Johnny Reb and His Guns

Anthony Sydnor Barksdale (1841–1923) of Charlotte County posed with his rifle for this ambrotype (ambrotypes are reversed photos), taken in 1861 when Barksdale was twenty. He served as a private in the 14th Virginia Infantry Regiment and later transferred to Edward R. Young’s battery in Mosely’s Battalion. Captured in Petersburg in 1865, he was a prisoner of war at Point Lookout for several months. (Virginia Historical Society photo.)

Anthony Sydnor Barksdale (1841–1923) of Charlotte County posed with his rifle for this ambrotype (ambrotypes are reversed photos), taken in 1861 when Barksdale was twenty. He served as a private in the 14th Virginia Infantry Regiment and later transferred to Edward R. Young’s battery in Mosely’s Battalion. Captured in Petersburg in 1865, he was a prisoner of war at Point Lookout for several months. (Virginia Historical Society photo.)

That situation had changed dramatically by late 1862, as Burnside and his men learned at Fredericksburg.

Federal commanders initiated the attack around noon. Their men had to cross about 600 yards of open ground to reach the Confederate position. Union troops began taking casualties as soon as the advance started.

When they were within 125 yards of the stone wall, Cobb’s infantrymen shouldered their muskets.
“A few more paces onward and the Georgians in the road below us rose up, and, glancing an instant along their rifle barrels, let loose a storm of lead into the faces of the advanced brigade,” Owen wrote.

“This was too much; the column hesitated, and then, turning, took refuge behind the (nearby earthen) bank.”
Burnside repeatedly sent assault waves against the enemy lines all day. Only the arrival of night ended the fighting. No Billy Yank came closer than fifty yards to the stone wall. Federal losses were 8000 compared to 1600 for the South.

Fredericksburg was a testament to the Army of the Potomac’s courage. It also showed that the rifled musket was ending the sweeping, grand Napoleonic charge. This weapon represented a significant technological gain in warfare.

It was powerful enough, accurate enough and had enough range to pound apart the most determined attack a foe could mount. The industrialized North could supply hundreds of thousands of these arms to its soldiers with comparative ease.

The agrarian South, however, faced staggering supply problems. Against all odds, the Confederacy did get sufficient modern arms to its troops. That required hard work, organization, improvisation and the talents of a remarkable man — Josiah Gorgas. Nobody in the Confederacy would do more to get rifles for Johnny Reb.

A Pennsylvanian, West Pointer and pre-war professional soldier, Gorgas became chief of Confederate ordnance early in the war. Before it ended, he would run thousands of guns through the Yankee blockade and build a Southern weapons industry from scratch.

Southerners in 1861 might have gone to war with fowling pieces and old smoothbores, but by mid-1863, thanks to Gorgas, they generally had equipment that matched their Federal foes’. One Southern leader succinctly and accurately described his wartime achievements: “He created the ordnance department out of nothing.”

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