Friday, September 29, 2006

According to popular lore, President Lincoln personally intervened in the Union Army’s weapons selection process in1863, ensuring that the repeating Spencer rifle, a revolutionary small-arms technology rejected by hidebound ordnance officers, was adopted and issued to Federal forces, thus changing the course of the war. The truth of the matter, is somewhat different, as is often the case.

In fact, Spencers were in service before Lincoln laid eyes on one. An 1862 contract to supply the Army with 7,500 Spencer rifles was fulfilled by the spring of 1863. By late summer, in the wake of its successful use at the battles of Hoover’s Gap, Tenn., and Gettysburg, the Spencer had acquired an excellent reputation in the field, and demand for the guns from Union soldiers and commanders increased.

Maj. Gen. Stephan A. Hurlbut, commanding the XVI Army Corps and the city of Memphis, Tenn., requested Spencer “Navy rifles” to arm two regiments of mounted infantrymen.

Hurlbut was bedeviled by Confederate “partisan rangers” sniping at Union shipping on the Mississippi River from the Arkansas side and badly wanted to clean them out.

The general probably had seen some of the 750 Spencers purchased by the Navy under a contract separate from that of the Army. Some Navy Spencers were shipped west to arm the Mississippi Marine Brigade, a unit manning converted steamboats designed to ram enemy craft as well as carry landing parties. Hurlbut no doubt had heard of these advanced small arms and was eager to acquire some for his guerrilla hunters.

Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Henry Wager Halleck, no friend to hasty technical innovation, denied Hurlbut’s request. The politically connected Hurlbut would not take no for an answer from the likes of Halleck, however, and directly petitioned Lincoln.

His curiosity sparked by the general’s inquiry, Lincoln requested a Spencer rifle from the Navy to evaluate it for himself. Unfortunately, the first gun he received had problems, and so did the second.

The president found that the initial rifle’s “[magazine] tube was wound so tight in place that I could not get it out.” That was just the beginning. The second rifle had a functioning magazine tube, but when the lever was worked to chamber a cartridge, two jumped forward, jamming the gun so thoroughly that it took 15 minutes to disassemble and clear it.

After the Spencer was reassembled, Lincoln was able to fire a number of shots, but the president was concerned that the two rifles, already inspected and accepted by the Navy, did not function properly. Based on these misadventures, Lincoln advised Hurlbut on Aug. 4, 1863, that he would not be getting any Spencers.

Somehow word of this fiasco reached the indefatigable Warren Fisher, treasurer of the Spencer Co. Fisher dispatched the gun’s inventor, Christopher Spencer, to Washington in mid-August to stage a personal demonstration for the president.

Spencer brought along a letter of introduction in which Fisher expressed hope that the inventor’s “exhibition” would undo the bad impression created by “the mishaps of our gun at its former trials before you.”

Spencer later recalled his visit as “the most gratifying of my war recollections.” At Lincoln’s request, the inventor stripped the rifle down to its component parts, and the following day, accompanied by the president, Lincoln’s son Robert and a naval officer, Spencer and the chief executive fired the reassembled gun with satisfactory results at a target painted on a board.

Following the shooting session, Spencer recalled that “the Navy official cut off the part of the board that Mr. Lincoln shot at and gave it to me, remarking that it might be a gratifying souvenir.” After the party returned to the White House, the president departed after a “hearty handshake, and good wishes.”

Lincoln apparently had another Spencer shooting session with his secretary, John Hay, the following day. Hay was impressed with the Spencer, recalling that it was “a wonderful gun, loading with absolutely contemptible simplicity and ease with seven balls and firing the whole readily and deliberately in less than half a minute.”

Such are the bare facts of the story, which subsequently inspired a considerable body of folklore. In 1930, a King Features Syndicate “Here’s How” cartoon reproduced in Spencer historian Roy Marcot’s book “Spencer Repeating Firearms” featured a craggy Abraham Lincoln inspecting a crudely drawn and unidentifiable rifle in the hands of a Bela Lugosi-looking individual representing Christopher Spencer, the “young Connecticut inventor [who] revolutionized warfare … and helped win the Civil War.”

According to the cartoonist, Lincoln was so impressed by Spencer’s “automatic rifle” (it was actually a lever-action manual repeater) that he “ordered 100,000 for immediate delivery” and the gun became “one of the chief factors in the Union’s triumph.”

In 1956, Lincoln’s shooting session even provided a title for an entertaining but unfortunately often erroneous and fanciful account of the Spencer rifle and carbine’s role in the Civil War, J.O. Buckeridge’s “Lincoln’s Choice.” The book advanced the cartoon’s theory that Spencer’s demonstration so impressed Lincoln that the president took a personal interest in ordering the rifle.

In fact, as Mr. Marcot points out, at the time of the inventor’s visit with Lincoln, the War Department already had contracted for and received 7,500 Spencer rifles and had just signed a contract for a much larger number of Spencer carbines (a rifle with a short barrel, designed primarily for cavalry use). A rising tide of requests from the field would generate even more orders.

Did the Spencer rifle prove a valuable addition to the North’s arsenal? Most assuredly it did, although the ad hoc tactical learning curve of officers whose troops were armed with the repeater was not complete until near the war’s end.

Did the inventor’s visit to the White House assure that the Spencer would get to the troops in the field? No. That was always in the cards; what the visit did accomplish was to provide an opportunity to change the unfavorable personal opinion of the rifle the president had developed during an informal test.

King Features and J.O. Buckeridge provided a much better story line for posterity than Warren Fisher and Christopher Spencer’s attempt at marketing, however, and, like many other “too good to be true” stories, it has endured.

Joseph G. Bilby received his bachelor and master of arts degrees in history from Seton Hall University and served as a lieutenant with the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam. He is the author of numerous articles and seven books, including “A Revolution in Arms: A History of the First Repeating Rifles.”

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