Was the American Civil War a catalyst for the advent of “modern” warfare? Those who would respond “yes” to this question can build a strong case. The war not only led to the mobilization of large segments of both northern and southern society but also ensnared tens of thousands of civilians as victims of its carnage. It made wooden warships obsolete and forced participants and observers to see that centuries-old infantry tactics were lethally futile in an age of rifled musket barrels and Miniè balls.
But the story behind Patent 36,836, issued by the United States Patent Office to Richard Jordan Gatling in November 1862 for his “Improvement in Revolving Battery-Guns,” offers a counterpoint to the Civil War-as-modern-war narrative. The “Gatling Gun,” as it would be known, was perhaps the most under-utilized weapon in the Union’s arsenal. Even as industrial technology was making war deadlier than ever, Gatling’s gun – a weapon that virtually any soldier could be trained to operate and that fired as many rounds accurately in one minute as one hundred top marksmen combined could get off in that amount of time – was too far ahead of its time.
Richard Gatling was no warmonger. By 1861, he had patented several mechanical innovations and invested his earnings wisely enough to live comfortably in the small but growing city of Indianapolis. As Gatling watched thousands of Hoosier boys depart for the front – and especially as he saw more and more of them return on stretchers or in pine boxes – he grew convinced of the need to save lives by ending the war as quickly as possible. It was with this aim in mind that Gatling set to work on a weapon that would maximize firepower (thereby requiring fewer soldiers in battle) while awing and terrifying the enemy (thereby, Gatling hoped, leading to a quick surrender). By the fall of 1862 – with still no end to the war in sight – Gatling had perfected his gun and eagerly awaited the chance to prove its merits to the War Department.
But Gatling was only one of dozens of mechanical innovators and tinkerers offering their services to the Union war effort. In fact, his terrible weapon was not the first machine gun used in combat during the Civil War. That distinction belongs to the unlikely-named “coffee-mill gun,” so-called because gunners fed ammunition into a funnel on top of the weapon and used a crank similar to that of a manual coffee bean-grinder to drop .58-caliber bullets into the firing chamber. Provided that it did not overheat or jam – both of which it did frequently – the coffee-mill gun could fire 120 rounds per minute at a range of eight hundred yards.
After watching a demonstration of the coffee-mill gun in October 1861 and being much delighted by its performance, President Abraham Lincoln instructed the ordnance department to purchase ten of the new weapons. Lincoln’s fondness for this untried oddity of a gun should come as little surprise. He is the only president who ever obtained a patent (No. 6,469), and especially early in the war, Lincoln was keenly interested in innovative military technologies that could turn the tide of the conflict. But in this case, he should have heeded the advice of subordinates in the ordnance department who raised objections to the coffee-mill gun. Colonel John W. Geary of the 28th Pennsylvania was the first Union commander to deploy the guns in battle. During a Confederate attack near Middleburg, Virginia in March 1862, two coffee-mill guns under Geary’s command ripped into the Confederate ranks. Geary (or more accurately, his gunners) discovered that the weapons were not only inefficient but also dangerous to operate; the Keystone State colonel sent his two coffee-mill guns back to Washington shortly after the battle.
Were it not for the ignominious reputation of the coffee-mill gun, Richard Gatling might have had better luck convincing Lincoln and the War Department to utilize his weapon. After all, Gatling’s gun was an improvement on its predecessors. Like the coffee-mill gun, the Gatling gun still required gunners to feed bullets into a funnel-like hopper. But Gatling resolved the problem of overheating that plagued the single-barrel coffee-mill gun by arranging six rotating rifled barrels around a central axis. This allowed the Gatling gun to fire 300 rounds per minute with each barrel firing only 50 rounds. While Gatling’s first iteration of the weapon used paper cartridges, subsequent improvements on the design allowed for the use of uniform (and therefore more reliable) rimfire cartridges. Gatling’s claim to having invented a “simple, compact, durable, and efficient firearm” that could be “rapidly fired…and…operated by few men” was no idle boast.
Then why did the Lincoln administration and Union military officials ignore Gatling’s repeated attempts to persuade them of his gun’s effectiveness (not to mention a string of successful field tests that backed Gatling’s claims)? One explanation might be that Gatling was born in North Carolina, causing Union officials to look skeptically on his purported desire for the Gatling gun “to be used in crushing the present rebellion,” as Gatling wrote in an 1864 letter to Lincoln.
But a better answer can be found in the person of Lieutenant Colonel John W. Ripley, the Union Army’s chief of ordnance. Ripley, like most officers in the Union high command, was leery of change. And if any single weapon was representative of change, then the Gatling gun was it. Ripley saw the Gatling gun in action. He was inundated with reports from subordinates that detailed the weapon’s effectiveness and potential. Yet he remained resolutely opposed to putting Gatling’s invention in the hands of Union soldiers. Ripley’s intransigence only stiffened after the coffee-mill gun debacle. While Ripley was replaced in 1863, the damage to machine guns’ reputation – and to the chances of Gatling’s gun changing the course of the war – had been done. A handful of Union generals purchased Gatling guns at their own expense and deployed them in battle, but not nearly to the extent or with the effect that Gatling had intended.
Ironically, one of the few places where the Gatling gun did have an impact during the Civil War was in the streets of Manhattan. During the New York City Draft Riots of July 1863, mobs gathered to destroy the headquarters of the New York Times, the antislavery, pro-conscription Republican newspaper edited by Henry J. Raymond. Never one to back down from a fight, Raymond ordered his staff to the building’s rooftop, where three Gatling guns were trained down on the rioters below. Without having to fire a shot, Raymond used the Gatling guns to scare off his would-be assailants.
If the Gatling gun was more of a symbol of a new age of destruction during the Civil War, then over the last third of the nineteenth century, it became a deadly agent of Western imperialism. In the 1870s, United States soldiers deployed Gatling guns with devastating effectiveness against Nez Percè and Cheyenne Indians. Two decades later, the Rough Riders who took the heights of San Juan Hill near Santiago, Cuba did so with the support of a battery of Gatling guns. In the 1870s and 1880s, the Ashanti and Zulu warriors who fought against British colonizing forces fell by the hundreds to Gatling’s invention. From Egypt to the Cape Colony and from the Sudan to Nigeria, the Gatling gun earned its reputation as the lethal vanguard of British imperialism.
Perhaps it was for these reasons that in his later years, according to biographer Julia Keller, Gatling stopped just shy of wishing that he had not invented the eponymous gun. Keller tells the story of Avtomat Kalashnikova, the Russian general and military engineer who invented the AK-47. “I wish I had invented a lawnmower,” Kalashnikov quipped in a 2002 interview. Richard Jordan Gatling – a man who did patent a rotary plow and a mechanical seed planter – might well have gone to his grave wishing to be remembered in a similar fashion.