March 29, 1862; First Use of Gatling Guns in Combat

The history of warfare reached a milestone on March 29, 1862 when Union troops in the Shenandoah Valley won a skirmish against Confederate troops at Middleburg, Virginia.  The Union troops used two gatling guns, nicknamed “coffer grinders” by the troops, the first use of the new weapon in battle.

The gatling gun was invented by Dr. Richard J. Gatling in 1861.  In later years he wrote down why he invented his gun:

“In 1861 … (residing at the time in Indianapolis, Ind.) I witnessed almost daily the departure of troops to the front and the return of the wounded, sick and dead: The most of the latter lost their lives, not in battle, but by sickness and exposure incident to the service. It occurred to me if I could invent a machine—a gun—which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a great extent, supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease be greatly diminished.”

Although pushed by Lincoln, the gatling guns only saw very limited use during the War.  Most Union generals regarded the devices as fairly useless, pointing to their limited mobility and the frequent jamming of the early gatling guns.  It didn’t help also that Dr. Gatling, born in North Carolina, was something of a copperhead, and that after his rebuff by the Union Army, he spent most of the War attempting to interest foreign governments, including the Confederate government, in purchasing his guns.  The Confederates, witnessing the gatlings in action, built their own automatic guns, but Confederate generals had no more use for them than their Northern counterparts had for gatlings. 

Post war, after the bugs had been largely worked out of them, gatlings became highly popular with the United States Army, now making do with only a small number of troops and looking at the guns as a battlefield substitute for manpower.  Foreign governments also learned to appreciate the gatlings, sparking inventors like Hiram Maxim, who invented the Maxim machine gun in 1884, to improve upon Gatling’s design.  The gatling’s  impact on the Civil War was negligible, but it’s impact on subsequent military history has been immense.

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Published in: on March 29, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments (4)  
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4 Comments

  1. Maybe the Union and Confederate generals had a point. The problem with a new weapon is the time it takes to train the troops, work out the bugs and find out what it can really do. In the late eighteen-sixties, the French army developed and brought in their first automatic gun, the Mitrailleuse. As I recall, however, they had been so caught up in developing it that they had stopped paying attention to Prussia – and in 1870, the Prussians, without machine-guns, overwhelmed the French, machine-gun and all.

  2. The Union tended to use the gatling guns as defensive weapons, guarding bridges, etc. I think that was probably a good choice for a weapon that still was in a prototype stage. I think that during the siege of Petersburg, gatlings could probably have been deployed to hold lightly guarded sectors.

  3. Did the Gatling really do all that much more then a Napolean stuffed with cannister would have done? They didn’t have any light versions that could be carried about easily and they couldn’t mass produce until they had one per squad. Were they really any different under the circumstances, then a cannon which couldn’t swich to roundshot for longer range.

  4. All good points Jason. Until the Gatlings were made more portable, the only difference I can think of is that their use probably required somewhat less training than becoming skilled at manning an artillery battery. Interestingly enough, gatlings were normally considered part of the artillery, and artillery troops were usually assigned to man them.


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