The Civil War began as a conventional war with both sides being equipped with the same weapons, using the same tactics. After all the weapons used by the Southern Confederacy were seized from Federal armories spread throughout the South. The officer corps of both armies were mostly educated at West Point, although there were some exceptions like the Virginia Military Institute and the Citadel.
But as the war progressed each side attempted to leap ahead of the other when it came to weapons systems. Beyond the conventional systems like the various models of ironclads, timberclads, cottonclads and repeating rifles strange weapons began to appear on both sides. Here’s a look at some of the strange weapons of the American Civil War.
Here are some of the more common weapons that were invented or perfected during the war.
The most popular model was the Union-issued Ketchum grenade, a projectile explosive that was thrown like a dart. The grenades came in one-, three- and five-pound models equipped with stabilizer fins and a nose-mounted plunger. Upon impact, the plunger would detonate a percussion cap and ignite a deadly supply of gunpowder.
Confederate forces reportedly experimented with Congreve rockets, a British-designed explosive that had previously seen action in the War of 1812. These weapons resembled large bottle rockets and were so inaccurate that they never saw widespread use.
Meanwhile, Union forces employed the Hale patent rocket launcher, a metal tube that fired seven- and 10-inch-long spin stabilized rockets up to 2,000 yards. While a vast improvement on the Congreve, these projectiles were still quite unwieldy, and were only generally used by the U.S. Navy.
Both sides understood that increasing there rate of fire in the age of mass armies was a key to victory. One attempt was the Winans Steam gun. Allegedly capable of flinging 300 rounds of ammunition per minute from its steam powered revolving drum for 100 yards, this centrifugal gun came into prominence during the 1861 Baltimore Riots. It was never used in a true combat situation. Video
Another invention was the so-called Coffee Mill Gun. The “devil’s coffee mill,” “coffee grinder” gun, “army in a box” or Agar gun was a hand-cranked machine gun firing .58 caliber cartridges at 120 rounds per minute. Having seen a demonstration in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln is said to have been quite enamored with the weapon. The Union War Department acquired 60 of them but they saw very little action.
Of these machine guns, perhaps none is more famous than the Gatling gun, a six-barreled piece that was capable of firing up to 350 rounds a minute. The U.S. government never ordered the Gatling in bulk, but Union General Benjamin Butler privately purchased several of the intimidating weapons in 1863 and later used them during the Petersburg Campaign.
Other rapid-fire guns included the Williams gun—a Confederate breechloader first unveiled at the Battle of Seven Pines in 1862—and the Billinghurst-Requa battery gun, which consisted of 25 rifle barrels arranged side by side. Viewed as too inefficient and unwieldy for infantry combat, these weapons were generally used for guarding bridges and other strategic locations.
Better known as “limelights,” these chemical lamps used superheated balls of lime, or calcium oxide, to create an incandescent glow. The lights had been used in lighthouses and theaters since the 1830s. During an 1863 operation to retake Charleston Harbor, General Quincy Adams Gillmore laid siege to the Confederate stronghold at Fort Wagner. Gillmore’s Union guns bombarded the fort day and night with the help of this strange invention.
Also called “Drummond lights,” these calcium floodlights were later used as searchlights to spot Confederate warships and blockade runners. In early 1865, a Union light even helped detect a Confederate ironclad fleet as it tried to move along the James River under cover of darkness. A Southern officer later noted that a planned sneak attack was made impossible in part because of the Union’s “powerful calcium light.”
Civil War balloons were primarily used in a reconnaissance capacity. The Union even had an official Balloon Corps headed by “Chief Aeronaut” Thaddeus Lowe. Under his direction, balloons were launched for scouting purposes at several famous engagements, including the First Battle of Bull Run and the Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. In a balloon tethered to the ground with a telegraph line, Lowe was able to give real-time updates on troop movements, and once even directed Union artillery fire from the sky.
In later posts we’ll take a look at more unusual weapons and ships of the American Civil War.