A Farewell to Arms

StackedArms-smAs the victorious Union army began to muster out at the close of the war, veterans now faced the task of assimilating back into civilian life. But what of the weapons they faithfully carried?

On May 29, 1865, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant wrote Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “I understand that great numbers of soldiers going out of service are very desirous of retaining their arms by paying for them. As the government has now a great surplus of arms I would suggest that an order be published authorizing all soldiers who desire to do so to retain their arms by paying the value to the Ordnance Department, or by having them charged on their muster-out rolls.” The department determined the following prices: muskets – $6, Spencer carbines – $10, all other carbines – $8.

The majority of soldiers still carried the muzzle-loading rifle musket, but this weapon had already peaked as the primary infantry small arm. As it took nine steps—and twenty seconds—to load a single shot, the laborious process served to force the soldiers to conserve their power and concentrate their fire. The Ordnance Department feared that issuing repeating weapons—like Spencer carbine—to the amateur volunteers who composed the majority of both armies would result in fewer well-placed volleys and more random spraying of lead downrange, especially as earthen fortifications began to mark the battlefields. Only infantry units whose own officers could procure advanced small arms or cavalry who required breech-loading weapons in the saddle benefitted from the improved models. Grant’s orders mostly concerned the Springfield and Enfield muzzle-loaders.

Reactions varied to his decision. “I considered [it] very unjust, almost an insult to the veterans who had served their country so faithfully,” remembered Sergeant James T. Ramer of the Seventh Minnesota, “[that] they would make him give almost half a month’s wages for the gun that he had fought battles with and had carried through heat and cold and storm, at times on half-rations or less—the arm by which he had saved the country from destruction and restored it a better and stronger nation than it ever was before. I thought then and still think it was an outrage.” But it was a “most generous act” according to Private Henry Roback of the One Hundred and Fifty-second New York. “One thousand days we had the old army musket by our side. Now it was ours.” A member of the Twenty-first Wisconsin jubilantly responded to news of the surrender by smashing his rifle against a tree, bringing about a fine from his officer. “I have carried that rifle for nigh three years,” he boasted, “I don’t know how many Johnnies it has hit, or knocked over. It has done its part. I will gladly pay Uncle Sam for the rifle, for the good news is worth that to me.”

All told, veterans only purchased approximately 138,000 small arms and 20,000 pistols. “Not many chose to,” remarked Private Wilbur Fisk of the Second Vermont. “They never wanted to see one again.” For others the administrative paperwork was just another delay in finally being able to return home. “If I had been able to go to the ordnance department and go through the red tape performance which was required I should have kept my gun and accoutrements as I have wished many times since that I had done so,” wrote Private William Wiley of the Seventy-seventh Illinois, “but I was so badly played out.” Those who declined the offer turned their arms in as well as their colors and equipment with the proper authorities in their home states before their final discharge. Knapsacks, haversacks, and canteens could be kept without charge.

After the Union volunteer armies demobilized, the reorganized Regular Army began converting the Springfields into breechloaders now firing a metallic cartridge. The War Department occasionally attempted to profit on their outdated models, offering them up in mass at surplus auctions. Francis Bannerman of New York recognized the market for these collectibles and his firm purchased as many as possible. Eventually he became one of the largest military dealers in the world with a store that doubled as a museum stretching a full block on Broadway.

The government sold additional surplus to foreign nations, other commercial firms, and friendly native tribes. By 1870, U.S. arsenals contained 1,151,088 serviceable small arms. Events in Europe would nearly cut that number in half. Following the start of the Franco-Prussian war on June 30, 1870, the French government turned to the United States—dealing specifically with E. Remington and Sons—to mobilize their levee-en-masse units. Like the U.S. War Department, French leadership determined the simple models to be best suited for their untrained citizen-soldiers. Of the 468,219 weapons disposed of by the U.S. arsenals from 1870-1872, 413,319 were Enfields or Springfields.

Additional improvements during the last decades of the nineteenth century rendered the main combat arm of the Civil War infantryman an obsolete relic of the past. Yet thousands have lasted through today and can still be seen in many of the museums devoted to that conflict. Catch such a glimpse and in the eyes of Private Roback you are looking at an item whose value is “greater than the highest work of art America ever produced.”


For additional reading see:

Hess, Earl J. The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat, Reality and Myth. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008.

Lord, Francis A. “Disposal of Post-war Surplus.” Civil War Times Illustrated 6, 10 (1968).

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