The Guns of 1864

posted on May 5, 2014

By mid-July 1864, after two and a half months of desperate fighting, the Confederate Army of Tennessee had been pushed from northern Georgia to the outskirts of Atlanta by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s Union forces. In a risky attempt to break the developing siege of the city, Confederate Lt. Gen. John B. Hood withdrew men from Atlanta’s defensive lines and launched a series of assaults on Sherman’s enveloping army. Hood’s July 20 attack at Peach Tree Creek failed, but two days later his gambit seemed on the verge of success, as the Rebels broke through Yankee lines and, in the process, killed Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson.

When victorious Confederates surged into the Federal rear, however, they encountered stiffening resistance from Union units, including the 66th Illinois Infantry, a regiment with a large number of Henry .44-cal. repeating rifles in its ranks. Private Prosper Bowe of the 66th recalled that: “We started our [Henry] sixteen-shooters to work. The first column in front of us nearly all fell at the first two or three volleys.” The “sixteen shooters” helped win the day, driving the Confederates from the field. The Rebel retreat proved timely for the rapid-firing Yankees, however, since they had begun to run out of ammunition. General Hood ultimately failed in his attempt to lift the siege of Atlanta, arguably at least partially due to the “sixteen shooters.” The city was doomed, and with it, the Confederacy.

On Sept. 19, 1864, at Winchester, Va., Union Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan launched his campaign to drive Confederate Gen. Jubal Early out of the Shenandoah Valley. As Sheridan’s army advanced, Brig. Gen. Cullen A. Battle’s Alabama brigade counterattacked and, exploiting a gap between two corps, precipitated a retreat all along the Sixth Army Corps front. The First New Jersey Brigade’s fighting withdrawal held off the Rebels and then the Jerseymen were relieved by the 37th Massachusetts Infantry, a regiment recently re-armed with seven-shot Spencer repeating rifles, and the Bay State boys let loose a blizzard of bullets, slowing the Confederate advance. This, coupled with confusion caused by the death of Confederate Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes and a flank attack conducted by Brig. Gen. Emory Upton, halted the Rebels. The Massachusetts men, like their Illinois brothers in arms to the west, ran low on ammunition. They took to ground under a heavy fire of Confederate musketry until soldiers from the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry filled their pockets with Spencer .56-56-cal. cartridges and ran the ammunition up to the 37th. The Yankees went on to win the day, and Col. Elisha Hunt Rhodes of the 2nd was so impressed that he carried a Spencer carbine as his personal arm for the rest of the war.

If 1863 was the year of the rifle-musket, when the major armies of North and South were finally completely armed with the standard “modern” infantry arms of the day, 1864 could be called the year of the repeating rifle, as increasing numbers of Spencer and, to a more limited extent, Henry repeaters drew notice in the field. These revolutionary breech-loading arms fired self-contained copper rimfire cartridges, with primer, powder and bullet all in one sturdy water-resistant package. The South did not have the industrial capacity to make its own repeaters or ammunition for them, and, although captured Spencers and Henrys began to appear in Rebel ranks as the year wore on, Confederate combat use of captured repeating rifles, unlike rifle-muskets or even Sharps carbines, was dependant on a supply of captured cartridges.

The heavy fighting on all fronts that brought the repeating rifle to the foreground in the summer of 1864 originated in President Abraham Lincoln’s promotion of Ulysses S. Grant, the victor at Vicksburg and Chattanooga, to lieutenant general and command of all Union ground forces. Leaders of the North and South realized that 1864 would be a crucial year, as the hopes of the Confederacy were largely pinned on a war-weary Union replacing Lincoln with a president amenable to a negotiated settlement. Such an election outcome would likely depend on the success or failure of federal armies in the field.

Rifle courtesy of the Emo Phillips collection

That spring Grant ordered a multi-pronged offensive and personally accompanied Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac in its drive south on Richmond, while his ablest lieutenant, “Uncle Billy” Sherman, marched on Atlanta and smaller armies advanced on other fronts. Grant realized that the Confederate ability to transfer forces from Virginia to Georgia was responsible for Gen. Braxton Bragg’s victory at Chickamauga the previous September, and he hoped to avoid a repetition by applying pressure at as many points as possible.

In the event, the lesser campaigns did not accomplish much, but the main Union armies were quickly locked in combat with Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee. Sherman’s task proved somewhat easier as he had more maneuver room in the west than Grant and Meade did in the east, hemmed in between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the sea in the advance on Richmond.

The Union armies of 1864, as well as their Confederate opponents, were better armed than they had been since the beginning of the conflict. Almost all of the infantrymen of the opposing Army of Northern Virginia and Army of the Potomac were equipped with rifled arms, mostly in caliber .58 Springfield or .577 Enfield patterns, although an April ordnance report from Battles’ Brigade reveals a number of .54-cal. arms, either Austrian Lorenz imports or older U.S. Model 1841 rifles still in service. There were a few smoothbore muskets in the hands of Union troops, such as the New York regiments of the Irish Brigade and the 12th New Jersey Infantry, but because of preference, not because of a lack of available rifle-muskets.

Sherman’s infantry was also well-armed with rifle-muskets and shouldered more repeating arms, including government-issued Spencer rifles and privately purchased Henrys, than the Army of the Potomac’s foot soldiers. Although the eastern Confederate infantry had largely re-armed with rifle-muskets by mid-1863, in January 1864 their western counterparts were still shouldering a disproportionate number of smoothbores, despite capturing around 8,000 rifled arms (including 70 Spencers) at Chickamauga. As spring approached, however, the Army of Tennessee was issued enough imported Austrian Lorenz .54-cal. rifles to re-arm a third of its troops, and the vast majority began the campaign with rifled arms.

More attention appears to have been paid to marksmanship training in the Union army in the spring of 1864 than in previous years, but that instruction continued to be erratic and often lacking in fundamentals. In April, Army of the Potomac Provost Marshal Gen. Marsena Patrick authorized the issue of 10 rounds per man for target practice and ordered all enlisted men to load and fire their arms in the presence of an officer, because “there are men in this army who have been in numerous actions without ever firing their guns, and it is known that muskets taken on the battlefield have been found filled to the muzzle with cartridges.”

Shooting instruction was, as in the past, largely left to individual unit commanders. In Moe Phillips scoped musket. Rifle courtesy of the Emo Phillips collection.March and April, 1864, the 121st New York Infantry fired 10 rounds per man at 200 yards and five rounds per man at 300 yards. The 15th New Jersey Infantry had three successive days of target practice, with each man firing a mere three shots at targets set at 300 yards. In the west, Col. Benjamin F. Scribner of the 38th Illinois Infantry instituted a more rigorous regimen. Scribner’s soldiers fired at man-sized targets at ranges of 100, 200, 300, 500 and 1,000 yards, marking hits and measuring distances to determine the accuracy of their sights and the trajectory of their shots.

Confederate marksmanship training for line infantrymen was spotty as well, with the exception of Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne’s division in the Army of Tennessee. Cleburne, an Irish-born British army veteran, had used British techniques to train his men in basic ballistics and range estimation since 1862. In the fall of 1863, Maj. Calhoun Benham, his chief of staff, produced a manual based on Cleburne’s work and Capt. Henry Heth’s largely ignored pre-war translation of a French shooting handbook. General Bragg ordered it printed and distributed throughout the Army of Tennessee, although there is little evidence that it was implemented extensively.

It is doubtful that the minimal infantry marksmanship training at longer ranges conducted in the spring of 1864 made any significant difference in the ensuing campaigns. Engagement ranges, although they had lengthened a bit since 1861, were still usually within 200 yards; historian Paddy Griffith computed an average 1864 engagement range as 141 yards. Later in the campaign, soldiers of the 5th New Jersey Infantry considered firing at the enemy at 200 yards “skirmishing and dueling at long range.”

As 1864 ground on, more repeating arms made their way to Union foot soldiers. The percentage of privately owned Henrys in the 7th, 64th, 66th and 86th Illinois Infantry increased, with guns being delivered to units in the field as Sherman’s army pushed south. When the men of the 5th and 6th Michigan Cavalry traded in their Spencer rifles for Spencer carbines in the fall of 1864, the rifles were re-issued to various Army of the Potomac infantry brigades for sharpshooter use. The state of Massachusetts bought Spencer rifles, which were issued to the 37th Massachusetts Infantry as the regiment passed through Washington in the summer of 1864, and to a sharpshooter company in the 57th Massachusetts Infantry. Some Spencer cavalry carbines were issued to infantry regiments as well, including, in December 1863, the 7th New Hampshire and 7th Connecticut, then serving in the siege of Charleston. In early 1864, however, the New Hampshire regiment turned over half of its carbines to the 40th Massachusetts Mounted Infantry.

The men of the 7th Connecticut fought well in an ultimately losing cause at Olustee, Fla., in Photo courtesy of historicalimagebank.comFebruary 1864, inflicting heavy casualties on the 64th Georgia Infantry until they were outflanked and their ammunition began to run low. In the end the African-American soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry saved the day, firing 20,000 rounds from their Enfield muzzleloaders to cover the federal retreat. In May, the Connecticut and New Hampshire regiments, nicknamed the “77th New England,” used their Spencer carbines “to good advantage” at Drewry’s Bluff, Va., although Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler’s tactical ineptitude led to a retreat. Major Oliver Sanford of the Connecticut regiment said of his men that “with the Spencer carbine [and], plenty of ammunition … nothing can stand before them.”

Sharpshooters could be considered the ultimate Civil War infantrymen, and perhaps the best known such units were Col. Hiram Berdan’s 1st and 2nd U.S. Sharpshooter regiments, armed with Sharps single-shot breechloaders with a few telescopic-sighted target rifles in reserve for use in static situations. Although the U.S. Sharpshooters performed well in 1864, both regiments were mustered out of service as their original enlistments expired in August and the following February. Recruits with service time remaining were transferred to line outfits from their respective states, taking their Sharps rifles with them. Sharps rifles were scattered throughout the army in other units, usually for use in skirmishing.

Berdan’s regiments were not the only Union units bearing the “Sharpshooter” title. The 66th Illinois, which performed so well at Atlanta, began as “Birge’s Western Sharpshooters,” armed with civilian target rifles. Several companies of Ohio sharpshooters recruited in 1862 were initially issued rifle-muskets, later replaced by Spencer rifles, which like the Henry, were more suited to skirmishing than long-range work. The 1st Michigan Sharpshooters, recruited in 1862 and 1863, did not enter combat until 1864, and were armed with standard rifle-muskets. The 1st suffered heavy casualties in Virginia in 1864 fighting as line infantry, but there is evidence that some Native Americans from the regiment were allowed to camouflage themselves with cut corn stalks and roam the lines seeking targets of opportunity.

Although effectiveness varied, arguably the best sharpshooter units by 1864 were those in the Army of Northern Virginia, where brigades were authorized to form three to five company sharpshooter battalions. After testing all available arms, those battalions adopted the two-band .577-cal. muzzleloading Enfield rifle, as its five-groove fast rifling twist provided better long-range accuracy, and were issued high quality British-manufactured ammunition. They also received extensive marksmanship training and drill in small unit skirmish tactics, based on Heth’s manual. These sharpshooter battalions had specific tactical assignments whenever their brigades were in action-to aggressively lead in the advance and provide an effective rear guard in withdrawal.

Each sharpshooter battalion company was issued one or two .451-cal. hexagonal-bored, “2nd Maryland Infantry, C.S.A., 1864” by Don Troiani; courtesy of historicalartprints.comfast-twist Whitworth rifles. The British Whitworths, some of which were equipped with side-mounted Davidson telescopic sights, weighed about the same as rifle-muskets, and were far more portable than the heavy target rifles used by Federal snipers. Perhaps the most famous long-range kill of 1864 was credited to a Whitworth. On May 9, at Spotsylvania, Va., seconds after proclaiming “they couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance,” Union Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick fell to a bullet fired from more than 600 yards away. That Sedgwick was singled out by the shooter is unlikely in the smoke and confusion of the battlefield. He had dismounted to assist an artillery battery in positioning its guns, and the battery itself was the likely target. Still, his death graphically demonstrated the long-range effectiveness of the Whitworth.

In the west, Confederate sharpshooter units, the best of them in Gen. Cleburne’s Division, were armed with a mix of rifle-muskets, Whitworths and British-made .451-cal. Kerr rifles, as well as some heavy-barreled target rifles converted by the Atlanta arsenal to fire standard rifle-musket ammunition. Perhaps influenced by Cleburne’s interest in long-range shooting, western Confederate sharpshooters seem to have concentrated on sniping more than skirmishing. Kentucky Sharpshooters from the Orphan Brigade were instructed to never approach within 400 yards when engaging federal artillery batteries with their Kerr rifles.

The impact of repeating firearm technology in 1864 was greatest in the Union mounted arm. Colonel John T. Wilder’s “Lightning Brigade” of mounted infantry and the 5th and 6th Michigan Cavalry were issued Spencer rifles in 1863. That June, Wilder’s men seized Hoover’s Gap, Tenn., dismounted and used their Spencers to hold off a Confederate counterattack. Although the Michigan men had less clear results at Gettysburg, running out of ammunition at the Rummel Farm fight on July 3, both campaigns gained the Spencer an immediate following. After Spencer carbines went into production in October, Union cavalry units re-armed with them as rapidly as they reached the front. By the spring of 1864, demand was so great that the Ordnance Dept. contracted to buy every gun the Spencer factory made to replace the hodge-podge of single-shot carbines of varying quality then in service. Cavalry Bureau Chief Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson reported that “the general desire of the best regiments is to be armed with the Spencer carbine,” and the promise of Spencers was used to encourage re-enlistments.

The Henry rifle, with production limited to a few hundred guns a month, remained primarily a privately purchased infantry arm with ammunition supplied by the Ordnance Dept. Some Henrys ended up in the hands of horse soldiers, as influential Col. Lafayette Baker convinced the government to outfit his 1st District of Columbia Cavalry with them. Baker’s Henrys, along with some purchased by soldiers in the 23rd Illinois Infantry, were among the few in use in the eastern theater of war, with most “sixteen shooters” found in the ranks of Sherman’s western forces.

On May 9, 1864, as Grant moved south, the Army of the Potomac’s 10,000-man cavalry corps conducted a massive raid deep into Virginia. At Yellow Tavern, Spencer-armed Michigan troopers combined dismounted firepower with conventional saber charges to drive the Rebels from the field, mortally wounding Confederate cavalry icon Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart in the process. At Haw’s Shop the Michigan men broke a stalemate and again sent the enemy running. Near Cold Harbor, Sharps and Spencer carbines broke a Confederate infantry advance in five minutes of rapid-fire shooting, and at Deep Bottom on July 28, dismounted federal cavalrymen armed with Spencers smashed an attack by four Confederate infantry brigades and pushed them from the field in disorder. In the west, the men of the Lightning Brigade successfully forded a river under fire, ducking beneath the surface to lever another round into their Spencers, and heard a startled Rebel cry out “look at them Yankee sons of bitches, loading their guns under water.”

Repeating rifles did not guarantee victory, however, and they did fall into enemy hands when the battle went the other way. In a rear guard action at Brice’s Crossroads, Miss., in June, a company of the 2nd New Jersey Cavalry took a wrong turn in the dark and was overrun, losing 50 Spencer carbines to Maj. Gen. Nathan B. Forrest’s men. A Federal cavalry force was outflanked by Rebel infantry at Lovejoy’s Station, Ga., in August and routed by a volley of musketry at 150 yds. followed by a rapid bayonet charge when the Confederates caught the dismounted Yankees reloading their Spencer magazines.

By November, Forrest had 73 Spencers in his command, and four out of five brigades in Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton’s Confederate cavalry division in Virginia listed some Spencers in their ordnance reports. Virginia cavalrymen captured a number of Henry Rifles from the 1st D.C. Cavalry in a raid near Petersburg, and later used them against Yankees in the Shenandoah Valley. The employment of captured repeaters was, however, as previously noted, necessarily limited by the necessity to use captured ammunition.

One class of repeating arms that the Confederacy had in abundance, along with plenty of ammunition, however, was handguns, and many Rebel horsemen carried multiple revolvers. Union troops retrieved 36 sixguns from the bodies of six dead Missouri guerillas in late 1864, and when guerilla leader “Bloody Bill” Anderson met his end shortly afterward, he was carrying four revolvers. Multiple handguns were especially useful in the close-range, rapid-fire, hit-and-run mounted tactics favored by guerillas.

The men of Maj. John S. Mosby’s 43rd Virginia Cavalry Battalion, which conducted numerous successful raids on federal supply lines in the Shenandoah Valley, usually carried four revolvers each. In November 1864, a special Spencer-armed Union unit under Capt. Richard Blazer was created to track down and destroy Mosby’s Rangers, and, after some success, caught up with one of his companies at Kabletown, Va. The Rebels encountered dismounted Spencer fire and feigned retreat before turning and rapidly charging the outnumbered Yankees and delivering a blistering torrent of handgun bullets that wrecked Blazer’s command in short order.

Unfortunately for the Confederacy, tactical victories like Kabletown were not reflected in the larger war. As 1864 came to a close, and more and more Spencer repeaters were delivered to the Union army, it was evident that Grant’s strategy was the correct one. Atlanta had fallen and Sherman was cutting a 60-mile wide swath of destruction across Georgia on his way to Savannah and the sea with little opposition, while Gen. Hood and the remnants of his army lurched northward on a quixotic invasion of Tennessee that would end disastrously. Sheridan had decisively defeated Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley, once a major source of food for Lee’s army, and was picking it clean. Although the Army of Northern Virginia was still a viable, if severely weakened, force, it remained pinned down in the Petersburg-Richmond siege lines by Grant and Meade. Lincoln’s re-election in November sealed the deal, and a final winter of war began to set in upon the diminishing Southern Confederacy.

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