This article is a slight departure from recent posts, which focused on broader Old Army subjects. The goal of Old Army Records is to present a wide array of data for a comprehensive history of the 19th century U.S. Army. As a result, some articles will discuss very specific topics about the food, pay, equipment, and weapons used by soldiers of the period. When viewed together subject matter helps paint a complete picture of Old Army life. With this mind, we present the following about one of the most highly sought after weapons of the Civil War, Spencer Carbines, as compared with other cavalry weapons.
In February 1865, the American Civil War was rapidly drawing to a conclusion. At the time Union commanders consolidated their cavalry into autonomous units and sent them to destroy communications, transportation, and industry in the South. One such unit was the Cavalry Corps of the Military Division of the Mississippi (MDM). Just prior to participating in the final phase of war, Captain Henry E. Noyes, Acting Assistant Inspector General (AAIG) for the Corps, prepared a report summarizing the merits of various carbines and rifles and ammunition then being used by cavalrymen assigned to the MDM. Inspectors noted and reported upon a wide array of subjects pertaining to the efficiency of the army. Significant topics coming under the purview of inspectors included the condition and serviceability of supplies, arms, and equipment.
MDM Cavalry Corps
Established at the end of October 1864, the MDM Cavalry Corps consolidated numerous cavalry units into a centrally-controlled organization. Brevet Major General James H. Wilson assumed command of the corps. Although some of his cavalrymen fought at the Battle of Nashville (December 1864), Wilson spent the fall and winter of 1864/1865 organizing and equipping his force. One of Wilson’s first tasks was to outfit his unit for combat and as a result he requested 10,000 each of; Spencer Carbines or, if not available, Sharps Carbines, sets of horse equipment, and light cavalry sabers and 300 rounds of ammunition per carbine. However, the request took months to fulfill. By the end of February 1865 the Cavalry Corps consisted of about 25,000 men assigned to seven divisions (designated 1st-7th).
Noyes’ 11-page Report on “Spencer Arms and Ammunition” Compared With That of Other Arms included a summary table, sub-reports, and a summation/ recommendations section prepared by the author. The sub-reports were completed by the units not serving elsewhere, the 1st, 2nd, and 5th divisions, a detachment of the 4th Division, and the 4th U.S. Cavalry Regiment. Ironically, the MDM Cavalry Corps served under the command of Major General William T. Sherman, but only the 3rd Division served directly with him. Noyes’ divisional/ regimental counterpart prepared these summaries:
1st Division (Captain Seneca P. Goulding, 7th Kentucky Cavalry)
2nd Division (Captain Jesse N. Squire, 3rd Ohio Cavalry)
4th Division (Lieutenant William T. Benton, 7th Ohio Cavalry)
5th Division (Captain James P. Metcalf, 2nd Iowa Cavalry)
4th U.S. Cavalry (2nd Lieutenant Sebastian Gunther, 4th U.S. Cavalry – Acting Adjutant)
Spencer Carbines, and Other Weapons, Issued to the MDM Cavalry Corps
The carbines carried by the Corps were a good representation of weapons in use at the time. The unit carried nearly 7,000 Spencer Carbines, by far the majority of carbines represented. The cavalrymen also carried weapons that fired other metallic cartridges including the Ballard, Burnside, and Warner carbines. The third type of firearm included those chambered for combustible cartridges (i.e. cartridges made from paper or linen). The Sharps Carbine and Colt Rifle used combustible ammunition. The following lists the types of weapons used by the reporting units:
1st Division: Spencer, Warner, Burnside, Sharps, Ballard, Maynard, and Joslyn (improved and old models) carbines and Spencer, Colts, and Springfield rifles
2nd Division: Spencer, Sharps, and Burnside carbines
4th Division: Spencer and Burnside carbines
5th Division: Spencer, Sharps, and Maynard carbines and Colts Rifle
4th U.S. Cavalry: Spencer Carbines
The report begins with a summary table organized by weapons/ ammunition type and the division that carried them. The table includes a detailed accounting of the total number of rounds drawn, expended, and lost. Each report includes critical, albeit brief, synopsis of the firearms by the respective units.
The five reporting units drew nearly 1.8 million rounds of ammunition, including 710,000 rounds for the Spencer carbines and rifles. They expended about 70% of these rounds; the remaining 30% were lost. The 2nd Division drew 275,000 rounds of Spencer ammunition and, amazingly, listed 100% as expended. However, this summary came with the caveat that all ammunition was listed as expended, “as it is impossible to ascertain the amount broken or wasted.”
The report notes the loss of Spencer ammunition at a low 4%. Conversely, the report listed 27% (194,722) of the combustible ammunition lost. The 5th Division left White’s Station, Tennessee with most of the ammunition carried on pack mules or in saddle bags. Despite being subjected to “4 or 5 days” of wet weather and being jostled in saddle bags the Spencer ammunition remained uninjured. The weather and mode of transport, however, ruined 75,000 rounds of Sharps and 12,000 rounds of Colt Rifle ammunition. In another instance, the detachment of 4th U.S. Cavalry lost two boxes of Spencer ammunition in the Duck River, Tennessee for nearly two days. The ammunition “was only partially injured” and presumably used.
The reports unanimously rated the Spencer Carbine superior to other weapons. It received high marks for serviceability, rate of loading and firing, and ease of use while mounted or on foot. Lieutenant Gunther stated that “[i]n the hands of a reliable man, it is fully adequate to perform the work of Four ordinary Breech loading Carbines.” Noyes stated that the Spencer Carbine “is a universal favorite with officers as well as men in this command.” Not surprisingly, the Spencer and Springfield rifles were not recommended for cavalry service because their size prohibited them from being effectively used on horseback. These weapons were issued out of necessity, there being no other arms available.
The Sharps Carbine also ranked high for its range, accuracy, and penetration into a target. However, the paper and linen cartridges, used by the Sharps, were not durable and susceptible to loss from moisture and rough handling. Not surprisingly, the metallic Spencer cartridges rated high for durability and reliability; few misfired.
Action After the Report
The MDM Cavalry Corps began its last campaign not long after the issuance of Report on “Spencer Arms and Ammunition”. All of the units mentioned in the report, except the 5th Division, participated in the sweep through Alabama and Georgia. Significantly, Wilson himself led the Cavalry Corps, which captured or destroyed a significant amount of Confederate property. The 4th Division, for example, captured 3,000 prisoners, 39 pieces of artillery, and 13 battle flags. The effectiveness of carbines, especially the Spencers, and sheer volume of ammunition supplied to the Corps no doubt contributed to the success.
Noyes and AAIG counterparts served as aides de camp for their respective commanders. As a result, their roles as inspectors did not restrict them to desk duty. On April 10th, the 2nd Indiana Cavalry engaged Confederate forces near Benton, Alabama. Unfortunately, the Indiana cavalrymen charged in the wrong direction and into a swamp and during the melee Seneca P. Goulding, 1st Division AAIG, drowned. Goulding died just one day after Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.
Noyes served on Wilson’s staff and in this capacity he escorted and turned over to the War Department 24 stands of colors and records from Andersonville Prison, all captured by the Cavalry Corps. An 1861 graduate of West Point, Noyes ably served as a company commander throughout the late 1860s and 1870s, served as regimental staff (major, lieutenant colonel and colonel), before retiring as a brigadier general in 1904.
Connecting an Individual to a Specific Weapon
During the course of scanning and indexing original documents for the Old Army Records database, we have discovered hundreds of serial numbers for martial firearms dating to the late 19th century. Individuals who used these weapons are often mentioned with the serial numbers. Please contact us if you feel that this type of information is useful.
Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, Since Its Establishment in 1802. Entry 1955.
Report on “Spencer Arms and Ammunition” Compared With That of Other Arms, Cavalry Corps, Military Division of the Mississippi, February 25th 1865.
United States. War Department. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Volumes 39 (1892), 45 (1895), and 49 (1897).