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History: Collector donates weapons to county museum

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

America’s Civil War produced a revolution in firearms that neither Union nor Confederate generals recognized in time to change the Napoleonic tactics that led to 620,000 deaths.

A war that began with troops carrying single-shot muskets that were ineffective beyond 150 yards ended with mounted cavalry using deadly accurate repeating rifles.

“It led to a very messy war,” said Bill Donsbach, a resident of Wachesaw East who has spent decades buying, selling and trading military firearms and studying how they were made and used. Donsbach has donated his collection to the Georgetown County Museum and will speak about small arms of the Civil War today (June 4) at 5:30 p.m. at the museum. The program is free for museum members with a $5 charge for non-members.

Donsbach has been interested in military firearms since high school. He is a graduate of Virginia Military Institute and spent nine years in the U.S. Army. He bought his first musket 30 years ago from a friend who had acquired two identical weapons.

Donsbach’s interest grew from collecting firearms to re-enacting battles. He participated in the 125th anniversaries of the battles of Manassas, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, Chancellorsville and Appomattox as a member of the 22nd Virginia and the 5th Texas regiments. Donsbach said his attachment to Southern units was not a political statement. Re-enactors have to be ready to “galvanize” at a moment’s notice, he said, and change sides to even up the battlefield numbers.

He gave up re-enacting and focuses today on the history of the war’s weapons: muskets, pistols and carbines. In the beginning, neither the North nor the South manufactured many arms. The Union had an armory at Springfield, Mass., with the capability to make rifles, but its facility at Harpers Ferry, Va., was captured by Confederates, who shipped the machinery to Richmond. State armories were storehouses of mostly outdated weapons, Donsbach said.

“The North needed time to get their manufacturing heated up,” he said. “The South didn’t have any.”

Both sides sent representatives to Europe to buy arms. “They were either very good or very bad,” Donsback said. The reliable British Enfield rifle began replacing 40-year-old muskets converted from flint to percussion ignition for both North and South. Other weapons of varying quality came from Austria, Belgium, France and Germany. Confederate troops would often trade their old rifles for newer models left by the dead on battlefields, Donsbach said, though a few were manufactured in Richmond and Fayetteville, N.C.

The Union enjoyed an enormous edge in manufacturing and produced a serviceable rifle, the Springfield, in 1861 and made improvements to it in 1863 and 1865. “They couldn’t make enough,” he said, “so the Union let out contracts to private manufacturers.”

Among those private firms were the Eli Whitney Co., makers of the cotton gin. Eli Whitney made what Donsbach called the biggest advancement of the war: the American System of Manufacturing, producing machinery that made standardized parts. “In the 1830s and 1840s,” he said, “parts were handmade by very talented gunsmiths. They produced a limited number at a high cost. Eli Whitney produced machinery that made parts that fit from gun to gun. The system was later employed in just about every kind of manufacturing.”

Before machine parts, Union soldiers had to file their bayonets to fit them on rifle barrels. “By 1861,” Donsbach said, “the bayonets fit every gun. In the field they could use broken parts to make another rifle.”

The breach-loading carbine with its percussion caps and paper cartridges was a big leap forward in rifles, he said. Without a flint ignition and loose gunpowder, the rifle could be fired in the rain. The second big advance was the conical bullet developed by Frenchman Claude Minié. His bullet had a hollow base that expanded when pushed against a spike at the bottom of the gun barrel. “That caused it to expand into the rifling and spin out,” Donsbach said, “unlike a smooth bore that bounced out.”

James Burton of the Springfield Armory improved on the bullet by making its base thin enough to expand from the exploding powder, eliminating the need to push the bullet against a spike. “It should be called the Burton ball,” Donsbach said, “but everybody calls them Minié balls.”

The next jump was a bullet containing powder and primer in a copper jacket with mercury fulminate in its base to produce a spark. With the new bullet came the repeating rifle. The seven-shot Spencer was one of the first. “It was fairly rugged,” Donsbach said, “and very popular because of the seven shots.” Oliver Henry improved the model with a rifle originally called the Volcanic and later the Henry. It was the forerunner of the lever action Winchester. “It had a tube to load bullets and would fire even quicker than the Spencer,” he said. “There weren’t many in the Civil War, just a few units. The generals didn’t like this kind of stuff. They wanted troops armed with single-shot muskets and bayonets. They were still hung up on bayonets, and these things didn’t use bayonets. The generals never caught up with it. That’s why we had the casualties we had. They were still fighting a Napoleonic war. The soldiers didn’t like bayonets and didn’t use them if they could avoid it. They probably used them more for digging than anything.”

The firepower of the new weapons led to other developments. Gen. Robert E. Lee had his troops dig trenches when they got into a defensive position. Donsbach said some soldiers took to calling him the “King of Spades.” Lee dug in at Spotsylvania but was eventually overrun by superior Union numbers. At Cold Harbor, Va., Union troops were obliterated in an attack on Confederate trenches. “It was so bad,” Donsbach said, “the Union men were writing their names and where they lived on a piece of paper and pinning it inside their jacket because they were pretty sure they were going to get killed and wanted somebody to know where they were from.”

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