Chapter Nine: Slow March to Rapid Fire
Beecher's Bibles and the Sharpshooters
Brigadier General James Ripley, Union Army's head of Ordnance, fought tooth and nail against buying and deploying breechloading rifles and other new weapons. Those who say he was mistaken often argue that the weapons had proved themselves already. But the counter-argument could be made that the small-scale use of such weapons didn't do much to prove their usefulness in large-scale military operations.
1863 Sharps Carbine
Both sides could well to point to events in 1850s Kansas to prove their points. Before Kansas became a state, pro- and anti-slave factions fought what amounted to their own small-scale civil war, part of a much larger dispute over whether Kansas would be admitted to the Union as a slave or a free state..The fight came to be known as "Bloody Kansas."
Supporters of the anti-slavery factions smuggled about nine hundred Sharps rifles into the Kansas territory, some of them in crates marked BIBLES. This
earned the rifles the nickname "Beecher's Bibles," a reference to Henry Ward Beecher, the New York minister who arranged to have the weapons sent. (He was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the anti-slavery book Uncle Tom's Cabin.) The Sharps rifles and carbines saw use as military-style weapons in Kansas -- and in other confrontations. John Brown carried such a "bible" in Kansas, and a
Sharps carbine (a rifle with a shortened barrel, designed for us on horseback
or in tight quarters) was among the items seized by federal troops under the
command of Colonel Robert E. Lee when they broke up Brown's failed raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859.
But getting a relatively small number of weapons into the hands of the hands of Brown and his compatriots was one thing. Manufacturing enough of them to equip a large army was a far greater challenge. In the winter of 1861-1862, Lincoln was closely involved in efforts to order a total of 37,000 breechloading guns of various types. The plan was for some of them go to Hiram Berdan's 1st and Second Sharpshooters Regiments. Berdan's expert marksmen were close to the first in line for the new weapons -- but even they did not receive them until May and June of 1862 -- and those 2,000 guns were only weapons of the 37,000 delivered by the end of 1862. All the other weapons contracted for ran into delays. Some were cancelled altogether. Others were delivered more than a year late. If the U.S. Army had counted on getting those weapons, instead of the muzzle-loading rifles that Ripley favored, a lot of soldiers could have gone without weapons.