Armament in the Army of the Potomac at Fredericksburg
In the spring of 1861, volunteers rushed to join companies and regiments forming throughout the north. Equipping the thousands of men who responded to President Abraham Lincoln’s call was no easy task. There were only two Federal arsenals at that time: one in Springfield, Massachusetts, and the other in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. On April 18, Virginia troops seized Harpers Ferry and removed the surviving weapons and machinery kept there. That left only the Springfield Arsenal to produce weapons for the growing forces of the United States.
The inventory of weapons on hand in the United States Ordnance Department revealed 437,000 muskets and rifles, 4,000 carbines, and 27,000 pistols. Of that number, only 40,000 of the muskets and rifles were of recent manufacture, the vast majority being older models and styles. This was an adequate supply should the conflict be a short one, but as the war dragged into the fall of 1861, and more men flocked to the army, it quickly became apparent that the demand far outreached the supply.
Federal authorities turned to both contractors and foreign sources to meet the demand. Firms such as Colt Patent Firearms Company and U.S. Providence Tool Company received government contracts to produce the most modern style of gun available, the Model 1861 Springfield Rifled Musket. Government buyers also traveled to Europe, where they competed not only with individual states but with Confederate purchasing agents, who also hoped to secure available arms. These foreign weapons were a mixed bag, with rusty, antiquated long arms often arriving in U.S. ports, as well as accurate more modern models. Imported in high numbers, and coveted by many who received them, were the British Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifled Musket and the 1854 Austrian Lorenz Rifled Musket.
For the cavalry, breech-loading technology offered a distinct advantage. Horsemen could load quickly and while on the move without fumbling with the cumbersome muzzleloaders. The most popular of these weapons was the New Model 1859 Sharps Carbine, manufactured by the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company of Hartford, Connecticut. Large numbers of these carbines were purchased and it became the standard weapon for the Union cavalry during the war. Other breechloaders, such as the Merrill Carbine, Gallagher Percussion Carbine, and the Burnside Percussion Carbine supplemented the need for arms to supply mounted forces of the army.
Union foundries worked overtime to supply the armies with cannons for the artillery batteries. The Model 1857, Light 12-pounder Gun-Howitzer, nicknamed the “Napoleon,” was the most prevalent and popular type of gun during the first years of the war. It was light enough to be moved quickly around the battlefield and versatile enough to fire different types of ammunition. Later inventions surpassed the Napoleon, being lighter and having greater ranges. The Model 1861 3-inch wrought iron field rifle, commonly referred to as the “Ordnance Rifle,” was a dependable gun and a prized among artillerists. The Parrott Gun, first designed in 1860, also saw extensive service with the field batteries. It came in various sizes, but the most prevalent found on the battlefield were the 10 and 20-pounder models. With its reinforcing band around the breech of the gun, the Parrott was able to throw a shell 1,900 yards, surpassing both the Napoleon and the Ordnance Rifle.
Despite Northern production and imports, it wasn’t until 1863 that the government was capable of supplying first class weapons to outfit nearly the entire army. By the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, however, the Army of the Potomac still displayed a wide variety of issued ordnance. Some consistency existed within companies, but within regiments weapons of various makes and calibers were commonplace. For example, the 46th New York Infantry reported that within its ten companies it had eight different types of long arms of at least four different calibers. This surely made supplying ammunition difficult.
The attached document contains a breakdown by regiment of the type and number of weapons carried by companies, regiments, and batteries in the hands of the Army of the Potomac around the time of the Battle of Fredericksburg. This information is based on returns submitted to the Ordnance Department for the final quarter of 1862, ending December 31, 1862. The returns show that for the infantry regiments, the most common weapons carried were the Springfield Rifled Muskets, model 1855, 1861, National Armory and contract. Imported weapons made up 39% of the infantry’s armament, while only 11% of the guns were of the older smoothbore variety. Among cavalrymen, the Sharps rifled carbine was the most prevalent, while among artillerymen the Napoleon proved most common.
The attached statistics come from: Record Group 156: Records of the Office of the Chief of Ordnance – “Summary Statements of Quarterly Returns of Ordnance and Ordnance Stores on Hand in Regular and Volunteer Army Organizations, 1862-1867, 1870-1876.” (Microcopy 1281, Rolls 1, 2 and 4). National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.
*The webmaster would like to thank historian Eric Mink for the hard work on this project.