Carbines and questions without answers – yet

I should first say that while I have been absent from my site for a couple months, I have not been taking a vacation. The new edition of Small but Important Riots is nearing completion and I hope to send the project to a publisher soon.

I also debated whether to put this post up or move on to another topic. Why? Well as the title suggests I am telling an incomplete story, and my inability to go into the National Archives and look for answers to several questions has been frustrating. But the answers may be out there, and I have missed them. If so, I hope a reader will help.

Finally, this is the last of the series of Second Manassas related posts.

The army had five mounted regiments in service at the outbreak of the war and an inventory of just 4,076 carbines and 27,192 revolvers. Firearms could not be produced fast enough to meet demand, as volunteers poured into the ranks. In the first year of the war, most regiments received but ten carbines per company. Put another way, fewer than 10% of the men carried a carbine. On December 18, 1861, Gen. George Stoneman, then George McClellan’s Chief of Cavalry, confirmed the policy, stating, “it was thought that for volunteer cavalry it would not be wise to put too many arms in the hands of inexperienced men.” Too many arms meaning a carbine, pistol, and saber. Stoneman concluded his statement by noting, “I have made it a rule to withhold pistols from regiments which are armed with carbines.”

Inventors answered the call for new weapons and factories sprang up to mass-produce carbines. But the growing ranks of eager young horsemen continued to overwhelm the army’s ability to equip them. As early as November 1861, Gen. George McClellan asked that “no more cavalry regiments be authorized in any part of the country. Those already authorized cannot be armed and equipped for several months…”

Questions including the need for cavalry, the role cavalry would play in the war, as well as the great expense of raising, equipping, and maintaining a mounted force became matters of debate. The army disbanded some regiments, while politicians presented bills seeking to limit the mounted arm to as few as 20 cavalry regiments.

Several battlefield victories in the spring of 1862 led to renewed hopes of a short war and convinced Union authorities to close recruiting stations. Then came the reverses on the Peninsula, at Second Manassas, and elsewhere, and the War Department quickly scrambled to re-open recruiting stations. Soon young men poured back into the cavalry and new regiments began reaching the army. And with them came the need for more weapons, even as ordnance officers watched stocks of weapons in arsenals across the Union dwindle.

A series of telegrams sent out by Gen. James Ripley, commanding the Ordnance Department, concerning carbine availability suggest several intriguing questions.

On May 19, Ripley begins querying carbine producers with short, direct telegrams, such as the following to the Merrill, Thomas & Co, producer of the Merrill Carbine – “Please report how many carbines you can deliver and when? 450 are wanted immediately.” Ripley’s telegram to Mr. T. Poultney, manufacturer of the Smith Carbine, read, “How many Smith carbines have you on hand, and what’s the lowest price you will take for them delivered immediately?” To the head of the Amoskeag Company in New Hampshire, producer of Lindner Carbine, Ripley asked, “Can you deliver 450 of Lindner’s carbines at once? At what price?”

A couple of days later the general asked his contact at the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company, “When can you begin to deliver carbines again, and how many will you have to deliver weekly?” He asked an agent for the Burnside Rifle Company, “When can you deliver 500 carbines and how many can you deliver before June 30?” He also went back to the men at Merrill, Thomas, asking, “Have any of your arms been [recently] inspected…?  How many can you deliver weekly, if inspected?” And he checked with the officers at his arsenals, as he did with an officer in Pennsylvania, asking, “How many Gallagher carbines have you on hand and how many will you have ready on Monday next?”

So, was Ripley simply taking inventory and touching base with his contacts, responding to questions from his superiors, or do his queries suggest a turning point for the mounted arm? Well, his response to Gen. John Dix of May 24, helps, as he told Dix, “I regret to say that this Department has no carbines fit for service.” He then told the officer at the arsenal in Pennsylvania, “Retain all the Gallagher carbines you have got or can get until you hear from me.” He also told an officer at the Watervliet Arsenal in New York to “Take immediate measures to inspect 1500 carbines at Massachusetts Arms Company, Chicopee Falls with all dispatch.  Send 4-5 inspectors there at once…” In other words, stocks were short, and factories could not produce new weapons fast enough.

Then, on May 27, a lieutenant at Fort Monroe told Ripley, “General McClellan has telegraphed to be sent as soon as possible 2000 cavalry carbines with accoutrements complete and ammunition for same.”  To which Ripley replied, “This Dept has no cavalry carbines to send you at present.” The active part of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign had begun just three weeks earlier, but except for the fight at Williamsburg earlier in the month, as well as the engagement that very day at Hanover Court House, the cavalry rather than the infantry had played the lead role. McClellan had misjudged the role to be played by his cavalry and he appears to have been looking to correct his mistake.

Ripley’s urgent telegrams continued. On May 31, he told an officer in New York, “If you have any carbines of any description send them at once by Express to Washington Arsenal with accoutrements and ammunition.” And to an officer at the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts, he instructed, “Go at once to Chicopee Falls and report…how fast Smith’s Carbines are being [put up] and shipped and urge them…we want the arms very much.” And not just carbines but revolvers as well, as evidenced by his message to an officer in New York to send “by express all the Remington pistols you have on hand” to Washington. Such inquiries continued with some regularity through June and July but without the urgency or volume of the flurry in May. Then came August.

In addition to carbines and revolvers, Ripley’s telegrams also show a need for horse equipments, such as saddles, bridles, and other leather work. On August 5, he told a colonel at the Pittsburgh Arsenal to “Push work on horse equipments…with all the force you can employ.” Writing to an officer at the Watervliet Arsenal in New York the next day, he asked, “What facilities have you for making up horse equipment… how many men can you employ on such work?”

Then Ripley returned to the production and supply of carbines. On August 9, he asked an officer at the Springfield Armory about the 9,000 weapons under contract and told him to ship them as soon as possible and to “work Sundays if necessary.” The next day he began questioning officials at the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company as to how many carbines they had sent to the army in the last several weeks. On August 12 he sent messages to most every company producing carbines, asking “How many carbines have you now ready for delivery under your contract and how many additional can you deliver…?” With draft depots having reopened, he told an official at Sharps “that persons employed in factories making arms for the government will be exempted from the draft.” He also urged an inspector at one of the factories to “Have all the carbines that are ready inspected and send to the Washington Arsenal with the least possible delay.  Report…as fast as shipments are made from the different factories.” Sharps had shipped 1000 carbines in the first week of August, but new regiments snapped up the weapons faster than they could be produced.

And then the messages stop. Had the need been met? What events had precipitated Ripley’s urgent messages in May and August? Answers lie somewhere in the Ordnance files. Someone, Lincoln, Stanton, Halleck, McClellan, Pope, or another army commander may have routinely questioned General Ripley about carbine supply. His queries may have been spurred simply by the vast number of men entering the mounted service. Maybe, someone had finally recognized that horse-soldiers would play more of a role on the battlefield than simply carrying messages. Or he may simply have been gathering information for his fiscal year reports presented at the end of June or reports he issued in late-November.

General Ripley purchased more than 40,000 carbines in 1862, 20,000 pistols, nearly 200,000 sabers, and about 200,000 sets of either horse equipments or cavalry accouterments. He had purchased more than 31,000 carbines from eight American companies and another 11,000 from foreign manufacturers, and all but 2,184 had been issued to men in the field. He also counted 86 mounted regiments in service with nearly 72,000 men in the saddle. An additional 37 odd companies tallied another 3,000 men. Of 28 mounted regiments attached to the Army of the Potomac surveyed for the last quarter of 1862, five regiments counted 400 or more carbines, or about 33 per company – a significant increase from the ten doled out earlier in the year. Twelve regiments counted fewer than 200 carbines scattered among the men, while two regiments may not have carried any.


Documents from the National Archives

The Official Records

John McAulay – Carbines of the U.S. Cavalry 1861-1865

4 thoughts on “Carbines and questions without answers – yet

  1. Would be interesting to see just how the number of carbines were allocated to individual regiments (were battle tested favored over green?) and within the regiments’ companies.
    Great news about the book. Maybe that will kickstart my project.


  2. Thanks Larry,

    The regimental ordnance surveys begin with the last quarter of 1862, so comparing the first numbers available to early 1862 is difficult. The actual dates each company reported their numbers also affects the accuracy of the numbers, as the dates vary by wide margins in some cases. I believe the regiments showing the large numbers of carbines in the first survey are all or mostly all veteran regiments. For example, the 1st PA had 473 Sharps, with a per company average of 43. The 8th Ill carried 481 Sharps or about 48 per company. The 1st Maine, which had few if any carbines in August reported a 127 in the first survey in 8 companies or about 15 per company


  3. Lt. William Parnell, later to be Lt. Col. Parnell, reported that his regiment, the 4th NY Volunteer Cavalry was “fully equipped and mounted” when they crossed the Long Bridge into Alexandria, Va. in October of 1861. I’ve often wondered whether Parnell meant “fully equipped” to include “fully armed”? After reading your post on the shortage of carbines and other armaments in the early years of the war I believe I can now answer that question: it was very unlikely the 4th NY was fully armed when they crossed into Va. in 1861. It would seem with the information you provided the 4th NY would have been fortunate to have been armed with swords, much less carbines or pistols.
    In your post, you mentioned the Massachusetts Arms Co. manufactured carbines during the war in Chicopee Falls. Just down river from the company was the Ames Manufacturing Co. in Chicopee Ma., famous for their “Chicopee Sword” that was used by Union Cavalry regiments during the war.
    I enjoy your articles and look forward to reading your book.
    Bob Moran


    • Bob,

      My notes from the Quarterly Returns, last quarter of 1862 and the first time the information was collected, show just 19 Merrill carbines in the regiment. By contrast, the 10th NY shows 138 Smith carbines, and the 2nd, 6th, 8th and 9th NY all show more than 300 carbines per regiment.
      Best for the New Year to you


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