Loading a Spencer underwater

limberbox

Private
Joined
Apr 25, 2020
I ran across the passage below in the book "Battle Cry of Freedom". I hadn't read about, or heard of this specific use of the Spencer before.

View attachment 409734
McPherson (p. 752) cites only to Hoehling, ed., Last Train from Atlanta, pp. 58-59 (1958)(quoted in the first post), which I do not have. However, the ultimate source is pretty clearly Joseph G. Vale's Minty and the Cavalry (1886) (pages 322-323 in my 2017 Forgotten Books reprint). One significant problem, though, is that Vale was not in the assault, though it is possible he observed it from the high ground on the western shore before his brigade followed.

The assault crossing, about a mile from Roswell, was made soon after dawn on July 9th by four companies of skirmishers, two each from the 17th and the 72d Indiana M.I., along a 300 yard front, supported by three companies of sharpshooters (two from the 17th and one from the 72d) deployed on the bluffs on the western side, and followed at distance by the rest of Wilder's Brigade (3d Bde, 2d Cav. Div.) and ultimately Minty's brigade (1st Bde). According to the report of Col. A.O. Miller, commanding Wilder's Brigade:

"The main column having been moved as close to the river as possible, and everything being in readiness, I ordered the skirmishers forward, and every man moved promptly into the water, when the enemy opened with a heavy fire, which was vigorously replied to by our sharpshooters from this side, and which attracted their attention from the men in the water. The river was running very swift, with a rough bottom, and in some places, up to the arms in depth, but the skirmishers moved steadily forward, keeping a good line, and before they reached the opposite shore the enemy fled in confusion, with the exception of a few who were captured before they could escape. The main column was at once moved forward to support our gallant skirmishers, but before it had crossed the advance had gained the crest of the ridge, 300 yards from the river. The object of the movement being accomplished, I formed my brigade in line of battle upon the ridge, Colonel Minty (the First Brigade) crossing immediately and forming upon my left." (O.R. vol. 38, part II, p. 851).

Minty's laconic report is consistent ("July 9, dismounted and waded the Chattahoochee in rear of the Third Brigade; threw up breast works and held the ground until dark, when General Newton's division, of the Fourth Corps, relieved us.") (id. p. 813). Vale was a captain in the 7th Penna. Cav. of Minty's brigade and also served as Inspector, First Brigade. Brig. Gen. Kenner Garrard, commanding the Second Cavalry Division, was equally brief ("On the 9th, in the presence of the enemy, the river was crossed, a foothold gained on the south bank, and the important ford at Roswell secured for our army.") (id., p. 804)

Benjamin F. Magee of the 72d Indiana, who was likely in the main column, provides this more florid description in his 1882 History of the 72d Indiana Volunteer Infantry of the Mounted Lightning Brigade, pp. 335-336, that is somewhat supportive of Vale:

"By this time our men are half way across the stream, and begin to open fire on the rebels in the brush along the shore. As our men rush up out of the water and immediately open fire with their Spencers, the river is all ablaze, the rebels think that pandemonium has broken loose,... and they break and run up the hill, our men shooting them in the back. Now there is a race who of our brave men shall reach the shore first. The water has gradually become shallower, and now is scarcely to their hips, and with such another running, shooting, cheering, and splashing, was never witnessed before. [names who "of those four companies" may have reached shore first] As our men reach the shore they rush for the top of the hill and capture three or four prisoners as they ascend, who are blanched and trembling with fright, declaring that our men had just raised up out of the water and commenced to shoot at them." (emphasis added)
 

Story

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 5, 2011
Location
SE PA
McPherson (p. 752) cites only to Hoehling, ed., Last Train from Atlanta, pp. 58-59 (1958)(quoted in the first post), which I do not have. However, the ultimate source is pretty clearly Joseph G. Vale's Minty and the Cavalry (1886) (pages 322-323 in my 2017 Forgotten Books reprint). One significant problem, though, is that Vale was not in the assault, though it is possible he observed it from the high ground on the western shore before his brigade followed.
Props for citing those citations (and the ones further in), as well as caveats.
 

limberbox

Private
Joined
Apr 25, 2020
Thank you, Story. I didn't find a Confederate report in the ORs and the only additional account I have on the crossing is from the 1906 regimental by William B . Sipes, former Colonel of the 7th PA (Vale's regiment), The Saber Regiment, History of the 7th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Cavalry, 1861-1865, (1906). Sipes' account seems primarily based on but less credible than Vale:

"On the 9th of July the First and Third Brigades crossed the Chattahoochee, meeting with some resistance from a force of the enemy posted on the opposite bank. As has been stated, the First Brigade was armed with Spencer repeating carbines carrying metallic cartridges, and these could be loaded under water as well as in the air. In crossing, which was accomplished by fording the river dismounted, the men would keep down in the water, only exposing their heads, put the seven cartridges in the magazine, then rising, would pour the water from the muzzle, and blaze away at the astonished enemy. Never had they seen guns that could be loaded in this way, and Vale says that their curiosity got the better of their devotion to the 'cause,' and over two hundred of them remained on the bank and surrendered to learn how the Yankee guns worked." (p.114) (2000 reprint, Blue Acorn Press)

The "over two hundred" captured is 50 times greater than the "three or four" stated by Magee, who was there with the 72d, and seems a clear exaggeration, as does the "put the seven cartridges in the magazine" under water. Loading individual rounds into the buttstock magazine underwater sounds farfetched. The tube has to be withdrawn from the buttstock, individual rounds loaded into it, and then the magazine tube reinserted. Pretty complicated in a deep, swift flowing, rocky river. More likely, unless apocryphal, some number levered cartridges from the seven-round magazine into the breech and as they approached the southern shore rose up and successfully fired. That is what Vale suggests, but he likely exaggerates the numbers ("all along the line you could see the men bring their guns up, let the water run from the muzzle a moment, then taking a quick aim fire his piece and pop down again, with only his head exposed.") (p. 323).

It seems like I've read of another river crossing where Spencers were immersed but then still worked fine, though I can't recall the source. The remarks by the 4th U.S. Cavalry included in Gamble's memorandum quoted in post #20 are supportive ("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.") Crossing the Chattahoochee probably took less than half an hour.

While not a ducking, here is another account of Spencers working just fine in a heavy downpour, at the third or fourth battle of Oxford, MS on Aug. 19, 1864:

"On the 19th of August, Hatch again advanced upon the rebels, who occupied the same line from which we had so often driven them. The fortifications were captured by the first brigade, Col. Herrick commanding, the Seventh Kansas cavalry taking the advance in the pursuit. The rain, which fell in torrents, soon rendered the Sharps carbines, with which the Seventh Kansas was armed, unserviceable, when the Second Iowa, whose Spencer carbines were impervious to rain, were sent to relieve them. We now had it all our own way, for the rain had been as injurious to the rifles of the enemy, as to the carbines of the Seventh Kansas, while our pieces emitted their deadly stream with as much certainty as if the day had been one of cloudless beauty. We drove the rebels through Oxford, and again returned, in obedience to orders, to the river, the rebels following as before." Lyman B. Pierce, History of the Second Iowa Cavalry, pp. 112-113 (Burlington, Iowa 1865) (Franklin Classics reprint)
 

limberbox

Private
Joined
Apr 25, 2020
Happened across a reference today to Spencers working fine after deep river crossings. This is from Col. John T. Wilder's Nov. 28, 1863 letter to the Spencer Repeating Rifle Company:

"Dear Sir:
Your favor requesting my opinion concerning your Repeating Rifle came to hand, and in reply I am happy to state, as the result of about eight months constant practice with them, that I believe them to be the best arm for army use that I have ever seen....
***
I believe that the ammunition used is the cheapest kind for the service, as it does not wear out in the cartridge boxes and has the quality of being water-proof --- the men of my command carry 100 rounds of ammunition in their saddle bags, and in two instances went into a fight immediately after swimming their horses across streams 12 feet deep and it is very rare that a singe cartridge fails to fire."

Full letter quoted in Marcot, "Spencer Repeating Firearms" (Rowe, 1983, 1990), p. 53.
 

limberbox

Private
Joined
Apr 25, 2020
On page 186 in discussing the cartridges Marcot says: "The priming material is located in the the hollow rim pf the copper case. The rimfire was the first practical, self-contained water-proof cartridge used in America."
 

Cdoug96

Corporal
Joined
Dec 22, 2016
Location
Michigan, United States
Is the round as lethal when it’s travelling in water, I remember the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan, the soldiers were being hit by rounds whilst they were submerged but I’m sure that I read somewhere that the scene was a bit of a myth!
It mostly is. It has been tested and deep water is like a concrete wall to most bullets.
 

14NYSM

Cadet
Joined
Sep 18, 2021
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