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of the
Civil War

Appropriately called "the first modern war" in history, the American Civil War was marked by staggering casualties on both sides. Over 620,000 Americans died in the war, with disease killing twice as many as those lost in battle. 50,000 survivors returned home as amputees. The losses sustained during this war currently exceed the total of all American casualties in all other wars combined. Just the first major battle, Shiloh, exceeded the number of losses for America in all other wars up to April 1862.

Historians generally agree that the reason for this was because this was a time of transition for the military. Armies and Navies were still using tactics which dictated massing forces together in large formations in order to bring the greatest possible firepower to bear on an enemy. At the same time, weapons were being developed which were accurate and lethal well beyond any arms of the earlier conflicts. As a result of these two conditions many more casualties were sustained. Add to that the lack of medical knowledge of disease and infection and the numbers truly began to grow.

Neither side was really prepared for war. Up until the opening of hostilities, the U.S. Army consisted of less than 17,000 regular troops, mainly dedicated to garrisoning the coastal fortifications and protecting western settlements against Indian attack. After Ft. Sumter was attacked the call went out from both governments for volunteers to fill out the ranks of an army which did not yet exist, and most of these "soldiers" were only signed on for 90 days. Bull Run (or 1st Manassas) occurred due to political and social pressures to end the war quickly (both sides thought it would be a short war) and was fought by green troops who had received little, if any, military training. As a matter of fact, it was not until early 1862 that President Lincoln issued the order placing the Union Army on the offensive that the war truly got underway. As for the South, theirs was primarily a defensive strategy except for two campaigns which took their Armies north. They believed that all they had to do was wait and the people of the North would grow tired of the war and sue for peace -- an idea which almost proved fact but for the fortuitous victories by the Yankees at key times (Gettysburg, Vicksburg & Atlanta).

Military developments during the American Civil War included: rifled muskets, breach loaders, cartridge rounds, repeating rifles, gatling guns, rifled cannon, ironclad ships, balloons, submarines ... and the list goes on. The odds were certainly against the soldier during this conflict.

Listed below are some of the artillery and small arms used during the war. This list is by no means all inclusive...that would almost be impossible since arms ranged from shotguns to repeating rifles and "machine guns" (gatling type weapons), swords to grapeshot, wooden side paddlers to iron plated bemoths. Rather, I will attempt to list some of the more common (and a few of the unusual) weapons which played a part in the battlefields fought over so many years ago.

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Colt Army RevolverThe Colt Army Model 1860 was a streamlined version of the earlier 1848 dragoon (used in the Mexican War). It became the most popular sidearm in the Union army (the Colt Navy Model 1861 .36 calibre was preferred in the South) and was renowned for its interchangeability of parts. The Colt Model 1860 was a .44 calibre six shot weapon which weighed 2 lbs 11 ounces. At $13.75, the Colt Army Revolver was much more expensive than those made by Remington or Starr. Government orders ceased in November 1863.

Starr RevolverThe Starr Revolver was a .44 calibre, six-shot, double action weapon weighing in at almost 3 lbs. It fired a combustible cartridge, but could also be loaded with loose powder and ball. Initially the double action Starr was used by Union soldiers in the western theater of the Civil War, but in 1863 the US Ordinance Dept urged the Starr Arms Co. to replace the double action revolver with a cheaper, single action model. Starr complied and sold the Union 25,000 weapons at $12 each.

Savage .36 cal PistolThis very unique military revolver was especially produced for Civil War use. It was designed from the pre-war Savage "figure eight" revolver. Instead of being thumb cocked, the middle finger of the hand was used to draw back the lever and then push it forward which cocked the hammer and rotated the cylinder. Approximately 12,000 of the 20,000 made were sold to the U.S. government early in the war and although in .36 Caliber (.44 was the desired standard of the U.S. army) it was issued to Cavalry Troopers in the Western Theater, mostly but not exclusively to Missouri troopers. The remaining 8,000 saw service as private-purchase weapons by officers. As this was an early war production weapon, there is some evidence that quite a few were smuggled South and used in the Central Confederacy. As always, Confederate officers and Cavalry, chronically short of handguns, made use of all the captured guns they could obtain, regardless of make or appearance. However, it was mechanically reliable, not prone to excessive fouling, and was durable.
(Photo & caption courtesy of Al Sumrall)

Le Mat PistolThe Le Mat Revolver was the most famous foreign pistol in service during the Civil War. It was invented by a French-born New Orleans doctor in 1856. The 'cap and ball' weapon is unique in that it has two barrels. A cylinder which held nine .40 calibre rounds fired through the upper barrel and revolved around the lower .63 calibre barrel which held a charge of buck-shot. By merely flicking his thumb, the shooter could re-align the hammer to fall on the lower barrel which acted as a small shotgun -- deadly at close range. Dr (or sometimes colonel) Jean Alexander Francois Le Mat produced about 300 of his weapon in New Orleans prior to the outbreak of the war. The weapons were noted as reliable and became well liked, so when the war began, Le Mat moved to France to set up mass production for the Confederacy. The French made (manufactured by G. Girard & Co) revolvers, however, were found to be of poor quality, whole lots the pistol were condemned as unserviceable by Southern buyers in Europe. Le Mat moved his production and contracted through Belgian and English companies. As many as 3,000 of the pistol eventually found their way to the South. The handgun came with either a 18 or 20-guage shot barrel and one version could be fitted with a full length barrel. The Le Mat was carried by such famous Southern Generals as P.G.T. Beauregard and J.E.B. Stuart.

Springfield RifleThe Model 1861 Springfield Musket was the most widely used shoulder arm of the Civil war and saw service in every major battle. It was made in the North at a cost of $15 to $20 to the federal government at the Springfield Armory in Mass. as well as 32 other private manufacturers and was a very modern weapon for its time. Its rifled bore, interchangeable parts and percussion cap ignition system incorporated the major innovations of the prewar years into an accurate, dependable rifle. It weighed in at 9.25 lbs, was 58.5 inches overall, came with a triangular 21 inch socket bayonet and fired a .58 calibre conical minie ball at a muzzle velocity of 950 ft/sec. A later "improved" 1863 model was also produced, but the 1861 remained the basic combat weapon of the war.

Enfield RifleThe rifled muskets generally referred to as Enfields got their name from the British government's Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield, England. An Enfield had a bore diameter of .577 inches and weighed 9 lbs 3 ounces with bayonet. It fired a bullet similar to the minie ball and was very accurate at 800 yards and fairly accurate at 1,100 yards. Although called Enfields, they were not made in Enfield since the British government, as owner of the factory, was sensitive about maintaining neutrality and could never sanction such sales to either North or South. Instead, the rifled muskets used in the Civil War were made in England by private contractors in London and Birmingham. A few other models, primarily two-banded rifled equipped with a sword bayonet were also imported from England. Each side imported approximately 400,000 of these weapons during the course of the war -- making them second only to the Springfield in popularity.

Whitworth RifleThe Whitworth rifle shown here was of British manufacture and was used primarily by the Confederate army. It was a muzzle-loading weapon with a 33 inch barrel (49 inches overall) and a .451 inch bore. What made this rifle so popular in the South was it's remarkable accuracy. It's long range precision was the best of all weapons used in the war. When the telescopic sight was used, the rifle had an effective range of about 1,800 yards. This rifle, as with the cannon which the English company also made, had a hexagonal bore which required a hexagonal bullet. Both sides called this bullet a "bolt". In fact, it was a six-sided bolt from a Rebel sharpshooter that killed Union General "Uncle John" Sedgwick during the fighting at Spotsylvania Court House just after he had remarked to a frightened soldier that Confederate sharpshooters could not hit an elephant.

Lorenz Rifle The Austrian Model 1854 rifle-musket was imported in large numbers during the Civil War. The South received approximately 100,000 in .54 caliber, mostly with fixed sights, from early 1862 through 1863. They were apparently purchased from existing Austrian stocks as the Austrian government was converting from black powder to gun cotton and found these rifle muskets surplus to their needs. The type was primarily used by the Army of Tennessee and by other units in the Central and Trans-Mississippi theaters. The Lorenz was often referred to as "Enfields" as some had blued metal parts however most were natural metal without finish. This weapon was very serviceable and saw considerable use. It was the second only to the P1853 Enfield (400,000) as the most used Confederate type but it never has seen the recognition of the Enfield. The Confederates would issue ammunition for this weapon that could also fire in the Confederate "Mississippi" rifles.

The North imported 225,000 of these rifle-muskets, mainly to pre-empt additional purchases as the Confederates had approached the Austrians first, most with long-range adjustable sights. However, as they proved well made and reliable they were issued in 1863-64 to over one hundred federal regiments. The North used the Lorenz in .54 caliber but some were re-bored to .58 so that they could utilize standard .58 cal. ammunition. Many of the Lorenz's shipped to the United States for the federals were newly manufactured in 1861, 1862, and 1863 and like all Lorenz's were dated with a three digit number on the side plate, 861, 862, 863. A quadrangular socket bayonet was used with both the Federal and Confederate Lorenz.

The Lorenz was somewhat shorter and lighter than the Springfield or Enfield but was longer than the two-band Enfield and the Mississippi-style rifles. It is one of the most undeservedly ignored rifles of the period. The rifle-musket photographed for this page is dated 1858, "858".

(Photo & caption courtesy of Al Sumrall)

Benchrest Rifles and Telescopic Sights

.45 Henry RifleWith the development of more modern weapons came the advent of the sharpshooter or sniper. Now armed with a rifle which could fire a round accurately up to 1,800 yards long range riflemen became a real threat. Benchrest rifles, the sniper rifle of the Civil War, were so named because they were so heavy that they were easiest to fire with the barrel resting on a bench or other support. Prior to the war, these specialty muzzle-loaded rifles had been owned primarily by target shooters and sport hunters. With an average length of about 50 inches, a benchrest rifle weighed up to 40 pounds, making it an impractical choice for standard infantry duty. The very tight fit of the bullet and the bore needed for range and accuracy made the weapon very slow to load and put the user at a disadvantage on the battlefield.

Benchrest Rifle w/ ScopeIn 1848 Morgan James of Utica, N.Y. invented the long-tube telescopic sight that would be used by Civil War marksmen just 13 years later. Priced at about $20, these telescopes were no more than four power. But in the hands of a skilled soldier with a sharp wit and keen eye, these devices offered sufficient magnification for aiming a rifle with deadly, long-distance accuracy.

The long-tube sight mounted on a heavy benchrest rifle gave the marksman who was selected to carry it prestige among his fellow soldiers. The sharpshooter thus armed was considered an independent character, used only for special service, with the privilege of going to any part of the line where in his own judgement he could do the most good. The weapon indicated that the man carrying it was among the most trusted soldiers and best shots.

Some of the prewar American-made benchrest rifles found their way into the Confederate army, however the preferred weapon of the Southern sharpshooter was the Whitworth rifle imported from England. Shortly after the Civil War, the army replaced these ponderous weapons and their long telescopic sights with more modern, faster-firing rifles, and the benchrest was no longer used by the military.

Spencer RifleSpencer rifles contributed substantially to the ultimate success of the Union. The weapon used an all metallic cartridge with a built in primer, by itself a great advancement. Additionally, the magazine on the Spencers allowed soldiers rapid fire by means of moving a lever and cocking the trigger. This allowed Northern troops to fire about 14 rounds per minute to the 3 rounds per minute allowed by a muzzle-loader. The South was unable to use any captured Spencers due to the lack of available ammunition. About 200,000 Spencer rifles and carbines were sold to the Federals during the course of the war but a large quantity of those never saw service (Burnsides and Model 1865 Spencers, roughly 60,000 of which were produced in 1865 and never saw action.)

Colt Repeating RifleThe Colt repeating rifle (Colt-Root Model 1855 percussion repeating rifle) was a large version of the Colt revolver, but it never operated as well nor became as popular. It was initially produced in 1855 and came in calibres ranging from .40 to .64. It fired a conical bullet that came with a paper cartridge attached which had to be firmly seated into its cylinder by means of a lever-action ramrod. Cylinders came in five and six shot models and all rounds could be fired as quickly as the soldier could cock the hammer and pull the trigger. During the Civil War the War Dept purchased only 4,712 weapons -- a relatively small number. Though the rifle could be fired rapidly, it was much slower to load than other breech-loading weapons and it had the unfortunate tendency to fire all of its cylinders at one time, often removing fingers from the rifleman's forward hand. Although a few Southern units were equipped with this weapon at the beginning of the war, it is best remembered for its use by Union troops. The first weapon issued to Berdan's Sharpshooters were Colt Repeaters, but were soon replaced with Sharps rifles.

Starr CarbineThe Starr carbine rifle, equipped with a 21 inch, .54 calibre barrel, was the 4th most popular rifle used by the Union soldiers. It incorporated many features from the Sharps, Smith and Burnside rifles, but its most remarkable feature was its zero misfire rate and its high degree of accuracy.

CarbinesCarbines, such as this Sharps New Model 1859, were developed primarily for mounted troops since with their shorter barrel they were much easier to handle on horseback than their longer brethren. Breech loaders were preferred because they could be loaded on a moving horse -- something virtually impossible with a muzzle-loader. Additionally, breech-loading carbines which fired moisture-proof metallic cartridges were more reliable than rifles that fired paper cartridges. At the beginning of the war, Southern cavalry was as well armed as its Northern counterpart, if not better. Carbines were in short supply in both armies. The rebels favorite weapon was a sawed-off shotgun loaded with buckshot, a formidable weapon throughout the war. As the war progressed, the Union outstripped the South in production and by 1864/65, well-led divisions of experienced Yankee horse soldiers, armed with rapid-firing Spencer carbines were using their superior firepower to great advantage in the closing campaigns.

Henry RifleRepeating rifles had been invented prior to the beginning of hostilities, but the US Army's Ordinance Dept dismissed the new inventions because it was thought that troops would waste ammunition and the operating mechanisms might be a maintenance problem. Instead, the Ordinance Dept put its faith in the single-shot muzzle-loading rifled musket -- with which a good soldier could fire 3 rounds a minute. It was not until late 1863 that many federal soldiers received army issued repeating rifles...and then only the cavalry, not the infantry got the new weapons. Repeaters, such as this Henry rifle, were breech-loading and fired a metallic cartridges. The bullets were loaded into tubular magazines that fed them into the breech, operated by a lever mechanism. A soldier with a repeater could fire 14 rounds to the 3 rounds a minute a soldier with a muzzle-loader was capable of.

SabreAlthough the American Civil War saw the development of modern weapons such as breech-loaders, repeating rifles and machine guns primitive edged weapons were still wielded with deadly effect on the battlefield. The most widely used of these weapons was the sword, which was present in many different styles. Only in the cavalry, and generally at the beginning of the war, were swords used regularly to their full potential. Sabres became marks of rank and in the later years were abandoned in favor of more efficient weapons. Sabre charges had little chance of success in the last years of the war against veteran soldiers armed with modern weapons fighting from concealed positions. Col Mosby once remarked that the only real use for a sword was to hold a piece of meat over a fire for frying.

Williams Rapid Fire GunThe first machine-gun type weapon ever used in combat was built for the Confederate War Dept in Sept 1861. The Williams breech-loading rapid-fire gun was first used at the Battle of Seven Pines and worked so well that the War Dept ordered 42 more of them. The gun was actually a crank-operated, very light artillery piece that fired a one-pound (1.57 calibre) projectile with a range of 2,000 yards. It was operated by a crew of three and could fire at a rate of 65 rounds per minute. One operator aimed and fired the weapon by turning the crank, the second placed a paper cartridge into the breech, and the third placed the percussion cap. The major problem with this gun was overheating, which made the breech jam due to heat expansion.

Billinghurst-Requa BatteryAs many as 50 of the .52 calibre breech-loading Billinghurst-Requa batteries, as they were called, were produced for the Union. Some were used in battles, though with limited effect. This gun used a light carriage to mount 25 rifled barrels side by side. When loaded and primed, the gun was set off by use of a lanyard -- firing the barrels in sequence with a rippling sound. Several different types of rapid-firing weapons were designed and produced during the war, although few saw much actual service.

Chevaux-de-frise While this is more of a fortification than a weapon, these devices took their toll of life on the battlefield. The Chevaux-de-frise pictured here consisted of 10 to 12 foot logs to which were attached sharpened wooden stakes. These were commonly used in defense of a fortified position, 50 or 100 feet to the front. Designed to be used more as a barrier than an actual defense, much as the barbed wire of the world wars and our concertina of today, their purpose was to hold off or slow down an attacking enemy so the defending infantry could deal with him more effectively. Occasionally these devices claimed the lives of the unlucky or unwary.