Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Civil War Ordnance Department


During the Revolutionary War, the Commissary of Military Stores was established and responsible for purchasing and supplying weapons for the United States Army. Two federal armories manufacturing small arms were established by George Washington: the Springfield Arsenal in Massachusetts, originally established in 1777, and the United States Armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. At this time all weapons were hand made and the production and repair of these one-of-a-kind items was time consuming.

As a means of organization, the Commissary of Military Stores was renamed the Ordnance Department in 1812 and was charged with providing military supplies to the army and militias. Other responsibilities included design and adoption of new weapons, inspection of arms and other ordnance produced by contractors, storage, distribution, upkeep and repair of weapons, and supplying units in the field with ordnance.

When the Civil War broke out, the government couldn’t supply enough guns for its early recruits, although the United States government had weapons left over from the Mexican War. Many
volunteer soldiers brought their weapons from home. Old-fashioned muskets, shotguns, handguns (pistols and revolvers), and rifles are examples of the different kinds of guns that were used to fight the war. This lack of uniformity in small arms required different sizes of ammunition, creating confusion and a supply and standardization nightmare.

The Ordnance Department early in the Civil War issued guns to soldiers that were primarily smoothbore muskets stored in arsenals across the country. Smoothbore muskets, very effective for mass volley shooting during frontal assaults by the infantry, were the standard guns used during the Revolutionary War. Smoothbores had an advantage of quick and easy loading (up to 4 shots a minute), but their effective range was only 100 yards and their ability to hit a single target was negligible.

Rifled muskets had greater range and accuracy and made superior weapons, but there were not enough on hand to furnish the troops. During the war, experiments, alterations, and innovations were frequently made to the technology of firearms and eventually the U.S. Army adopted a standard muzzle loading rifled musket and upgraded ammunition with the adoption of the conical-shaped minié ball.

After the first Battle of Bull Run proved to be a disaster for the Union, the United States government beefed up its procurement of weapons by purchasing firearms from Europe while also contracting with private companies to manufacture weapons, and ramping up production at government-run armories.

Initially, the Confederacy’s Ordnance Department was hampered by lack of skilled manpower,
procurement and distribution problems. Not able to produce enough guns and ammunition for their
soldiers, the Ordnance Department relied upon three supplemental methods for obtaining weapons:
battlefield capture, imports from blockade runners, and domestic production. The Confederacy’s chief of Ordnance was Josiah Gorgas. He was instrumental in increasing the South’s industrial capacity that supplied munitions to the army.

Firearms larger than those that were carried by soldiers (small arms) were referred to as artillery and divided between smoothbore and rifled cannon. Most artillery was classified by the type of service it performed and the ease of mobility:

• Light Artillery: light and mobile enough to maneuver in battle and through difficult terrain, easily assembled and ready to use quickly, transported by mules and horses. Artillery guns were grouped into batteries and the number and types of guns in a battery varied.

• Heavy Artillery: Guns were heavier in weight and designed for stationary defense of key positions
(cities, ports, and harbors), but would be transported to different positions on siege lines or mounted in fortifications used to batter earthworks and fortifications. They were transported with difficulty. 

Image: 24 pound siege gun. Library of Congress


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