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.