(January 26, 2020) When victorious federal soldiers scavenged the Gettysburg battlefield they made a shocking discovery. Specifically, after picking-up a total of 24,000 loaded muskets and rifles they learned that half of the guns had two loads and an additional one-quarter had from three to ten. One even had 23 loads rammed down the barrel. Thus, fully three-fourths of the loaded weapons found on the battlefield were unusable. The situation resulted from the complexities of loading the standard muzzleloading firearms, which are demonstrated in this YouTube video. As a result, the Union armies would make an armaments change that would ultimately insure victory.
An experienced man with steady nerves could at most fire three rounds per minute with a muzzleloader. Choked by fear and battle smoke, unnerved by shrieking shells and whining bullets and the screams of dying men, not many soldiers did so well. And a lot could go wrong if a man got overexcited. He might ram the bullet into the barrel before he poured in the powder. He might leave the ramrod in the barrel and then fire it off, past retrieving. He might load the cartridge, paper and all, without breaking it open. Mistakes were common because loading a muzzleloader correctly required ten steps.
- Lower musket to ground.
- Handle cartridge.
- Tear cartridge.
- Charge cartridge.
- Draw rammer.
- Ram cartridge.
- Return rammer.
- Half cock.
- Position percussion cap.
- Shoulder the arm.
In contrast, almost all of the Union cavalry at Gettysburg were armed with breechloaders. Nearly all the guns loaded one cartridge at a time as demonstrated in this YouTube video but some units, including selected companies in General George Armstrong Custer’s command, had repeating rifles.* A single-shot breechloader like the Sharps could fire up to ten times a minute, while the Spencer repeater could shoot fourteen rounds a minute with “no trouble at all.”**
As a result, about a month after word got out that thousands of abandoned muzzleloaders had been found with multiple loads on the Gettysburg battlefield, Christopher Spencer arranged to demonstrate his repeating rifle for President Lincoln on August 19, 1863. That afternoon, in a field located near where the Washington Monument stands today, Spencer and Lincoln took turns firing the rifle, using a marked piece of wood as a target. The President was favorably impressed. A month later he replaced Brigadier General James Ripley as Ordnance Chief. Although he gave no official explanation, Lincoln was aware that Ripley had consistently opposed infantry use of repeaters, and even single-shot breechloaders. In fact, he had twice intervened to force Ripley to place modest orders for such weapons.***
Although Ripley’s official replacement, Colonel George Ramsey, was also a breechloader fan, War Secretary Edwin Stanton disliked him because of a minor dispute earlier the war. Consequently, Ramsey had accomplished far less than he hoped when he was replaced a year later by Alexander Dyer in September 1864. Only two months later Dyer recommended that the Army organize a panel to settle upon a single design for a breechloading firearm to become standard issue. On March 1, 1865 War Secretary Stanton directed that all new shoulder arms produced for soldiers be breechloaders.
The war ended less than two months later. Had it continued, the Confederates would have had no hope of winning against such weapons. They were unable to get breechloaders in quantity and they had no way of making metallic cartridges, which were fast becoming the standard for such guns.
The Sharps single-shot breechloader had demonstrated its firepower superiority on the first day of the battle of Gettysburg when two brigades of Union General John Buford’s cavalry held up an entire Confederate division advancing on the town. The Spencer repeaters first demonstrated their superiority in June 1863 at the battle of Hoover’s Gap in Tennessee and again in September at Chickamauga. Spencer repeaters and single-shot breechloaders also contributed to Union General Phil Sheridan’s 1864 victories in the Shenandoah Valley.
By the time Union General James H. Wilson led his cavalry on a raid in the Deep South, the overwhelming superiority of repeater-equipped soldiers was undeniable. Each trooper in his 12,000-man force had a Spencer repeating carbine. They won easy victories in Alabama and Georgia against heavily outnumbered Confederate regulars and inexperienced militia during March and April of 1865. Should the Union infantry increasingly be armed with single-shot breechloaders and repeaters, the Confederacy could not have survived even if it had successfully enlisted 300,000 blacks as it was attempting to do when Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865. After the Civil War, breechloaders became the standard US Army shoulder arm.
*The YouTube video is actually of a Spencer carbine, which is a short barrel version of the Spencer rifle.
**Robert Bruce, Lincoln and the Tools of War (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 111, 114. (Fourteen rounds per minute would required access to preloaded magazines.)
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The Confederacy at Flood Tide by Philip Leigh
Trading With the Enemy by Philip Leigh
Lee’s Lost Dispatch & Other Civil War Controversies by Philip Leigh
Southern Reconstruction by Philip Leigh
U. S. Grant’s Failed Presidency by Philip Leigh