Civil War Relic Hunting for Weapons

By Daniel Bernzweig

Weapons and Accessories of the American Civil War

Part 1 - Civil War Weapons

The American Civil War remains one of the defining conflicts of American history. There has been much debate over the last century and a half as to what actually caused the conflict and, by extension, how tensions between the northern and southern states developed into outright war. At its heart was the issue of slavery. As early as 1777, Vermont, which was briefly not part of the Union following the Declaration of Independence from Britain, had banned slavery, and in the decades that followed, most of the northern states such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts followed suit. It was easier for them to do so as their economies were not based around the mass growing of crops but increasingly on the industry. In the south, where huge cotton and tobacco plantations worked by slave labor were the norms, slavery was not prohibited. But as the years rolled by, this became less and less acceptable. The British Empire, which had acted as one of the primary drivers of the slave trade in the eighteenth century, had banned the trade in 1807 and the institution of slavery entirely throughout its empire in 1833. When northerners wondered, would the southern states in their union follow suit? Locating Civil War weapons with a metal detector and preserving them for future generations can be a very rewarding and exciting experience.

Eventually, it appeared that the decision was going to be made for them when Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 US Presidential election on an anti-slavery platform. Pre-empting any efforts he might make to force their hand, in the weeks that followed his election, many of the southern states began seceding from the Union and forming their own Confederacy. Then in April 1861, open conflict erupted after a clash between northern Union and southern Confederate troops at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The American Civil War had begun, though many individuals since have argued that it was about more than just the institution of slavery, but wider socio-economic differences between the Yankee north and Dixie south. During the Civil War, North Carolina supported both sides. The Confederate Army received over 100,000 troops from North Carolina. Several states, including North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, sent African American regiments to support the war effort. On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves under Union control during the American Civil War. The document ended slavery in the United States. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the document at the White House.

The Civil War was a bloody conflict that lasted from 1861 to 1865, pitting the Union Army, Union Navy, and President Lincoln against the Confederacy, led by Jefferson Davis and Confederate General Robert E Lee. The Civil War led to massive casualties, which was due mainly to advancements in weaponry. There were many different weapons used during the war, but there are some that stand out more than others.

The weapons used during the American Civil war were mostly hand-held muskets and handguns, with a few cavalry saber bayonets. Unlike the English Civil war and the Revolutionary War (American Revolution), the American Civil War is not associated with a particular weapon. But throughout the war, there were advances and setbacks in weaponry technology.

While many of these weapons were similar to those that soldiers had utilized for centuries, some represented brand new technology: the civil war introduced to the world breech-loading weapons, repeating rifles, and an occasional machine gun. The following paragraphs will discuss a few of these weapons and some of the more common weapons used during the war.

The most common weapon used was the rifled musket, which had been around for two centuries. These were muzzle-loaded percussion cap firing guns with an effective range of 100 to 200 yards.

One of the most unique weapons was the Confederate-built CSS Virginia, the first ironclad warship ever used in combat. By the end of the war, both sides were building and operating ironclads and submarines.

Rifled Musket

Several modifications were made to this weapon throughout its military history, including bayonet mounts and socket mounts for attaching a ramrod below the barrel to function as a short pike. While muskets were still in use by soldiers on both sides at this point, they would soon be phased out and replaced by even more efficient and effective rifles like the ones used during the first part of this war.

According to Graham Smith, the rifled musket was one of the most popular American civil war weapons. It was an improvement of the smoothbore musket; another popular Civil War artillery weapon

used throughout the 1800s. It had a barrel rifled with spiral grooves that imparted spin on the bullet, improving its flight stability and accuracy.

Other popular guns and patented weapons from the civil war include:

  • Gatling gun (one of the first machine guns)
  • Repeating rifle
  • Henry rifle
  • Sharps rifle
  • Henry repeating rifle
  • Breech-loading rifle

A Civil War rifle can be accurate up to a mile, making them invaluable on the open battlefield, especially in repelling cavalry charges. Since space between combatants and battles was less confined than those in previous wars, soldiers would fire their weapons with greater accuracy at much longer distances.

This also gave a Civil War soldier cover against enemy fire since they didn't have to get close enough for hand-to-hand combat. While these weapons were becoming popular among well-trained units before the Civil War battles started, most Confederate units did not receive training in using these new, better weapons until after many significant battles had been fought with obsolete equipment.

Civil War Swords and Pistols

Civil war small arms conflicts were identified by the firearm that was used. Each side employed different weapons to attack their opponents, such as cavalry sabers and bayonets for hand-to-hand combat or artillery cannons and long-range rifles for strategic purposes.

The Union preferred breechloaders and repeaters, while Confederates relied more heavily on muzzleloaders and single-shot firearms. An edged weapon like a sword or knife saw less widespread use in the Civil War than in prior wars.

Compared to World War I and World War II, the two world wars in the twentieth century, the American Civil War might seem like a small conflict. But when considering the number of fatal casualties and weapons used during that period, it was much deadlier than it appeared.

Civil War Rifles

Wars are fought with weapons, and we will begin to explore the material culture of the American Civil War with the same. The standard weapon issued to Union and Confederate troops between 1861 and 1865 was rifles. A very wide range of these was used, particularly so in the early stages of the war when both sides were short of firearms and willing to redistribute rifles and smoothbore muskets which had been used in previous conflicts as far back as the 1810s. Thus, for instance, in the early stages of the war, the Model 1816 Springfield Rifle was actually being widely used nearly half a century after it was first developed. Similarly, the Union purchased thousands of Model 1809 Potsdam Muskets from Prussia in the early stages of the war as production of new rifles was far outstripped by demand in 1861. Accordingly, there was the unusual sight of Union soldiers fighting in the early 1860s with musket rifles that had first seen service during the Napoleonic Wars. Many of these rifles are displayed in the National Museum.

Civil War Confederates used carbine guns against Union soldiers. First carbines were made from percussion cap rifles, invented in 1849. They were too expensive for mass production. Colt introduced the Model 1861 Army Rifle during the war. Due to its ability to fire at least 50 rounds per minute, it became known as the "Peacemaker".

However, as the war went on, a number of specific rifles were either being mass produced or imported, which were recognized as the gold standards for arming both Union and Confederate troops. One that was being imported in very large numbers was the Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle which both the Union and the Confederacy purchased from Britain. This had a .577 caliber and was superior to most of the small arms being issued to Union and Confederate soldiers in 1861 and into 1862. As a consequence, over 900,000 Enfields are said to have been imported into America during the conflict, with the rifle in particular demand by the Confederates. It was used widely in every major military engagement of the war, including the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, the Siege of Vicksburg in 1863, and the critical Battle of Gettysburg the same year.

The Enfield was surpassed as the rifle of choice only by the Model 1861 Springfield Rifle, which became the most widely used rifle by Union forces as the war went on. It was manufactured by Springfield Armory in Massachusetts, and the Union had an immense advantage as the war proceeded in being able to mass manufacture their main small arms, while the Confederacy continued to have to rely on importation of theirs from countries such as Britain. By way of contrast, by the end of the war in 1865, Springfield Armory had produced over one and half million rifles for the Union armies. Both the Springfield and the Enfield were single-shot muzzle-loading rifles that had excellent accuracy up to 300 yards, a necessity in a war in which the vast majority of troops had zero training and generally fired their weapons for the first time on an actual battlefield.

Civil War Muskets and Revolvers

While rifles were the standard issue weapon for troops on both sides, many units were also equipped with side arms such as muskets and revolvers. A popular model was the Colt Army Model 1860, a cap and ball .44 caliber single-action revolver. Though produced in the north, many of these were being smuggled south both before and after the outbreak of hostilities. By early 1864 over 127,000 of them had been manufactured. As with the Confederate reliance on the Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle, the southern states also relied on foreign imports of revolvers to a considerable degree.

Favored items were the Kerr M1855 Revolver which was produced by the London Armory in Britain and which was imported by the Confederacy in large numbers, and the Lefaucheux M1858 Revolver, a French revolver.

Close Quarters Combat: Swords, Knives, and Bayonets

By the time of the American Civil War, the use of a Civil War sword had largely become ceremonial for modern armies. However, it was still issued to cavalry units. The most widely distributed were the Model 1840 Cavalry Sabre and the Model 1860 Light Cavalry Sabre. By the end of the war, over 300,000 units of the 1860 Model had been issued. At sea, cutlasses were issued to marines and remained a practical device for use while attempting to board other vessels. However, ultimately blades of this type had been superseded as the weapon of choice for close quarters combat by other weapons by the 1860s, notably the standard bayonet, which most troops attached to the end of their rifles, while some other weapons were also carried at times by the Confederates, notably the Bowie Knife which was named after its designer, Rezin Bowie. Yet even these shorter close quarter blades were only of limited utility. For instance, it is estimated that bayonets were responsible for less than 1% of all casualties on the battlefield. Where they were effective was in forcing the enemy to retreat backward if confronted by a determined bayonet charge. A good example of this was the Union charge at Little Round Top on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863.

Other Weapons

A number of other weapons were available to both Union troops and those from the Confederate States during the American Civil War. For instance, both sides employed hand grenades, albeit in limited numbers and with questionable success. In August 1861, William F. Ketchum patented a design for such a weapon in Buffalo, New York, and it came to be known as the Ketchum Grenade. The device was conical shaped in such a way that it would typically land on one side. If it did land on this side, it would then set off the main powder charge and explode soon after. However, they were highly ineffective. Firstly, they often did not land correctly and did not go off, while even those who did land correctly took time for the charge to detonate the grenade. Consequently, it was common for those who had the grenade thrown at them to throw it back before it ever exploded. The Confederate versions, the most of which were the Rains Grenade and Adams Grenade, were even less effective. Beyond these, there were also crude versions of land mines and even rocket launchers devised during the war. The latter was particularly ineffective and hazardous for the individual who tried to use them.

An Age of Changing Military Technology

Whatever the proportional causes of the war were, one thing is for sure. The American Civil War broke out at a time when the more technologically advanced nations of Europe and the Americas had not entered into many conflicts in nearly half a century. The Congress of Vienna, which had brought the Napoleonic Wars to an end in Europe in 1815, had been followed by a remarkable period of peace in which the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856 stands out for having involved great powers such as Russia, Britain, and France.

Conversely, this period of peace was also one of the widespread technological innovations in all fields. As a result, when the Union soldier or Confederate soldier officers began being armed and uniformed in 1861, they were so with weapons and uniforms which many had not seen before. As such, the American Civil War was a conflict with its own unique material culture. Consequently, what this series on the weapons and accessories of the American Civil War, of which this is the first part, explores are the objects which were handed out to the Union and Confederate troops between 1861 and 1865, specifically their weapons, the bullets used in them, the buttons on their uniforms and the buckles they wore.

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