Join Date: November 2, 1998
Gatling guns actually used in the ACW
American Heritage magazine article
DOCTOR GATLING AND HIS GUN
Professing humanitarian motives, he gave gangsters a word for their artillery and the world its first practicable machine gun
By PHILIP VAN DOREN STERN
All was not quiet along the Potomac early in 1862. The 28th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment, under command of Colonel John W. Geary of Kansas fame, was guarding a 24-mile stretch of the river, and there were occasional skirmishes between the opposing armies. On February 7, Geary shelled Harpers Ferry, and a lew weeks later marched in and recaptured the town from the Confederates.
At some time between January 2 and February 24, 1862, somewhere along the shores of the Potomac, one of the unknown Confederate soldiers who was killed in these minor skirmishes may have been the world’s first victim of machine-gun fire. Geary’s regiment had two strange-looking new weapons into which cylindrical steel containers loaded with Minié balls, powder charges, and primed with percussion caps, were fed through a hopper while the single-barreled gun was operated by a hand crank. The new weapon, whose inventor is now unknown, was officially named the Union Repeating Gun but everyone, including President Lincoln, who had urged the Army to adopt it, called it the “coffee-mill” gun because it looked like an old-fashioned coffee grinder.
Geary’s machine guns were first fired in actual battle in the Shenandoah Valley at Middleburg, Virginia, on March 29. A few weeks later an army officer, speaking in New York at Cooper Union, said: “One of these guns was brought to bear on a squadron of cavalry at 800 yards, and it cut them to pieces terribly, forcing them to fly.” But Geary was not satisfied with the new guns’ performance, finding them “inefficient and unsafe to the operators,” so he returned them to the Washington Arsenal, where they were later disposed of as old metal for eight dollars each.
Lincoln’s efforts to persuade his slow-thinking, slowmoving Army Ordnance Department to adopt more modern weapons have been described by Robert V. Bruce in Lincoln and the Tools of War. After the failure of the coffee-mill gun Lincoln stopped backing machine guns and concentrated on repeating rifles. But inventors kept working on the problem which had fascinated mechanically minded men ever since Leonardo da Vinci had made a sketch for a multi-barreled “organ gun.” In 1718 an Englishman named fames Puckle was granted a patent for what, on paper, looks like a workable machine gun. But since Puckle’s patent drawing shows that his gun was supposed to fire round bullets against Christians and square ones against infidels, there is some doubt about his seriousness.
The problem kept tantalizing inventors tor years, and some of them came up with ingenious—but not very practicable—solutions lor it. One truly remarkable patent was granted in 1863 to James O. whitcomb of New York for a four-barreled rapid-fire gun which was designed to be fired electrically. It was an intricate bit of mechanism which required split-second tuning that would never have stood up under battlefield conditions. The gun never got beyond the patentdrawing stage, but the inventor’s boldness of thinking put him far ahead of his time.
The Confederates, too, became interested in the machine gun. One of them, Captain D. R. Williams, of Covington, Kentucky, built a rather clumsy repeating one-pounder that was first used at the Battle of Seven Pines (or Fair Oaks) on May 31 and June 1, 1862. Several batteries of these guns saw service during the war. A few other primitive rapid-fire guns were used by the Confederates in isolated instances. One of them, a forerunner of the famous Lewis machine gun of the First World War, was invented by the father of William C. Gorgas, whose sanitary work in suppressing yellow fever made the digging of the Panama Canal possible.
The first practical machine gun, the quick-firing weapon that was to change the tactics of warfare throughout the entire world, was invented by a southerner, Dr. Richard J. Gatling, who had been born in North Carolina but who later moved to the North. His father had been an inventor before him, and Gatling kept creating new devices all his long life.
Like many other inventors of deadly weapons who believed that they could discourage the human race from fighting by making warfare ever more terrible, Gatling considered his motives humanitarian. In a letter written twelve years after the Civil War he said: “In 1861 … (residing at the time in Indianapolis, Ind.) I witnessed almost daily the departure of troops to the front and the return of the wounded, sick and dead: The most of the latter lost their lives, not in battle, but by sickness and exposure incident to the service. It occurred to me if I could invent a machine—a gun—which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a great extent, supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease be greatly diminished.”
This early proponent of push-button warfare went to work and by November 4, 1862, was granted his first patent for a machine gun with six revolving barrels turned by a crank. Since his first model, like t lie colfee-mill gun. used loaded steel containers, it was an improvement over that pioneer weapon only in that its multi barrel principle kept the Gatling from overhcating or from going out of commission if one barrel jammed. When Gatling redesigned his gun to take the newly developed metallic cartridge his weapon became the highly efficient, death-dealing machine that eventually was to make its inventor rich and famous. He finally reached popular immortality in gangsters’ speech in which any repeating hand weapon became, by the linguistic process known as apocope, a “gat.”
But the Gatling gun was so slow to win acceptance by the Army Ordnance Department that it never became important in the Civil War. The few Gatlings used saw service only because individual commanders procured them—sometimes with private funds.
Ben Butler was one of these commanders. He got a dozen findings for his troops, and at least one of them is said to have been in action at Petersburg in the spring of 1865. (A very early Gatling gun bearing Serial No. 2. now in the West Point Museum, is probably one of the guns Butler bought.) The Navy was generally more progressive in its attitude toward new weapons than (he Army, and Admiral David Dixon Porter ordered a Gatling sent to Cairo, Illinois. The Gatling gun’s usefulness in protecting boats and bridges was quickly appreciated, and records show that they were mounted on various kinds of watercraft and at bridgeheads. Three of them were brought to New York to guard the New York Times building on Park Row during the bloody Draft Riots of July, 1863.
On February 18, 1864. Gatling wrote to Lincoln to explain the virtues of his gun and to ask for his assistance in getting it put to wider use. But by this time the harassed President had lost interest in machine guns. And in a few weeks he was to hand over the responsibility of deciding about the Union Army’s strategy and equipment to Ulysses S. Grant. Lincoln therefore ignored Gatling’s letter, and the gun lost its chance of turning the tide of battle in the Civil War.
But perhaps the real reason why the Galling gun did not have more influence on Civil AVar history is that its southern-horn inventor was found to be a member of the secret Copperhead organizations that were threatening to take over the border and northcentral states for the Confederacy. It was revealed, too, that he was offering his weapon for sale to anyone who would buy it—and this meant not only foreign governments but the Confederacy as well. One can hardly blame Galling, who had been constantly rebuffed by the Army Ordnance Department, but he became very unpopular with American military men until the war was over. Then, on August 24, 1866. the Gatling gun was officially adopted by the United States Army, which ordered 100 of them. Gatling had these built by the Colt Patent Fire Arms Company, which manufactured all his guns from then on.
Vigilantibus et non dormientibus jura subveniunt. Molon Labe!