One tangible connection to the human cost of the Civil War can be found in the Frazier History Museum in Louisville, Ky., in the form of a beautifully engraved Henry repeating rifle, serial number 19. The original owner was Connecticut native George Dennison Prentis, who was the editor of the Louisville Journal from 1830 to 1860 and a staunch abolitionist. After succession, he was an outspoken advocate of the Union even though his newspaper was absorbed by the pro-Confederate Louisville Morning Courier. On July 14, 1862, he wrote a report for the newspaper that praised the Henry.
“It behooves every loyal citizen to prepare himself upon his own responsibility with the best weapon of defense that can be obtained. And certainly the simplest, surest and most effective weapon that we know of, the weapon that can be used with the most tremendous results in case of an outbreak or invasion, is one that we have mentioned recently upon two or three occasions, the newly invented rifle of Henry.”
It is very likely that his Henry was a gift from the manufacturer. The Connecticut-based New Haven Arms Company hoped to make the Henry the standard-issue rifle of the Union Army and sought favorable endorsements in hopes of securing government contracts. As a matter of fact, a similar engraved rifle was presented to President Abraham Lincoln.
Ultimately, 1,731 Henry rifles were sold to the US Government for a $63,943 (about $50 each). Far more (approximately 10,000) were bought by individuals and state regiments like the 66th and 7th Illinois and the 97th Indiana. The rifles were highly prized on the battlefield. Confederates described the Henry as “that darn Yankee rifle that they load on Sunday and shoot all week.”
THE PROGENITOR of the Winchester repeaters, the Henry was a technological marvel in its time. It fired a .44-caliber, self-contained, metallic, rim-fire primed cartridge. The magazine held 15 shots, and one more could be loaded in the chamber, giving it more firepower than any other rifle on the battlefield. It was accurate by the standards of the day too, equipped as it was with a graduated ladder rear sight. Army tests showed it could keep 100 percent of its shots inside a 25-inch circle at 500 yards and a 48-inch circle at 1,000. Bullet weights were either 200 or 216 grains over 26 to 28 grains of black powder, giving it a muzzle velocity of 1,125 feet per second and a muzzle energy of 568 foot pounds. Ballistically it was between today’s .44 Special and .44-40 WCF of the same bullet weight, which leads me to wonder how much energy it had left at 200 yards, much less either of the Army test ranges. Compared to the standard rifled musket of the era, the .44 Henry was a pipsqueak, and that insured it would never be selected for general issue to troops. However, at ranges of less than 100 yards the Henry’s accuracy and power were perfectly adequate, and its speed and firepower proved devastating to the enemy in close combat.
THE HISTORY OF GEORGE PRENTIS’S Henry rifle is not a happy one. Though he supported the Union, his two sons, William Courtland and Clarence J., believed in the merits of the Confederate cause and actually fought for the South. William took his father’s rifle to war and died leading his troops in the Battle of Augusta, Ky., on September 18, 1862. The rifle and the sad news made their way back home to George. The Henry left his home again, for the last time, when his remaining son joined the Confederate cause. Reaching the rank of colonel, Clarence survived the war and his father pleaded that he be shown clemency. The rifle never came home. Hidden by Confederate soldiers, it was rediscovered a century later in a Memphis, Tenn. basement. ASJ
Story by Frank Jardim
April 9th marks the 150th anniversary of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to US Army General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Va., in 1865. News of Lee’s capitulation triggered a series of surrenders across the far-flung battle lines, and a month later, President Andrew Johnson considered the war over.
From the beginning of hostilities on April 12, 1861 when the Confederates attacked the US Army garrison at Fort Sumter, S.C., the American Civil War lasted just over five years and resulted in a greater loss of American lives than any conflict before or since. Total military casualties numbered 1,125,000, which represented 3.5 percent of the entire US population, in 1861. The total military deaths from all causes, numbered 654,000. Technically, more soldiers were killed in World War II, but the number of soldiers who lost their lives from disease during the Civil War puts that number ahead in overall loss of life. This is the human tragedy of war. The magnitude of this war deeply scarred the people who lived through it.
The Civil War is sometimes described as the last old fashioned, and the first modern, war. It was fought with the final generation of muzzle-loading percussion arms and artillery. These were at the apex of their development as well as other new technologies in the form of breech-loaders, repeating rifles (that used self-contained metallic cartridges) and, of course, the first Gatling guns. The armies fought using linear tactics of previous centuries, but generally with less finesse than the highly disciplined soldiers of Europe.
Rifled-muskets were eventually the standard infantry weapon for both the North and South. They possessed the speed-loading ability of a smoothbore musket and the accuracy of a rifle, thanks to the ingenious Minié bullet. Minié balls varied in detail, but the type commonly used during the Civil War had a hollow base that formed a thin skirt at the bottom, similar to a sewing thimble. It was cast smaller than the rifle bore so it could be easily loaded down the barrel. When fired, the expanding gas forced the Minié ball’s base outward and into full contact with the barrel’s rifling, stabilizing the spin. The result allowed the weapon to fire accurately against individual targets at ranges of 600 yards and against massed targets at 1,000. This increased the range 10-fold over smoothbore muskets.
It is still commonly believed by historians that the horrific casualties of war were the direct result of the range and accuracy of the rifled muskets versus the old fashioned linear tactics. These tactics involved maneuvering large bodies of men in close formations around the battlefield. Each group would line up in full view of each other and fire volley after volley, until one side wavered. At that point a bayonet charge would decide the winner.
On the surface, the combination of better weapons and outdated tactics seems like a good formula for slaughter but the reality is less clear. It seems unlikely that the full potential of the rifled musket was realized since commanders rarely took advantage of its range and accuracy. For one thing, the field artillery’s ubiquitous 12-pounder Napoleon combination guns/howitzers were deadly effective at ranges well beyond small arms. Some historians now believe that artillery fire may have accounted for 20 to 50 percent of all casualties. Statistics on the effectiveness of small arms vary. Some suggest about one casualty for every 240 rounds fired, which is hardly more than the old smoothbore musket days of Emperor Napoleon. Other estimates state that Union forces expended over 1,000 rounds per casualty. It is worthy of note that a declining ratio of rounds fired to casualties produced is consistent with results found in subsequent wars as weapons technology improved.
Other factors played a part in limiting the effectiveness of the rifled-musket. The black powder propellants used produced such prodigious amounts of white smoke that at times it completely obscured large parts of the battlefield. The accuracy of the rifled-musket was of little consequence when the soldiers couldn’t see the enemy. Further undermining the myth, military marksmanship training was virtually nonexistent at that time. Soldiers had whatever shooting experience they joined the army with. Rural farm boys grew up shooting while urban laborers had, likely, never handled a firearm before becoming a soldier. Estimates show that 48 percent of the Union Army and 69 percent of the Confederate Army came from farming backgrounds. The figures suggest that the South should have had better marksmen, but keep in mind that the Union fielded twice as many troops as the Confederacy. If the Union had more good shots, it had more bad ones too.
How many of those rural men in the ranks, had experience with long-range marksmanship? There’s no doubt that a shooting background would help, but the real question is, how much?
To this day, typical hunting ranges in the Eastern states are less than 100 yards. To successfully hit a long-range target requires the soldier to understand bullet trajectory and know the exact distance. The Civil War shooter had to compensate for the high arch of the heavy, slow-moving, Minie ball. A soldier shooting at the enemy from what he determined to be 300 yards would have to fire at the target’s waist. The Springfield Model 1861 had a three-tier notch rear sight (one for 50, 100 and 300 yards). The shooter would flip up the 300-yard sighting mecahnism, called a leaf, to make the shot. When he squeezed the trigger, the hammer struck the percussion cap on the nipple and instantly ignited the main 65-grain powder charge in the barrel. This launched the 505-grain projectile on its arching path towards the opponents belt buckle. At the 250-yard point, the bullet would reach the apex of its arch, rising 48 inches above the line of aim on it’s path to the target. That means it would pass over the head of a man standing 50 yards in front of the target. Let’s say the shooter’s windage was off and he missed. The bullet would carry only another 50 yards behind the target before gravity pulled it to the ground. Correct range estimation was key to success and even a 50-yard error in judgment would cause a clean miss.
In January of 1862, the Union had an army of 527,000 infantrymen, and by the end of the war, that number exceeded 1 million. The United States government purchased 1,565,250 weapons of all types. When the war broke out, the Springfield Model 1855 percussion rifle was the standard weapon of the US Army. It was a .58-caliber rifled-musket with a unique Maynard priming system that didn’t use conventional percussion caps, although it could if necessary. In the Maynard system, the primers were bonded to a thin tape, coiled inside its lock that functioned in the same manner as a roll of paper caps in a child’s cap-gun. Only 7,000 of these were available at the outbreak of hostilities, and though an excellent weapon, it was thought that its complexity would be a hindrance in mass production.
The Springfield Armory made a simplified version using an ordinary percussion ignition system and thus the Model 1861 Springfield was born. It became the most widely used weapon of the Civil War, and the main weapon of the Union Army. Springfield Armory made 250,000 from 1861 to 1863, but another 450,000 were made by private contractors. Design changes to further simplify manufacturing resulted in the Model 1863 Springfield, of which 273,000 were made before yet another round of simplifications resulting in the Model 1863 type 2. Only 255,000 of these were made in 1864.
The U.S. government also bought 428,292 .577-caliber Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle-muskets and another 8,000 Short Sea Service Pattern1858 models from the British. The Pattern 1853 Enfield became the mainstay of the Confederacy and was the second most common weapon of the Civil War. The American market quickly became a dumping ground for Europe’s obsolete weapons as both sides scrambled to find enough small arms to equip their armies. The Confederates purchased four blockade-runners (seagoing steam-ships used to make their way through the Union water blockades) to facilitate their imports. The U.S. government had no impediments to importation and bought 453,500 old rifled-muskets of various types in addition to 100,000 smooth boremuskets.
Smoothbores saw considerable use at the start of the war on both sides. The state armories in the Confederacy only had about 160,000 weapons of the same type as the Union, including many Model 1842 percussion muskets. Even several years into the conflict, smoothbore muskets continued to be used, sometimes with buck-ball loads that combined a musket ball with several buckshot for devastating close-range effects.
The Union supplemented its rifled-muskets with small numbers of various innovative repeaters and single-shot breechloaders. The lever action Spencer and Henry rifles were the most famous and successful of the repeaters. It’s strange that the most iconic and advanced rifle of the Civil War, the Henry, was the one that held the least interest for the US government. Fewer than 1,800 were purchased, compared to 11,400 .52-caliber Spencer rifles and 94,196 carbines. Among breech-loaders, the standout was the robust and accurate Sharps arms. Nine thousand Sharps New Model 1859, 1863 and 1865 breech-loading rifles as well as 80,512 M1859 and M1863 carbines, were bought by the US government. The Sharps rifles were favored by Union sharpshooters for their accuracy and ability to reload while laying down. It might seem that the Union had gone carbine crazy when you consider that they also bought 55,567 .54-caliber breech-loading Burnside carbines (plus over 21,000,000 of their unique cartridges) in addition to 30,000 Smith, 25,000 Starr and 22,000 Gallagher breech-loading carbines. The fact was the Union had a lot of cavalry.
The Confederates found the utility of captured carbines limited, due to their varied calibers. In the case of Spencer and Henry repeaters, the South lacked the capacity to manufacture their special rimfire ammunition. Confederate cavalry made extensive use of short shotguns and later short rifled-muskets when they became available through capture, purchase or extremely limited manufacturing.
The Confederacy never developed a small arms industry of any consequence, but they were able to purchase weapons overseas and capture them in great numbers on the battlefield in 1861 and 1862. In the latter year alone, we know that 100,000 weapons were captured. It was helpful that the .58-caliber Minié ball of the Springfield and the .577 Minie ball of the Enfield were close enough that they could be used interchangeably. – ASJ
Posted in History, Miscellaneous Tagged with: 150th Anniversary, Civil War, Confederacy, Frank Jardim, Memphis Pink Palace Museum, Model 1857 Breech Loader, Model 1858 Revolver, Model 1860 Revolver, Model 1864 Burnside Breech Loader, Tamara Braithwaite, Union