Spencer's Repeaters in the Civil War

Part 2; In the Field

The previous segment presented the rather considerable obstacles faced by the Spencer company in getting orders and starting production. This is only part of the story. The new repeater's field service deserves a look as well. There were other repeaters in use by mid 1863, notably Colt's revolving rifle and Henry's magazine rifle. The latter began the long line of lever action Winchesters that continues to this day. However, Spencer's weapons were the first repeaters to see action in significant numbers. They were specifically designed to meet the needs of the military. The Henry was a sporting arm. It fired an under powered 44 caliber round and was really too delicate for use in the field. The Colt was designed as a military rifle, but it was excessively difficult to load, especially in battle. The Spencer design solved the problems of these other repeaters. When Spencers were issued, the troops lucky enough to get them were unreserved in their praise. Of the few complaints only one was well justified, it was that they were heavy, especially the rifles. After the first battle, however, this comment was seldom heard again.

The first recorded use of a Spencer repeater in combat is by Sergeant Francis Lombard of the 1st Mass. Cavalry. The occasion was a skirmish near Cumberland Maryland on October 16th of 1862, just after the great battle at Sharpsburg Md. He was carrying a prototype given to him by Christopher Spencer, although the record is sketchy on the exact type. Unfortunately, Lombard was killed at New Hope Church, outside of Richmond Va., in November of 1863. The details of his repeater and its use are now lost to history.1

It is safe to assume that Lombard's was not the only pre-production Spencer to have seen combat. It definitely was not the only one in the field. Colonel T. E. Chickering, of the 41st Mass. and almost certainly of the family that owned Spencer's armory, wrote the company on January 13, 1863 from Baton Rouge Louisiana. He claimed that his Spencer carbine had out shot the unit's pickets in an impromptu target match. Supposedly the guards were armed with muskets.2 Production Spencer carbines were not to be delivered for another ten months.

Ordnance Department records show that the initial delivery on the Army contract took place on the last day of December, 1862. This preceded the Navy's initial delivery on February 3rd, 1863, even though the Navy order was earlier by several months. Both of these dates are considerably later than the actual deliveries. The services did not consider an item delivered until the certificates of inspection and acceptance were processed through the Ordnance Department in Washington. This took an unknown, but rather long time. Dated unit returns exist showing Spencer serial numbers in the field that are considerably higher than the quantity supposedly on hand at that time.3

Army units began to actually receive their Spencer rifles in January of 1863. The 5th and 6th Michigan Cavalry were the first to get repeaters. Their rifles had been inspected in November of 1862, and shipped in early December. But, the day before they arrived in Michigan, the units had departed for Washington, D.C. 4 The rifles finally caught up with their units almost a month later in Washington. The 5th, 6th and 7th Independent Ohio Sharpshooters in the Army of the Cumberland received theirs shortly afterward. The Navy issued their first deliveries to ships in the Mississippi flotilla and the east coast blockading fleet at about the same time. Colonel John Wilder's Lightning Brigade of mounted infantry in the Army of the Cumberland, was another early recipient of Spencer rifles. Interestingly, a large percentage of the army's rearmed units were cavalry. In a tacit admission of the increasing use of cavalry as mounted infantry, several mounted companies turned in handy single shot carbines for awkward (at least on horseback) repeating rifles.

The first use of issued Spencers is hard to determine with certainty. Among the first operations to include them were naval landings along the Carolina coast in early 1863. These were not strongly opposed and no major battles developed.

Colonel John Wilder was certainly among the first field commanders to use repeaters effectively on the battlefield. Wilder's Lightning Brigade probably saved the battle of Hoovers Gap Tennessee on June 24th '63. They filled and held the center of a thin and under supported Federal line, then held against a vastly superior Confederate force. Braxton Bragg's Confederates believed that a fresh corps was coming up, so great was the volume of fire put out by the Lightning Brigade. The southerners fell back to reinforce and reorganize. Bragg's troops then counter attacked but could not carry the field. When the Confederates finally yielded, the Federals had shot away almost their entire ammunition supply of 142 rounds per man. This was the first major battle for the new repeaters. It was also the first of many instances where the fire power of Spencers in the hands of cool veteran troops staved off defeat.5 Interestingly, the Confederate losses were not unusually high, 19 killed and 126 wounded out of an entire brigade.

With the introduction of substantial numbers of repeaters to front line units, a change in the style of command, and the types of commanders, rapidly took place. Officers with unusually large amounts of bravado (and possibly disregard for the welfare of their troops) began to succeed using tactics that heretofore would have been near suicidal. This Úlan did not find its way up the chain of command though. Overall battle tactics remained pretty much as they had been at the outbreak of the war. It is interesting to note that Spencer armed companies, with a few notable exceptions, were not singled out as skirmishers or reserves to be thrown forward at critical points.

Possibly the best example of a commander whose career was made by Christopher Spencer's guns is George A. Custer. At the battle of Brandy Station, in June of 1863, Colonel Custer participated in one of his first charges. It passed over a mile up Fleetwood hill. Beyond support and mounted on fast tiring horses, the operation quickly degenerated into a stampede with great loss. A week later at the battle of Aldie, he again participated in one of the grand charges that would become his trademark. The Confederate center was the point of attack. Although this operation covered less distance, it still lacked support and his troops took a terrible pounding.6

There had been no Spencer armed troops in either battle. However, after Aldie the 5th and 6th Michigan Cavalry were taken from picket duty in the defenses of Washington and assigned to Custer's brigade.

On July 3rd, Irvin Gregg's Cavalry Corps once again met Jeb Stuart's Confederate troopers. The venue was just east of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The Confederates were attempting to flank the Federal army in support of Pickett's ill fated charge. Again the ambitious Michigan commander undertook one of his grand spectacles. The difference this time was that the Michigan troopers were dismounted as skirmishers in support of Custer's mounted attack. The southern cavalry was finally stopped by a bold federal charge. That evening, Lieutenant Farnsworth, who was every bit as bold as Custer, was killed in a similar charge against the south end of the Confederate line. None of his troops had Spencers. These sorts of tactics relied heavily on the firepower of repeaters for any hope of success.7 In fact, Custer remarked in a letter to the Spencer company that, once his entire command had been armed with repeaters, he would not hesitate to engage the enemy when outnumbered almost two to one.8

As one can readily imagine, word of such spectacular results against great odds spread like wildfire through the army. Every commander tried to requisition the new rifles for his troops. Custer pulled every political string he could find to have his entire brigade armed with Spencer rifles. The brass in Washington however, remained cool to the idea of rearming the whole army, or even the whole cavalry corps, with $40 repeaters, especially when they already had orders placed for over a million $18 muskets and "all the Sharps carbines you can make" for $28.50. The limited supply of rifles was doled out to units with especially good records of front line service. The prized repeaters were even issued as rewards to individual soldiers for conspicuous valor.

By the summer of 1863, the Spencer company was finishing up the Army's 7500 rifle order with no more federal contracts on the way. In spite of the clumsiness of rifles when used on horseback, the Spencer lever action had obvious advantages for mounted troopers. To keep the company going, the Ordnance Department was offered a deal for 22 inch barrel carbines. The short guns were much easier to make, so the price could be cut to less than that of the most accepted carbine in the army, the Sharps. The Spencer company offered repeaters for $25.00, $2.50 less than Sharps' singleshot.9 Washington was finally beginning to grasp the advantage of repeaters, especially when they were so competitively priced. The proposal was quickly accepted. Since stocking and barrel making machines had to be modified, the first repeating carbine was not delivered until October of 1863.

When the short guns appeared, they were an immediate and unqualified success. (Although the 2nd Ohio did complain that the new Spencers were excessively heavy and wanted their Burnsides back.10 Again, the first units to get the new carbines were those with outstanding service records. Many of these turned in Spencer rifles.

Front line units in the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac were at the top of the priority list for repeating carbines, but commands in the west also received them. By May of 1864, when Brigadier General Benjamin Grierson undertook his famous raid through the deep south, there were enough repeaters in the Army of the Tennessee that he could equip the entire party with them. This is the campaign was immortalized by the John Wayne movie, The Horse Solders, but without the Spencers Grierson found to so indespensable.11

As with all other Federal weapons, Spencers were soon captured by the South and put to use against their former owners. The new guns were a great success, especially along the boarder, where Spencer rimfire ammunition was fairly easy to come by. Federal supply lines provided a ready source. These were more or less constantly raided by Confederate cavalry right up to the end of the war.

The first reported Confederate use of a Spencer was by Sergeant W.O. Johnson, Co. C of the 49th Va. Infantry on July 3rd 1863. He used one of the repeaters in fighting around Culps Hill at the battle of Gettysburg.12 How an infantry sergeant managed to capture a Spencer so quickly, and with an apparently adequate supply of ammunition, is a mystery. In the east they had been issued only to the 5th and 6th Michigan cavalry. Up to that date, there had been no major engagements between northern cavalry and southern infantry in the Gettysburg campaign.

Unfortunately for the Confederates, copper was in such short supply by 1863 that the south was never able to provide domestically manufactured cartridges. Once captured ammunition was exhausted, the guns were sent to the nearest depot for storage. It was always hoped that a supply of cartridges could be obtained by some unknown means, then repeaters would be issued again to the Confederate mounted service. Thousands of Spencers waited out the war this way as mechanical POWs.13

Several cavalry units in the Confederate army were at least partially equipped with Spencer repeaters. The 43rd Va. Cavalry had an unusually good supply of the best federal arms. The unit operated on the border and their commander, John Mosby, specialized in appropriating Yankee goods for Southern service. Beginning in 1864, there were always several troopers armed with Spencers in the ranks, even thought Mosby himself preferred revolving pistols for raiding operations. Returns of the 43rd for November of 1864 show 167 Spencer rifles and carbines on hand.14

The Spencer was held in the highest regard by the end of the war. During the retreat from Richmond in April 1865, three Federals surprised a lone Confederate. Thinking quickly, the Johnny spun around, working the lever of his captured Spencer as he turned. Pointing his gun at the lead man, the Reb suggested that they may want to come along quietly. On seeing the formidable repeater, the Yanks decided that this may actually be a good idea. The three surrendered and were led into the Confederate camp, not realizing that their captor had fired his last cartridge some time before.

Probably the greatest tribute to Christopher Spencer's repeaters was given by the men that had carried them. At the end of the war, many used their muster out pay to purchase the very guns they had carried. General Edwards of the 37th Massachusetts Infantry wrote to the Ordnance Department in June 1865;

"Our regiment was armed with the Spencer rifle on the 14th day of July, 1864, and we first had the opportunity of testing them in an engagement at Summit Point (West) Virginia."......"At whatever position we have ever been placed, we have always found them to be our best and truest friend. At Sailors Creek, Virginia, April 6th 1865, we came off victorious over Custis Lee's brigade, that had enveloped us so closely on three sides that the bayonet was freely used."

The rifles now mostly are property of the men, and show the marks of hard service and exposure to all kinds of weather, but are still in as good serviceable condition as ever."15

Notes

1.) Civil War Breech Loading Rifles, John D. McAulay, Andrew W. Mowbray Inc. 1987, PP 101 & 108, ISBN 0-917218-29-9. There are several other accounts of Lombard with widely varying details. The original is a brief mention in the company history of the 1st Mass. Cavalry. McAuley's is one of the latest, and his research is generally quite good. An interesting point is that Lombard has not turned up in the Spencer company records.

2.) Civil War Guns, William B. Edwards, The Stackpole Company, 1962, Pg. 149.

3.) Returns from the 5th Company of Independent Ohio Vol. Sharpshooters show Spencer Rifle number 10273 in the company on Aug. 16, 1863. Up to that date, Ordnance Department records show that only 8205 had been delivered, including both the Army and Navy orders. It is known that Spencer M-1863 serial numbers start with 1 on the Navy contract. So, it is unlikely that there are some 2000 unaccounted numbers. This contradiction appears with several other patent firearms. Springfield Research Service Serial Numbers of U.S. Martial Arms, Volume 3, Nov. 1990, Pg. 117, ISBN 0-9603306-4-X Civil War Breech Loading Rifles, John D. McAulay, Andrew W. Mowbray Inc. 1987, PP 98 & 108, ISBN 0-917218-29-9

4.) Man At Arms, Vol. 19 No. 5 Oct. 1997, Those Damned Michigan Spencers, Wiley Sword, PP 23-37

5.) Civil War Firearms, Joe Bilby, Combined Books, 1996, PP 199-200, ISBN 0-938289-79-9

6.) The Cavalry at Gettysburg, Edward G. Longacre, University of Nebraska Press, 1986/'93, PP 76-81 & 104-109 ISBN 0-8032-7941-8

7.) The Cavalry at Gettysburg, Edward G. Longacre, University of Nebraska Press, 1986/'93, PP 237-244 ISBN 0-8032-7941-8

8.) Letter from Geo. Custer to Frank Cheney, Spencer Company, May 14, 1864 reproduced in Civil War Guns, William B. Edwards, The Stackpole Company, 1962, Pg. 155

9.) Carbines of the Civil War, John D. McAuley, Pioneer Press, 1981, PP 9-11 & 23, ISBN 0-913159-45-2

10.) Civil War Firearms, Joe Bilby, Combined Books, 1996, Pg. 142, ISBN 0-938289-79-9

11.) Civil War Firearms, Joe Bilby, Combined Books, 1996, Pg. 203, ISBN 0-938289-79-9

12.) Civil War Guns, William B. Edwards, The Stackpole Company, 1962, PP. 155-156

13.) Civil War Breech Loading Rifles, John D. McAulay, Andrew W. Mowbray Inc. 1987, PP 105, ISBN 0-917218-29-9

14.) Civil War Breech Loading Rifles, John D. McAulay, Andrew W. Mowbray Inc. 1987, PP 105, ISBN 0-917218-29-9

15.) Letter of Gnl. Edwards to Brig. Gnl. R.A. Pierce, Mass. State Acting Ord. Chief, June 30, 1865, reproduced in Spencer Repeating Firearms, Roy Marcot, Northwood Heritage Press, 1983, P 87, ISBN 0-9611494

(c) 1997, 2000 by Tony Beck

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