The Ordnance Department of the Federal Army
O. E. Hunt, Captain, United States Army
The provision of muskets and cannon for the vast army of volunteers that flocked to Washington in answer to President Lincoln's call for troops, presented a problem hardly second in importance to the actual organization and training of these citizen soldiers. As the United States had but a small regular army, there were no extensive stores of arms and munitions of war, nor were there large Government manufactories or arsenals adequate to supply great armies. The opening of the Civil War found the Federal War Department confronted, therefore, with an extraordinary situation. From scientific experiment and the routine of a mere bureau, whose chief duties were the fabrication and test of the ordnance required by the small regular army, the Ordnance Department suddenly was called upon to furnish from its all too meager supply, tens of thousands of weapons for the different arms of the service, on a scale quite unprecedented in the military operations theretofore attempted in the United States.
Enjoying a reputation for scientific and painstaking work, especially in the making of large cast-iron cannon, it early became apparent that, in the event of hostilities, there must be a wide extension of the activities of the Ordnance Department. Accordingly, at the outbreak of the war the Ordnance Department was reorganized, and the new organization provided for a chief of ordnance with the rank of brigadier-general, two colonels, two lieutenant-colonels, four majors, twelve captains, twelve first lieutenants, and twelve second lieutenants.
Colonel James W. Ripley was appointed to be chief of ordnance in April, 1861. He was an officer of long experience, and under his able direction the department, for the first two and one-half years of the war, sustained the great burden of arming and equipping the immense armies that were suddenly raised for the prosecution of the conflict.
During previous years of peace, nearly seven hundred thousand muskets had been ordinarily on hand in the various Government arsenals, but even this number had been allowed to diminish, so that the store of muskets of all kinds, on October 30, 1860, was about five hundred and thirty thousand, distributed among the arsenals of the country, there being at no one place more than one hundred and thirty thousand. As this supply of arms was applicable to the army, the navy, the marine corps, and the militia, it was evidently not great, especially in view of the emergency. Furthermore, there had been a sale of a considerable number of old-pattern muskets, but this sale was stopped, in order not to deplete the supply too seriously.
During 1860, the apportionment of Government arms to the various States for arming their militia was carried on under an old law, that of 1808, but, on account of the small number on hand, only 14,615 were distributed. The allotments were made in proportion to the number of senators and representatives in Congress. Distribution of equipments, other ordnance, and ordnance stores was also made on the same basis to the States.
By the latter part of 1860, there were thirteen arsenals, two armories, and one depot for the manufacture and safe-keeping of ordnance and ordnance stores. This was a period of much technical development in the manufacture of cannon, and in consequence of proposed changes in the mode of casting guns, very few were made during the year. Large quantities of iron for gun-carriages, however, were provided, and preparations were made for very active work in the beginning of 1861. Likewise, in the manufacture of gunpowder the department had determined there should be an improvement. The sudden strain on the large guns of quick-burning powders had caused some to burst, and the problem confronting the experts was to produce a slow-bur would not cause the great initial strain of the quick-burning kinds, without sacrifice of velocity or range.
As showing the distribution of ordnance supplies at the outbreak of the war, it may be stated there were stored in arsenals in the South about one hundred and thirty-five thousand small arms of all patterns. These fell into the hands of the Confederates, depleting considerably the already small supply for the use of the Union armies.
In verbal reports to the Secretary of War, about the 23d of April, 1861, the chief of ordnance suggested that, in view of the limited capacity of the arsenals, there should be purchased from abroad from fifty thousand to one hundred thousand small arms and eight batteries of rifled cannon. There was no immediate action on this request; on the contrary, efforts were made to encourage the private manufacturers in the Northern States to increase the capacity of their plants. This, it was foreseen, would lead to an endless variety of arms soon being in use in the service, unless special effort was made to provide a uniform pattern. The Springfield model of the United States rifle was then being manufactured at the armories of the Government at a cost of a little less than fourteen dollars, and it was estimated that it could be made in private armories for twelve dollars, so that, with a proper margin of profit, it could be sold to the Government for the cost of manufacture in Government factories. The United States musket then, as nearly always since, had no superior in the world.
The patriotic efforts of the States to assist the general Government were well shown by the action of New York in purchasing, early in 1861, twenty thousand Enfield rifles from England, with an initial purchase of one hundred thousand rounds of ammunition. This was followed by an inquiry made of the chief of ordnance to ascertain whether the same ammunition could be manufactured in the Government arsenals, for issue to the troops armed with the Enfield. Necessarily, the answer was " No," and the chief of ordnance, on June 17, 1861, reported to the Secretary of War that the issue of " fancy " arms to troops about to be mustered into the service of the United States was highly undesirable. By the end of December, 1861, however, it was found that the capacity of the various arsenals of the Government was not equal to the great output necessary, and that the practice of buying by contract had to be recognized to a great extent. The States had already sent troops for service armed with numerous patterns of rifles, and it was impracticable to rearm all of them.
On January 25, 1862, the chief of ordnance reported to Secretary Stanton that, under the administration of his predecessor, Secretary Cameron, it had been tentatively decided to have, if possible, but one caliber of rifles, and to cause the necessary changes to be made to accomplish this. It was found that there were in the arsenals but ten thousand rifles of .58-inch caliber, the standard size deemed best for the military service, and it was decided to ream up to that size all arms of less caliber. The Government shops were working to their utmost capacity, and could not make the alterations without serious injury to the necessary business from an interruption of the operations and consequent diminution of the output. Certain private firms took over all the small arms that were to be changed, paid the Government a price almost equal to the original cost price, reamed them to the standard size, put on sword-bayonets, and returned them to the Government at a slight advance, sufficient to cover the cost of the work and give a small margin of profit. Thereby, the service secured a supply of arms that would take the regulation ammunition. The consensus of expert opinion at the time inclined toward the use of the muzzle-loader in preference to the breech-loading rifle, and the repeaters of the day were considered especially undesirable for military purposes. Those in use were complicated in their mechanism, liable to get out of order, and more difficult of repair than the more simple weapon. Besides, with the repeaters, the ammunition was so heavy and the expenditure so rapid, that the supply was soon exhausted, while, owing to the excessive rapidity of fire, the soldier took less care in aiming, with the net result that the value of his ammunition was much less than by the old method of loading.
The question of a repeating rifle was, however, much discussed. Before the war opened there was no weapon of this type considered altogether suitable for military purposes. Inventors immediately began producing models and improving upon them, and the Government armories afforded favorite places for the work of these men. One of the best models was the Spencer, patented in 1860. This was a very ingenious weapon, which was made at the Harper's Ferry Armory. Compared with a revolver, it was quicker in action and held more cartridges, while having the advantage of the better enclosed rifle construction. In this rifle, for the first time, the problem of a closed breech and barrel, as in a single loader, was successfully solved. Theretofore, rapidity of fire had been associated only with the revolver principle. By operating the lever which formed the trigger-guard, the breech-block was given two motions-one rotary, and the other one of depression. The magazine was a tube in the stock, having a spring which fed the cartridges toward the breech mechanism.
All throughout the war this gun and similar types did splendid service, notwithstanding the fact that the prevailing opinion among ordnance experts was in favor of the muzzle-loader. It is stated that, at Ball's Bluff, one regiment of Confederates was armed with the repeater and did great execution. Due to the use of the Spencer rifle by a part of General Geary's troops at Gettysburg, a whole division of Ewell's corps was repulsed by inferior numbers. Of this an eye-witness said, " The head of the column, as it was pushed on by those behind, appeared to melt away or sink into the earth, for though continually moving it got no nearer." In the West, it was found that a regiment armed with the Spencer was more than a match for a division armed with the old Springfield. In 1863, the Winchester was patented, and was an improvement over the former models of repeaters-and from that time to the end of the war these and kindred types were greatly sought after by new regiments going to the front.
During the first part of the war, so great was the demand for muskets that Secretary Stanton approved a recommendation of the chief of ordnance on August 8, 1862, for a somewhat lenient interpretation of the contracts with private establishments delivering small arms. General Ripley stated that it had been found impossible to hold contractors to the literal, strict compliance with all the terms of their contracts. In view of the fact that contractors had expended large sums for equipping their factories, and having in mind the urgent need for great quantities of small arms, as close an inspection at the private factories as in the United States armories was not carried on. Arms were not rejected for small blemishes not impairing the serviceability of the weapon. The main points insisted on were that they should be of standard caliber to take the Government ammunition, and that the stocks, barrels, locks, and other essential parts should be of the strongest quality. Otherwise, the matter of acceptance or rejection was left in the hands of the inspector.
The greatest difficulty was experienced in securing iron for the manufacture of small arms and cannon. Up to August, 1862, a sufficient quantity of American iron could not be procured, and the department was forced to buy abroad. On August 8th of that year, the Secretary of War was informed by the chief of ordnance that the use of American iron was what the ordnance officers were striving for without success. Every inducement had been offered to manufacturers to prepare iron of a suitable quality; the highest prices had been offered, and a great many samples had been tested. Whenever American iron of acceptable quality was presented, it was always used in preference to foreign iron, other things being equal. The chief of ordnance stated that he had no doubt there was a sufficient quantity of good American material, but up to that time the producer had not furnished it, and a resort to foreign markets was a necessity.
The difficulties experienced with small arms were repeated with the ammunition. When the Army of the Potomac took the field in the middle of March, 1862, for the Peninsula campaign, the Ordnance Department held, at the Washington Arsenal, sixteen million five hundred thousand rounds of small-arms ammunition, for five different kinds of arms, in reserve. This ammunition was for smooth-bore muskets, caliber .58; foreign muskets of various makes, caliber .577, and nondescript, unclassified muskets, caliber .54. For carbines and pistols of various kinds, one million rounds were in reserve. For artillery there were sixty-four thousand two hundred projectiles for three kinds of 6-pounders, three kinds of 12-pounders, and one kind each of 10-, 20-, 24-, and 32-pounders. The mere mention of these various classifications is sufficient to indicate the strain under which the department was laboring. But this task was met and well done, for history seldom records a shortage of ammunition that could be traced to the ordnance officers.
In February, 1863, there were on hand in the ordnance armories and arsenals nearly one hundred and thirty-seven million rounds of small-arms ammunition, and up to that time, since the opening of the war, nearly fifty-five million pounds of lead had been purchased for use in making bullets.
The development of rifled cannon was in an experimental stage when the war opened. There had been a decided movement toward the adoption of these guns in 1859, simultaneously with their introduction into the foreign services. Prior to that time, artillerists and inventors had directed their attention to the production of a projectile on the expanding system. This method of making the projectile take the rifling had been more or less successful with the bullet, and it was hoped that a device could be invented which would permit the use of the same principle with larger projectiles. The board of rifled ordnance, in 1859, expressed an opinion that such would be the case, with the exception of one member, who recommended the continuation of experiments with flanged projectiles and similar types. However, the Charrin projectile, an expanding type, was adopted at first, but proved to be unsatisfactory and was withdrawn. The introduction of rifled cannon did not simplify the question of calibers.
Up to the summer of 1862, there were made, in the arsenals of the Government and in certain private establishments, bronze rifled guns of 3.67 and 3.8 inches, and large numbers of iron rifled cannon of 2.9 and 3.0 inches. There had been already both smooth-bore and rifled guns of 4.62 inches, and guns of 4.5 inches were also made. The great objection to the smaller calibers was that the range was needlessly great, and the shell too small to be of practical value. With the system of expanding projectiles at first adopted, the question of exact calibers was not of such great importance, for by the method used for accommodating the projectile to the rifling, the same shot could be used for both the 3.67-inch and the 3.8-inch gun.
Bronze had been adopted as a standard metal for field-guns in 1841, and served the purpose excellently until the introduction of rifled cannon, when the increased strain due to the imparting of the rotary motion to the projectile proved too great, and the metal was too soft to stand the wear on the rifling. It was then found that wrought iron served the purpose best, and of this material 3-inch muzzle-loading guns were made. On the introduction of breech-loaders, forged steel proved to be more satisfactory. However, many Parrott rifled cast-iron field-guns were successfully used. These received a reenforcement of wrought iron shrunk around the base. A considerable number of the bronze Napoleon guns were, however, retained, and did effective service at short ranges.
For heavier ordnance cast iron was early found to be the most suitable material, and proved entirely satisfactory until the adoption of the rifled systems. The American smooth-bore type of ordnance was the best in the world. In 1860, the Ordnance Department adopted Colonel Rodman's method of interior cooling of a hollow cast tube, and in 1863 the extreme effort was made to produce a heavy gun, resulting in a successful 20-inch smooth-bore throwing a shot weighing 1080 pounds. The heavy rifled guns of the Civil War period were somewhat untrustworthy, however, and many accidents resulted. In consequence, their use was limited principally to those built on the Parrott principle, and the great mass of the heavy artillery used by the Union armies was of the smooth-bore type.
The expenditures of the Government on account of the Ordnance Department for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1863, were over $42,300,000. The principal purchases that were made during the year consisted of 1577 field-, siege-, and sea-coast cannon, 1,082,841 muskets, 282,389 carbines and pistols, over 1,250,000 cannon-balls and shells, over 48,700,000 pounds of lead, and over 259,000,000 cartridges for small arms, in addition to nearly 6,000,000 pounds of powder.
These purchases were made necessary by the fact that the arsenals and armories under the direct control of the department were not able to produce all of this immense quantity of war materiel. But the progress toward obtaining greater facilities for the production of these supplies was very great. The Secretary of War, in his report of the operations of the War Department for 1863, made note especially of the tremendous work done by the ordnance officers and the personnel under their direct charge. He stated that the resources of the country for the production of arms and munitions of war had only commenced their development, yet their extent could be inferred from the tabular extract which he presented, showing the enormous quantities furnished since the beginning of the war.
The excellence of arms and munitions of American manufacture which had been supplied by the ordnance department of the army had been so obvious that the soldiers were no longer willing to use those imported from other countries. The efforts that had been made to improve these supplies had resulted in discoveries of great importance to the country, alike in peace and war. Among such improvements was to be noted the art of working wrought iron so that it excelled the best produced abroad.
In regard to arming the militia of the States, the Secretary of War noted in his report for 1863 that, under the law of 1808, still in force, the sum of two hundred thousand dollars was allotted annually for that purpose. Of course, this amount was entirely insufficient in the stress of war, and he recommended that, for the time being, the appropriation be increased to two million dollars annually, until all the States could be supplied according to population in the same proportion of arms that had already been issued to some of the States.
The chief of ordnance, in his report for the same year, called attention to the fact that the supply of guns and carriages was much less than it should be. However, an immense amount of material, embracing iron and woodwork for artillery carriages, and implements, projectiles, and ammunition of all kinds, bullets for small-arms, cartridges, equipments, and accouterments had been prepared and advanced to different stages toward completion at the arsenals. Also, a large number of artillery carriages and small arms of every type, which had been disabled in the field, had been repaired.
Experience by that time had proved the fallacy of depending in any measure on private manufacture of ordnance materiel. It was impossible for the dealers to control the fluctuation in the market of labor and raw material, even if they so desired, and no private establishment could afford to carry on hand a large stock of ordnance stores such as would meet possible demands from the Government. Warned by repeated failures to procure supplies, the chief of ordnance had taken energetic measures, as far as the funds appropriated would permit, to enlarge the principal arsenals, viz.: Watertown, Massachusetts; Watervliet, West Troy, New York; Allegheny, Pennsylvania; St. Louis, Missouri; Washington, and Benicia, California.
Owing to the development of the resources of the United States, less material had been purchased abroad during the year ending June 30, 1863, than at previous periods of the war, and the Ordnance Department determined that still less should be acquired in Europe in the future. The only articles of which there appeared to be a possible lack were sulphur and saltpeter. During the year the reserve supply of saltpeter had been held intact, and all the powder necessary had been purchased, while the supply of sulphur had been augmented.
In the matter of small arms, the country, by June 30, 1863, was entirely independent. The supply from the Springfield Armory alone was capable of equipping two hundred and fifty thousand troops a year, and the private manufacturers were fully able to supply two hundred and fifty thousand more. Of carbines for cavalry, the capacity of established factories under contract with the Government was at least one hundred thousand annually, and of pistols not less than three hundred thousand.
The duties of officers commanding armories and arsenals and their responsibilities were almost without limitation, involving the control and disbursement of vast quantities of the public money, and the supervision of almost every branch of the mechanic arts. The department, due to the untiring energies of its personnel, both commissioned and enlisted, aided by the large body of civilian employees in service, had been able to meet successfully all the exigencies of the great war, and to keep supplies going out constantly to a tremendous army operating over a territory as large as Europe. And the quality of the ordnance supplied had surpassed anything theretofore used in the armies of the world.
During the year ending June 30, 1863, over twenty thousand officers had been accountable to the department for ordnance and ordnance stores, and over eighty thousand returns should have been made to the office of the chief of ordnance. All of the accounts rendered for supplies had to be carefully checked, and this involved an immense amount of labor. Many of the returns that were due were not submitted by officers in the field, however, their time being fully occupied with the sterner duties of war.
The activities of the department required an expenditure for the next year of over $38,500,000. The supplies produced included 1760 pieces of ordnance, 2361 artillery caissons and carriages, 802,525 small arms, 8,409,400 pounds of powder, nearly 1,700,000 projectiles for cannon, and nearly 169,500,000 rounds of small-arms ammunition, besides miscellaneous supplies. In addition to this, large quantities of materiel were repaired after service in the field.
The capacity of the arsenals for the production of munitions was vastly increased, as far as the amount of the Congressional appropriations would permit. By this time, the superiority of the articles fabricated in the Government workshops had received unanimous recognition, and the increased facilities had enabled these factories to reduce the cost below that of private manufacture. The Springfield Armory could, by June 30, 1864, turn out three hundred thousand of the finest muskets in the world, annually, and the arsenal at Rock Island, Illinois, was under construction, and promised a great addition to the capacity of the Ordnance Department. There were, in the hands of troops in the field, one and one-quarter million small arms, and the stock on hand in the armories and arsenals available for issue had been increased to three-quarters of a million.
The introduction of breech-loaders for the military service throughout was now very generally recommended. The success of the Spencer, the Sharp, and some other types of repeaters had brought them prominently to notice. The great objections to the breech-loading small arm, in addition to that heretofore mentioned, were that these pieces were heavier than the muzzle-loaders, did not shoot as accurately, were more expensive, and more liable to get out of repair. Besides, dampness penetrated between the barrel and the breech; there was greater risk of bursting; the cartridges were troublesome to make and expensive to buy; the ammunition was heavier, and the projecting pin of the cartridge, then thought a necessity, was liable to cause an explosion by being accidentally struck.
When the war closed, the activities of the Ordnance Department were at their height. Forty-three million one hundred and twelve thousand dollars were spent during the last year, and the main efforts were directed toward providing the same types of materiel that had theretofore been supplied. The manufacture of arms at the national armories was reduced as rapidly as consistent with the economic interests of the Government. With a view to changing the old muzzle-loaders to breech-loaders, extensive experiments were made, but had not, by that time, produced any satisfactory results. The Secretary of War recognized that the importance of the matter demanded that time be taken in reaching a decision, and insisted that no model which had defects of well-known character be accepted. The department had permitted about five thousand of the Springfields to be altered to suit a plan tentatively adopted, and these rifles were issued to troops, but at the time of the cessation of hostilities these were still undergoing tests, and the plan had not been found satisfactory.
There were one million Springfields on hand in the armories, and about one-half million captured muskets of domestic and foreign make. All the latter were being sold as fast as suitable prices could be obtained, and ordnance stores of a perishable nature were also being disposed of.
All the Southern arsenals that had been in the hands of the Confederate forces were reoccupied by the Union authorities, except that at Fayetteville, North Carolina, which had been destroyed. The Confederates also had a powder-mill at Augusta, Georgia, and a laboratory and an unfinished armory at Macon, Georgia. These had been captured, and were occupied by the Federal Ordnance Department.
The evident importance of arming permanent fortifications as fast as they were built, required the construction of cannon and carriages for that purpose as far as the appropriations would permit. The construction of the forts had proceeded faster than the equipment of them, on account of the difficulty in finding suitable cannon to meet the increasingly exacting conditions of warfare. Wooden carriages had been used for many sea-coast guns, but the increased size and power of these weapons had surpassed the strength of the old carriages, and at the close of the war the Ordnance Department was confronted with the problem of replacing all the old carriages and making iron carriages for the guns then in process of construction. Cast-iron smooth-bore cannon of the largest caliber had been found entirely practicable. The rifled guns had not proved as efficient, however. Up to that time no rifled guns had been built that would fulfil all the requirements of service, and many ordnance experts had concluded that the type was impracticable. Wrought-iron guns had been tried and found to be failures, and it was decided that no more of them would be bought or made.
Experiments that were carried on at Fort Monroe to test the power and endurance of 8- and 10-inch rifled guns of cast iron, made by the department, were, however, highly satisfactory, and warranted the belief that cast-iron guns of these calibers might be introduced into the service with safety and advantage. A 12-inch rifle was also under test, and had been fired, by the time the war closed, three hundred and ninety times, with a charge of powder weighing fifty-five pounds, and throwing a 600-pound projectile. This was almost conclusive in favor of the gun. Some of the large Parrott rifles used in the siege of Charleston showed remarkable endurance --one of them, a 4.2-inch 30-pounder having fired four thousand six hundred and six rounds before bursting.
After the great pressure of war was over, the department undertook the duties of cleaning, repairing, preserving, and storing the tremendous quantities of war materiel that had accumulated. Fire-proof warehouses were constructed at Watervliet, Frankfort, and Allegheny arsenals, three great magazines were constructed at St. Louis Arsenal, and one each at Washington and Benicia arsenals. The Harper's Ferry Armory had suffered so much in the stress of war that it was in bad repair, and was abandoned. At the Springfield Armory, the work was confined to cleaning, repairing, and storing the small arms used during the conflict, and to making preparations for the conversion of the old Springfield muskets, the best in the world of their kind, into rifled breech-loaders, the new type which the experience of war had brought into being.
France had sent an army into Mexico. The United States declared this a violation of the Monroe Doctrine, and the issue was doubtful. The Ordnance Department expected further trouble, but was fully prepared for it. The able officers of the department and the devoted personnel under their direction had made an institution unsurpassed in history. Be it for peace or war, no concern was felt for the outcome, for arms, equipments, and miscellaneous stores for nearly two million men Were ready for issue, or already in the hands of troops. This was the net result of the great labors of the men of the department. But France realized the power of the United States, withdrew her forces from the support of Maximilian, and the crisis was past.
Source: "The Photographic History of the Civil War, Volume III, Forts and Artillery"
This page last updated 12/08/05
RETURN TO CIVIL WAR WEAPONS PAGE