Questions Concerning Weapons and Ammunition in the Gettysburg Campaign – Part 1

To repeat my disclaimer from July, I am not looking to reach any definitive conclusions in this discussion. Rather, I want to look at some documents from the Gettysburg Campaign, as well as the weeks preceding the campaign, and see what we might learn from them, if anything. I love these kinds of details but using the information to draw useful conclusions can be frustrating.

Readers might also wish to look back at the posts I presented in 2016 regarding the Union cavalry’s experiment in the spring of 1863, using mules in place of wagons on the Stoneman Raid. Following the raid, quartermasters like Rufus Ingalls and Charles Sawtelle, saw the experiment as a failure, in part because of the massive quantity of ammunition destroyed by rain at the outset of the raid. You can find those posts here and here.

I mention those posts because I want to begin this account a week after the raiders returned to Union lines. On May 14, an official at the Washington Arsenal told the ordnance officer for the 2nd Cavalry Division that he had just sent him 460 Sharps and Burnside carbines. We might assume, based on the timing, that the weapons represent replacements for carbines lost or damaged on the raid.

William Averell commanded the 2nd Division and his lack of aggression and initiative during the raid had infuriated army commander Joseph Hooker. Averell had set out with his two brigades of seven regiments, supplemented by four regiments from Alfred Pleasonton’s 1st Division. The men from Pleasonton’s division, the four regiments led by Col. Benjamin ‘Grimes’ Davis, had crossed the river at the outset of the raid before heavy rain brought the entire effort to a disheartening standstill. There had been some light skirmishing with Southern pickets as Davis’s men forced the crossing on April 14, but the accounts do not suggest any combat on a large scale. Still, Jeb Stuart sought to destroy a small rear guard from the 3rd Indiana, after the main body of the brigade had re-crossed the river the following day. Col. Richard Beale, 9th Virginia, reported capturing ten men and one officer, along with ten horses, ten carbines and seven pistols in the affair. The historian of the 3rd Indiana identified 19 men captured, which might correspond to 19 carbines and sets of horse equipment.

Then, over the next two weeks, while Stoneman waited for the rains to cease and the flooded river to subside, Davis stayed particularly active in counter-guerrilla operations but saw no heavy combat in which one might expect many weapons to have been damaged or lost. Once the raid resumed, Averell did little to further Hooker’s overall plan and the commanding general ordered him to rejoin the army and relieved him on May 4. Beyond the carbines lost on April 15, others in small numbers may have been lost in the several skirmishes, or otherwise, but nothing suggests the division lost 460 carbines during the raid.

Another explanation may be found in the ordnance returns for the second quarter. Reading the reports, one might assume that sergeants or company officers dutifully counted the weapons in their companies on June 30, 1863, and then reported the information up the chain of command to the Ordnance Department. But a close reading of the ledger books suggests a less definitive system. Struggling to read the very fine print and considering that the Cavalry Corps was rather active on June 30, the reader sees reporting or recording dates from months later in many cases. Still, the majority of the 460 carbines may have been new weapons sent to the division to bolster the total number of men carrying carbines rather than to replace lost weapons. Such a conclusion seems reasonable, but is it?

A quick comparison between the first and second quarter returns reveals the following: the 1st Massachusetts gained 101 Sharps between the end of March and the end of June. The 4th New York gained 153, and the 6th Ohio gained six, while the 1st Rhode Island lost 100. The 3rd Pennsylvania gained 103, and the 4th Pennsylvania four. The 16th Pennsylvania, which reported 407 Sharps carbines at the end of March, counted just 272 at the end of June.

During the same period, regiments in other divisions showed similar gains and losses. The 8th New York reported 429 fewer Sharps carbines at the end of June compared with the March report. The 8th Illinois lost 91, the 3rd Indiana lost 66, and the 9th New York lost 98, though I believe the New Yorkers still carried the Sharps & Hankins, in addition to the more famous Sharps carbine. In a report from February 1863, General Pleasonton had tabulated the regiment’s carbine allotment as 224 Sharps & Hankins, 146 Sharps, and 87 Smiths. The quarterly return shows 283 Sharps and 73 Smith carbines in the regiment but no Sharps & Hankins – a weapon Pleasonton liked, in no small measure because it fired a metallic cartridge. Had the regiment gotten rid of the Sharps & Hankins or did a clerk looking to squeeze information into a small space just combine the two under the name Sharps? Other regiments also showed a drop in numbers of the popular Sharps, including the 1st Maine, 1st Maryland, and 2nd, and 6th New York. Likewise, the 1st, 2nd, and 6th U.S. all showed fewer of the weapons and the 5th U.S. had only gained three.

The May 14 communication also mentions an unknown number of Burnside carbines as part of the 460 weapons shipped. The 12th Illinois, which reported no carbines at the end of March, showed 86 Burnsides at the end of June. The 3rd Indiana reported 137 Burnsides in March but none in June. The 1st Maine reported 54 fewer Burnsides for the same period. Only the 6th Ohio shows a significant gain of this weapon, going from none reported in March to 165 in June.

Where did the 460 carbines go? Can we reach any other safe conclusions? Probably not, as the second quarter included significant combat, including Brandy Station, Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville, during which considerable numbers of weapons had been lost or damaged. The 1st Massachusetts lost at least 179 men killed, wounded, or captured at Aldie, and I think we can safely assume they also lost nearly as many carbines, yet the regiment shows an overall gain of 100 weapons just two weeks later. Likewise, the 1st Rhode Island lost at least 229 men in the fighting on June 17 and 18 and shows an understandable loss of 100 weapons in the June 30 report.

We should not assume, however, that every man in a particular regiment had been issued a carbine by mid-1863. On average, maybe 10 or 20 men per company carried a carbine, but such a dispersal further confuses any attempt to draw accurate conclusions regarding the May 14 telegram and the quarterly returns. Also, the corps had been reorganized a couple times during the same period, with regiments being moved between brigades and the divisions consolidated and then expanded.

On May 16, two days after the carbines had been shipped, Gen. David Gregg asked an officer at the arsenal to send 14,000 rounds of Smith carbine cartridges to his 3rd Division. I believe the evidence I presented in the earlier posts, confirms that most of the ammunition that had been damaged by rain, flooded rivers, and the pack mule experiment had been replaced prior to the corps finally crossing the Rappahannock River on April 29. If so, can we assume the requisition reflects rounds fired, damaged, or lost during the actual raid?

According to the quarterly returns, of the six regiments in the division, only the 10th New York carried the Smith carbine, with 85 reported at the end of March and 93 at the end of June. Thus, I think we are on safe ground concluding that the May 16 requisition refers to the 10th New York, but even using the 93 Smith carbines reported on the June 30 report (and no other make of carbine is reported for either period), each of those 93 men would have had to expend 150 rounds during the raid or in the week between their return and Gregg’s request.

The regimental historian reports brisk skirmishing near Louis Court House on May 2, and possibly the following day, but no other fighting is reported. However, the unit history includes an account that may more accurately explain the need for the 14,000 rounds.

In his brief description of the events on May 3, Capt. Benjamin Lownsbury describes how a drunken trooper from another regiment stampeded a squadron of the 10th New York, along with detachments from the 1st Maine and 2nd New York. “All the good things the boys had collected at and around Louisa Court House were scattered along the road to accelerate the speed of the horses. The useful and the ornamental, the necessities and the luxuries, were thrown to the winds… For nearly two miles the road was strewn with cooking utensils, provisions, and clothing. It was as if a store-house had been struck by a cyclone.” Had the men thrown away their ammunition, along with the other items described by Captain Lownsbury? Maybe, but 150 rounds per man is a lot of ammunition to carry on one’s person. Might there be another explanation to consider?

In mid-February, a captain in the 9th New York had complained about the ammunition for the Smith carbine. “I…report to you that I have in my possession and have armed part of the men of my company with Smith carbines … the cartridges for said arms are a rubber case filled with powder and having at the base a small hole communicating with [tube] of the piece.  The powder contained in the case leaks out through the hole in the base to such an extent that many of the cartridges are not more than half filled when issued to us and in consequence the arm fails to discharge when cap is exploded.… On Sept. 2, 1862 … while acting as rearguard I was attacked by Rebel cavalry my men armed their carbines and snapped them when only one of fifteen discharged and I have reason to think that the two men killed on that occasion was because of the failure of the carbine.” He also described an instance on February 9, 1863, when “a reconnoitering party… of our regt with [whom five men of my company were acting as] advance guard were attacked.  Only one of the carbines would discharge and they were in consequence driven in on the reserve.”

Nine days later, Gen. James Ripley, head of the Ordnance Department, told a subordinate, “If the defects in the Smith carbines are such as not to impair their serviceability you can receive them at a reduced price.” Though the timing is curious, I do not believe Ripley is referring to the officer’s complaint regarding the ammunition. Rather, I believe the employee had inspected a shipment of new Smith carbines, reported a defect, and been told to accept them, if he could negotiate a reduced price.

The Smith accepted two types of cartridges, the India rubber version the officer complains of above, and a brass foil and flammable paper version. The rubber version, advertised as being reloadable, did come with a small hole to allow the percussion cap to ignite the powder. In his book, Civil War Carbines, Myth vs Reality, Peter Schiffers describes his original ammunition as being “in perfect condition, none having escaped over the last 140 years.” But how had the ammunition been treated over those many years? Had it been subjected to the constant jostling of a long campaign or kept secure in a box on a shelf? If the men of the 10th New York had found the problems reported by the officer in the 9th New York, Gregg may have authorized them to dispose of the ammunition and requested a fresh shipment. So, what can we conclude from Gregg’s request for 14,000 rounds? Probably nothing.

As evidence of a more pressing problem, General Ripley told an officer in Tennessee on June 2, “Have no Sharps carbines but will send 500 Burnside carbines.” In other words, on the day before the Gettysburg Campaign began, the rapidly expanding Union cavalry force, to include all theaters, as well as the units being raised in response to Indian conflicts, had emptied the arsenals of the most popular and, at the time, arguably the best carbine in production. Demand had, as I will explain next time, outpaced production.

4 thoughts on “Questions Concerning Weapons and Ammunition in the Gettysburg Campaign – Part 1

  1. Great stuff as usual! Thanks very much for posting this! Just goes to show how events in civil war military history are not often as simple as they may first appear.

    Thanks, John Miller

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  2. This article reminded me of a conversation I had on a bus tour with a former Navy veteran who served in Viet Nam and who’s job was small arms maintenance and repair. Based on his very colorful descriptions I would image our ancestors being every bit as ingenious in giving themselves as much of a weapons advantage as they could get. And I wouldn’t expect too many of the records to be reconcilable this long after events either.

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    • Thanks Bill. I agree as to trying to reconcile many of these details at this late date. I think we tend to accept quick easy answers too often. Even if we can’t find a more accurate definitive answer, it is instructive, I hope, to discuss the conflicting information

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