Buckeye Rapid-Fire: The 21st Ohio and the Colt’s Revolving Rifles

     The fighting performed by the 21st Ohio atop Snodgrass Hill on September 20, 1863 at the Battle of Chickamauga has been rightly noted as its best fighting of the war. While few have questioned the fighting abilities of the regiment’s men, much of the credit for the regiment’s ability to withstand multiple Confederate charges that afternoon has been given to the impact of the regiment being armed with five-shot Model 1855 .56 caliber Colt’s Revolving Rifles. It is an interesting story of how the regiment came to be armed with these rifles.

This fine example of a .56 caliber Model 1855 Colt Revolving Rifle which included a socket bayonet and scabbard recently sold for $11,500 through Rock Island Auctions. This particular example featured a 31" barrel while the guns used by the 21st Ohio had 37-1/2" barrels. (Rock Island Auctions)

          The 21st Ohio was one of state’s last 90-day regiments, mustering into service on April 27, 1861 at Camp Taylor in Cleveland with 1,000 men raised from throughout the former Black Swamp region of northwestern Ohio. The regiment under Colonel Jesse S. Norton saw service in the summer campaign in western Virginia and two companies of the regiment fought at the Battle of Scarey Creek where Colonel Norton managed to get himself captured. At the expiration of its term of service, the regiment returned to Ohio where many of its officers and men after a brief visit home elected to enlist the three-years’ service with the same regiment. Colonel Norton had proven to be a popular commander and little trouble was found in raising ten companies which gathered at Camp Vance in Findlay, Ohio where they were mustered into service on September 5, 1861.

          “The regiment was mostly recruited in the rural districts of Hancock, Putnam, Wood, Defiance, and Ottawa Counties,” recalled Captain Silas Canfield of Co. K. “Composed mainly of farmers and farmers’ sons, they were brought up to labor and were strong hardy men, well prepared for the arduous and fatiguing duties of the soldier. Industry had taught them perseverance, and they had learned to turn aside for no obstacle and never to stop short of the accomplishment of their purposes. While the great majority were farmers and farmers’ sons, there were few trades or professions that were not represented in the regiment, including merchants, tailors, shoemakers, blacksmiths, gunsmiths, silversmiths, tinners, telegraphers, teachers, masons, carpenters, lawyers, doctors, and ministers. Whatever was necessary to be done, there were men in the regiment capable and ready to do it.”

This image shows the detail of the firing cylinder on a pre-war six-shot Colt Revolving Rifle. Major Arnold McMahan of the 21st recalled that with continued firing the cylinders became fouled with blackpowder. "The continued firing without means to clean choked the cylinder so that it would not revolve. It was no uncommon thing for the men to clean their guns with their own urine. This might not be called cleaning, however, the moisture removed the burnt powder so that the guns would work." 

          The 21st Ohio saw much service in the western theater, initially serving under General William “Bull” Nelson in western Kentucky and had its first real fight at Ivy Mountain on November 8th 1861. The 21st later served under General Ormsby M. Mitchel during the spring of 1862 campaign and took part in the seizure of Huntsville, Alabama. Several members of the regiment also took part in one of Mitchel’s pet projects, the Andrews’ Raiders who stole behind Confederate lines in early April 1862 aiming to seize a locomotive and destroy the bridges and tunnels of the vital Western & Atlantic Railroad which connected Atlanta and Chattanooga.

          In the late summer of 1862, the 21st Ohio served as part of the garrison force of Nashville, Tennessee and took part in a few small-scale engagements around the city. The arrival of General William S. Rosecrans with the balance of the army into the city in November 1862 placed the regiment under the overall command of General George H. Thomas under whom they would serve for the better part of two years. At the end of 1862, the 21st Ohio marched with Rosecrans’ army and fought at the Battle of Stones River  where it suffered more than 200 casualties in its first major engagement.

          In the aftermath of Stones River, the 21st Ohio was marked as one of the best fighting regiments in Thomas’ corps, if discipline left a bit to be desired. “The sentinels at your camp have been found loafing around campfires or resting upon their arms, chatting with passers-by, sometimes even sitting down to write letters,” their brigade commander complained. “Officers who approach your lines are seldom treated with the courtesy due to rank and very few of your sentinels care to perform guard duty properly.” Picket duty was particularly sloppy, and the entire situation was not helped by Colonel James Neibling’s lax ways with the troops. “He was immensely popular with the men,” Canfield noted. “He was their ideal of a soldier.” Repeated complaints from their commanders brought little change and “later the regiment escaped public humiliation only by the clemency of General Negley.” The fact was that the regiment were hard fighters, but the boredom and tedium of camp life made the men restless and hard to control.

          With this background, it isn’t surprising that in April 1863 the regiment was chosen to become mounted infantry much like Colonel John T. Wilder’s Lightning Brigade. General Negley may have hoped that by putting the regiment upon more active service as mounted troops, the discipline problems plaguing the regiment might improve. Attempts to acquire mules failed and the experiment of turning the 21st Ohio into mounted infantry ended, but in late May a shipment of new weapons arrived for the regiment. The 21st Ohio for nearly two years had been armed with a mix of .577 caliber P53 Enfield rifle muskets for the flank companies and the balance armed with .69 caliber M1842 rifled muskets converted by Miles Greenwood’s Eagle Foundry in Cincinnati; the weapons had served the regiment well, but what the War Department delivered looked far more promising.

          “On May 26th, eight companies exchanged Springfield rifled muskets for Colt’s Revolving Rifles and Companies A and B retained Enfield rifles,” Canfield wrote. “This change in arms was opportune if not providential, as without them, it was hardly possible the regiment could have repulsed the first charge made on it at Chickamauga.” Evidence suggests that there might have been some horse trading of arms within the regiment as the Sullivan Collection at Bowling Green State University features a document that lists out the split of weapons between the companies after Chickamauga. Canfield states that eight companies received Colts and two received Enfields, but interestingly, the document lists five of the companies that had Enfields and a total of three (Companies D, E, and I) that had only Enfields, their Colts either being lost or traded to other companies. Company F had only one Enfield, H had only two, and Company G had just six. Four companies (A, B, C, and K) had only Colts and no Enfields after the battle.

          The Colt Revolving Rifle had been introduced in 1855 as a six-shot .44 caliber weapon available both as a carbine and a long rifle. While the U.S. Army had adopted the weapon in limited numbers for cavalry and dragoon service, it proved unpopular with the troops due to issues with gunpowder leaking from the cartridges and fouling the firing cylinder. The potential existed for the loose granules of powder to be ignited by the hot gases emanating from the gap between the cylinder and barrel which could set off all the rounds in the cylinder. This “chain fire” potential could be particularly harmful for a rifleman as his left hand could be shot off if the rounds all fired. The weapons also sometimes sprayed lead splinters into the soldier’s left hand. The weapon proved very sensitive to cleanliness; the more the weapon became fouled, the greater the potential for a chain fire incident. That known, some soldiers adopted the practice of lowering the loading lever and placing their left hand there to keep it out of the line of fire.

Colt produced their rifles in three different calibers: .36, .44, and .56 with the last being the most common. Colt also produced these weapons with a variety of barrel lengths, ranging from 31 inches to 37 5/16” inches. It is important to note that the Colt rifles delivered to the 21st Ohio were not new weapons- the weapons had seen previous service back East with Berdan’s 1st U.S. Sharpshooters during the Peninsula Campaign in the spring of 1862 before they were replaced with Sharps’ rifles.  The sharpshooters had expressed much dissatisfaction with the Colts; they had been promised Sharps’ rifles when they enlisted and didn’t like the tricky and temperamental Colts.

Private Sidney Brewster of Co. C of the 21st Ohio proudly poses with his newly issued Colt Revolving Rifle in an image dating from between May-August 1863. Brewster had been captured at Stones River and returned to the regiment that spring determined to exact his revenge on the Confederates. He was the first man in the regiment killed at Chickamauga. 

The specific Colts issued to the 21st Ohio in May 1863 were wartime production models ordered in January 1862 with a five-shot fluted cylinder firing through a 37-1/2” long barrel at .56 caliber and equipped with a lug to accept a socket bayonet. The guns also had a sighting leaf ranged out to 600 yards. The loading procedure for the rifles was similar to that employed by the popular Colt Revolvers; the soldier packed each paper wrapped cartridge into the front of the firing cylinder, packed it in with a plunger, then added percussion caps to each cylinder.  But once loaded, the soldier could rapidly empty the magazine, giving a volume of fire that dwarfed that of a single-shot muzzle loader.

At the Battle of Chickamauga, the 21st Ohio went into the fight of September 20th with 22 officers and 517 men; the men carried 347 Colts and 170 Enfields and acting ordnance sergeant John H. Bolton issued upwards of 95 rounds of ammunition per man that morning. “I ascertained from each company commander the amount of ammunition on hand and found there was an average of 25 rounds per man,” Bolton wrote. “I rode over to the division ordnance train and secured all the ammunition left in the train suitable for Colt’s revolving rifles [.56 caliber] which was 70 rounds to each man.” It is worth noting that the regiment had two types of ammunition: .56 caliber ammunition for the Colts and the standard army .577/.58 caliber ammunition for the Enfields. The total ammunition issue was 49,115 rounds: roughly 33,000 rounds of .56 caliber for the Colts and around 16,000 rounds of standard .58 caliber ammunition. As ammunition was packaged in crates of 1,000 rounds each, it took nearly 50 boxes of ammunition to load up the regiment. The standard army cartridge box could only carry 40 rounds, so the men loaded down with additional bundles of ammunition wherever they could.  “We urged the men to take all they could carry, and some was put in pockets, some in haversacks, and some in knapsacks,” Captain Canfield remembered.

This image from Joe Salter shows two typical .56 caliber bullets utilized in Colt Revolving Rifles. The top example still has the skin cartridge. As ammunition ran low, the men resorted to using standard .577 caliber ammunition and affixed their socket bayonets to help reinforce the muzzle. Despite this, many of the weapons burst at the muzzle from this deliberate overloading. (Joe Salter

 During the course of the fight the regiment expended 43,550 rounds of ammunition, nearly 89% of what was issued. One sergeant, George Hathaway of Co. K, reported that he personally fired 150 rounds during the fight. “As each man’s cartridges became exhausted, he fell back under the crest of the ridge,” John Mahony of Co. K recalled. By 2:30 that afternoon, ammunition started to give out. “Myself with others along the line of the regiment rifled the cartridge boxes of the dead and wounded, distributed their ammunition to the surviving men in line,” Bolton remembered. Abel Comstock of Co. C observed that the men made the standard .58 caliber work in their Colts by “taking the paper from the ball, but the caliber being larger than the balls we used, many of our guns were burst at the muzzle.”

Jacob Adams of Co. F was wounded in the left elbow while firing from behind a small oak tree. “Knowing that I was disabled for work in the front, I took my loaded five-shooter in my right hand and steered to the rear to get my wound treated thinking I would give the Rebs a dose of five health-giving pills before I would be captured,” he wrote. As the regiment was surrounded that evening , some of the 21sters removed the firing cylinder from their Colts and chucked them into the darkness of the woods which rendered the weapons useless while others broke the stocks against nearby trees. One existing example identified to a soldier in Co. H of the 21st Ohio which is on display at the American Civil War Museum of Ohio in Tiffin is missing the cylinder, likely tossed away when its owner was being captured.

The above example of a Colt's Revolving Rifle belonged to a member of Co. H of the 21st Ohio and was recovered from the Chickamauga battlefield many years ago. It is now on display at the American Civil War Museum of Ohio in Tiffin. 

The regiment suffered very heavy casualties: 28 killed, 84 wounded, and 131 captured, in the process losing 180 of its Colts and 83 of its Enfields. Writing from Chattanooga on the following day to Colonel Neibling who was back in Ohio on recruiting duty, Quartermaster Robert Mungen wrote “the 21st is all cut to pieces. It mustered this morning 154 men for duty. The only captain left with the regiment is Captain Vantine and only four lieutenants. My train is surrounded with wounded men. The battle of Stones River was a skirmish compared with this.”

Despite its losses, the regiment elected to re-enlist for three more years and left Chattanooga on January 19, 1864, leaving all of their arms behind in Columbus, Ohio on January 24th when the men returned to their homes for the 30-days veteran furlough. When the regiment returned to service in late February with the addition of nearly 200 recruits, the regiment was given a single issue of Enfield rifles. The Colts were removed from service and placed into storage at various arsenals where after the close of hostilities, the army deemed the Colts as obsolete arms and sold them on the open market for a fraction of the $42 it cost to acquire them in 1862.


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