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Friday, January 21, 2011

Packing a Bowie Knife in the War of Northern Aggression

The following observation on arms carried by Union troops in the War of Northern Aggression (as my Southern friends admonish me to call it) is from Hardtack and Coffee; Or, The Unwritten Story of Army Life (1887) by John Davis Billing.
I have spoken of the rapid improvements made in arms [during the war]. This improvement extended to all classes of fire-arms alike. Revolvers were no exception, and Colt's revolver, which monopolized the field for some time, was soon crowded in the race by Smith and Wesson, Remington, arid others. Thousands of them were sold monthly, and the newly fledged soldier who did not possess a revolver, either by his own purchase, or as a present from solicitous relatives, or admiring friends, or enthusiastic business associates, was something of a curiosity. Of course a present of this kind necessitated an outfit of special ammunition, and such was at once procured. But the personal armory of many heroes was not even then complete, and a dirk knife -- a real "Arkansaw toothpick" -- was no unusual sight to be seen hanging from the belt of some of the incipient but blood-thirsty warriors. The little town of Ashby in Massachusetts, at one of its earliest war-meetings, voted "that each volunteer shall be provided with a revolver, a bowie-knife, and a Bible, and shall also receive ten dollars in money." The thought did not appear to find lodgement in the brain of the average soldier or his friends that by the time the government had provided him with what arms, ammunition, and equipments it was thought necessary for him to have, he would then be loaded with about all he could bear, without adding a personal armory and magazine. Nor did he realize that which afterwards in his experience must have come upon him with convincing force, that by the time he had done his duty faithfully and well with the arms which the government had placed in his hands there would be little opportunity or need, even if his ambition still held out, to fall back on his personal arsenal for further supplies. Members of the later regiments got their eyes open to this fact either through correspondence with men at the front, or by having been associated with others who had seen service. But the troops of '61 and '62 took out hundreds of revolvers only to lose them, give them away, or throw them away; and as many regiments were forbidden by their colonels to wear them, a large number were sent back to the North. Revolvers were probably cheaper in Virginia, in those years, than in any other state in the Union.

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