Breechldrs Influence of repeating rifles in the Civil War

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
The speed of sound in fps (feet per second for those unfamiliar) is approx 1125 fps, the 56-56 Spencer round has a muzzle velocity of approx 1200 fps, so it is supersonic, though just barely, at the muzzle. How much this affects accuracy when the bullet quickly becomes subsonic, I have no idea. And yes, I have fired plenty of muzzle loaders, presently I own an PH P53 Enfield, a mutt of an 1858 Enfield two bander that Lodgewood did up as a Confederate import, and a 1803 Harpers Ferry rifle.

Yes, they were innovative and yes they were tactically important, in a very limited way, on engagements where they were used, however; the technology was in its infancy, the infrastructure was not yet there to manufacture them or the ammo in the large quantities required to have a real bearing on the outcome of the war, nor were the logistics of the time able to deal with the ammo requirements if it had been possible to arm large units of men with them.

Maybe I extrapolated too much from your earlier posts regarding the repeaters and their influence, It seemed like you were headed where you have been before, intimating that had the ordnance dept not resisted them, the war could have been shortened by years.
Just for clarification, I didn’t give the ordinance bureau a second thought. My focus is on what the synergy of what Spencer, Wilder & Rosecrans created. The ending the war thing is a straw man intended to tar me with something I never proposed.
 

limberbox

Private
Joined
Apr 25, 2020
The speed of sound in fps (feet per second for those unfamiliar) is approx 1125 fps, the 56-56 Spencer round has a muzzle velocity of approx 1200 fps, so it is supersonic, though just barely, at the muzzle. How much this affects accuracy when the bullet quickly becomes subsonic, I have no idea. And yes, I have fired plenty of muzzle loaders, presently I own an PH P53 Enfield, a mutt of an 1858 Enfield two bander that Lodgewood did up as a Confederate import, and a 1803 Harpers Ferry rifle.

Yes, they were innovative and yes they were tactically important, in a very limited way, on engagements where they were used, however; the technology was in its infancy, the infrastructure was not yet there to manufacture them or the ammo in the large quantities required to have a real bearing on the outcome of the war, nor were the logistics of the time able to deal with the ammo requirements if it had been possible to arm large units of men with them.

Maybe I extrapolated too much from your earlier posts regarding the repeaters and their influence, It seemed like you were headed where you have been before, intimating that had the ordnance dept not resisted them, the war could have been shortened by years.
All good points, CowCavalry, though I would argue your assessment of "tactically important, in a very limited way" understates their impact.

Marcot provides additional insight. As recently as June 10, 1863 Ripley had written Spencer that "The original contract for Spencer rifles was made by Order of the Secretary of War, contrary to the views of this office. No more of your rifles are wanted. " However, by August 18th, after the news of Hoover's Gap and Gettysburg, Ripley wrote Spencer requesting terms for rifles "in the number of 2500 or upwards...to be done in the speediest possible moment...," and in early September replied to General S.W. Rousseau's request for Spencer rifles to arm his mounted infantrymen: "[W]e shall proceed with every effort to to obtain them and with every disposition to furnish them as you suggested and desired." Here is what Marcot says about Ripley's apparent about face:

"As news of the success of units armed with the Spencer seven-shot repeater spread through the Army, commanders continued to pressure the Ordnance Department for the rifles.... Rifles were needed by Ripley to arm the ever increasing number of mounted infantry units in the Union Army. Mobility, combined with the firepower of a repeating firearm and the shock effect of rapid engagement, were the traits of this new strike force. The seven-shot Spencer repeater was the arm the troops wanted most. The demand was real and the Ordnance Department continued to be besieged with requests." (p. 65)

Here is the view of Maj. Gen. James H. Wilson, commanding the Cavalry Corps of the Military Division of the Mississippi, as expressed Jan. 2, 1865, regarding the impact of the Spencers:

"There is no doubt that the Spencer is the best fire-arm yet put into the hands of the soldier, both for economy of ammunition and maximum effect, physical and moral. Our best officers estimate one man armed with it, equivalent to three with any other arm. I have never seen anything else like the confidence inspired by it in the regiments or brigades which have it. I have seen a large number of dismounted charges made with them against cavalry, infantry, and breast works, and never knew one to fail. The confidence in the arm is so widely spread that I now have applications from every regiment in the corps, not already supplied with them." (quoted in Marcot, p. 75)
Wilson commanded the cavalry that rolled up the Rebel left flank at the battle of Nashville and would lead three Spencer-armed divisions through Alabama and Georgia in his Spring 1865 campaign.

Regarding manufacturing capacity, that also could have been increased and much more rapidly with better leadership.

The Chickering Piano-Forte Building Spencer moved into at the beginning of 1862, once he received the December 26, 1861 Army contract for 10,000 rifles, was "a structure less than eight years old and large enough to contain production facilities for thousands of rifles a month. Machinery was purchased, tooling manufactured and skilled workmen hired." (p.37) However, the company nearly failed. Ripley continued to throw up roadblocks, cutting the initial contract to 2201 on March 2d, 1863, and additional orders were not yet forthcoming. Spencer himself spent the early months of 1863 touring Navy and Army posts in the West, giving instruction, putting on demonstrations and seeking orders. However, the only clear success was Wilder's March order for 1400-- "too few to have made the arduous trip a financial success" and the company "was in grave danger of bankruptcy if it failed to secure immediate, sizeable government contracts." (p. 51) General Rosecrans had also been impressed, and his petitions to Ripley for 2000 Spencer rifles (the very ones ultimately delivered to Wilder's troops) may have caused Ripley to relent, because the Army resumed accepting deliveries in April (taking 2500 that month and 1500 more in each of May and June for a total of 7502 on the 12/26/81 contract). Help also came from the State of Massachusetts, which placed an order for 2000 rifles in May (these would later be taken over by the Government, replaced by Spencer from later production, then taken over again). That and retooling to make carbines kept Spencer's workmen busy in the summer after the Army rifles contract ended in June. Ripley begrudgingly approved in June Spencer's request to provide 11,000 carbines, "because we are in want of Cavalry carbines," though the contract was not signed until mid-July. Spencer also replied affirmatively to Ripley's August 18 for "2500, or upwards" of rifles, quoting 2500 at [email protected], but also offering to provide 80 rifles per day thereafter at [email protected] for a total order of 5000 rifles, [email protected] for 10,000 rifles, [email protected] for 15,000, [email protected] for 20,000 and [email protected] for 25,000. Ripley evidently passed the opportunity to obtain the greater quantities.

Hoover's Gap, Gettysburg and Ripley's replacement by Ramsay in September changed the Government attitude. Ramsay was besieged with requests for the repeaters and grew impatient for the delivery of carbines. The first 1000 were delivered October 3 with another 1000 every 2-2 1/2 weeks thereafter. On Nov. 14 Spencer wrote offering to increase production to 100 carbines per 10-hour workday, and offering further: "If our rifles and carbines meet with sufficient favor with the Government and you are induced to offer us a new contract... we can increase our production from its present capacity, in proportion to the inducement offered by the Government." In mid-December the Government increased the contract to 34,500 carbines, with deliveries at the rate of 2500/month beginning in January 1864 and increasing to 3500/month in July. Not until mid-April 1864 did the Government offer "to accept all that you can make in 1864, with the reference to the specified monthly deliveries" in the December contract. By early May 1864 Spencer was producing 2700 firearms per month and the "outlay of capital for raw materials, precision machinery, and wages for experienced workmen was substantial enough to concern the proprietors regarding the necessity for continuing government orders." (p. 71) As a result Spencer wrote the Ordnance Department "suggesting the expediency of giving them large orders for carbines, to enable them to to increase their facilities for manufacture." In his endorsement of the proposal to the Secretary of War, Ramsay wrote:

"There are no doubts from the reports received at this office that this is the most effective arm we have in the service. The price is $5.00 less than was paid in 1861 and 1862 for the best shooting paper cartridge carbine and gives 8 shots in succession. It is most desirable to arm all the cavalry with them as soon as possible. I have no hesitation in recommending the acceptance of this proposition." (p. 71)

As a result, a new contract was signed May 24th accepting all of Spencer's carbine output through September 1, 1865. Production reached 4000 a month during much of the winter 1864-65. Still, demand for the Spencer continued to outpace production, and about this time Ordnance turned to the Burnside Rifle Company, who agreed to cease production of their carbine and retool to supplement Spencer production. The Government also planned to begin manufacturing Spencers itself, "[a]s soon as the armory authorized to be built at Rock Island can be put in operation," and to change over all the national armories to the production of breechloaders, as new Ordnance Chief A.B. Dyer wrote to Stanton in October 1864.

One can only wonder at what levels of production might have been attained with more enlightened leadership at Ordnance earlier. Large early contracts so a company can invest in capacity expansion without risk of bankrupting itself, fabrication by other manufacturers on a royalty basis, and expansion of the National Armories including their beginning to manufacture breech-loading guns. All of these eventually occurred but could have occurred years sooner. Shave years off the war? Probably not. Shave months off? Seems likely.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
All good points, CowCavalry, though I would argue your assessment of "tactically important, in a very limited way" understates their impact.

Marcot provides additional insight. As recently as June 10, 1863 Ripley had written Spencer that "The original contract for Spencer rifles was made by Order of the Secretary of War, contrary to the views of this office. No more of your rifles are wanted. " However, by August 18th, after the news of Hoover's Gap and Gettysburg, Ripley wrote Spencer requesting terms for rifles "in the number of 2500 or upwards...to be done in the speediest possible moment...," and in early September replied to General S.W. Rousseau's request for Spencer rifles to arm his mounted infantrymen: "[W]e shall proceed with every effort to to obtain them and with every disposition to furnish them as you suggested and desired." Here is what Marcot says about Ripley's apparent about face:

"As news of the success of units armed with the Spencer seven-shot repeater spread through the Army, commanders continued to pressure the Ordnance Department for the rifles.... Rifles were needed by Ripley to arm the ever increasing number of mounted infantry units in the Union Army. Mobility, combined with the firepower of a repeating firearm and the shock effect of rapid engagement, were the traits of this new strike force. The seven-shot Spencer repeater was the arm the troops wanted most. The demand was real and the Ordnance Department continued to be besieged with requests." (p. 65)

Here is the view of Maj. Gen. James H. Wilson, commanding the Cavalry Corps of the Military Division of the Mississippi, as expressed Jan. 2, 1865, regarding the impact of the Spencers:

"There is no doubt that the Spencer is the best fire-arm yet put into the hands of the soldier, both for economy of ammunition and maximum effect, physical and moral. Our best officers estimate one man armed with it, equivalent to three with any other arm. I have never seen anything else like the confidence inspired by it in the regiments or brigades which have it. I have seen a large number of dismounted charges made with them against cavalry, infantry, and breast works, and never knew one to fail. The confidence in the arm is so widely spread that I now have applications from every regiment in the corps, not already supplied with them." (quoted in Marcot, p. 75)
Wilson commanded the cavalry that rolled up the Rebel left flank at the battle of Nashville and would lead three Spencer-armed divisions through Alabama and Georgia in his Spring 1865 campaign.

Regarding manufacturing capacity, that also could have been increased and much more rapidly with better leadership.

The Chickering Piano-Forte Building Spencer moved into at the beginning of 1862, once he received the December 26, 1861 Army contract for 10,000 rifles, was "a structure less than eight years old and large enough to contain production facilities for thousands of rifles a month. Machinery was purchased, tooling manufactured and skilled workmen hired." (p.37) However, the company nearly failed. Ripley continued to throw up roadblocks, cutting the initial contract to 2201 on March 2d, 1863, and additional orders were not yet forthcoming. Spencer himself spent the early months of 1863 touring Navy and Army posts in the West, giving instruction, putting on demonstrations and seeking orders. However, the only clear success was Wilder's March order for 1400-- "too few to have made the arduous trip a financial success" and the company "was in grave danger of bankruptcy if it failed to secure immediate, sizeable government contracts." (p. 51) General Rosecrans had also been impressed, and his petitions to Ripley for 2000 Spencer rifles (the very ones ultimately delivered to Wilder's troops) may have caused Ripley to relent, because the Army resumed accepting deliveries in April (taking 2500 that month and 1500 more in each of May and June for a total of 7502 on the 12/26/81 contract). Help also came from the State of Massachusetts, which placed an order for 2000 rifles in May (these would later be taken over by the Government, replaced by Spencer from later production, then taken over again). That and retooling to make carbines kept Spencer's workmen busy in the summer after the Army rifles contract ended in June. Ripley begrudgingly approved in June Spencer's request to provide 11,000 carbines, "because we are in want of Cavalry carbines," though the contract was not signed until mid-July. Spencer also replied affirmatively to Ripley's August 18 for "2500, or upwards" of rifles, quoting 2500 at [email protected], but also offering to provide 80 rifles per day thereafter at [email protected] for a total order of 5000 rifles, [email protected] for 10,000 rifles, [email protected] for 15,000, [email protected] for 20,000 and [email protected] for 25,000. Ripley evidently passed the opportunity to obtain the greater quantities.

Hoover's Gap, Gettysburg and Ripley's replacement by Ramsay in September changed the Government attitude. Ramsay was besieged with requests for the repeaters and grew impatient for the delivery of carbines. The first 1000 were delivered October 3 with another 1000 every 2-2 1/2 weeks thereafter. On Nov. 14 Spencer wrote offering to increase production to 100 carbines per 10-hour workday, and offering further: "If our rifles and carbines meet with sufficient favor with the Government and you are induced to offer us a new contract... we can increase our production from its present capacity, in proportion to the inducement offered by the Government." In mid-December the Government increased the contract to 34,500 carbines, with deliveries at the rate of 2500/month beginning in January 1864 and increasing to 3500/month in July. Not until mid-April 1864 did the Government offer "to accept all that you can make in 1864, with the reference to the specified monthly deliveries" in the December contract. By early May 1864 Spencer was producing 2700 firearms per month and the "outlay of capital for raw materials, precision machinery, and wages for experienced workmen was substantial enough to concern the proprietors regarding the necessity for continuing government orders." (p. 71) As a result Spencer wrote the Ordnance Department "suggesting the expediency of giving them large orders for carbines, to enable them to to increase their facilities for manufacture." In his endorsement of the proposal to the Secretary of War, Ramsay wrote:

"There are no doubts from the reports received at this office that this is the most effective arm we have in the service. The price is $5.00 less than was paid in 1861 and 1862 for the best shooting paper cartridge carbine and gives 8 shots in succession. It is most desirable to arm all the cavalry with them as soon as possible. I have no hesitation in recommending the acceptance of this proposition." (p. 71)

As a result, a new contract was signed May 24th accepting all of Spencer's carbine output through September 1, 1865. Production reached 4000 a month during much of the winter 1864-65. Still, demand for the Spencer continued to outpace production, and about this time Ordnance turned to the Burnside Rifle Company, who agreed to cease production of their carbine and retool to supplement Spencer production. The Government also planned to begin manufacturing Spencers itself, "[a]s soon as the armory authorized to be built at Rock Island can be put in operation," and to change over all the national armories to the production of breechloaders, as new Ordnance Chief A.B. Dyer wrote to Stanton in October 1864.

One can only wonder at what levels of production might have been attained with more enlightened leadership at Ordnance earlier. Large early contracts so a company can invest in capacity expansion without risk of bankrupting itself, fabrication by other manufacturers on a royalty basis, and expansion of the National Armories including their beginning to manufacture breech-loading guns. All of these eventually occurred but could have occurred years sooner. Shave years off the war? Probably not. Shave months off? Seems likely.
That is a very impressive bit of research, I must say. Makes me wonder how many more posts like this it is going to take before we can get on with discussing the Spencer’s effect on the war & stop debunking crank fantasies.
 

Jantzen64

Corporal
Joined
Aug 10, 2019
Thanks all, for a mostly informative discussion. And, advanced apologies for a long post.

Now that it seems to be winding down (?), I couldn't help but go back to the original post. A couple things struck me. First, Cycom's question appeared to be directed to a hypothetical that ASSUMED one or two large bodies had been armed and effectively supplied ("if enough had been acquired to outfit a few divisions . . . "). This premise thus tacitly acknowledged what we all know - namely, that only a small percentage of total troops across the span of the conflict were armed with repeaters. Accordingly, discussions about manufacturing capabilities and the logistical challenges of keeping the troops supplied with ammunition - while interesting insofar as they reflect some of the historic hurdles the Union army was facing during this transitional period - don't shed much light for me on the salient question of whether repeating weapons provided any significant or material advantage to those wielding them (note the emphasis on the word "any") once they made it to the field.

Because of the relatively small use of these weapons (Wilder's brigade and Wilson's Division being notable exceptions) - in comparison to muzzle-loaders that is - it is unrealistic to expect (or demand) to see some evidence of an entire battle hinging on the deployment of such weapons (unless of course one considers "for the want of the nail" type arguments illustrated by the defense of Alexander's Bridge or the 21st Ohio's stand on Horseshoe Ridge). For example, one can make the argument that but for the defense of that bridge, the Confederates could have effected a lodgement on the LaFayette Road as Rosecrans was trying to move his troops North to preserve his line of communications with Chattanooga. In such a counterfactual, what-if type of analysis, one can start to assess the importance of actions involving troops armed with repeaters, even if one cannot isolate with mathematical precision the contributions of other factors such as terrain, combined arms, training etc. One need not have direct evidence of 487 repeater armed troops inflicting exactly 1382 casualties - in comparison to when they fought on the exact same terrain andonly had muzzleloaders and only inflicted 349 casualties - before being able to draw some conclusions about the effectiveness of repeaters in the former engagements. Circumstantial evidence is still evidence.

And it seems to me that folks like Rhea Cole, Limberbox, Belfoured and Trice have presented substantial circumstantial evidence (and in some instances - like Liddel's OR report attributing the disproportionate casualties his brigade incurred at Alexander's Bridge to the repeaters - actual direct evidence) in support of their premise that repeaters provided a material advantage to troops so armed. Commanding officers spoke favorably of them, and troops specifically sought them out. In contrast, was any evidence presented of troops in the American Civil War rejecting repeaters in favor of a muzzleloader? Was any evidence presented of a repeater-armed unit in the American Civil War being forced to leave the field in short order because they haphazardly burned through their ammo? Was any evidence presented of troops armed with repeaters in the American Civil War not being able to effectively engage their muzzle-loading opponents because of either jamming or adverse ballistics? No. While the data set is relatively limited, one would have expected some evidence of the type of problems/limitations several members so forcefully argued in this thread. Instead, we have a fairly consistent - albeit limited - record of repeater-armed troops defeating or holding off greater numbers while inflicting greater casualties. E.g.,

1621828255979.png



Finally, one point raised in the thread bears emphasizing, and that is the impact that being armed with these weapons had on the soldier's morale; even if the weapons were no better than the trained use of a muzzle-loader, soldiers armed with these weapons had high confidence in them, creating a sense of pride (perhaps because they were distinct?). It was a tangible, concrete symbol of the North's industrial capabilities - one which was appreciated by the users and noticed by their targets (that "damned yankee shot tower" and the gun "you can load on Sunday and fire all week"). While some may scoff at issues of morale, on a Board which regularly entertains topics such as "whether confederates were better fighting men than yankees", the issue of elan is not a foreign one - rather, it is intrinsic to the operational performance of what ultimately were volunteer armies.

While we will never know whether the war could have been shortened had the Union army been able to overcome the manufacturing, logistical and policy challenges many here have noted, my vote is on the side of those armed with repeaters.

Thanks for listening.
 
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limberbox

Private
Joined
Apr 25, 2020
This Marcot book is a true treasure trove of information, as I'm finding out. Here, from Nat'l Archives Record Group 156, Entry 201: Record of Experiments, is an assessment from the Eastern Theater -- the February 18, 1965 Memoranda Report of Arms by famed Gettysburg veteran William N. Gamble, Col. of the 8th Illinois Cavalry and commander of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac:

"MEMORANDA REPORT OF ARMS

From previous experience and recent experiments which I have made in regard to cavalry arms, the following is my opinion of the result:

SPENCER CARBINE
This carbine in the hands of an experienced, intelligent, well-trained, careful soldier is the best that I have yet seen. It fires accurately and rapidly; has long, effective range; its magazine in the stock holds seven metallic cartridges, not affected by dampness, and does not fall to pieces when carried in a cavalry cartridge box any distance, and needs no caps. The trigger guard is the lever for loading, which works rapidly and well, when properly taken care of. Rough, careless handling may cause accidents; a fall to the ground may break the stock where the wood connects with the metal at the breech, which is the weakest part of the gun.

This arm should not be issued to any but well trained cavalry soldiers, carefully instructed how to use it properly.

Another experiment I have tried with this carbine -- In case the spiral spring in the stock does not operate, take it out altogether, load the magazine, put a cork or wooden plug in the butt of the gun, turn the muzzle downward vertically, spring the lever and bring it back to its place and the gun is loaded, ready to fire. Taking out the magazine spring doesn't disable the gun, because he can fire as rapidly without it and can put in eight cartridges instead of seven, when the spiral spring is removed from the magazine in the stock of the gun....

GENERAL REMARKS

Spencer and Sharps carbines range effectively at 600 yards with good ammunition. From actual experiment, I am convinced that a well instructed, practiced cavalry soldier, dismounted, can hit a man at that distance three out of four shots. Small arms fighting should not be attempted at a longer range if it is expected to be effective. I like short range fighting, because definite results soon follow.

I have seen seven or eight other patterns of carbines issued, but as they are comparatively worthless, I do not deem it necessary to notice them.

AMMUNITION

It would be an immense saving to the Government, and greatly increase the effectiveness of troops in the field, if metallic percussion ammunition could be used with all breech-loading arms. My knowledge of this is wholly practical, having been in the field nearly all the time since this wa[r] began. I could not urge this matter too strongly, because I have seen its necessity so often in many a warm place!

Metallic ammunition warrants a shot every time, without caps; is not injured by dampness and can be carried in a cartridge box on horseback for a year without being injured, while two-thirds of the other cartridges are actually a clean dead loss, either fall to pieces, or get injured by dampness.

Wm. Gamble
Colonel 8th Ill. Cav.
Commanding Brigade

Remarks -- 1st Division

The amount of Spencer ammunition drawn is about 60 percent more (per piece) than for carbines using paper or cloth cartridges. It is about 40 percent more than for others using metallic cartridges.

There is nearly 4 times as much expended in battle (per piece) as all the other. This, on account of the rapidity with which the Spencer arm can be loaded and fired.

The Spencer seldom misfires, is well made, works easily when the trooper is mounted and, we think, is the best carbine in use.

The Spencer rifle is a good arm but too heavy for the Cavalry service.

Remarks -- 2d Division

The Spencer carbine is far superior to any other arm ever used in this command. More ammunition is required than for other carbines, but if a cartridge box could be furnished holding a sufficient quantity, and properly protecting the ammunition, the arm would be improved even more. We believe that the Blakeslee Cartridge Box will answer this purpose.

Remarks -- 4th Division

Very little Spencer ammunition has been wasted by being broken or unserviceable.

The Spencer carbine is the best arm that the cavalry has ever used and it cannot be replaced by a better one.

Remarks -- 5th Division

We left White's Station, Tennessee on September 30, 1864 and marched 400 miles. The weather had been very wet for 4 or 5 days and the ammunition was carried mostly on pack mules. Upon inspection, it was found that the Spencer ammunition was not injured by the weather, or the wear from carrying in saddlebags. 75,000 rounds of Sharps and 12,000 rounds of Colt's rifle were spoilt or broken up, so as to be entirely worthless.

Remarks -- 4th U.S. Cavalry

Two boxes of Spencer ammunition (1008 rounds each) were sunk in the Duck River for nearly two days, and the ammunition upon being taken out was only partially injured. It is seldom that a Spencer round ever misfires.

Respecting the merits of the different arms, there can be no two opinions concerning the superiority of the Spencer repeating carbine. In the hands of a reliable man, it is fully adequate to perform the work of 4 ordinary breechloading carbines. Rainy weather is no deterrent to its efficiency.

General Remarks

The Spencer carbine is a universal favorite with the officers, as well as the men in this command. With one of these weapons, a cavalryman feels a confidence which no other arm can give. He feels invincible, as long as his ammunition holds out. It admits of greater rapidity in loading and firing than any other arm in use in the Cavalry Service.

What has been said of the Spencer carbine applies equally well to the Spencer rifle. This arm (although regarded by some as too heavy for cavalry service), when used without the bayonet or sabre, renders them invincible.


Marcot, p. 79 (bolding added)
 

Piedone

Sergeant
Joined
Oct 8, 2020
Thanks all, for a mostly informative discussion. And, advanced apologies for a long post.

Now that it seems to be winding down (?), I couldn't help but go back to the original post. A couple things struck me. First, Cycom's question appeared to be directed to a hypothetical that ASSUMED one or two large bodies had been armed and effectively supplied ("if enough had been acquired to outfit a few divisions . . . "). This premise thus tacitly acknowledged what we all know - namely, that only a small percentage of total troops across the span of the conflict were armed with repeaters. Accordingly, discussions about manufacturing capabilities and the logistical challenges of keeping the troops supplied with ammunition - while interesting insofar as they reflect some of the historic hurdles the Union army was facing during this transitional period - don't shed much light for me on the salient question of whether repeating weapons provided any significant or material advantage to those wielding them (note the emphasis on the word "any") once they made it to the field.

Because of the relatively small use of these weapons (Wilder's brigade and Wilson's Division being notable exceptions) - in comparison to muzzle-loaders that is - it is unrealistic to expect (or demand) to see some evidence of an entire battle hinging on the deployment of such weapons (unless of course one considers "for the want of the nail" type arguments illustrated by the defense of Alexander's Bridge or the 21st Ohio's stand on Horseshoe Ridge). For example, one can make the argument that but for the defense of that bridge, the Confederates could have effected a lodgement on the LaFayette Road as Rosecrans was trying to move his troops North to preserve his line of communications with Chattanooga. In such a counterfactual, what-if type of analysis, one can start to assess the importance of actions involving troops armed with repeaters, even if one cannot isolate with mathematical precision the contributions of other factors such as terrain, combined arms, training etc. One need not have direct evidence of 487 repeater armed troops inflicting exactly 1382 casualties - in comparison to when they fought on the exact same terrain andonly had muzzleloaders and only inflicted 349 casualties - before being able to draw some conclusions about the effectiveness of repeaters in the former engagements. Circumstantial evidence is still evidence.

And it seems to me that folks like Rhea Cole, Limberbox and Trice have presented substantial circumstantial evidence (and in some instances - like Liddel's OR report attributing the disproportionate casualties his brigade incurred at Alexander's Bridge to the repeaters - actual direct evidence) in support of their premise that repeaters provided a material advantage to troops so armed. Commanding officers spoke favorably of them, and troops specifically sought them out. In contrast, was any evidence presented of troops in the American Civil War rejecting repeaters in favor of a muzzleloader? Was any evidence presented of a repeater-armed unit in the American Civil War being forced to leave the field in short order because they haphazardly burned through their ammo? Was any evidence presented of troops armed with repeaters in the American Civil War not being able to effectively engage their muzzle-loading opponents because of either jamming or adverse ballistics? No. While the data set is relatively limited, one would have expected some evidence of the type of problems/limitations several members so forcefully argued in this thread. Instead, we have a fairly consistent - albeit limited - record of repeater-armed troops defeating or holding off greater numbers while inflicting greater casualties. E.g.,

View attachment 401689


Finally, one point raised in the thread bears emphasizing, and that is the impact that being armed with these weapons had on the soldier's morale; even if the weapons were no better than the trained use of a muzzle-loader, soldiers armed with these weapons had high confidence in them, creating a sense of pride (perhaps because they were distinct?). It was a tangible, concrete symbol of the North's industrial capabilities - one which was appreciated by the users and noticed by their targets (that "damned yankee shot tower" and the gun "you can load on Sunday and fire all week"). While some may scoff at issues of morale, on a Board which regularly entertains topics such as "whether confederates were better fighting men than yankees", the issue of elan is not a foreign one - rather, it is intrinsic to the operational performance of what ultimately were volunteer armies.

While we will never know whether the war could have been shortened had the Union army been able to overcome the manufacturing, logistical and policy challenges many here have noted, my vote is on the side of those armed with repeaters.

Thanks for listening.
This is an impressive, very well balanced view - and as far as I can say seems to be some kind of a definite conclusion about what can be concluded from the available facts. Thank you very much for it.
 

67th Tigers

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 10, 2006
My Brigade of Mounted Infantry have repeatedly routed and driven largely superior forces of rebels, in some instances five or six times our number and the result is mainly due to our being armed with the Spencer Repeating Rifle.

Wilder was always exaggerating the achievements of the brigade.

1. At Hoover's Gap Wilder invented five whole rebel regiments that weren't there. The combat was 4 Federal regiments and 10 guns vs 2 rebel regiments and 4 guns. Despite their Spencers (or because of them?), the 17th Indiana was broken in a bayonet charge. The casualty balance shows the Spencer had essentially no effect. If Wilder's men had had rifle-muskets, the results would have been similar.

There are then the three days of Chickamauga:

2. Alexander's Bridge (18th). There wasn't much "combat", but rather a little sniping and shelling of the rebels. The Spencer probably had little effect and the same result would have happened with rifle-muskets.

3. West Viniard field (19th). Here Wilder was deployed in a static position as a support to the batteries. Fire from Lilly's batteries dissuaded two regiments trying to infiltrate a gap, and then caused major problems for Benning, who shattered the brigades in front of Wilder, but had no artillery to reply to Lilly. It is clear that having Spencers made no difference here.

d9b843606bbfaee0f7264de77e12df6812.jpg.926x590_q85.jpg



4. Bloody Pond (20). Deas and Manigault's brigades made an attack, and Manigault was stopped by Lytle's brigade. Whilst Manigault was engaging Lytle in a firefight (which he was losing, Lytle being entrenched on a hill), Wilder moved by and fired into Manigault's open flank in enfilade. Manigault decided to withdraw. Again, had Wilder had rifle-muskets the result would have been much the same.

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Thus, claims of combat efficacy of the Spencer based on the performance upto that date don't seem justified. Everything achieved would also have been achieved if armed with rifle-muskets. At Hoover's Gap they had a large manpower advantage over the rebels (4 regts vs 2) and a large artillery advantage (10 guns vs 4). At Alexander's Bridge, most of the fighting done was minor skirmishing with the enemy never getting to the close range where the nominal doubling of the sustained ROF would have mattered. At West Viniard Field they were supporting a battery, and it is unambiguous that it was the artillery that mattered. Finally, at the Bloody Pond, any regiment moving up and enfilading a line would have provoked the enemy to pull back, regardless of whether they had Enfields or Spencers.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
The only appropriate response to a false claim intended to distract from the actual topic under discussion is to ignore it.
I believe that that mostly applies if the claim is (1) false and (2) not substantially connected to the actual topic under discussion. In this case the claims 67th has made are substantially connected to the topic under discussion - specifically they involve the analysis of various actions where the repeating rifle was used - so what needs to be demonstrated is that the claims are in fact false.

For example, in 67th's analysis of the action on the 19th, he cites an article discussing Lilly's artillery fire support as key in the action. It is possible that this article is mistaken but you would need to show that.
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
I believe that that mostly applies if the claim is (1) false and (2) not substantially connected to the actual topic under discussion. In this case the claims 67th has made are substantially connected to the topic under discussion - specifically they involve the analysis of various actions where the repeating rifle was used - so what needs to be demonstrated is that the claims are in fact false.

For example, in 67th's analysis of the action on the 19th, he cites an article discussing Lilly's artillery fire support as key in the action. It is possible that this article is mistaken but you would need to show that.
First, if we're referring to the Alexander's Bridge action, that was on the 18th and not the 19th.

Second, you ignore the only primary sources that explictly address the issue of Spencers at Alexander's Bridge - (1) Liddell, who indisputably was "present" and "on the field" despite a completely inaccurate statement to the contrary in this thread, and who also pointed out why the terrain for the attack was unsuitable for the effective use of shell and shrapnel; (2) two members of the 72nd Indiana, Co. A, which fought in the lunette; and (3) a member of the 17th Indiana, which also was in the fight at the bridge. Those are the sources which mention the use of Spencers. We've seen no sources which discount the use of Spencers. Coupled with this is the utter failure to cite at least two published works by highly credible authors who have assessed the action and concluded that Wilder's units at the bridge held off a larger force by using their repeaters successfully. In addition, list for us all Confederate infantry unit reports which mention the fact that it was artillery fire that caused the casualties - and note that at least two distinguished being under small arms fire and artillery fire the next day, on the 19th. On the other hand, there is little doubt that Lilly engaged the Confederate artillery that was brought up in support and was necessarily in a position that would subject it to effective artillery fire.

So tell us - was Liddell "present" and "on the field" on the 18th? See his report, Walthall's report, and Swett's report and give us the sources to the contrary.
 

67th Tigers

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 10, 2006
This is the last in a series of posts written to perpetuate false claims.
Perhaps if you were to play the ball, we'd get somewhere.

Lets be blunt - in the four tactical actions Wilder's brigade was involved in in 1863, in none can any advantage for the Spencer be demonstrated.

At Hoover's Gap Wilder had a huge numerical advantage (roughly 2:1 in infantry and 5:2 in artillery) and was holding good defensive ground. Despite this, the rebel casualties are not that heavy and one of Wilder's regiments was even routed by musket armed Georgians. In all probability, had this been an even fight (2 regts vs 2 or 4 vs 4) then Wilder would have been overrun. In both of the rebels regimental fights, it was the fact that they had to face two regiments each that was the issue. Wilder himself had to invent 5 additional regiments that attacked him, and since then those who push for the idea of the Spencer being highly effective have inflated the count of regiments that attacked Wilder.

Now, if you could demonstrate that those 5 regiments existed, you'd be able to counter the argument effectively. Of course, they didn't and you haven't tried to make a counter-argument.

At Alexander's Bridge, the question is why two particular regiments suffered heavy casualties, whilst the rest didn't. Indeed, if you look at the right side of the rebel line you find a roughly even exchange of casualties, of perhaps even one favouring the rebels. It is telling that the two regiments that suffered badly were the two that occupied the left of the advance at different times, and were the two that were heavily exposed to Lilly's artillery. Neither's main body came within 250 yards of Wilder's formed bodies (coy A's lunette was 100 yards back from the bridge, plus the bridge at about 50 yards, plus a bit) and if we accept Dave Powell's maps as correct then the rebel main bodies and Wilder's formed bodies were 300 yards apart at the closest, and the rebels were in a wood and sheltered from any fire. The fire action by Wilder's infantry was only against skirmishers, who were themselves at the edge of a woodline.

Hence I have grave doubts the casualties could have come from infantry fire, because the rebel infantry's main bodies were never exposed to it, but two regiments (the two with the casualties) were exposed to artillery fire. In the 4 regiments who were not heavily exposed to artillery but whose skirmishers were under Spencer fire, there were a grand total of a little over 11 casualties.

Thus I certainly do not think you can discount the artillery and ascribe the casualties mainly to Spencer fire.

Then we have Viniard Field, wherein again the infantry never got to within effective range and it was the artillery that they supported that gave the rebels problems.

The one encounter wherein the Spencer could well have done great execution was at the Bloody Pond, where they caught the left flank of Manigault's brigade in enfilade. The 34th Alabama was the leftmost regiment and caught the most of it, with some overs being copped by the 28th Alabama. The attacking force was the 98th Illinois, 123rd Illinois (who took 28 PW's from the 34th Alabama) and 17th Indiana (left to right, in that order). The action was primarily a bayonet charge with limited fire action until after the chargers lost momentum. The 123rd Illinois charged straight into the exposed flank of the 34th Alabama at nearly normal to their line and collapsed them. They then halted and began a fire action with the rest of the 34th, who suffered 2 killed and 28 wounded from the fire of Lytle's brigade in front and Wilder's three regiments on the flank.

Wilder's three regiments who made that charge suffered 70 casualties during the battle, and the majority of them were certainly at the Bloody Pond (the only time they were in close action). Thus it doesn't seem that the charge would have been much different had they had rifle-muskets.
 

67th Tigers

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 10, 2006
So tell us - was Liddell "present" and "on the field" on the 18th? See his report, Walthall's report, and Swett's report and give us the sources to the contrary.
He was well behind the fighting. He wasn't on the scene of the fighting and did not witness it first hand.
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
He was well behind the fighting. He wasn't on the scene of the fighting and did not witness it first hand.
Based on what? He reconnoitered the ground. He personally ordered a section of guns forward from where he originally placed them to support Walthall. Show us your source for the statement he "did not witness it first hand" and "wasn't on the scene of the fighting". And I mean a source stating that - not your "interpretation" that conveniently fits your argument. You cited Walthall's report for the fact that it doesn't mention Spencers - how do we know he "witnessed it first hand"? (Of course, Walthall says nothing excluding Spencers and nothing attributing his casualties to "artillery fire") .

And - predictably - nary a word about the primary sources actually referring to the Spencers.
 

Piedone

Sergeant
Joined
Oct 8, 2020
Besides the question where Liddell was...well....the arguments in post #495 should be considered.
I am eager to read what you all think about them-
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
Besides the question where Liddell was...well....the arguments in post #495 should be considered.
I am eager to read what you all think about them-
"Besides the question where Liddell was .."

Liddell expressly attributed his casualties to Wilder's involved units having Spencers. He stated why the terrain of the attack would be unsuitable for the effective use of shell and shrapnel. Apparently someone felt the need to eliminate Liddell's report as evidence by making the clearly inaccurate statement that he was not in a position to witness the fighting. We have three Union participants who were in the heart of the fighting stating the effect of their Spencers. Thus far we have nothing from a primary source stating the opposite. When it comes to the fighting at the bridge on the 18th, what are you looking for - a video recording?
 

Piedone

Sergeant
Joined
Oct 8, 2020
"Besides the question where Liddell was .."

Liddell expressly attributed his casualties to Wilder's involved units having Spencers. He stated why the terrain of the attack would be unsuitable for the effective use of shell and shrapnel. Apparently someone felt the need to eliminate Liddell's report as evidence by making the clearly inaccurate statement that he was not in a position to witness the fighting. We have three Union participants who were in the heart of the fighting stating the effect of their Spencers. Thus far we have nothing from a primary source stating the opposite. When it comes to the fighting at the bridge on the 18th, what are you looking for - a video recording?
Forget it, we‘re history guys....with a video recording we‘d lock horns about camera angels, the questionable quality of ancient filming techniques and all the things that are not on the video but should be there....
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
Forget it, we‘re history guys....with a video recording we‘d lock horns about camera angels, the questionable quality of ancient filming techniques and all the things that are not on the video but should be there....
I agree - I have no doubt that there would be claims that scenes were cut and moved around/edited. Or that it's really a video of another fight. Even if something is on video, somebody can always say it doesn't show what it shows. But for the fight on the 18th, we only have what we have.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
First, if we're referring to the Alexander's Bridge action, that was on the 18th and not the 19th.
No, I'm talking about the action on the 19th, because 67th provided a specific citation to an article which discusses the value of Lilly's artillery support in the action on the 19th and which argues that the cannister support provided on that occasion by Lilly's guns was the key factor in the engagement.

(I assume you read the article.)
 
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