalry; his opposition was limited to their use by infantry. Second, Ripley supporters contend he was correct to focus on getting as many rifles into the hands of infantry as possible. Even if they were muzzleloaders, they were as good as anything the Confederates had. Third, private producers did not expand production capacity fast enough to materially speed up deployment.

Taken in isolation, those are reasonable arguments, but from the larger perspective of overall Union leadership, they are not satisfying. The fault is as much with Lincoln as with Ripley. In short, Lincoln neglected to implement a Civil War equivalent to World War II’s Manhattan Project. Nobody was given supreme authority to mobilize the nation’s development and production capability, although the superiority of the applicable weapons was obvious from the beginning. A progressive ordnance chief might have attempted to assume such authority, or at least advocate for it. However, when Lincoln finally replaced Ripley in September 1863 with Brigadier General George Ramsay, the president yielded to objections from War Secretary Stanton, who wanted his own man to run the ordnance department, leaving Ramsay little more than a figurehead. Consequently, Ramsay resigned after a year, accomplishing far less than he had hoped.

Lincoln could have selected qualified new-weapons enthusiasts such as Alexander Dyer or John Dahlgren to fulfill a role similar to that of General Groves in World War II’s Manhattan Project. (In fact, Dyer was made ordnance chief after Ramsay, but that was late in the war.) Both men had given early thumbs up to tests on repeaters, although Dyer later had a dissatisfying experience with a hastily assembled Henry presented for tests. Dyer was in his mid-forties when the war started, and Dahlgren was in his early fifties, compared to Ripley, who was sixty-seven.

Regardless of who might have been designated as a federal Civil War weapons production czar, his challenge would have been far less difficult than the one Groves faced. Unlike the nuclear bomb prior to World War II, repeating rifles were not mere theoretical concepts in 1861. The Spencer and Henry were not only prior inventions, but both were already patented. They were made from common materials, whereas the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs relied on isotopes that had never before been seen with the unaided eye. Furthermore, the Sharps and other single-shot breechloaders were in commercial production years before the Civil War started. If Lincoln had replaced Ripley with a Groves-like character in the first half of 1862 (as Ripley’s foot-dragging warranted), much might have been accomplished by the next summer. Gettysburg could have ended the war.

While private manufacturers had difficulty reaching volume production, they got no help from the federal government. Even though Republicans were notorious advocates public works spending and subsidies for private business sectors, there was no federal investment in the industry. Instead the relationship between the ordnance department and manufacturers was often adversarial, with penalties and cancellations for late deliveries. Inventors like Spencer and Henry received no material assistance or even advice about how to scale production. Similarly, the government failed to arbitrate the rights dispute between Winchester and Henry that restricted production of their repeater to pathetically low volumes. In contrast, fifty years later, upon entering World War I, the federal government promptly required cross licensing and ready access to all radio and aviation patents because of the important roles such new technologies could play in the fighting.

While Lincoln is most culpable, other Union leaders cannot escape critical scrutiny. War Secretaries Cameron and Stanton are obvious examples. However, the successive army generals in chief might have been more assertive, although they admittedly had no official authority over the ordnance department. As noted, McClellan had a good opinion of repeaters as early as autumn 1861, but his position was probably not secure enough to risk creating bureaucratic enemies like Ripley. McClellan’s successor, Major General Henry Halleck, was typically passive.

As the last Civil War general in chief Lieutenant General Ulysses Grant, enjoyed enough popular acclaim to promote breechloaders and repeaters. Although he advanced the career of repeater proponent and cavalry Brigadier General James Wilson, Grant’s opinion of Wilson probably had little to do with the latter’s affinity for repeaters. For the most part, Grant did not seem interested in breechloaders and repeaters. For example, in November 1863, he banished General Rosecrans to Missouri to await orders that never came. Since Rosecrans was probably the highest-ranking advocate of such weapons in the field, he could have been a more effective proponent if Grant had not heaped added disgrace upon him by shipping him to the mostly ignored trans-Mississippi after his defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga.

Finally, the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War might be faulted for failing to look more carefully at weapons technology and production. While the committee was involved in a number of fruitless controversies, it could have done some good by encouraging cooperation between government and the private arms industry.

It is difficult to estimate how much more quickly single-shot breechloaders and repeaters might have been deployed in the Union army. But if top military and government leaders acknowledged their superiority earlier, it is difficult to avoid concluding that the arms could have been adopted more rapidly. As noted, War Secretary Stanton did not recommend uniform adoption until one and a half months before Appomattox, even though the earliest test results were favorable beginning two months after the war started. The failure to mobilize government and private industry into cooperative efforts and focused technological development was a mistake that would be corrected in later wars.

6 thoughts on “The Biggest Union Error

  1. Dave

    Thank you very much Phil! I’ll have to get a copy of your book. From a web-post I made not too long ago, which ultimately allowed me to find this excellent, concise article:

    Brevet Major General James Wolfe Ripley, 5th Chief of Ordnance (1861-1863) who retired/ was shoved out by Abe Lincoln by 1863, not only opposed repeating magazine rifles, but also stood in the way–adamantly–against breech loaders.
    For a time he refused to countenance additional contracts for rifle muskets under the rationale that a prewar program to rifle the barrels of stocks of previously built .69 smooth-bore muskets could be resumed first. Artillery and small arms developments were met with stolid, stubborn, reactionary opposition.

    He was also the author of the infamous used, re-furbished and very expensive Hall breech-loading debacle.

    Now admittedly, his was an enormously difficult job, and during the war there were any number of total crackpots mixed in with legions of Yankee inventors and flim-flam hucksters all trying to get their inventions looked at favorably, and entirely willing to go outside the chain of command and sell influential politicians–especially Lincoln–on their supposedly great idea.

    But even such a simple thing like: “what if combustible cartridges as used in revolvers could be mass-produced for rifle muskets…?” was staunchly opposed. Just imagine how many paper cartridges were mishandled in the steps of pulling them out of the cartridge box by hand, tearing off the tail with the teeth or fingers, dumping the charge–all of it!–into the muzzle with adrenaline dumping into the system and trembling fingers and shaking hands–removing the rest of the wrapper, and then inserting the ball prior to ramming it home atop the charge, then returning the ram rod before capping and firing the weapon… Simply streamlining that to, 1) put cartridge with the correct end down into the muzzle, 2) ram it down the bore to seat it, return, repeat

    Furthermore, might one imagine, say, the relatively straight-forward Prussian Dreyse system or Norwegian kammerlader, or even the Rhode Island Peabody rifle, Joslyn, Merril, or any of a number of relatively straight-forward breech conversions in Union infantry hands…

    As it was, only a handful of infantry acquired Sharps single-shot breech loaders, and some others various privately purchased arms.

    1. Phil Leigh Post author

      Thanks, Dave.

      You might be surprised to learn that some historians and re-enactors refuse to believe that James Ripley retarded the adoption of breechloading shoulder arms and other weapons. They simply are unable to comprehend that a more open-minded Ordnance Chief could have speeded-up the transition.

      The epitaphs for many such critics should read, “Died age 50: Buried Age 80.”

  2. Michael Bradley

    The engagement at Hoovers Gap is marked by a small park which includes Wilder’s left flank position and the graves of the Confederates who died there. The park is on I-24 at the junction of State Route 64. The park has several interpretive markers and is open at no charge. It is owned by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

  3. josepharose

    Phil, you are quite the prolific researcher. This is a hugely interesting and useful article on an important issue. In hindsight, at least, the Union failure to take advantage of this technology is mind-boggling.

    1. Phil Leigh Post author

      Thanks, Joe.

      It was curiosity that drove me to it. Right now I’m trying to write something that does not stir my curiosity and it is a much harder job.


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