THE ORDNANCE DEPARTMENT.
BY MAJOR C. E. DUTTON, ORDNANCE DEPT., U. S. A.
[see source at http://www2.army.mil/cmh-pg/books/R&H/R&H-OD.htm]
Post War Years
In September, 1864, Ramsey was retired, and Major A. B. Dyer, then commanding the Springfield Armory, was appointed Chief.
The close of the war was followed by dark days for the Ordnance. Disappointed contractors and inventors whose hopes had not been realized, were embittered against the bureau and carried their grievances into Congress, A joint committee was appointed to investigate their complaints, and the procedure, it is gratifying to know, has not often been paralleled in Congressional committees. Its report (drafted by the most bitter and most unreasonable of the complainants) reflected severely upon General Dyer, who at once asked for a court-martial. It was refused, and he then asked for a court of inquiry, which was granted. The inquiry of the court was long and thorough, and not only exonerated him, but held him up as an example worthy of the imitation of all army officers. Probably the worst effect of the investigation by the Congressional committee was the encouragement it afforded to similar attacks, and though this appears to have been the only personal one, the Ordnance Department found to its great embarrassment that similar influences were ever present to poison the minds of Committees against all its projects for the improvement of heavy ordnance, and to impose upon it heavy burdens of proof against other projects which it could in no way recommend. These influences were maintained through many years. They created a feeling of distrust towards the Department and its officers for which there was no real ground. They caused Committees to give precedence to and vote large sums for, the trial of costly devices whose failure was assured in advance, and every attempt in the true path of improvement was hampered or kept waiting indefinitely.
The year 1866 marks a revolution in the armament of the infantry. To say that it marks the change from the muzzle-loading to the breech-loading musket does not accurately nor logically express its real significance. Breech-loading arms, both great and small, have been experimented with for at least three, and perhaps four, centuries. The period from 1840 to 1857 abounded in devices for breech loading which became more numerous every year. It is a common idea that the aversion to them on the part of all officers was founded in mere conservatism, or even prejudice. But the truth was otherwise. All things considered, the breech-loaders were inferior to muzzle-loaders, and the superiority of the former was established only when the centre fire metallic cartridge was perfected. The ordinary notion is that powder and ball are mere accessories to the gun; that the gun is the all-important and substantive thing, while the cartridge is a minor incident. So all-pervading has this idea been in times past, that even the most expert have been not only influenced by it, but sometimes governed by it. The truth is the opposite. The cartridge is primary and antecedent, the gun secondary and consequent. Before the metallic cartridge was perfected, breech-loading arms were all of varying degrees of badness; afterwards they were all of varying degrees of goodness. At no time since, has there been a year in which it was not possible to select half a dozen or more designs of breech-loaders, such that if we were to assign 100 as a figure of merit for the best, the corresponding figure for the poorest would be at least go and perhaps 95. Under the old system, the ball, the powder and the priming were separate and separately handled; under the new system, they formed one piece. The gun with its breech mechanism follows as a logical sequence.
We may now perceive why progress with breech-loading arms was so slow, prior to the war, and why "science moved but slowly, slowly, creeping on from point to point." All inventive thought was concentrated on the gun as the primary factor. But when the centre fire metallic cartridge was developedpresto! "Science" had put on its seven-leagued boots. The change to the breech-loader took place at a bound.
These remarks are offered as a general answer to the frequent criticism that Ordnance officers were slow to adopt improved arms, and that they were behind other nations in this respect. If our army was later than others in receiving breech-loaders, it was the first to have the metallic cartridge, and other armies only got bad muskets and worse ammunition by being too previous.
The metallic cartridge it seems to me is the greatest military invention since the discovery of gunpowder. It is, however, an evolution rather than an invention, embodying a slow accretion of the ideas of many workers and inventors. The earliest patent I am aware of on the centre-fire form is that of Morse, though his design is crude. It was, however, worked up to a thoroughly effective form and with many changes at the Frankford Arsenal. With the developed form came the necessity of providing machinery for manufacturing it rapidly and cheaply. This, too, was accomplished at the same arsenal during the commands of Benet and Treadwell. The designer of this machinery was Jabez H. Gill, a master mechanic at Frankford, who was much aided by Robert Bolton, the foreman of the cartridge factory. Achievements such as theirs, if attained outside of the government service, would have made their names illustrious.
The development of the Springfield rifle, with the swinging breech-block, quickly followed. Though some minor improvements have been made from time to time, its essential features have lasted to the present. While foreign armies have changed their arms repeatedly, and while our own Ordnance Department has repeatedly offered competing arms which seemed from the tests of the proving ground to be better, the infantry have clung to the Springfield arm with a tenacity for which Ordnance officers sometimes find it difficult to account. In the change to the magazine system, the policy of the Department has been the same as in the sixties; it is comprised in the old proverb: "Be sure you are right and then go ahead." In this second change, something more than a device for the more rapid loading and discharge of cartridges was required, and that was a cartridge of reduced size and weight, without any reduction, but rather with an increase of power. Until the cartridge was greatly improved the change was at best of very doubtful advantage.
The act of March 8, 1869 (Army Appropriations bill), stopped all promotions and appointments in the staff corps until further legislation. The act of June 23, 1874, reopened promotions and gave to the corps its present organization. The grade of second lieutenant of Ordnance was abolished, and also Ordnance storekeepers, but without affecting the status of the storekeepers then in service. All vacancies in the grade of first lieutenant were to be filled by transfer from the line, and all promotions and appointments to be subject to a satisfactory examination before a board of Ordnance officers. These provisions have been of great value and importance to the corps, and are in a large measure due to the efforts of the lamented Lyford. They have secured a class of officers to whom the professional reputation of the corps may be entrusted for many years to come with the entire confidence of the army and the country. There might seem to be one drawback, as it has thus far had the effect of taking from the artillery some of its brightest and most capable lieutenants; but that corps is so abundantly supplied with splendid material of that kind that it will hardly feel the drain.
In May, 1874, General Dyer, after a long illness, passed away, and in the following month, S. V. Benet, then a major in the corps, was appointed Chief of Ordnance, which position he held until his retirement in 1891.
Since the close of the war, the corps has suffered the severest visitations of death. The complete list of those who have died in active service since the war is, Wainwright, Rodman, Benton, Crispin, Shunk, Todd, Treadwell, Baylor, Edson, Bradford, Hill, Buel, Lyford, Edie, Chaffee, C. F. Rockwell, McKee, Ramsay, Jr., Michaelis, Prince, Poland, Clifford, Wright, Starring, Wier, Medcalfe. If death loves a shining mark, he seldom missed it when he aimed at the Ordnance Corps. If the average efficiency of their successors shall be as great as theirs, more could not reasonably be asked nor expected. The names of those who have passed in the same time to the retired list and thence to their graves will also serve to recall the early history of the corps in whose achievements they bore a highly honorable part. The assemblage of names is a strong one: Craig, Ripley, Ramsay, Maynadier, Thornton, Hagner, Laidley, McAllister. Of the corps which antedates the Mexican War, there is but one survivor, Colonel and Brevet Brigadier General R. H. K. Whiteley, whom the older officers of the present corps recall, not only with profound respect and admiration, but with affection. He and his contemporaries just mentioned, present themselves to our recollection as models to be imitated in respect to industry, fidelity, discipline, devotion to duty in the military relation, and dignified courtesy in the private one.
THE ARMY OF THE UNITED STATES HISTORICAL SKETCHES OF STAFF AND LINE WITH PORTRAITS OF GENERALS-IN-CHIEF
EDITED BY: THEOPHILUS F. RODENBOUGH, BVT. BRIGADIER GENERAL U.S.A. AND WILLIAM L. HASKIN MAJOR, FIRST ARTILLERY. NEW YORK, MAYNARD, MERRILL, & CO. 1896
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