For many years, students of the Battle of Gettysburg have sung the praises of the Spencer rifle and its contribution to the great Union victory. Numerous authors have suggested that it was the Spencer that helped derail the Confederate attack on the morning of July 1; that General John Buford’s cavalry troopers, armed with their Spencer carbines, repelled wave after wave of Confederate infantry. The contributions of the Spencer to Union victory are not limited to July 1st however. Captain O. E. Hunt, U.S. Army, and Instructor at the U.S.M.A. wrote in his report on The Ordnance Department of the Federal Army: 1860-1865, about the superiority of the Spencer rifle and its use by General John Geary’s 12th Corps soldiers on July 2nd. “Due to the use of the Spencer rifle by part of General Geary’s troops at Gettysburg, a whole division of Ewell’s corps was repulsed by inferior numbers.” Captain Hunt continues: “ Of this action an eye-witness said, ‘ The head of the column ( Confederate) , 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.'” As we shall see, Hunt’s report made for stirring reading but like many references about Spencers and Gettysburg it had no foundation in fact.
The Spencer Repeating Rifle
This unique weapon was the invention of Christopher Minor Spencer. Throughout the 1850’s, Christopher Spencer was an inventor and tinkerer. While working for The Colt Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Connecticut, Spencer got interested in gun manufacturing. He tinkered around with the idea of a single shot, magazine fed, repeating rifle which used a large metallic cartridge. In 1860 Spencer applied for and received a U.S. patent for his Spencer Repeating Rifle. Raising capital and securing a manufacturing site in Boston, MA, Spencer began limited production of “his rifle”. Expecting U.S. Government contracts to flood into his new business after the Confederacy was formed and war was a certainty, the 28 year old Christopher Spencer was greatly disappointed. The U.S. Ordnance Department passed on the Spencer rifle in favor of time-tested and less expensive weapons. (In 1860 Spencer priced his rifle at $45.00. In comparison an 1861 Springfield muzzle loader was $14.00).
In 1861 the Navy Department placed an order with Spencer for nearly 1,200 rifles, but the army refrained to follow suit. Spencer decided to market his new rifle directly to Northern state governments. The strategy worked and some governors made purchases of the rifle. Finally, after nearly two years of frustration with the War Department, Spencer secured an appointed to see President Lincoln himself in the spring of 1862 to promote his rifle and secure a contract with the War Department. President Lincoln was impressed with Spencer and his new weapon after a personal shooting exhibition near what is now the Washington Memorial. Federal contracts followed and by 1865 the government had purchased 107,000 rifles or carbines from Spencer. Spencer’s company manufactured over 14,000 rifles and 130,000 carbines by the end of the war. Since Spencer refused to sell to the Confederacy his weapon was available to the Confederates only by capture.
The Spencer Rifle at Gettysburg
By the summer of 1863, production of the Spencer Rifle was stepping up. Along with the rifle the U.S. War Department wanted carbines for its cavalry. But it was not until October1863 that Spencer started delivery on the first order of 45, 733 carbines. Therefore up until the summer of 1863 the only Spencer that was available for purchase to the army was the rifle version. Buford’s men holding back wave after wave of Confederate Infantry with their Spencer carbines is fiction. Company, Regimental, and Division ordnance records of the regiments under Buford show that his troopers were armed with Sharps, Burnsides, Merrills, Ballards, and Maynards. Contrary to Captain Hunt’s assertion that General Geary’s men pushed back an entire division of General Richard Ewell’s men on July 2 and saved the Union right flank with their Spencer repeaters, the truth was there was nary a Spencer in Geary’s division. His ordnance records show his regiments were armed with mainly U.S.1861 Springfield Rifle-Muskets, and also some older 1855 Rifle- Muskets, and even some old smoothbore muskets.
Only two units of the Army of the Potomac were armed with Spencer Repeating Rifles at Gettysburg. In February 1863, Governor Austin Blair of Michigan purchased 680 Spencer Repeating Rifles (not carbines) with state funds which were then issued to Colonel Russell Alger’s 5th Michigan Cavalry, which during the battle was in Brigadier General George A. Custer’s brigade. Blair and Alger were close friends which accounts for why the 5th was the lucky recipient of these weapons. Alger had nearly 80 of the rifles his regiment received given to a “captain friend” in the sister 6th Regiment Michigan Cavalry, who used them to arm two of their companies. Ordnance records of the 5th and 6th Regiments Michigan Cavalry, submitted a month after the Battle of Gettysburg, indicate these two regiments carried a total of 572 Spencer Repeating Rifles and 10,000 rounds of ammunition to the field. The men of these regiments made good use of their Spencers in the July 3 cavalry battle east of Gettysburg, but this was the only place on the Gettysburg battlefield that the Spencer saw action except for those rare cases of soldiers who had privately purchased the weapon.
Black Powder Specialist