Civil War Top 100

The Enfield Rifle

he colorful history of the Irish Brigade is closely associated with the weapon that most of its regiments carried into battle: the .69 calibre M1842 Springfield smoothbore musket that was introduced nearly two decades before the Civil War began. Brig. Gen. Thomas F. Meagher is said to have preferred the outdated, less accurate weapon because he wanted to ensure that his lads were close to the enemy before firing, so they could then quickly charge with their bayonets.

No matter what the rationale, records indicate that the three original regiments of the Irish Brigade - the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York - indeed carried the .69 caliber Springfield smoothbore during the first three years of the war. It wasn't until just before the Overland Campaign in the spring of 1864 that the old, outmoded weapon was exchanged for the modern .58 caliber M1863 Springfield rifle.

By contrast, the 28th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry - which was organized in late 1861 and didn't join the Irish Brigade until a year later - was, from the outset, equipped with a newer, more accurate British-made rifle that was easily superior to the Springfield smootbore and considered by some to be the best rifled musket available. Not surprisingly, this weapon was much in demand.

Shortly after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, there was an acute shortage of firearms as states both North and South prepared for war. Suitable weapons were desperately needed to arm all of the newly forming Union and Confederate volunteer regiments, and the small supplies available in the two sections of America quickly ran out.

Gov. John Andrew of Massachusetts wasted no time. On April 24, 1861, he dispatched Francis B. Crowninshield to England as his primary negotiator for the purchase of as many weapons as could be found to equip the volunteer troops that the Commonwealth was then raising. Following the recommendation of master armorer Charles McFarland of the Springfield Armory, Gov. Andrew directed Crowninshield to buy 25,000 stands of arms, preferably something comparable to the .58 caliber M1855 Springfield rifle - which McFarland was unable to provide.

Carrying a letter of credit worth 50,000 British pounds, Crowninshield arrived in England on May 6, accompanied by McFarland. They quickly went to work but were alarmed to discover that an agent from the State of New York who had crossed over on the same ship had already laid claim to nearly 40,000 Enfield rifles that were on hand for immediate shipment. The Massachusetts team also faced competition from agents representing both the Confederacy and other Northern states.

Still, Crowninshield and McFarland were able to secure contracts for the manufacture and export of some 14,700 Enfield three-band "long" rifles to Massachusetts before the end of 1861. The Commonweath was able to purchase an additional 1,000 Enfield rifles from the State of New York, and order another 5,680 from Britain the following year.

Massachusetts also acquired 10,000 sets of white leather British regulation infantry accoutrements, but since it had stockpiled an ample supply of American-made accoutrements by the time the British sets arrived, the Commonwealth sold about 6,000 of the latter to other Northern states. It kept the rest and wound up issuing them to several nine-month volunteer units raised in the summer of 1862.

Once the Enfields arrived at the docks in Boston, the arms were put to immediate use. There were just enough to equip about half of the Massachusetts volunteer infantry regiments recruited by the end of 1861. The 28th was one of 14 three-year volunteer units to be issued the imported weapons. The others were the 2nd, 7th, 10th, 12th, 13th, 16th, 19th, 20th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 25th and 27th infantry regiments.

Modifications: Stamping & Blueing

As state property, each of these firearms was carefully stamped with a company letter, abbreviated regimental designation, and rack or individual issue number on its brass buttplate. For example, the buttplate of a rifle issued from rack #15 to a member of Co. H in the 28th Massachusetts would be stamped, from left to right:

[screw hole] H 28TH MASS 15 [tang]

There are numerous surviving examples of these Massachusetts issue rifles today. On some, the markings extend around the corner of the buttplate and onto the tang.

Most Enfield rifles imported for use in the American Civil War, including those purchased by Massachusetts, left the shores of Britain with blueing (sometimes called "browning" in period accounts) on the barrel and other iron parts. During the blueing process, bare metal was cleaned, then a solution was swabbed on and allowed to rust. The rust was then lightly carded off and the process repeated as many as ten times. After polishing, the barrel of the musket bore a dark, blue-black finish which proved remarkably durable in the field, as the many period firearms still bearing it attest.

Although there is some debate about whether blueing was in some cases removed for aesthetic reasons after weapons were delivered, there is no evidence of an official program either North or South to recondition imported rifles in this manner, at least at the beginning of the war. In fact, the official Confederate ordnance manual expressly prohibited removal of blueing. It stands to reason that in the early days of the war, muskets were needed as quickly as possible and authorities wouldn't stand for delaying the delivery of weapons simply to improve their show and appearance.

On the federal side, it appears that armories in Springfield and elsewhere did begin removing the blued finish from imported Enfield rifles sometime after the middle of 1863. By this time, however, there were plenty of Springfield rifles to issue, and the late-arriving Enfields were being conditioned for use primarily by rear echelon units, including the U.S. Colored Troops then being recruited in large numbers.

While evidence of any official policy is lacking, it appears that soldiers in some individual units, both Union and Confederate - either on their own or upon orders from their commanders - removed blueing after being issued their rifles. Chemicals were available to do this, but it was apparently more common for men in the field to scrape rammers or other metal objects along their rifle barrels to take the finish off. This crude burnishing method was prohibited by the official ordnance manuals, but many soldiers did it anyway.

Although no one knows for certain whether most soliders in the 28th Massachusetts preferred a blued or bright barrels on their issue Enfield riles, a letter written by a member of the 10th Massachusetts to the Greenfield Gazette & Courier suggests at least one other regiment from the state favored blueing and purposely left it on:

"Camp of the 10th Reg't Mass Volunteers, Hampden Park, Springfield, July 10 [1861]:

....Friday morning the regiment marched to the U.S. Armory and returned the muskets loaned them for the purpose of drill, and in the afternoon we received our full supply of the Enfield rifled musket. For this the Regiment may well thank our efficient Colonel, whose influence has procured for us so fine an arm; whilst other Regiments are obliged to take the guns we returned, (smooth bore muskets of the old model.) The Enfield gun, purchased by the State in England, though differing in many respects from the Springfield rifled musket, is a handsome and no doubt serviceable weapon, and I think fully equal to the Springfield arm. It is browned, so that no burnishing is required to keep it from rusting, and a more correct aim can be obtained in a bright sun than with a polished barrel."

The debate over how the men took their Enfield rifles into the field is one of a number of unanswered questions about the appearance of the original 28th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. It also is not known, for example, whether the regiment's soldiers wore state- or federal-issue buttons on their coats, or if they ever used gaiters to support and protect their ankles while marching long distances and through dense underbrush. Some day, perhaps, additional research will provide the answers.

Based on an article written by Don C. Williams, with assistance from Geoff Walden.

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