January 2, 1862 (Thursday)
Though Abraham Lincoln had little military experience, he was fascinated with weaponry and technology. No gun held his attention more than the Union Repeating Rifle, which he coined “the coffee mill gun.” Back in June, Lincoln himself had tested the new firearm. It had been presented by a New Yorker named J.D. Mills, who pitched the gun as “an army in a box,” but the actual inventor seems lost in patent papers and history.
Whomever invented it, Lincoln loved it. This “devil’s coffee mill” took standard issue .58-caliber paper cartridges, which were dumped into the hopper. When a crank was turned, the cartridges fell into the firing mechanism and fired off at 120 rounds per minute.
The order for ten guns was not placed by the War Department, which only did so after much poking and prodding by Lincoln himself, until October. General McClellan, the equally-impressed commander of the Army, ordered another fifty.1
The first regiment to receive the Coffee Mill guns was the 28th Pennsylvania, commanded by John Geary. Geary, originally from western Pennsylvania, led an interesting life prior to the war. He was San Francisco’s first mayor, Kansas’s third territorial governor and was wounded five times storming Chapultepec during the Mexican War. He raised the 28th Pennsylvania and the 147th Pennsylvania regiments and was the colonel of the former.
After the Battle of Bull Run, Geary and the 28th were placed along the Potomac, guarding the area between Maryland Heights (opposite Harpers Ferry) and the passes over South Mountain. Just before Christmas, the regiment received new uniforms in a similar style to the Regulars’ uniforms, with dark blue trousers and coat, as well as fatigue hats. The men were settling into their winter quarters and passing the time writing letters home.
After the two Coffee Mill guns appeared in camp, Ambrose Henry Hayward, First Sergeant of the 28th Pennsylvania, described them in a letter to his sister:
“we have got 2 Union Guns that were presinted to the 28th. they are fired by turning a crank. the faster you turn it the more Rebels it will kill. it will throw a ball 4 miles. I cannot describe it but when the men saw it first they thought it was a sausage machine.” 2
Of course, the Coffee Mill guns couldn’t throw a ball four miles, but they made quite an impression upon the men of the 28th. However, the true test of a weapon is not on the firing range, but in battle. How Lincoln’s pet project performed in combat still remained to be seen.
This was the first time in history that troops in the field had been issued machine guns.
No Cooperation from Halleck in Missouri
Though Lincoln’s urging had finally made the War Department order the Coffee Mill guns, it was appearing as if no amount of urging could get Generals Buell and Halleck to get along. With General McClellan seriously ill, Lincoln had written to both Generals asking them to work in concert.
It was hoped that Buell, who commanded Union troops in Kentucky, would push into Eastern Tennessee and that the Rebels in Western Tennessee could be stopped from reinforcing their comrades to the east by General Halleck’s Union troops in Missouri.
To Lincoln, Buell seemed more interested in such an action than did Halleck, but not much more. Both told him that they had already discussed the situation with McClellan and both seemed more than happy to wait until McClellan was back in the saddle to get things moving.
However, on this day, Halleck wrote to Buell, as Lincoln requested, but instead of making plans to work together, he gave Buell reasons why he couldn’t.
“All my available troops are in the field except those at Cairo and Paducah, which are barely sufficient to threaten Columbus, &c. A few weeks hence I hope to be able to render you very material assistance, but now a withdrawal of my troops from this State is almost impossible.”3
Halleck’s claim makes some sense. Though General Sterling Price, commander of the secessionist Missouri State Guards, had retreated south, he was gathering more and more recruits near Springfield. “His day is up,” wrote Halleck to General David Hunter at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, but he knew that Price “would fight the Federal Government to the bitter end.”4
Not only was Price an issue, but the Confederate guerrillas in northern Missouri, burning bridges, cutting telegraph cables and causing general chaos, were still keeping his men busy. What Halleck needed was more men.
- Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel by Julia Keller, Penguin, 2009. Gatling’s now-famous gun would not be ready for production for another six months. Keller’s book, however, touches upon other, similar weapons, such as the “coffee mill gun.” [↩]
- Last to Leave the Field: The Life and Letters of First Sergeant Ambrose Henry Hayward edited by Timothy J. Orr, Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2011. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p527. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 8, p481. [↩]