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Home National National July 16, 1863 - The Spencer Repeating Rifle a Factor at Gettysburg

July 16, 1863 - The Spencer Repeating Rifle a Factor at Gettysburg

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spencerOn June 30, Confederate General JEB Stuart's cavalry was heading north in order to get around the Union Army of the Potomac when it encountered a Federal cavalry regiment.  The Rebels succeeded in pushing them through Hanover.  Union General Elon Farnsworth's brigade arrived and counterattacked, routing the Confederate vanguard and nearly capturing Stuart himself.

When Stuart counterattacked, General George A Custer's Michigan Brigade, armed with the Spencer Repeating Rifle, joined the fight and a stalemate ensued. But Stuart was forced further east to get around the Union cavalry, further delaying his return to the main body of the Army of Northern Virginia and depriving Lee of critical intelligence information. Stuart arrived at General Lee's headquarters shortly after noon on July 2, and his exhausted brigades arrived that evening, too late to affect the planning or execution of the second day's battle.

Lee's orders for Stuart were to prepare for operations on July 3 in support of the Confederate infantry assault against the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Stuart was to protect the Confederate left flank and attempt to move around the Union right flank and into the enemy's rear. If Stuart's forces could proceed south from the York Pike along the Low Dutch Road, they would soon reach the Baltimore Pike, which was the main avenue of communications for the Army of the Potomac, and they could launch devastating and demoralizing attacks against the Union rear, capitalizing on the confusion from the assault that Lee planned for the Union center.

Stationed near the intersection of the Hanover Road and the Low Dutch Road—directly on Stuart's path—was the division of Union Gen. David M Gregg, who was supplemented by the newly formed Custer's Michigan Brigade.  The mass of small arms fire that poured from Custer's forward unit completely disrupted Stuart's advance as the Confederates misinterpreted the size of the opposing force.  Armed with Spencer Repeating Rifles, the 5th Michigan detachment crept stealthily through a wheatfield as Rebel bullets whistled over their heads.  

The men then stood and fired.  Confederate officers ordered a counter strike before the troopers could reload but the Wolverines blasted them with a second volley, withered them with a third and sent them running with a fourth.   The failure of Stuart's cavalry to flank the Union right was instrumental in the failure of Pickett's charge and the outcome of the battle.

This unique weapon was the invention of Christopher Minor Spencer. Throughout the 1850’s, Christopher Spencer was an inventor and tinkerer.  While working for The Colt Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Connecticut, Spencer got interested in gun manufacturing.  He tinkered around with the idea of a single shot, magazine fed, repeating rifle which used a large metallic cartridge.  In 1860 Spencer applied for and received a U.S. patent for his Spencer Repeating Rifle. 

Raising capital and securing a manufacturing site in Boston, MA, Spencer began limited production of “his rifle”.  Expecting U.S. Government contracts to flood into his new business after the Confederacy was formed and war was a certainty, the 28 year old Christopher Spencer was greatly disappointed.  The U.S. Ordnance Department passed on the Spencer rifle in favor of time-tested and less expensive weapons.  In 1860 Spencer priced his rifle at $45.00. In comparison an 1861 Springfield muzzle loader was $14.00.

In 1861 the Navy Department placed an order with Spencer for nearly 1,200 rifles, but the army refrained to follow suit. Spencer decided to market his new rifle directly to Northern state governments.  The strategy worked and some governors made purchases of the rifle. Finally, after nearly two years of frustration with the War Department, Spencer secured an appointed to see President Lincoln himself in the spring of 1862 to promote his rifle and secure a contract with the War Department.  President Lincoln was impressed with Spencer and his new weapon after a personal shooting exhibition.  Since Spencer refused to sell to the Confederacy his weapon was available to the Confederates only by capture.

In February 1863, Governor Austin Blair of Michigan purchased 680 Spencer Repeating Rifles with state funds which were then issued to Colonel Russell Alger’s 5th Michigan Cavalry, which during the battle was in Brigadier General George A. Custer’s brigade.  Blair and Alger were close friends which accounts for why the 5th was the lucky recipient of these weapons.  Ordnance records of the 5th and 6th Regiments Michigan Cavalry, submitted a month after the Battle of Gettysburg, indicate these two regiments carried a total of 572 Spencer Repeating Rifles and 10,000 rounds of ammunition to the field. 

 

HIGHLIGHTS

 

February 5, 1864 - End of the War

Mr. Seward predicts that the war will be over in less than three months, and all the radical papers tell us that the rebellion is about suppressed–that the Southern Confederacy is tumbling to pieces. They daily represent, as they have done for two years past, that the people are starving, sick of war, disgusted with their rulers and ripe for revolt against them; that the army is suffering for all the necessaries of life, deficient in arms and munitions of war, and so “demoralized” and disaffected that it requires about one-half of the men to guard the rest and keep them from deserting; and that the spring campaign is sure to result in “cleaning out” the rebels and putting an end to the war. This has been the tenor of Republican representations for two years, and never have they talked more confidently in this strain than they do now. We wish it was true; we wish we could see the least ground for hope of peace at an early day. But we cannot, and the reason we cannot is because our rulers will not make peace upon any terms upon which it can be made. If the present dynasty is continued in power, the war will go on. The only chance for peace–the only means by which the people can relieve themselves from further sufferings and burthens consequent upon war, is by a change of rulers. To vote for the Republican party is to vote for perpetual war–for their policy can result in nothing else. The Troy Whig, a radical Republican paper, is more honest than its contemporaries in this State, for it tells the truth, while they suppress it. In a recent issue that paper says: “We are not lacking in faith that this rebellion is to perish, thoroughly, certainly; but we see no evidence, as yet, that it is to go by the board soon. In the Southwest daylight has been knocked through it, but only there. After all our efforts ad expenditures, the blockade is far from being perfect, rebel vessels notoriously entering with supplies from Europe, and going out again with cotton. The army of the Potomac is yet to win a great, decisive victory on rebel soil, and Lee’s forces are a great deal nearer Washington than ours are to Richmond. Though it has been frequently announced that ‘the backbone of the rebellion is broken,’ the public ‘don’t see it.’ “Looking at facts as they are–and it is only folly to blind ourselves to them–it is easy to foresee that the present call for men is not the least urgent one, by three or four, which may be made. The number of able bodied Northern men between the ages of 18 and 45, who can certainly promise themselves that they will not be actively engaged in the war before it is over, is not large. And the causes of exemption, reduced to a very few now, are likely to grow less. If we are wise, we shall endeavor to comprehend and act upon these facts, and put ourselves, in mind as well as substance, on a ‘war footing.’ ”  

 

January 1, 1864 - General Scott's View of the War

It is stated that Gen. Scott, in a recent conversation on the developments of the war, remarked that the fighting had only commenced, and that the real hard fighting was yet to take place. He also added that the Administration had fooled away nearly every golden opportunity, and thus, instead of ending the rebellion, as they could have done long since, have extended it to the distant future. Though both his parents died when he was young, Scott's inheritance was m odest. He studied for a short time at William and Mary College before undertaking the study of law in Petersburg. He practiced law and served in the army in the period prior to the War of 1812. With the outbreak of the War of 1812, Scott recruited a regiment and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He served on the northern front, and his bravery and energy brought him honors and promotion, as he was brevetted a major general. Owing to his prominence as a military leader as well as a potential Whig presidential candidate, Scott was made general-in-chief of the army in 1841. It was the Mexican War that brought Scott lasting renown. He was ordered to Mexico in November 1846. Obstructed by poorly equipped troops, limited reinforcements and supplies, desertions, and disease, Scott nevertheless undertook a successful five-mo nth campaign from Vera Cruz to Mexico City. But feuds generated by ambitious subordinate officers and, especially, the hostility of the Polk administration to further honoring a Whig general, led to Scott's recall and replacement. In addition, a court of inquiry was established to investigate Scott's actions in disciplining those disloyal officers. The charges against Scott were eventually dropped, and Congress voted him its thanks and a gold medal. In 1852, Congress passed a measure offering Scott the pay, rank, and emoluments of a lieutenant general, the first person to hold that office since G eorge Washington. That same year, he was the Whig party's unsuccessful candidate for President. As the secession crisis developed during the latter part of 1860, Scott pleaded unsuccessfully to President James Buchanan to reinforce the southern forts and armories against possible seizure. He brought his headquarters from New York to Washington, D.C., so that he could oversee the recruiting and training of the capital's defence. He personally commanded Abraham Lincoln's bodyguard at the inauguration. Scott was tasked with assembling an army to defeat the new Confederacy. He initially offered command of this force to Lee. His former comrade declined on April 18 when it became clear that Virginia was going to leave the Union. Though a Virginian himself, Scott never wavered in his loyalties. With Lee's refusal, Scott gave command of the Union Army to Brigadier General Irvin McDowell who was defeated at Bull Run on July 21. While many believed the war would be brief, it had been clear to Scott that it would be a protracted affair. As a result, he devised a long-term plan calling for a blockade of the Confederate coast coupled with the capture of the Mississippi River and key cities such as Atlanta.  Dubbed the "Anaconda Plan," it was widely derided by the Northern press. At seventy-five years old, Scott requested retirement, and in November 1861, he was retired.

 

December 18, 1863 - What Shall We Do with the Women?

I do not mean contrabands, but white women, aye, ladies, whom the circumstances of war have caused to drift up upon the sea of events and be stranded upon the bleak and barren shores of poverty. “What shall we do with them?” is no doubt the question put with anxiety to one another by our superiors. More especially must this query be raised at this time, just upon the edge of winter; and at this place, with us, when our force holds the picket gates and our offices grant “passes,” and now that our General, tired out by the ceaseless din of daily applicants for market privileges of coming to the camps, has shut them all down, and refused any one to bring articles for sale, this momentous query returns with greater force than ever. “Shall we keep them all on Government rations, and let the ‘commissary of subsistence’ feed some six or eight hundred in the two cities, that number no doubt to be greatly augmented?” This is one side of the question, and it gives me the chance of telling you of a number of cases where women have tried not to be reckoned among the weekly pensioners at the office of the commissary of subsistence in Portsmouth. I have in mind Mrs. H., of whose culinary skill I have told you before, a married woman aged 45, husband a prisoner somewhere, formerly in the Confederate army, grown up son on board one of the Union gunboats at Hampton, a girl and two little boys at home to be fed and clothed. She got a permit to come to the camps with a borrowed horse and cart, the cart laden with various market produce and a variety of nicely cooked dishes: chicken pie, beef pie, oysters, gingerbread, fried fish, &c., at various prices from five to twenty-five cents; her wares would be sold by the piece-measure or plateful, and long before sundown the entire cartful would be disposed of. The net profit to Mrs. H. of such a day’s traffic would not be less than eight to twelve dollars, and she came twice a week. She cannot come to camp now, yet she and her children must be fed by somebody. Also the old lady, Mrs. E., who came from our upper picket line with a sturdy Negro wench for a driver. It was she who brought those red apples which I told you of; and while she could also bring poultry and eggs, and sell three ordinary sized apples for ten cents (!) she would readily make from one to four dollars per day. She cannot do it now, yet herself and a blind sister, and the sable wench above-mentioned, are to be fed. Biddy O’G., too, the cheerful fishwoman; fresh spot-fish and sheep’s heads, every morning in season for breakfast; she could buy them at the wharves at fifty cents per hundred and readily sell them at more than double profit. Biddy is a “widder” with “four wee childer,” and with the characteristic independence of her race she does not want to ask bread and meat of the Government, yet now, when she can no longer bring her fish to camp, she must do it, for her children must not starve. Multiply the instances above noted by about one hundred, and you have the aggregate of what comes under our own notice in our own department; and when we consider that this district merely represents a tithe of the same perplexity, is not the question “what shall be done with them?” of solemn and momentous import? The question, here and now, and by our officers, is easily met. It is of the highest military importance that no possible chance of treachery should be left open; hence the wisdom of keeping all classes from passing the lines; therefore let all be kept at home, and such as are in need, be fed from the public stores. Thus much for the present solution of the question. Yet a thought of the future, with these impoverished communities, whole families living on public alms, children growing up in such wholesale beggary, is it not enough to make the lover of his country tremble and turn pale? Aye! Ten years hence, what shall we do with them then? This is one of the inside horrors of war, and like every other evil of the kind, must be calmly and prayerfully met.

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