Johnny Reb and His Guns

Whether marked "U.S.," like this Whitney Mississippi Rifle (Top) or "RICHMOND, VA," as it says on the Robinson Sharpe (Bottom), the Reb's used them all. (Virginia Historical Society photos)

Whether marked “U.S.,” like this Whitney Mississippi Rifle (Top) or “RICHMOND, VA,” as it says on the Robinson Sharpe (Bottom), the Reb’s used them all. (Virginia Historical Society photos)

If the tactical implications of the rifled musket were sometimes imperfectly understood, its value as an improved shoulder arm was easily grasped.

So Confederate officials knew that getting these weapons into Johnny Reb’s hands was vital, and Confederate ordnance chief Gorgas energetically set to work on the problem from the war’s start. He knew only three sources of supply existed: capture, import and Southern manufacture.

The Confederacy turned to capture first. As each Southern state left the Union, it seized any Federal arms held at arsenals or armories within its borders. The pickings were lean.

These establishments did not have many modern arms. They mainly held older government models of little value. Among these was the U.S. Model 1822 musket, a 69-caliber smoothbore.

Many were converted from flintlock to percussion, but the improved ignition system did not compensate for their unrifled barrels. Their range and accuracy was limited. Hitting a specific target more than 100 yards away relied on luck as much as skill.

Once the fighting began in earnest, the Confederacy wasted little time in seizing modern Union weapons whenever they became available. Federal prisoners, battlefield gleanings and captured warehouses yielded first-class arms for the Cause.

As veteran Southern infantryman Worsham noted: “When Jackson’s troops marched from the Valley (of Virginia) for Richmond (in 1862) to join Lee in his attack on McClellan, they had captured enough arms from the enemy to replace all that was inferior; and after the battles around Richmond, all departments of Lee’s army were as well armed.”

Probably the most preferred capture from the Yankees was the 58-caliber Springfield, which came in several models. This rifled musket was superior and typical of its type. The weapon weighed roughly 9 pounds, was 58 inches long, and saw more service with the U.S. Army than any other rifle. Government and private armories produced hundreds of thousands during the war.

Also especially desired by Johnny Reb was the U.S. Model 1841. It was first issued in 54-caliber, but many were altered to 58-caliber, and a fair number came into Confederate hands through Federal arsenals in Southern states. This weapon was commonly known as the “Mississippi rifle,” from its Mexican War service with Mississippi volunteers commanded by Jefferson Davis.

Confederates also were delighted to get their hands on Federal breechloaders like the Sharps and Spencer. Both represented significant gains in rates of fire and ease of loading.

To load the Sharps, a 52-caliber breechloader, the soldier pulled down the trigger guard. This caused the breechblock to drop and opened the chamber into which was inserted a linen or paper cartridge filled with powder and a bullet. The Sharp’s rate of fire was three times that of a musket.

The Spencer fired metallic cartridges. Its tubular magazine in the buttstock held seven rounds.

A skilled operator could fire twenty-one rounds per minute. Unfortunately for the South, captured Spencers suffered from an ammunition shortage as the Confederate industry frequently was incapable of meeting cartridge needs created by the weapon’s firepower abilities.

Though infantrymen seldom carried revolvers, the Confederate cavalry loved them, especially captured Colts. These were Northern-made, but saw widespread use in both armies. Six-shooters in 36- and 44-calibers, their cylinders could be loaded with paper, foil or sheepskin cartridges, or loose powder and ball. Ignition required a percussion cap on each nipple at each chamber.

Imports were another vital source of armaments. Europe eagerly provided guns to both sides. Southern weapons had to come through the Federal blockade, and a surprisingly large volume made the trip.

Europe offered some superlative weapons and some junk. Particularly despised by Johnny Reb were rifles made in Austria and Belgium. Unwieldy, inaccurate and unreliable, they were dead last on his wish list.

COMMENT