Newfangled Weaponry and OldFashioned Civil War: The Civil War Disunion Blog

Paul Harvey

Students this semester in History 4530, The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1840-1890, will soon be experimenting with writing blog posts on specific topics related to the Civil War, some of which will be posted here. In the meantime, for those interested, the New York Times is running a phenomenal series, the Disunion Blog, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the war. For the next few years, the blog will be following the war in “real-time,” with entries devoted to events happening during the same time frame 150 years ago. (And, you can follow the Disunion Blog on Facebook here).

Presently the blog entries are following January 1862, a “lagtime” in actual war fighting between the summer 1861 battles at Bull Run and elsewhere, the coming brilliant campaign of U. S. Grant at Fort Henry and Donelson in February and the key struggle of the Seven Days battle in June, where Robert E. Lee established his reputation. But a recent entry, from January 19th, features a historian of the war in the Upper South discussing the Battle of Mill Springs – a key Union victory which aided the upcoming Union invasion of Tennessee, to be sure, but also, as the entry makes clear, an excellent example of how the “fog of war” enveloped the Civil War battles.

One of the most recent entries follows “The Union’s ‘Newfangled Gimcracks” — repeating rifles, ordered by President Lincoln for the Union Army in December 1861, but never really effectively used by either Army, with particular exceptions, until late in the war.  The author of the entry succinctly explains the dramatic difference in deadly potential between the conventional muskets used by the men of the Union and Confederate forces, versus the “newfangled gimcracks”:

Two Union soldiers with Spencer carbines

Even though Civil War era muzzleloaders had rifled barrels that much improved their range and accuracy, the Army’s standard issue muzzleloaders would have looked familiar to soldiers who fought under George Washington: they were loaded by a ramrod, through the end of the barrel, one bullet at a time. After firing, the entire sequence had to be repeated before taking another shot. Under the best circumstances, muzzleloaders could discharge no more than three bullets a minute, more likely only two in the heat of combat.

In contrast, Spencer repeaters, which had been patented almost two years earlier by a 28-year-old inventor named
Christopher Spencer, contained a seven-shot magazine loaded with prepackaged shells and could fire eight rounds in a mere 20 seconds.

So why didn’t they jump on it? The blog author repeats a familiar story: that the Union Army’s elderly ordnance chief, who believed the repeating rifles would encourage soldiers to fire so rapidly and randomly that the Northern forces would soon run out of ammunition, deliberately sabotaged the effort, and by doing so lengthened the war.

The commentators on this post, however, effectively complicate the picture much more so than the actual entry does. There were, as they point out, legitimate concerns about logistics, including how much ammunition could be carried; and in particular set piece battles, it was not clear how effectively the repeating rifles could be used. In short, it may not be the case that this is a story of how technology could have ended the war more quickly, but instead one of how the interaction of new technologies and war is always more complicated than may appear at first glance. The blog entry presents the repeating rifle as the unused deus ex machina, but more likely it was one in a never-ending set of complicated factors that made the Civil War the bafflingly complex episode that it was.

Yet the story told in this blog effectively illustrates a major theme we’ll be covering this semester: the contrast between the developing technology used in fighting the war, and the increasingly dated military conceptions which shaped military thinking on both sides. General McClellan’s famous Harrison Landing Letter  is often used to illustrate the point, but the story of the repeating rifles fits in as well.

Look forward in this space to more student-authored contributions modeled after the Disunion Blog.

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