The Spencer Repeating Rifle was originally considered a useless expense by the U.S. War Department who thought the rifles were too expensive and that they would encourage wasteful firing by soldiers on the lines.
But in the rifle’s combat debut, a Union brigade took an important gap and held it against overwhelming numbers, causing XIV Corps Commander Maj. Gen. George Thomas to declare that the men and their rifles had “saved the lives of a thousand men.”
Union Col. John T. Wilder was an early believer in the Spencer Repeating Rifle, a new weapon design that allowed a soldier to load seven pre-made cartridges instead of pouring powder and loading each round between shots as muskets required.
This gave a soldier carrying a repeating rifle the capability of firing 14-20 well-aimed shots per minute against the 2-3 shots per minute of other troops.
But while Wilder and other officers were eager to try the repeating rifle, the War Department refused to purchase them. Wilder, eager to outfit his mounted infantry brigade with the new weapons, organized funding through his hometown bank.
On the morning of June 24, 1863, Wilder’s mounted infantry brigade was sent as the vanguard of an attack toward Manchester, Tennessee. The first step of the attack was securing mountain passes and Wilder’s brigade was ordered toward’s Hoover’s Gap, the most direct route to Manchester.
The mounted infantrymen rode hard ahead of the rest of Union forces, arriving near the gap and encountering the first elements of Confederate resistance at noon. According to Col. James Connolly, a regimental commander in the brigade, that was when the brigade really got going.
While the corps commanders expected to capture the gap in the following days, Wilder wanted to push the brigade through the gap before the Confederates could reinforce it. Then, Wilder and his men would hold the gap until the rest of the Union army could catch up. Wilder sent Connolly’s regiment on a headlong dash through the gap.
Connolly and his men scattered a regiment of Confederate cavalry and pushed into the gap at a full gallop. He later wrote:
… the valley is barely wide enough to admit the passage of two wagons side by side, and the hills upon either side command the valley completely; as we swept through the valley with our 1,500 horsemen on a gallop we noticed the lines of entrenchments crowning the hills, but they were deserted; the enemy was surprised and flying before us, so we pushed onward until we passed entirely through the “Gap,” when a puff of white smoke from a hill about half a mile in front of us, then a dull heavy roar, then the shrieking of a shell told us we could advance no further as we had reached their infantry and artillery force.
The Union brigade was six miles ahead of its planned limit of advance and approximately 12 miles ahead of its reinforcements, who would have to march through deep mud and up steep hills to reach them.
Meanwhile, the single Union brigade faced a counterattacking force of four Confederate infantry brigades and four artillery batteries.
The Union forces sent their horses to the rear and set up a line of battle on a hill overlooking the southern entrance to the gap. Connolly and his men set up a position supporting the single, light artillery battery the Union had.
The Confederate guns opened a bombardment of the Union soldiers and rebel infantry began marching on the Union artillery battery. Connolly and his men watched the enemy march towards them and then opened fire with their Spencer repeating rifles.
Their first volley of fire cut through the Confederate ranks, but the rebels outnumbered the Union soldiers approximately four to one. The Confederates recovered their colors from the ground and resumed charging.
But the Confederates didn’t know about repeating rifles. The Union quickly fired another volley, and then another, until, in Connolly’s words, “the poor regiment was literally cut to pieces, and but few men of that 20th Tennessee that attempted the charge will ever charge again.”
Riders arrived at the battle and relayed orders to Wilder to withdraw his men, but Wilder ignored the orders and insisted that his men could hold the line.
The fight continued — with the numerically superior Confederates trying to push the Union soldiers off but being cut down by the fire from the Spencers — until after 7 p.m. when Union reinforcements began arriving.
Another artillery battery set up near the exit from the gap and infantry began taking positions near Wilder’s brigade on the hills.
Corps Commander Maj. Gen. George Thomas met Wilder and told him, “You have saved the lives of a thousand men by your gallant conduct today. I didn’t expect to get this Gap for three days.”
Wilder and his men had inflicted over 200 casualties on the Confederates while suffering fifty-one deaths of their own. This four-to-one advantage in casualties came despite an exact opposite disadvantage in troop numbers.
Wilder’s brigade was honored with a new nickname, “The Lightning Brigade.”