War in an Age of Wonders: Civil War Arms and Equipment
Nothing brings to life another era like the chance to handle, wear, or wield the physical objects of the period.
By Michael P. Musick
Board of Directors
Abraham Lincoln Institute, Inc.
Edward D. Tippett, citizen of Washington, D.C., saw Progress as preordained. It needed only an instrument, and he had been chosen. Perhaps his fifth attempt would do the trick. Tippett, a veteran of the War of 1812, was anything but a quitter. “I have asked your attention to my navigation balloon four times, and without the least notice,” he lamented to an unnamed high government official on May 11, 1861. After a detailed exposition of his somewhat murky political views (in favor of slavery in theory, but opposed to it as practiced), the inventor asked the government to pay him the four thousand dollars it allegedly owed him for the efforts he had pursued on its behalf since 1816. With government support for his war balloon, all enemy fortifications would be demolished, and innumerable lives spared.
“This is the age of wonders,” Tippett announced, “and great battles are before us.” In a postscript he added, “Ah yes, sir, I could disperse rebels in any place. This invention must come to end this conflict, it is God decreed.” Not content to let matters take their course, two weeks later Tippett offered his view that free Negroes should be made to dig trenches or perform other useful work for white soldiers, if not allowed to enlist. “You will see by this,” he observed, “that E.D.T. is no fool.”1
Fool or no, Tippett gave voice to something that was in the air in 1861. Progress would make war obsolete. American industry and ingenuity were bound to cut short the struggle and save lives. Across the lines near far-off Pensacola, Florida, Isham Walker, private of Company D, Ninth Mississippi Infantry, though considerably younger and somewhat less eccentric than Tippett, expressed much the same idea to Confederate Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker on June 4, 1861.
“Inclosed please find a rough sketch of my plan for Bombarding [Fort] Pickins and the [Union] fleet from a balloon held in equilibum by 4 copper wires anchored as shown and at an altitude of two miles, drop Poisonous Bombs into the fortress and fleet, which will be more effective than all of our batteries also shown in the sketch. the adventure is practicle, safe, and sure, endangering no lives in confederate army.”
No evidence has been found to show that the secretary of war felt impelled to respond to this offer, despite the fact that the whole enterprise was projected to cost a mere $1,200.2
War balloons, double-barrelled cannon for chain shot, breech-loading repeaters, ironclad batteries on wheels, novel artillery shells guaranteed to rain death and destruction of unparalleled scope: all these and more were offered to the officials of the opposing republics of North America and are preserved in the records of the offices that received them. They represent a world of possibilities from which someone in authority had to select whatever would win the war. Some inventions, like the seven-shot Spencer carbine, were adopted and proved their worth in combat. Others, like the proposals of Tippett and Walker, were destined only for the files. The might-have-beens are tantalizing, as works of science fiction like Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South (1992) demonstrate. A pondering of the effects of wonder weapons increases our awareness that the familiar course of events need not have taken place and is enhanced by a sifting of forgotten documents. Nevertheless, today most of the interest in the tools of war centers on what was actually used.
Nothing brings to life another era like the chance to handle, wear, or wield the physical objects of the period, deplore though we may the uses to which they were once put. Thousands have come under the spell of the past by cocking the hammer of a model 1861 Springfield rifled musket, donning a wool jacket, or feeling the heft of a cavalry saber. Besides reenactors, countless collectors and museum-goers have been inspired by beholding bullet-riddled battle flags, rusted canteens, or jagged pieces of shot and shell.
Archives, and particularly the National Archives, are not the places to go to encounter these things themselves. The Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of the Confederacy, the battlefield parks of the National Park Service, and the many state and local museums scattered across the country afford opportunities to see the objects associated with the struggle of the 1860s. On seeing these mementoes, the thought readily occurs, “If these things could only speak, what tales they might tell!” The role of archives is to provide the background that will allow the relics to speak.
Archives do this initially by providing biographical information on the people with whom a particular object is associated. Then the records may go on to explain how the artifact came to be created, who its inventor was, what firms manufactured it, how many were made, and on and on, providing answers that illuminate the entire range of material culture.
There was a time when certain artifacts could be found with the records. Most notable of these were the battle flags of the armies. Banners borne by Union volunteer units came to rest in the various state capitols, while those of the regulars and nonstate outfits generally found their way to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. Unsurrendered Confederate colors were stored by survivors until eventually displayed in public. Orators often alluded to flags reposing in the “archives.” Particularly prominent were the captured “Rebel” flags, put out for view in the offices of the War Department in Washington, D.C.
The flags were themselves records of a sort. Each was generally prominently marked soon after issue with the designation of the unit whose fortunes it symbolized. Then, painted onto the fabric itself were the names of the engagements in which the unit played an honorable part. North and South, this custom was followed. And North and South, veterans were moved to tears at the sight of these hallowed relics, with their lustrous inscriptions: “Chickamauga,” “Chancellorsville,” or “Gettysburg,” and many a lesser known field remembered only by them. The captured flags at the War Department carried an additional marking, a stenciled number that corresponded to an entry in a register that identified the unit, the name of the captor, and the circumstances of the loss. The register is now in the National Archives as entry 178 of Record Group 94, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780’s – 1917. Beyond this unillustrated volume, there is no series of photographs or paintings in the National Archives depicting by unit the flags of either side.3
The captured flags were tangible evidence of bravery and devotion and as such continued to be fought over. Their presence in Washington was seen as a standing affront by many who had marched under their folds and as a lasting tribute to the valor of their captors. A well-meaning effort of 1887 by President Grover Cleveland to return the flags to the Southern states caused a firestorm of obloquy. Not until 1905, under Theodore Roosevelt, was resistance sufficiently diminished to permit this gesture of national reconciliation.4
Another species of Confederate artifact associated with the War Department records generated controversy, though less acrimonious than the flag set-to. Personal possessions of Jefferson Davis came into the hands of the United States when the Confederate president was taken prisoner near Irwinville, Georgia, on May 10, 1865. Along with private papers, the Federals seized a cloak, shawl, and spurs worn by Davis, three pistols, a bullet mold, two toothbrushes, a plug of tobacco, and other sundries. Most of these were sent back to Davis between 1874 and 1880. In 1914 the pistols were obtained by descendants of the former Confederate chief executive. Not until 1961 were the cloak, shawl, and spurs given by the National Archives to Mr. Jefferson Hayes-Davis, of Colorado Springs, Colorado. These items now repose at “Beauvoir,” Davis’s postwar retreat on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
When artifacts have been found filed with the textual records of the National Archives, they have customarily been removed. A number of such items were transferred to the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History in 1979. Among them was a United States flag carried by troops from North Carolina during the Mexican-American War of 1846 – 1848, which was hidden by a Tarheel Unionist until United States forces occupied the state in 1865. Other such items included a brass Confederate cipher key and a collection of examples of medals issued by state authorities or local commanders for services during the conflict. Several Medals of Honor, returned to the War Department as undeliverable or for other reasons, also crossed Constitution Avenue to be looked after by those more accustomed to three-dimensional records.
Experience suggests that there may be a fault line between those personalities susceptible to the lure of relics and those inclined to pore over written records. The person who will spend hours sifting debris under a scorching sun, or travel thousands of miles to haggle over guns and swords at a hobby show, seems possessed of a fundamentally different temperament than someone willing to sit patiently in the hushed reading room of an archives or library, coaxing facts from faded documents. This distinction notwithstanding, some few multitalented souls have successfully bridged both worlds, and the result of their efforts is well worth heeding.
A personal selection of titles that incorporate archival research on artifacts and their background may be helpful. There are a few scholarly surveys of broad areas, such as Carl L. Davis’s Arming the Union: Small Arms in the Civil War (1973), an account of Union ordnance production, Richard D. Goff’s Confederate Supply (1969), an overview of all aspects of that challenging subject, or Erna Risch’s masterly Quartermaster Support of the Army: A History of the Corps, 1775 – 1939 (1962; reprint 1989), an official history. Most of the writing in this area has been highly specialized, however, many times based solely on examples in a given collector-author’s possession. It is not possible in this space to give the titles of all relevant publications, but a few examples will serve as introduction to this absorbing field, one in which an issue such as the prevalence of slouch hats or forage caps among the troops is debated with a passion reminiscent of medieval theology.
The best overview of material culture, based in part on archival research at the state and national levels, is American Military Equipage, 1851 – 1872: A Description by Word and Picture of What the American Soldier, Sailor, and Marine of Those Years Wore and Carried, with Emphasis on the Civil War (1974), by Frederick P. Todd, in collaboration with George Woodbridge, Lee A. Wallace, Jr., and Michael J. McAfee, with copious illustrations. A more recent survey, lavishly produced with color photography, but unfortunately devoid of footnotes or listing of archival sources, is Echoes of Glory: Arms and Equipment of the Confederacy and Echoes of Glory: Arms and Equipment of the Union (both 1991), with text by several authorities, under the editorship of Henry Woodhead. A third wide-ranging source is Francis A. Lord’s four volumes of the Civil War Collector’s Encyclopedia: Arms, Uniforms, and Equipment of the Union and Confederacy (Vol. 1, 1963; subsequent volumes 1975 – 1984), with bibliographies, but also the limitations implied in the title.
The American fascination with firearms has led to a small library of titles, some covering the whole span of the nation’s past, other focusing on a particular period, type, or make of weapon. Space limitations preclude even a selection of these, but a goodly number will be found in the bibliographies of the works already cited. The variety of subjects other than firearms which have been the theme of studies based in whole or in part on archival sources is suggested by a few examples. Richard A. Sauers’s two-volume Advance the Colors! Pennsylvania Civil War Battle Flags (1987,1991) and H. Michael Madaus’s The Battle Flags of the Army of Tennessee (1976) are concerned with the banners of one Northern state and one Confederate army. Stanley S. Phillips’s Civil War Corps Badges and Other Related Awards, Badges, Medals of the Period (1982) and Francis A. Lord’s Civil War Sutlers and Their Wares (1969) provide invaluable data on just two of the myriad topics that have attracted researchers over the years.
In addition to monographs, there are further published sources with which the student of the material culture of the Civil War should be familiar. Manuals, such as those issued by the Ordnance Office in 1850 and 1862 (the latter reproduced on National Archives Microfilm Publication T1117),5 frequently supply a descriptive text and plates describing the tools of the soldiers trade. Lastly, though not in terms of importance, the congressional serial set includes substantial information useful to the study of arms and equipment. For example, Executive Document No. 99 published a long list of “Purchases of cannon, ordnance, projectiles, and small-arms since April 13,1861, by the Ordnance Department.”6 Wonderful verbatim testimony on procurement procedures will be found in the approximately 2,600 pages of the report of the House of Representatives select committee on government contracts of the Thirty-seventh Congress.7 Additional references can be tracked down in the guides to Civil War records compiled by Kenneth W. Munden and Henry Putney Beers, often indexed under “contracts.”8
These hors d’oeuvres safely dispatched, we may address our main course, the unpublished War Department records relating to arms and equipment. Access to these resources must of necessity rely heavily on the preliminary inventories to two record groups, Record Group 156, Records of the Office of the Chief of Ordnance (for the Army), and Record Group 92, Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General. Unfortunately, these inventories present a stumbling block; those for RG 156 (two volumes, NM-26 and NM-59) and RG 92 (two volumes, NM-81 and NM-85) were issued for staff use only and not as National Archives publications. Therefore, copies are not available for distribution but can be consulted at the National Archives. The first volume of the inventories for each of these record groups describes the records created and maintained at Washington, D.C., headquarters (records that in fact document activities in all parts of the country), and the second volume describes those of the field installations.
Records of the field installations for ordnance are for arsenals and depots, those for quartermaster activities for depots and the Schuylkill “Arsenal” (actually a clothing and equipage production facility). Most of these field installation records have been sent to the appropriate regional archives facilities of the National Archives serving the geographic area involved.
Thus the records of the Fort Monroe, Virginia, Arsenal (RG 156, entries 1201 through 1232), formerly maintained in the Archives building in downtown Washington, D.C., were shipped to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, home to what is now called the Mid Atlantic Regional Archives, serving Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. This “regionalization,” though irksome to many researchers, was carried out primarily because of a lack of storage space in the National Archives Building in Washington.
Despite the transfer of records to the regions, the Washington headquarters records for Record Group 156, Records of the Office of the Chief of Ordnance, offer a fertile field to those exploring small arms, field and siege artillery production, horse equipments, and other articles supplied by army ordnance officers. The first step in using these records is to view the subject as the ordnance office did. Researchers should carefully note the ten “classes” into which the ordnance office divided things.
An understanding of ordnance classes is useful background for a matter of considerable interest to many, the distribution of various types of arms to troops. Entries 109 through 112 of RG 156 show the number of each type of ordnance item on hand, by class, in each regiment and battery of the army, down to company level, by the quarter of the year (i.e., each three months of the year, with January through March being the first quarter). Unfortunately, they do not cover the year 1861. These exceedingly large, cumbersome volumes have been microfilmed as National Archives Microfilm Publication M1281, Summary Statements of Quarterly Returns of Ordnance and Ordnance Stores on Hand in Regular and Volunteer Army Organizations 1862 – 1867, 1870 – 1876. Not available on microfilm are similar reports for forts and batteries, 1862 – 1864 (entry 100), and for armories, arsenals, and depots, 1862 – 1863 (entry 101). An additional volume shows ordnance and ordnance stores at forts on September 30, 1862 (entry 102), and three more volumes give weekly reports of depots in 1864 (entry 103). Those concentrating on heavy ordnance may also wish to examine the registers of cannon and carriages at forts and batteries, 1861 – 1865 (entry 113).
It is important to point out that none of the records just identified show the names of individual soldiers or provide serial numbers or other identifying numbers for specific pieces of ordnance. One cannot match a particular relic with a person or site using these records, and in fact such a match is virtually impossible using the records of the National Archives (though for an account of how such a feat can once in a while be accomplished, see “Firearms Genealogy.“
If knowledge of ordnance classification is useful for learning about arms distribution, it is vital to any more in-depth searching. Perhaps your area of interest is the Starr carbine, for instance. This was a .54-caliber, single-shot, breechloading weapon on the order of the Sharps, but less successful. You will find that these fell into “Class VI, Small Arms,” which includes carbines, along with pistols, muskets, rifles, sabers, swords, and lances. Rich source material on all classes will ordinarily appear under the heading “Inventions” in the inventory. There is a register for these records, 1812 – 1870 (entry 192 of RG 156), but the letters and reports themselves are in entry 994, arranged by class, and thereunder by date. Included in this series are numerous drawings illustrating many of the notions presented to Union authorities, each depiction the pride of an eager visionary. In the case of the Starr carbine, however, the “invention” files offer little beyond a letter dated October 19, 1864, from Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana directing that the weapon be tested (class VI, #596).
The next potential source for our imaginary Starr student (or the student of any other item of ordnance equipment) is the series of “Experiments.” The registers for these records, covering 1812 – 1870 (entry 199), are the key to them. The registers record documents filed in entries 200, 201, and 1001. Entry 200, encompassing the years 1820 – 1837 and 1846 – 1861, turns out to include the report of an 1854 board that evaluated the Starr carbine and found a gas leak and defective parts, which led to a suspension of further trials. Entry 201, “Reports of Experiments,” 1862 – 1871, under Class VI, yields no fewer than seven reports on Eben T. Starr’s weapon, including Maj.. A. B. Dyer’s endorsement of September 23, 1864, stating that “the arm is decidedly inferior to other breechloaders which have been furnished this Department, and is more costly than some of them” (Vol. 8, Ex-6-458). Other reports in the series include photographs of a Starr carbine, details on the number of rounds fired in tests, the charge of powder used, the distance from the target, and observations on durability and efficiency. Mud splashed on the breech allegedly caused the Starr to fail. One officer commented, “From what I have seen of this carbine I do not believe it will answer for Cavalry Service without very important modifications. The pieces are too numerous being 61 in number, and some of them very liable to injury.” Major Dyer and his associates were far from easy marks when it came to persuading them of the value of particular munitions. Their remarks, and those of many others, are also plentiful in entry 1001, another series for “Experiments,” but the Starr is not among the many arms represented there.
The next important category of records to be explored in documenting Union armaments is one too often ignored, the main correspondence series in RG 156. No overall name or subject index exists for these documents, and researchers are often loath to undertake the effort necessary to mine them, but such effort is almost always well repaid. The main series of letters, endorsements, and circulars sent (entry 3, also called “Miscellaneous Letters”) contains legible fair copies of all outgoing communications except those addressed to ordnance officers, military storekeepers, national armories before September 1861, and the secretary of war (which are in entries 5, 6, 8, 9, and 10). Additional exceptions are insignificant. The main series of letters sent will ordinarily give the text of significant communications sent to companies and individuals who invented, offered, supplied, altered, or improved ordnance equipment throughout the conflict, in chronological order. There are eighteen volumes for 1861 – 1865, with a name index in the front of each. Numerous entries appear under “Starr Arms Co.” On May 4, 1864, for example, Gen. George D. Ramsay informed Henry H. Wolcott, president of the company, that the First New York Veteran Cavalry had had Starr arms for some time, and “there is a total lack of confidence in these carbines . . . a few shots render them useless.”
The other half of this correspondence is found in the letters received (entry 21). The key to these are the registers of letters received (twelve volumes for the war years, entry 20). As would be expected, many communications from the Starr Arms Company are recorded, entered under “S” in chronological order. File S-586 for 1864 is described in the register as a letter of acknowledgment dated May 6 of the letter of May 4, “in relation to their carbines in the hands of the N.Y. Vet. Cavly.” The letter itself is on file, written on handsome stationery headed by an engraving showing the Starr Armory in Yonkers, New York, surrounded by examples of its products. In it, President Wolcott explains that he is sending a man immediately to the First New York at Martinsburg, West Virginia, to investigate complaints and that previous experience indicated that the wrong type of ammunition had been issued. Other reports, such as one of April 4, 1865, showed Starr carbines working well, with Maj.. Marcus A. Reno of later Little Big Horn notoriety declaring that his Twelfth Pennsylvania Cavalry found them superior to the seven-shot Spencer. In the case of foreign-made arms, finding correspondence and other documentation can be exceedingly difficult, since they were often secured by agents rather than directly from the manufacturer. It should also be pointed out that the letters received by the chief of ordnance include numerous letters of transmittal for returns, although the returns themselves are no longer in existence, a characteristic shared with the letters received by the commissary general of subsistence (RG 192).
Contracts for ordnance and other equipment are often sought, and may or may not be found. The single volume of contracts for ordnance and ordnance supplies that includes the war years in RG 156 (entry 78, a volume for 1840 – 1868) does not include agreements with the Starr Arms Company. Since the contracts generally employ similar language, other records may fill the gap. Thus a volume of “statements of purchases of ordnance, 1861 – 67” (entry 79) in that record group does have ten listings under Starr giving useful data. An index to this volume helps considerably. Other series in RG 156 (entries 80 – 85) may provide useful contract and proposal data on ordnance from time to time.
Another record group, however, one for civil records, includes a copy of a Starr carbine contract itself. This is Record Group 217, Records of the U.S. General Accounting Office. Here separate series are devoted to separate categories of contracts: Quartermaster (entry 236), Commissary (entry 221), Engineer (entry 223), Provost Marshal (entry 234), Navy (entry 232), Adjutant General’s Office (entry 216, almost entirely for rent, lodging, and procurement of recruiting rendezvous), Army (entry 218), and Ordnance (entry 233). The ordnance contracts are filed by year, then by the first letter of the surname of the contractor. Starr appears under “S.” There is a gap in ordnance contracts for the years 1836 to 1862. Thus there are no ordnance contracts in this series for 1861, but there are seven for that year under the “Army” heading. Curiously, there are only seven ordnance contracts here for 1865. Contracts in these series are sometimes mutilated by revenue stamps having been cut out of them.
Civil records also include the manuscript industry census for 1860. This supplies some data on the Starr factory in Yonkers, New York, difficult to find elsewhere. The industry census for New York State was given to the New York State Library in Albany and must be sought there. Other such schedules for other states were also distributed around the country. The National Archives has a list of the schedules and their location.
- Edward D. Tippett to “Honored Sir,” May 11, May 25, 1861, entry 994, file In-Misc.-177, Records of the Office of the Chief of Ordnance, Record Group 156, National Archives, Washington, DC (hereinafter, records in the National Archives will be cited as RG ___ NA). The subject of Union inventors is masterfully covered by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Robert V. Bruce in Lincoln and the Tools of War (1956; reprint 1973). Tippett appears in Bruce’s book on pp. 131 – 132, with a citation to other letters from him in the John G. Nicolay and Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Bruce notes that Lincoln labeled one of Tippett’s letters to him “Tippett. Crazy-man.”
- File 1455 W.D. 1861, Letters Received by the Confederate Quartermaster General, 1861 – 1865 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M437), War Department Collection of Confederate Records, RG 109, NA. Observation balloons were in fact used extensively in the conflict.
- Union flags at the brigade level and above are illustrated in Flags of the Army of the United States carried During the War of the Rebellion 1861 – 1865 . . . (1887), compiled under the direction of the Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army. See Michael P. Musick, “Honorable Reports: Battles, Campaigns, and Skirmishes— Civil War Records and Research,” Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives 27 (Fall 1995): 264, for a discussion of Medal of Honor files often associated with capture of a Confederate flag.
- Extensive documentation of the controversy is in file 157 AGO 1888 on Letters Received by the Office of the Adjutant General (Main Series), 1881 – 1889 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M689, rolls 580-581), Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780’s – 1917, RG 94, NA.
- The Ordnance Manual for the Officers of the U.S. Army (3rd ed., Philadelphia, 1862) (National Archives Microfilm Publication T1117, 1 roll), RG 94, NA.
- Exec. Doc. No. 99, 40th Cong., 2d sess., serial 1338, pp. 698-996.
- H.Rept. 2, 37th Cong., 2d sess., serials 1142 and 1143.
- Kenneth W. Munden and Henry Putney Beers, The Union: A Guide to Federal Archives Relating to the Civil War (1962; reprint 1986), and Henry Putney Beers, The Confederacy: A Guide to the Archives of the Government of the Confederate States of America (1968; reprint 1986).
Originally published by Prologue 27:4 (Winter 1995), the United States National Archives and Records Administration, to the public domain.