It’s worth remembering, in this sesquicentennial year of the war, that in 1864, as the May issue of the American Rifleman magazine puts it “more and more repeating rifles—[seven-shot] Spencers and ‘sixteen shooter’ Henrys—made their way into Union units.
“The South was being overwhelmed by superior numbers and firepower. If 1863 was the year of the rifle-musket in America’s bloody Civil War, then 1864 was the year of the repeater.”
It’s a bit misleading to refer to these rifles as “repeaters” since they were semiautomatic not fully automatic. But semiautomatic was new and devastating enough.
The dwindling ranks of the 13th Mississippi Regiment, augmented by recovered wounded, late volunteers and a few conscripts, encountered semiautomatics often enough to notice the trend—including at the First Battle of Deep Bottom in July just north of the James River east of Richmond.
There, continues the magazine, dismounted Union cavalry of Gen. Phillip Sheridan, wielding Spencer carbines, “smashed an attack by four Confederate infantry brigades and pushed them from the field in disorder.”
Well, yes, except that the brigades (which included Gen. Joseph Kershaw’s South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi regiments) were so diminished in numbers that they hardly deserved being called “brigades.”
And while the lever-action, breech-loading Spencers, firing self-contained (primer, powder and bullet in one package) .56-56 copper-rimfire cartridges, carried the day as long as the Rebels were advancing in the open, once they had retreated to their rifle pits to load and aim their single-shot rifled muskets, they halted the Union advance.
The 13th and the rest of the Mississippi Brigade weren’t so lucky in September at Berryville in the Shenandoah Valley. There they again encountered Sheridan’s Spencer-armed cavalrymen but this time, they were not only routed but their brigade commander, Gen. Benjamin Grubb Humphreys, was wounded and went home from the war for good.