Black Powder, Bowies, Spencers

As you read this column you (and I) will, I hope, be chilled by autumn winds. As I write it, however, in the depths of August's "dog days," the temperature here in New Jersey is once again hovering in the 90s with humidity as least as high.

It is worse for me than it otherwise might be, however, for this summer I've been spoiled. Along with my wife Pat and my children, Kate, Meg and John, I spent the middle two weeks of July in Ireland.

The temperatre never rose above 78 degrees Farenheit and it only rained one day, while we were motoring through the wilds of Connemara.

I hadn't been to Europe since 1970 and found a number of things notable, aside from the fact that it's no longer a cheap excursion! Bunratty castle and Folk Park, tourist attrations near Shannon Airport are not, in the classical American context, "touristy" type places.

The Folk Park is tastefully done, and those of us whose roots lie at least partially in the Emerald Isle, or for that matter any 18th or 19th century European peasant village, can catch an honest glimpse into our collective past. The scones and tea are excellent as well.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Bunratty Castle, gift of Lord Gort to the Irish people, is Gort's insistance that all of the old things (and I mean old - 14th and 15th century furnishings) he collected should be used and touched by tourists and guests at the castle's medieval banquets!

If your teenage daughter wants to be lady of the manor (as mine did) she can plant herself in a chair that was fairly new when Columbus first set sail.

How unlike the view of American conservators, some of whom dig out the white gloves to handle a piece of Depression glass! Although the stuff at Bunratty doesn't seem any the worse for wear, I really don't know how I come down on this. It is a different and, to a degree, charming view of historical artifacts, however.

As an aside, I heartily recommend the hospitality of Sheila O'Meara, proprietress of Bunratty Woods of Bunratty, Co. Clare. (1998 note-Ms. O'Meara is no longer in the guesthouse business.) Bunratty Woods is a comfortable, friendly bed and breakfast establishment 10 miles from Shannon airport and a half-mile down the road from Bunratty castle on the back road to Quinn and Ennis. The view is magnificent, as is the breakfast. Bunratty Woods provided a great place to recover from jet lag! No, I don't get a commission out of this!

Since I was putting the finishing touches on my new history of the Army of the Potomac's Irish Brigade, I drove down to Waterford, birthplace of General Thomas Francis Meagher, founder and first commander of the brigade. Unfortunately, Meagher's uniform and a camp color from one of the brigade's regiments were not on display, as the town's museum was under renovation. I did, however, get a chance to photograph Meagher's birthplace.

A trip to Dublin and the Irish National Archives uncovered some very interesting material on alleged Union recruiting during the Civil War and was the occasion of a reunion and a few "jars" with old friend Dr. Tony Collis. I also enjoyed a personally conducted visit to the 69th New York's second color by Irish Senator Joseph Doyle. All in all it was a splendid two weeks, historically and personally.

While I was researching my Irish Brigade book back here in the states, I encountered an interesting account of the use of Bowie knives at Bull Run in the August 10, 1861 issue of the The Pilot, a Boston Irish-American newspaper. According to The Pilot's correspondent, the regiment of a "Zouavean hero" (probably the 11th New York) was charged by "an immense body of Mississippians, accompanied by some (believed to be) Baltimoreans." The Rebels then delivered "a terrible volley from their rifles into the Zouave ranks."

So far, so good, but the plot thickens. The Zouave informant reported that the Mississippians dropped their rifles and continued their rush with Bowie knives "of huge dimensions, 18 to 20 inches long, heavy in proportion, and sharp, or two edged at the point. Attached to the handle was a lasso, some eight feet in length, with one end securely wound round the wrist…when these terrible warriors approached to within reach of their lasso, not waiting to come in bayonet range, they threw forward their bowie knives at the Zouaves after the fashion of experienced harpooners, striking at a whale.

"Frequently they plunged in, and penetrated through a soldier's body and were jerked out, ready to strike again while the first victim sunk into death…So skillfully was this deadly instrument handled by the Missippian [sic] that he could project it into the full lasso length, kill his victim, withdraw it again with a sudden impulse and catch the handle unerringly.

"If by any chance the bowie-knife missed its aim, broke the cord fastening it to the arm, or fell to the earth, revolvers were next resorted to, and used with similar dexterity."

What do we have here, the product of an overactive imagination, a few "jars" too many, or perhaps both! I, for one, have never encountered this story before. It's too bad Herman Melville did not use the incident to meld the Moby Dick theme with his Civil War poetry, perhaps topping "The Scout Toward Aldie."

I do believe a bunch of raging Rebels with Bowies slung on their wrists would have had tough going against a volley of buck and ball from the boys of the 69th New York. Whatever the truth of this matter, it might make an interesting new N-SSA event - individual or team. Imagine lassoed Bowies on the eight-yard clayboard!

Last year my colleague Tom Kelley (lots of Irishmen this month), who had been ducking the slings and arrows of some readers disagreeing with a point he made in his column, expressed a wish that I might replace him as a "lightening rod" this year. Tom, Lord knows I've tried! Maybe I've finally succeeded.

My Gettysburg column of a couple of months ago challenged the conventional wisdom which credited General Buford's cavalry with a hard fighting delay on July 1, 1863, then went on to question the overall tactical value of breechloading carbines and the Spencer rifles (yes, rifles, not carbines) used by the 5th Michigan Cavalry in the fight of July 3.

In response I received a response from John Huelskamp (obviously not an Irishman), an outraged Illinois Custer fan, and an outraged Spencer fan as well. If I may paraphrase, the gist of Mr. Huelskamp's case was that I did not credit the Spencer with being a revolutionary area fire type of weapon used to saturate an opposing line with a blizzard of bullets.

Some years ago I would have readily agreed with that premise. I no longer do, and, in fact, think I give the Spencer too much credit in my history of the 15th New Jersey. I do not ever recall reading a primary source account of Spencers being usd like ballistic fire hoses. The typical soldier's basic load of ammo simply didn't allow such a use - for long.

The 37th Massachusetts Infantry ran out of Spencer ammo at Opequon in September 1864 and had to go to ground until resupplied by the 2nd Rhode Island. The men of the 37th used their Spencers to good effect at Petersburg on April 2, 1865, but the Rebel line was stretched so thin that it is hard to evaluate whether or not the same result could have been achieved by men armed with muskets.

One veteran of the 37th recalled that once his outfit was issued Spencers, the Bay State boys were much in demand for skirmishing duties -- not for use in a line of battle to provide fire superiority! I've learned to never say never, however, and if anyone can provide concrete evidence of blazing Spencers blowing away a Confederate line of battle, I'd like to hear from them.

Yes, I know that Wilder's brigade held the Rebels back for a while at Chickamauga, but the Confederates did win the battle. On closer investigation, Wilder's victory at Hoover's Gap appears to be an artillery triumph.

Mr. Huelskamp notes that General Custer declared the Spencer the world's best cavalry arm and credited it with the 5th Michigan's performance when the Union horse fought the Confederates to a draw at Gettysburg. My own belief remains that tactical position and well-served Federal artillery were more significant factors in the battle's outcome than small arms.

Huelskamp argues tht I should accept Custer's report at face value, since the general had no "political" reason to write it and because Custer was there and I wasn't. To my mind, and I don't believe I'm alone on this, the day George Custer (or for that matter any Civil War general) ever wrote a report that was not "political," in some sense, never dawned.

Even had Custer made every effort to render an accurate and truthful report, however, one prominent cavalry historian suggests he might have failed. While I disagree with Stephen Z. Starr's assessment of the importance of the Spencer at Gettysburg, I concur fully with his belief of "the virtual impossibility of arriving at an accurate picture of these cavalry fights on the basis of participants' [including Custer's?] reports." The very swirling nature of a cavalry battle contributes to inaccuracy in the account of the most well-meaning reporter.

According to one official account of the July 3 cavalry fight, the Federal picket line, including some men from the 5th Michigan, ran low on ammnition and was driven back by Rebels armed with muzzleloaders and single shot breechloaders. Another account stresses just the opposite, that the Rebels ran out of ammunition! A Confederate mounted charge was apparently then broken by rapid and well served Yankee artillery and flank fire from the 5th Michigan and a timely saber charge. Casualties, while heavier than in the usual cavalry enggement and not fully reported on the Confederate side, were, by infantry standards, quite light.

I do not discount the fact that the Spencer was a well-liked, sturdy, reliable arm and useful in certain situations. I know that given the option, I would have carried a Spencer or, more likely, a Henry, had I been a Civil War soldier given the option.

I do not, however, believe that the Spencer's introduction caused a revolution in warfare or tactics. Unfortunately, a tactical doctrine never evolved for the gun. One effort penned by an Ohio infantry colonel stressed a series of loading and firing exercises which largely negated the Spencer's rapid fire potential!

The muzzleloading Enfield and Springfield rifle muskets carried by most Civil War infantrymen were (and are) more accurate over a longer range than the Spencer. As fighting distance increased in the war's final year, this range advantage increased in importance.

There is no evidence that Confederate fighters ever trembled with fear before Spencer-armed Yanks. One Rebel general even stated that his men did not mind facing Federals with Spencers, since they would shoot up their ammo supply fairly quickly.

Confederate horsemen with single shots and muzzleloaders thoroughly whipped the 1st D.C. Cavalry in late 1864 when the D. C. boys were armed with Henrys, which fired even faster than Spencers. One Union horse soldier noted that a brigade of Rebels dug in behind earthworks and armed with muzzleloading Enfields could hold off a whole division of dismounted Federal cavalry armed with single shot and repeating breechloading carbines.

To reiterate, I do not recall a single battle won by the Spencer, nor do I believe the gun won the war. Had the conflict gone on another year, however, the repeater might have become decisive. As it was, the Spencer's combat accomplishments were mixed. As Bill Adams of the N-SSA's 34th Virginia Cavalry Battalion, an acknowledged small arms and Enfield expert, notes, the original 34th Virginia, armed with muzzleloaders, gave the Spencer armed 5th Michigan fits and captured one of the Wolverines' flags.

According to Adams, the 34th, armed largely with two band Richmond Mounted Infantry rifles,"could outrange the Fedeal carbines and Spencer repeaters."

With the exception of a few late 1860s Indian fights, most notably Beecher's Island, and an emergency shipment to France in 1870, the Spencer faded rapidly from the postwar world military scene in favor of heavy caliber single-shot breechloaders.

Ensign Andrew McIntosh's Canadian militiamen exchanged their Enfield muzzloaders for Spencers and were roundly whipped by Fenians (There go those Irishmen again!) carrying a hodge-podge of Smith and Sharps carbines and surplus rifle muskets. McIntosh, who regretted the gun trade, dismissed the Spencer as "a very poor thing…at any distance over 200 yards." Should I take the ensign's word on the Spencer? After all, he was there and I wasn't!

© 1994 by Joe Bilby

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