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Fit for Effective Service: Virginia Arms Her Stonewall Brigade

By Austin Williams, 33rd Virginia Co. H

During Virginia’s secession debate in early April 1861, the state’s former governor Henry Wise dismissed concerns that the South lacked adequate modern weapons to win a war. Clutching a sword bayonet-tipped rifle as he spoke, Wise confidently stated that “it was not the improved arm, but the improved man, which would win the day.” “Let brave men advance with flint locks, and old-fashioned bayonets, on the popingjays of the Northern cities,” he cried, and “the Yankees would break and run.”1

Such bluster might be expected from politicians and fire-eater secessionists like Wise, but during the frantic weeks after Virginia left the Union and before the Confederate government assumed control of Virginian forces in mid-June, responsibility for arming Virginia’s fledgling military fell solely on Colonel Charles Dimmock. The long-serving superintendent of the Virginia armory who had been appointed Virginia’s Chief of Ordnance just two weeks before secession, Dimmock was immediately inundated with a rising flood of demands for arms from all corners of the state. Some of these cries came from the Shenandoah Valley, where existing volunteer companies and newly formed units would coalesce by July into the First Virginia Brigade, soon to be immortalized as the Stonewall Brigade.

Typical of these demands is a letter written on May 26 by Captain Frederick W. M. Holliday, commander of the Mountain Rangers, later to become the Thirty-Third Virginia Company D. Having sent a similar appeal unsuccessfully to the governor of Virginia two weeks before, Holliday wrote now to the senior staff officer for Colonel Thomas Jackson at Harpers Ferry. “Can I get arms &c. when I get to the Ferry? My men want Minnie Rifles, as it is a Rifle Company.”  Almost a month later, John Avis, captain of the Fifth Virginia Company K, pleaded a similar case to his regimental commander. “I have not succeeded in getting the Minnie Rifles yet,” wrote Avis on June 18. “I have another plan on foot now. It is to have the Enclosed Requisition Signed by Yourself and Col. Jackson. Will you be kind Enough to do the best you can for me as I am very anxious to be prepared to do Service.”2

Regardless of how many letters Holliday wrote or how many endorsements Avis might attach to his request, the modern weapons they and other commanders sought were in exceedingly short supply in Spring 1861. Virginia had only recently begun to update its aging armaments, and so the weapons carried by the Stonewall Brigade onto the fields of Manassas ranged from the modern to the obsolete.

The Virginia Manufactory of Arms and the American Militia System

The foundation of Virginia’s self-defense long rested on the twin pillars of its militia system and the output of the Virginia Manufactory of Arms. Beginning production in Richmond in 1802, the Manufactory sought to make Virginia self-sufficient in arms for its militia. The bulk of the weapons produced by the Manufactory were .69 caliber smoothbore flintlock muskets, a unique design which blended elements of the official U.S. muskets produced at Federal armories with influences from the French Charleville musket. By the time the Manufactory ceased operations at the end of 1821, Virginia had amassed a stockpile of 79,259 muskets for its militia, the majority made by the Manufactory. A portion of these were stored at the Manufactory in Richmond, while the remainder went west to a second state armory opened in Lexington in 1816.3

Second Model Virginia Manufactory Flintlock Musket, dated 1816 (Source: National Museum of American History)

After weapons production ceased in 1821, the Manufactory transitioned to become the Virginia Armory, responsible only for storing and repairing weapons. Although Virginia would no longer produce military arms, new weapons continued to enter state hands from the Federal government. Under the terms of the Militia Act of 1808, every year the Secretary of War provided each state a proportional share of muskets based on the reported returns of their enrolled militia. States could choose to substitute the value of some of these muskets for other arms and equipment from Federal arsenals, such as rifles, accouterments, or artillery. For instance, in 1858, of the 14,615 muskets appropriated by Congress for arming the militia Virginia’s share was the value of 682 muskets. The state chose to utilize this to obtain 200 muskets, 200 cartridge boxes, 600 belt plates, 200 bayonet scabbards, and 600 belts.4

U.S. Government Infantry Ordnance Provided to Virginia 1856-18605

Rifled Muskets Percussion Muskets Percussion Rifles Bayonet Scabbards Bayonet Slings Cartridge Boxes Cartridge Box Slings Waist Belts Plates Cap Pouches
1856 0 0 0 600 0 0 25 600 625 0
1857 1 50 0 500 200 500 0 500 700 300
1858 0 200 0 200 0 200 0 600 600 0
1859 100 2,040 573 1050 200 400 450 300 0 550
1860 80 0 756 3307 0 330 130 330 330 330

The American militia system, designed while memory of the Revolution remained fresh and the War of 1812 loomed, increasingly fell apart as memories of these conflicts faded. Although militia mobilization continued to be the underpinning of American defensive policy through the 1840s, public support for the militia faded during this period. Perceiving little threat of foreign invasion, annual drill days and the fees levied for missing these musters were increasingly seen as onerous. Militia officers took their duties less seriously and the annual muster progressively became more of a social event than a military one. An 1860 newspaper account of the muster of a regiment of Virginia militia noted that the “most remarkable feature… was, that notwithstanding a large quantity of the ‘O be joyful’ [that] was guzzled, the crowd dispersed” after the muster without any major drunken incidents.8

Alongside the line militia, in which most able-bodied men of military age were required to serve when called upon, the American militia system also contained a smaller parallel structure of volunteer units. While the line militia was intended to provide general infantry in a future conflict, the volunteers were envisioned as fulfilling more specialized duties which required greater training, such as light infantry, riflemen, cavalry, or artillery. In Virginia, men could voluntarily enlist in these units for a period of several years, during which they would be required to drill more frequently than line militia but would in turn earn privileges such as exemption from jury duty. Virginia law authorized volunteer companies to be armed after they were fully uniformed, whereas militia generally lacked uniforms and might only be issued weapons for their annual muster.9

It was these volunteer companies, rather than the line militia, which formed the backbone of military expansion during the Mexican War. This reliance on volunteers further reduced public interest in the militia. In the years following the Mexican War, many militia units simply stopped regularly providing their annual strength returns. State adjutant generals, responsible for their state’s militia, bemoaned this lack of attention to annual returns, as the size of their consolidated returns directly impacted the number of arms their state would receive under the Militia Act of 1808. Between 1846 and 1860, Virginia only provided nine full militia returns to the Federal government. Across the nation, militia returns steadily diminished from the mid-1840s, reaching their nadir between 1855 and 1858.10

They Should be Furnished with Equal Arms

Responding to their constituents’ desire to be rid of the burden of militia duty, Virginia’s Assembly passed a revised militia act in 1853 that essentially abolished Virginia’s line militia in favor of an entirely volunteer force. The new law eliminated annual musters except for volunteer units. Rather than militia officers being responsible for documenting strength returns during musters, local commissioners of revenue were now tasked with maintaining lists of those men eligible for militia service. This system never worked as intended and Virginia’s military forces plummeted precipitously. The year before the law, Virginia’s militia numbered 125,217 men. By 1856, long-serving Virginia Adjutant General William H. Richardson grimly reported that the civilian clerks charged with enrollment had reported only 18,415 enrolled militia. He lambasted the “monstrous absurdity of requiring military returns to be made by civil officers.” The following year the annual return was just 9,489 men.11

These changes to Virginia’s militia impacted its available armaments as well. Even with new weapons coming from Federal arsenals each year, the nearly 80,000 muskets amassed by Virginia in 1822 had fallen to roughly 53,000 in 1856. Richardson recounted how public arms were “often most wantonly wasted or destroyed” after being issued to the militia. After the dissolution of the line militia in 1853, many muskets were never returned by the former militiamen. “There are now dispersed over the state and irrecoverable,” wrote Richardson in 1859, “arms enough to equip a very large body of troops.” The cost to recover these arms, transport them back to Richmond, and repair them was judged too high.12

The muskets and rifles remaining in Richmond and Lexington were mostly decades-old U.S. and Virginia Manufactory flintlocks, obsolete following the U.S. Army’s conversion to percussion in the early 1840s. Richardson and Dimmock, who became superintendent of the Virginia Armory in 1844, wearily repeated the same recommendation each year that the state’s flintlocks be altered to percussion. In 1858 Dimmock wrote “There are a large number of flint muskets, which can be and should be altered into percussion locks, or sold, as they are not suitable for field service; nor should our volunteers be compelled to receive them. If our troops are expected to meet their equal numbers in the field, they should be furnished with equal arms….”13

Model 1816 Harpers Ferry Musket, dated 1837 and altered to percussion (Source: The Horse Soldier)

Some of the weapons received annually from the Federal government were little better. Federal authorities also sought to rid themselves of obsolete flintlocks. These were altered to percussion by the thousands in the 1840s and 1850s and provided to the states while the newest percussion muskets remained in Federal hands. “I have to insist that [the muskets provided by the U.S. government] are not such as the law of congress contemplated,” Dimmock reported in 1856. “Muskets twenty years old [and] no longer manufactured” were being sent to the states while “muskets of the present day, with all their improvements, can be had.”14

The Assembly ignored Dimmock and Richardson’s repeated request for the alteration of Virginia’s flintlocks, but some were converted to percussion by Federal authorities. These alterations were deducted from the muskets Virginia would have otherwise received. In 1856, Dimmock issued to militia units 551 Virginia percussion muskets, almost certainly Virginia Manufactory of Arms flintlocks which had been altered to percussion. The remainder of the state’s store of modern arms at this time consisted of 124 percussion muskets in Richmond and 500 Model 1851 cadet muskets held in the Lexington Arsenal and used by students at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI).15

Little Better Than Fence Rails

After five years, the Virginia Assembly admitted the Militia Act of 1853 had been a mistake and passed a new militia law in 1858 reactivating annual musters of the line militia and returning enrollment duties to militia officers. The following year Richardson wrote, “The act of April 1st, 1853 so completely prostrated the public defense of the state, that less than two years ago the commander in chief could not have assembled, upon any sudden emergency, 500 organized and armed troops.” The reorganization of the militia had been, he reported, “to a large extent been prompt and effective, beyond what could have been expected, after so long a period of total suspension…”16

Richardson, who penned those words at the end of November 1859, had a very specific sudden emergency fresh in his mind. Just over a month before, John Brown’s raid on the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry triggered an immediate mobilization of local militia units and volunteer companies. Large numbers of state troops remained active through Brown’s trial and execution. This experience highlighted the sorry state of Virginia’s armaments. Colonel Robert W. Baylor, who commanded the Virginia militia at Harpers Ferry during the raid noted that “the arms in the possession of the volunteer companies in this section of the state are almost worthless. I do not think we have 100 muskets in the county of Jefferson… With such arms as we have, it is butchery to require our troops to face an enemy much better equipped.” The commander of the Thirty-First Regiment of Virginia Militia in nearby Fredrick County reported that, of the 135 men on duty, he lacked even 30 muskets that would fire. A Richmond paper noted that Virginia’s massive stockpile of flintlock muskets were “little better than fence rails, and should be thrown out of use in Virginia as speedily as possible.”17

Brown’s raid abruptly revitalized Virginians’ interest in military matters. The volunteer force “has increased rapidly, and continues to increase” wrote Richardson in Fall 1860. Just after Brown’s raid, Virginia had 31 volunteer companies of light infantry and another 34 companies of riflemen. A year later, the volunteer force had surged to 111 companies of light infantry and 113 companies of riflemen.18

Each company clamored for arms as soon as they were organized and uniformed. Former U.S. President John Tyler informed his son that his native Virginia was “arming to the teeth—more than fifty thousand stand of arms already distributed and the demand for more daily increasing.” “In the press for arms and ammunition,” Richardson wrote, “it seems never to have occurred to any that the armory is not an arsenal, but simply a depot for arms…” Dimmock and his small staff issued weapons as quickly as they could, but the requisitions for the newest, most modern weapons far outpaced what was available.19

Model 1841 “Mississippi” Rifle, dated 1855 (Source: National Museum of American History)

A new volunteer company in Lexington was among the fortunate ones. Recruited in the immediate wake of Brown’s Raid, the Rockbridge Rifles were officially organized on November 17, 1859. They were issued 50 percussion rifles from the Lexington Arsenal, along with 50 cap pouches, 60 spare musket cones, 60 screwdrivers, 60 wipers, and 6 spring vises for maintenance. These were part of a batch of 200 rifles which had been noted the previous year as being U.S. model, suggesting they were most likely Model 1841 Mississippi rifles. Two years later, the Rockbridge Rifles would become part of the Stonewall Brigade as Company B of the Fifth Virginia.20

The Militia Act of 1858 and Brown’s Raid finally spurred action to address the long-ignored alteration of Virginia’s large stockpile of obsolete flintlocks. Already in the summer of 1859, Federal authorities had accepted 2,135 flint muskets as a credit to Virginia’s account with the U.S. Ordnance Department. Virginia also sent 600 Virginia Manufactory flintlock rifles to the Washington Arsenal to be altered. After determining existing hammers would not fit the unique Virginia rifles, the weapons were shipped to Harpers Ferry for the fabrication of custom hammers. Harpers Ferry successfully converted 565 of these rifles and fitted 98 of them with studs for a sword bayonet. Between these alterations, the musket trade-in, and their usual annual allotment under the Militia Act of 1808, in 1859 Virginia obtained 100 Model 1855 rifled muskets, 2,040 percussion muskets, and 573 percussion rifles. These went immediately into the hands of newly organized volunteer companies.21

The Federal government had conducted a major program in the 1840s to alter its existing flintlock muskets to percussion, including rifling some of these smoothbore pieces. By 1855 the program was drawing to a close after the conversion of 315,000 weapons exhausted the stockpile of suitable arms. The Ordnance Department was scheduled to formally end its program to alter and rifle Model 1816 muskets in late 1859, but the Secretary of War intervened in December so that a large number of muskets could be altered for Virginia.22

Virginia Manufactory Rifle dated 1820 and altered to percussion in 1860-1861 by Merrill, Thomas, and Co. of Baltimore (Source: College Hill Arsenal)

Virginia authorities also considered commercial contracts to address the state’s need for modern arms. Richardson submitted alongside his 1859 report to the Virginia Assembly a proposal from J. H. Hitchcock & Company of New York to alter Virginia’s flintlock muskets. In early 1861, between 250 and 360 Virginia Manufactory rifles were sent to Baltimore where Merrill, Thomas, and Company altered at least 270 prior to the start of hostilities. Contracts were explored with the Colt Firearm Manufacturing Company for pistols, rifles, and carbines, including a discussion of Colt opening a factory to produce arms in Richmond.23

On January 21, 1860, the Virginia Assembly authorized an aggressive escalation of Virginia’s munitions program. They appropriated $180,000 for the purchase of weapons and another $500,000 to resume weapons production at the Virginia Manufactory of Arms. The state contracted with Joseph R. Anderson & Company of the Tredegar Iron Works to construct the necessary machinery to produce a .58 caliber musket which blended elements of the U.S. Model 1855 rifled musket with the British Model 1853 Enfield rifled musket. In partial payment, Tredegar would accept Virginia’s outdated muskets at a value of $1.50 per piece. Although some 8,060 muskets would be transferred to Anderson in 1860, the start of the war prevented Anderson from fulfilling the contract.24

Return of ordnance stores purchased by the Commission of 1860 (Source: 1860 Report of the Adjutant General)

The act also created a commission to purchase weapons with the newly authorized funds. In his Fall 1860 report, Richardson indicated the commission had purchased 5,000 “excellent percussion muskets” and volunteer companies deficient in accouterments would soon be supplied from new contracts signed by the commission. His attached accounting of the commission’s purchases, however, included 204 cartridge boxes and 446 cap pouches, but no muskets. The muskets do not otherwise appear in the 1860 ordnance returns, suggesting they may have been contracted for, but not yet delivered to Richmond at the time. Subsequent records don’t clearly determine whether these muskets were ultimately delivered prior to the war and, if so, what model weapon they were.25

One secondary source indicates that Virginia purchased 5,000 altered percussion arms prior to the war for the cost of $2.50 each. While no date is provided for this purchase and no primary source cited, these may be the muskets purchased by the 1860 commission since the number of weapons match and records do not detail any other large pre-war purchase of percussion muskets. Virginia does appear to have acquired a significant number of altered muskets sometime between Fall 1860 and April 1861. Dimmock reported only 42 percussion muskets on hand in late 1860, yet 1,500 altered muskets were available in Richmond two weeks into the war and long before Virginia began domestic alteration.26

In his late 1860 report Richardson confidently predicted “although the state has not a large stock of modern arms, she has enough arms of all descriptions, fit for effective service, to arm a considerable military force.” As shown in the table below, despite the last-minute efforts to modernize Virginia’s armaments, most of Virginia’s weapons on the eve of war were still outdated flintlock muskets. Virginia lacked enough modern rifled muskets to outfit even a single regiment and all its percussion arms combined would not be enough for a full-strength brigade. Within six months, Richardson’s prediction would be put to the test.27

Virginia Ordnance Returns as of November 186028

Held by Militia Richmond Arsenal Lexington Arsenal Total
Rifled Muskets 400 12 10 422
Percussion Muskets 2,121 42 496 2,659
Flint Muskets 5,801 20372 27815 53,988
Percussion Rifles 1,115 70 20 1,205
Flint Rifles 1,596 690 1007 3,293
Total 11,033 21,186 29,348 61,567

Imperfectly Armed as They Came In

The call to arms in April 1861 found some elements of what would become the Stonewall Brigade already armed from pre-war stocks. A February 1861 report detailed the armaments of Virginia’s volunteer companies. Six companies were armed with the newest Model 1855 .58 caliber rifled musket, 75 companies with percussion muskets such as the .69 caliber Model 1842 smoothbore or altered muskets of various models, and 26 companies carried flintlocks. An additional four companies had “long range rifles” with sword bayonets, a likely reference to either Model 1855 rifles or Model 1841 rifles which had been upgraded to the Model 1855 standards. Another 24 companies, such as the Rockbridge Rifles in Lexington, had percussion rifles, either Model 1841 rifles or flintlock rifles altered to percussion. Ten companies shouldered flintlock rifles, while 80 volunteer companies were still without arms at all.29

Sketch of the burning of the Harpers Ferry Arsenal. Note the civilians in the foreground carrying armfuls of muskets. (Source: Library of Congress)

Although some companies of the future Stonewall Brigade thus likely arrived already armed at Harpers Ferry, it is possible some units obtained weapons from April 18 capture of the arsenal. The historical record, however, is unclear on exactly how many weapons were seized in the capture of Harpers Ferry. The U.S. Army officer commanding the arsenal’s small garrison reported his men had set ablaze buildings with nearly 15,000 arms inside. “It is probable,” he wrote, “not a single gun was saved from them.” This same 15,000 number was quoted in an April 19 letter from an arsenal employee. However, the U.S. War Department informed Congress that, although Harpers Ferry had contained 20,507 arms as of mid-1860, by the time the armory was set ablaze it contained only 4,287 arms of all kinds. No explanation was provided for this significant reduction or why it differs from the 15,000 reported by those on the scene.30

Confederate records add no additional clarity. Colonel Kenton Harper, commander of the Virginia militia units which captured the arsenal reported the following day that he would forward the captured weapons to Winchester, retaining “only such of the arms which are complete, and rescued from the burning as are thought necessary to equip the troops, imperfectly armed as they came in.” On April 22 he stated that he had recovered an unspecified number of weapons from the fire along with the components for 7,000-10,000 arms. He put the remaining arsenal staff to work assembling weapons from these components at a rate of several hundred Model 1855 rifled muskets a day. After Colonel Thomas Jackson assumed command at Harpers Ferry, he informed Richmond that the arsenal staff claimed they could assemble 1,500 rifled muskets within 30 days.31

Regardless of how many weapons were captured, they were not distributed in an organized manner. Richardson’s office received no returns for the munitions captured and he wryly noted only that he understood that “all have been promptly and freely appropriated for the service of the Confederate States.” On April 28 Robert E. Lee, commanding Virginia’s forces, ordered Jackson to recover all of the Harpers Ferry arms from the local militia except for those in the hands of volunteer units Jackson was mustering into state service. This was evidently not easily accomplished, as about a week later Lee authorized Jackson to offer a $5 bounty for each musket turned in by the local population around Harpers Ferry.32

Cartridge box carried at the Battle of Manassas by Pvt. Clarence A. Fonerden of the 27th Virginia Co. A (Source: American Civil War Museum)

In addition to weapons, Virginia faced critical shortages of accouterments of all kinds even before the war. In 1860 Richardson reported that many of the armed volunteer companies still lacked accouterments but were being supplied as quickly as possible under contracts made by the commissioners of the Act of January 21, 1860. At that time, Virginia had just over 11,000 armed volunteers, but only around 4,600 of these men had cartridge boxes. The armories in Richmond and Lexington held only 498 cartridge boxes on the eve of conflict, many in need of repair before they could be reissued.  As late as June 6, 1861, General Johnston complained his troops at Harpers Ferry were “not equipped for a campaign. More than two regiments are without cartridge-boxes.” On the eve of the Battle of Manassas, the Stonewall Brigade was still deficient 627 cartridge boxes, 733 cap pouches, 168 belts, and 783 bayonet scabbards.33

Dimmock issued as many accouterments as he could and found expedients like widespread issuance of white fabric webbing in lieu of leather belts and slings. 57,912 yards of such webbing was issued to Virginia forces between October 1859 and November 1861. During the same period, 12,000 cap pouches, 24,284 cartridge boxes, 12,979 bayonet scabbards, and 7,350 slings and belts all flowed from the Virginia Arsenal into the hands of eager volunteers.34

Left to right: Belt plate made with the W. H. Horstmann die; Contracted belt plate made by J. S. Smith of New York; Back of the same plate, showing Smith’s makers mark (Source: Confederate Belt Buckles and Plates Expanded Edition)

Also issued during this period were 12,916 waist belt plates and 9,630 breast plates. In 1851 Richardson had a die made to apply the Virginia state seal on brass plates for volunteers in lieu of the U.S. stamped plates obtained from the Federal government. A die was purchased later that year from William H. Horstmann & Sons of Philadelphia. A full year later, however, the die was still unused, as Richardson recommended that plates be purchased and stamped with the new die rather than including plates in Virginia’s annual arms quote. His recommendation was only partially followed, however, as Virginia still obtained 2,255 U.S. stamped plates from Federal armories between 1856 and 1860. The state also contracted with James S. Smith & Sons of New York for additional Virginia-stamped plates similar to the Horstmann design. The firm also provided unmarked rectangular plates with clipped corners and unmarked oval breast plates.35

Left to right: Rectangular Virginia belt plate; Oval breast plate made by Smith of New York; Rear of the same plate, showing Smith’s makers mark (Source: Confederate Belt Buckles and Plates Expanded Edition)

Between April 1 and June 13, detailed records from the Virginia Armory recount ordnance issues to specific companies which would ultimately form portions of the Stonewall Brigade. Among the best armed companies in the brigade was the Berkeley Border Guards, later the Second Virginia Company D. During this period they were issued 80 rifled muskets, probably the Model 1855 rifled musket. The company also received 80 sets of cartridge boxes, bayonet scabbards, cap boxes, and belt plates. Due the shortages of accouterments, however, the company was issued 450 yards of white fabric webbing from which to make belts and slings. Their ordnance requisition was rounded out with 1,000 cartridges and 1,200 percussion caps.36

Pvt. Joseph Hisey of the 2nd Virginia Co. E, carrying a percussion musket (Source: Second Virginia Regimental History)

While the Virginia Armory did not provide detailed ordnance issues to the remainder of the Second Virginia, they were also armed with percussion weapons. A shipment of ammunition sent to Colonel James W. Allen in Charlestown consisted of 10,000 cartridges and 12,000 percussion caps. A likely late June or early July ordnance report for the regiment indicated that in addition to the Berkeley Border Guards carrying .58 caliber rifled muskets, three companies carried .69 caliber altered muskets and another had .58 caliber smoothbore muskets. The remaining five companies shouldered a blended  mix of .69 and .58 caliber weapons, some smoothbore and some rifled.37

A company in the Fourth Virginia, the Fort Lewis Volunteers (Company B), appears to have already been partially armed upon entering service, as they received only a handful of ordnance stores. They were issued one altered musket, a single cartridge box and cap pouch, 3 bayonet scabbards, six breast plates, four belt plates, and six wipers and 12 screwdrivers for weapon cleaning.38

Captain James Walker, who would rise to command the Stonewall Brigade two years later, commanded the Pulaski Guards. This unit, later to be designated the Fourth Virginia Company C, was issued 78 altered muskets. Their issues of accouterments, however, were incomplete, as they received 78 cap pouches, but just 16 cartridge boxes, 10 bayonet scabbards, and 20 belt plates. They also received 90 yards of webbing.39

Sgt. John B. Darst of the 4th Virginia Co. C, likely holding an altered musket. Note also his oval breast plate and white slings, possibly of webbing. (Source: Fourth Virginia Regimental History)

The Fourth Virginia Company D, known as the Smythe Blues, also received 90 yards of webbing to go along with 14 altered muskets, and 14 sets of cap pouches, bayonet scabbards, and belt plates. This small number suggests they, like the Fort Lewis Volunteers, were already partially armed.40

The last company in the Fourth Virginia for which we have ordnance records from the period is the Grayson Dare Devils, later Company F. They may have been among the best armed in the Fourth Virginia, as they received 80 Harpers Ferry rifles with sword bayonets. This is most likely a reference to the Model 1855 rifle, which was produced exclusively at Harpers Ferry. It is also possible it refers to older Model 1841 “Mississippi” rifles, as several thousand of these were rebored and modified at Harpers Ferry during the late 1850s to make them functionally similar to the Model 1855 rifle, including adding a lug for a sword bayonet. The company also received 90 cartridge boxes, 100 sets of bayonet scabbards, cap pouches, waist belts, bayonet frogs, and belt plates, as well as 90 yards of webbing.41

Pvt. William P. Ott, possibly carrying a Model 1851 Cadet Musket (Source: Library of Congress)

Some companies from the Upper Valley drew their weapons directly from the armory in Lexington before marching north. The Rockbridge Grays and the Liberty Hall Volunteers (Fourth Virginia Company H and I respectively) were both issued some of the 496 Model 1851 cadet muskets held in Lexington for use by the VMI Corps of Cadets. These were a scaled down version of the Model 1842 musket, but in a smaller .57 caliber and with a shorter socket bayonet. The Liberty Hall Volunteers may have carried these weapons only a short time before probably being issued altered. On September 26, 1861, Jackson informed an aide to the Virginia governor that he would be unable to return the cadet muskets still carried by the Rockbridge Grays until they could be replaced with other percussion muskets.42

Virginia Armory records include only ammunition and accouterment issues to the Fifth Virginia, with no weapons listed. 1,500 cartridges and 2,000 percussion caps were sent to regimental commander Colonel William Baylor, suggesting the pre-war volunteer core of the Fifth Virginia was among those armed with percussion muskets prior to the outbreak of hostilities. Ordnance reports from likely summer 1861 indicate five companies of the regiment carried .58 caliber rifled muskets, probably the Model 1855. The Rockbridge Rifles (initially Company B of the Fifth but subsequently transferred to the Twenty-Seventh and then Thirty-Third Virginia) were almost certainly still carrying the percussion rifles issued to them from the Lexington Armory in 1859. They received from the Virginia Armory 80 sets of cartridge boxes and cap pouches, along with 25 belt plates and 90 yards of webbing. The Mountain Guard (Company C) received 300 yards of webbing and 60 cartridge boxes, while the Augusta Rifles (Company H) were issued 50 sets of cartridge boxes, cap pouches, and belt plates along with 300 yards of webbing.43

My Duty to Give the Best Arms to the Virginia Troops

While companies like the Rockbridge Grays with their cadet muskets or the Grayson Dare Devils with their rifles had unique and relatively modern arms, the majority of the men who joined the Stonewall Brigade in 1861 likely shouldered an altered musket. By early May, 2,000 of these had been sent from Richmond to Jackson. Lee informed Jackson on May 9 that an additional 1,000 altered muskets newly arrived from North Carolina were being sent to arm Jackson’s command. “Orders,” wrote Lee, “have been given to fill your requisition for arms, ammunition, and accouterments as far as possible”44

Just two days later Jackson claimed he could get enough volunteers to swell his force to 4,500 men but “they are without arms, accouterments, and ammunition.” He requested 5,000 good muskets and rifles be sent. Lee quickly responded that he did not understand why Jackson would need 5,000 more weapons as he already had nearly 3,000 armed men plus the 3,000 altered muskets sent. “We have no rifles” Lee informed Jackson, but “ammunition has also been ordered to you.” Jackson also ordered 1,000 flintlocks from Lexington sent to Harpers Ferry, although these may have gone to soldiers from other southern states as Jackson felt that “it is my duty to give the best arms to the Virginia troops.”45

By May 23 a Confederate inspector reported that the 8,000 men at Harpers Ferry were organized in five Virginia regiments (including the Stonewall Brigade’s Second, Fourth, and Fifth Virginia), two from Mississippi, a battalion from Maryland, and a regiment each from Kentucky and Alabama. The Virginia regiments had “good arms” but were deficient in cartridge boxes, belts, and ball screws. A shipment of ammunition for Johnson’s growing army at Harpers Ferry a few days later included 62,500 cartridges for .69 caliber smoothbore muskets and 37,500 were .58 caliber Minié balls for the Model 1855 rifled musket and Model 1855 Harpers Ferry rifle. This suggests roughly three-eighths of Johnson’s force carried modern arms, while the remainder wielded a mixture of older percussion, altered, or flintlock muskets.46

By the time the last two regiments in the Stonewall Brigade, the Twenty-Seventh and Thirty-Third Virginia, were organized, the supply of modern weapons was largely exhausted. Lieutenant Colonel John Echols arrived in Staunton on May 15 with four companies from Monroe, Greenbrier, and Alleghany counties. These companies, soon part of the Twenty-Seventh Virginia, were most likely the Monroe Guards (Company D), the Greenbrier Rifles (Company E), the Greenbrier Sharpshooters (Company F), and the Allegheny Light Infantry (Company A).47 Three of these companies arrived unarmed, with the fourth had only 55 flintlock muskets in poor order. “We are not armed with anything,” wrote a member of the Greenbrier Rifles, “except each of us boys… have a tremendous bowie-knife.”48

Model 1855 Harpers Ferry Rifle, dated 1861 and possibly among those captured by Virginia forces in April (Source: Heritage Auctions)

These companies arrived in Harpers Ferry on May 20 and were issued their first muskets. The Greenbrier Rifles, however, steadfastly refused to accept the “very homely old ‘Mountain Muskets’” they were initially offered. Their insubordination was tolerated and the unit soon proudly carried Model 1855 rifles. These rifles had been burnt during the destruction of the armory the previous month, but had “having been repaired and refinished,” wrote one of the recipients, “are quite as good as new.”49

Pvt. John P. Hite, 33rd Virginia Co. H, carrying a North-Hall Carbine (Source: University of Virginia)

A company of the Thirty-Third Virginia might have obtained particularly unique arms, but this is based solely on questionable photographic evidence. A photo of John P. Hite of the Page Grays, later Company H, shows Hite carrying a Model 1843 Hall-North carbine. The first breechloading rifle adopted by the U.S. Army, the Hall rifle was later also produced as a carbine and in its final years of production in the 1840s was made with percussion. Virginia held a number of these carbines in her pre-war stockpile and 680 were issued to Virginia soldiers between October 1859 and November 1861. It would be unusual, however, for an infantry unit like the Page Grays to be issued a cavalry carbine and thus it is possible Hite’s weapon is a photographer’s prop and not the weapon he carried in 1861.50

When the Potomac Guards and Independent Greys, subsequently the Thirty-Third Virginia Companies A and F, were organized around Romney, they were issued a combination of altered muskets and flintlocks that had been sent from Harpers Ferry. The final company to join the Thirty-Third Virginia, the Shenandoah Sharpshooters (Company K), arrived unarmed and so were issued flintlock muskets. These muskets were probably from a batch of 1,200 U.S. flintlock muskets and bayonets sent from Richmond to General Johnson at Winchester in circa late June-early July 1861.51

Stonewall Brigade member J. Tripplett, carrying a flintlock musket (Courtesy of VMI)

Another company which possibly carried flintlocks is the Mount Jackson Rifles (Thirty-Third Virginia Company G), but this is based on questionable . A photo in the collection of VMI shows a soldier identified only as J. Tripplet of the Stonewall Brigade. Tripplet is holding a flintlock musket. Because his family was reportedly from the Mount Jackson area, it is possible he served in the Mount Jackson Rifles. However, surviving records show no soldier matching Tripplet’s description in the Mount Jackson Rifles or anywhere in the Stonewall Brigade. As it is not uncommon for soldiers who served under Jackson’s command outside the Stonewall Brigade to be misidentified as a brigade member, Tripplet’s potential service with the Mount  Jackson rifles cannot be verified. 52

Virginia worked diligently to replace the flintlock muskets initially rushed into service. Beginning in July 1861, a contract was finally made with Samuel C. Robinson of Richmond to alter Virginia’s remaining flintlock muskets. Contracts with other firms would follow. By November Dimmock reported that 5,000 flint muskets had been altered and 100 more were added to this number daily. Flintlock muskets issued to Virginia troops at the start of the war were being recalled and replaced with these altered muskets as quickly as possible. Thus, Virginia’s final ordnance issues to the Stonewall Brigade before responsibility was turned entirely to the Confederate government were likely issues of altered muskets in the fall and winter of 1861 to any companies still carrying flintlocks.53

The accomplishments of Richardson, Dimmock, Lee, and other Virginia authorities in arming the state’s forces at the beginning of the conflict were impressive. Between April 1 and June 14, 1861, when primary responsibility for ordnance was transferred from the state to the Confederate government, Dimmock issued 4,118 percussion rifled muskets and muskets, 11,636 altered muskets, 25,850 flint muskets, and 2,054 assorted rifles and carbines, plus around 13,000 mostly flintlock muskets from Lexington. Between then and the end of October, another 4,514 percussion muskets (likely the S. C. Robinson alterations mentioned above), 9,905 flintlock muskets, 56 percussion rifles, and 74 flint rifles were placed in the hands of Virginia soldiers.54

The weapons Virginia provided to the Stonewall Brigade in 1861 were a mixture of modern and outdated. The most commonly carried weapon in this period appears to have been the altered musket, an apt mid-point between the modern rifled muskets a few companies carried, and the obsolete flintlock muskets shouldered by a few less fortunate companies. By early 1862 imported weapons and battlefield captures began to make an appearance in the ranks of the brigade, replacing some of the older weapons rushed into the hands of eager recruits in Spring 1861. In the meantime, though, the Stonewall Brigade proved on the fields of Manassas and in the early battles of 1862 that Virginia’s weapons were indeed fit for effective service.


Weaponry of the Stonewall Brigade 

by Eric Mink, 4th Virginia 

Manufacturers of reproduction firearms have expanded their offerings, allowing us a wider variety of choice in what we decide to carry. No longer are we limited to the M1853 Enfield or M1861(3) Springfield, we can now purchase reproduction smoothbores of the M1842 and M1816 conversion variety, as well as a reproduction Austrian Lorenz. For this reason, I thought some information on the weaponry carried by the Stonewall Brigade might be useful.

In the first months of the war, “modern” weaponry was considered a luxury for most Virginia companies, the 1st Virginia Brigade apparently being no exception. In May of 1861, the Rockbridge Grays, later Company H, 4th Virginia Infantry, left Lexington for Harper’s Ferry with the borrowed muskets of the Virginia Military Institute on their shoulders.[1]  These weapons, that could be carried through First Manassas, were M1851 Springfield Cadet muskets, basically a scaled down version of the M1842 with a .57 smoothbore barrel. By September 1861, the state of Virginia was asking for the return of VMI’s weapons, prompting General Jackson to write the Governor’s office stating that “I regret to say that Capt. Updike’s company (Rockbridge Grays)has not turned in the cadet muskets and I fear that I will be unable to forward them to the VMI until their place can be supplied with other percussion muskets.”[2] By the end of the year, these weapons would be replaced. By the same time the following year (1862), it appears that the armament of some members of the 4th Virginia’s other companies had improved only slightly. On May 26, 1862, Ted Barclay of the Liberty Hall Volunteers, Co. I 4th Virginia, wrote home that he was carrying a “Belgium gun.”[3] Struggling with upgrading from second-class weapons apparently was not isolated to the 4th Virginia, at least one other regiment in the Brigade started out with less than adequate firearms.

When the 33rd Virginia rushed the Union guns (Rickett’s Battery) at First Manassas, it is quite possible that close quarters fighting had more to due with their weapons than with their commanders’ idea of tactics. It has been stated that the Shenandoah Sharpshooters, Company K, 33rd Virginia, were initially issued outdated flintlock muskets.[4] No doubt, the men in this company felt the Rockbridge Grays were lucky, for at least they had percussion muskets. By the following year, the old flintlocks were gone, but some members of the 33rd Virginia were still carrying the old reliable smoothbore M1842.

In June of 1865, the 7th New York Infantry were at Groveton, Virginia for the dedication of a monument when they stumbled across a M1842 Harper’s Ferry, dated 1847. In the stock of this battlefield “relic” was carved “A.A. Cameron.” As it turns out, this gun belonged to the Sergeant-Major of the 33rd Virginia, who was killed at 2nd Manassas.[5]

By the following year (1863), the men of the Stonewall Brigade began to receive the newer British Enfields that were coming through the blockade. The George D. Rosensteel family spent their lives collecting Civil War relics and memorabilia, some of the members beginning shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg. Today, the Rosensteel Collection is the nucleus of the Gettysburg National Park’s museum, many of its displays containing items picked up off of the Gettysburg Battlefield. Two of the Rosensteel’s “relics” are representative of the weapons carried by the Stonewall Brigade in July of 1863. In one of the display cases is the broken stock of a British Enfield, from the lockplate cavity to the buttstock, in which is carved “Wm F Beatty/Staunton Rifles.” The owner who left this broken stock on Culp’s Hill was a member of Company G, 5th Virginia. Another display contains a complete M1853 Enfield, marked 1862 – Tower, with “J.B.O./2nd VA Stonewall Brigade” carved in its stock. For the men of the Stonewall Brigade, and the rest of the Army, the Enfield was about the best weapon they could hope to receive from their government.

From existing examples, it appears that the Stonewall Brigade followed the same course that so many Confederate units did, upgrading the weapons whenever possible and/or available: from flintlocks and cadet muskets to the European imports, and from .57(7) caliber to .69, one can imagine what the Brigade’s ordinance officers must have gone through trying to supply the men. These few accounts and examples may not be representative of the entire Brigade, but it does give us some insight into the armament of these men at various periods curing the first half of the war.

[1]. Keith Gibson and George E. Whiting. “The U.S. Model 1851 VMI Cadet Muskets.” North-South Trader’s Civil War. Vol. XXII No 5, Sept.-Oct. 1995, p.39.

[2]. Guy Charleton Lee. The True History of the Civil War. Philadelphia: J.B.Lipincott Company. 1980, pp. 244-45.

[3]. Charles W. Turner, ed. Ted Barclay, Liberty Hall Volunteers: Letters from the Stonewall Brigade. Natural Bridge Station: Rockbridge Publishing Company. 1992, p.71-72.

[4]. William B. Edwards. Civil War Guns. Harrisburg: Stackpole Company. 1962, p.92.

[5]. Stephen W. Sylvia and Michael J. O’Donnell. The Illustrated History of American Civil War Relics. Orange: Moss Publications. 1978, p.83.