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THE PALMETTO RIFLE, AN EXAMINATION OF THE SURVIVORS
By Frederick G. Novy
Figure 1 Palmetto Rifle. This Palmetto Rifle is original, as issued and unaltered. This rifle was formerly in Don Bryan’s collection, VA Currently in the Frederick G. Novy Collection, CA
The Palmetto Rifle, (Figure 1), and the short-lived Palmetto Armory (1851-1853) were a direct result of the Secession Crisis of 1850 and the victory of the “Fire Eater” Radicals in the South Carolina elections of 1850.
South Carolina believed that the expansion of slavery was critical to the future of Southern interests within the Union and eagerly participated in the Mexican War (1846-1848). South Carolina sent more than 1,000 volunteers into action and suffered over 400 casualties in the campaign. The Palmetto Regiment fought bravely and planted the first flag over the Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City. Following the victory, the United States acquired vast new lands in the West. These new territories would eventually become states and whether these new states would enter the union as free or slave was critical to determining future Southern power within the union.
In South Carolina, Whitemarsh Seabrook was elected Governor in 1848. South Carolina’s defenses were among his greatest concerns.2 In 1849, he contracted with William Glaze, a young entrepreneur and supplier of arms in Columbia, to purchase 274 of the new, battle proven, “Mississippi” US Model 1841 rifles and 100 Model 1842 percussion muskets. Apparently, William Glaze contracted directly with Eli Whitney of New Haven, Connecticut for the 274 Model 1841 rifles which were specially equipped to take a socket bayonet, a specific South Carolina requirement. George Moller pointed out that “these arms were the first Model 1841 rifles known to have been equipped with bayonets.”
This unique South Carolina requirement for the Model 1841 rifle to be equipped with a socket bayonet would be a feature of Palmetto rifles as well. Benjamin Flagg, partner of Asa Waters of Millbury, Massachusetts supplied the 100 percussion 1842 muskets to Glaze through the arms merchant, William H. Smith & Co. of New York. In early 1850, Governor Seabrook again contracted with Glaze for an additional 660 muskets. These muskets again were supplied by Waters and Flagg, and were delivered in May 1850, but by then Governor Seabrook and the State had run out of funds for arms so the South Carolina military authorities simply “condemned” the muskets to avoid payment. In October, Waters dispatched his partner and armory supervisor, Benjamin Flagg to South Carolina to deal with the military authorities and meet with Glaze.
Meanwhile in Washington, Congress passed a patchwork legislation called the “Compromise of 1850”. In it, California was admitted as a free state upsetting the balance of power. The South was placated with a strengthened “Fugitive Slave Act”. Neither the North nor the South was satisfied with this Compromise. In South Carolina, the “Fire-Eater” Radicals viewed the Compromise as a defeat. These Radicals, who were for immediate secession, swept the elections of 1850 and won both the State House and the Senate. In December 1850, the Radicals took control of the General Assembly, elected one of their own, John Means, Governor, and immediately passed a huge, $350,000, arms appropriation for the defense of South Carolina. During this brief moment, there was a great business opportunity for Glaze and his new-found partners. It was fortunate Flagg was in South Carolina and with Glaze and Waters, they began to plan for this unexpected but welcome arms contract. Within months, Secession Fever cooled and moderation returned. By the fall elections of 1851, the “Fire-Eaters” were soundly defeated and did not return to power until Lincoln’s election in 1860.
Figure 2. This photograph was taken after General Sherman’s incendiary visit to Columbia, South Carolina on February 17, 1865. - Courtesy of the Caroliniana Library.
In 1850, Glaze formed a partnership with James Boatwright to form the Palmetto Iron Works and acquired a three-story brick building on the corner of Laurel and Lincoln streets in Columbia, South Carolina. This structure would become the Palmetto Armory 6 (Figure 2).
On April 15th, 1851 Glaze and Flagg signed a contract with the State of South Carolina to provide 6,000 muskets, 1000 rifles, 1000 pairs of pistols and 2000 sabers.
Key provisions of this contract included:
“These arms and their component parts, to be manufactured within the State of South Carolina, of the best material and workmanship as far as practicable, of material and mechanics in the State aforesaid”
“….. all arms manufactured under this contract shall be after the patterns adopted and now in the Army of the United States but that the State reserves to herself the right to alter all or any of said patterns by the direction and according to the Judgement of the said Major James H. Trapier, Ordnance officer…. or the Board of Ordnance….”
“It is further understood that all arms…. shall in the process of their fabrication, be subjected at all times to inspection and proof by the Board of Ordnance, or Ordnance Officer….”
Confident in their plans, Glaze and Flagg posted a double surety bond of $260,000 for completion of this contract.
It should be pointed out here that Glaze, Flagg and Waters had a loophole in this contract by the term “as far as practicable”. Apparently, they never planned to establish a complete and fully operational armory in Columbia but rather from the outset, they intended the “Palmetto Armory'' to fit, assemble and finish the requisite arms from parts acquired in New England.
On May 31, 1851, the ambitious and confident Glaze, Flagg and Boatwright signed an additional contract with the State to convert the state’s nearly 6,000 flintlock muskets to percussion.
Arms assembled at the Palmetto Armory were obtained by four different pathways.
First, in the Palmetto musket project George Moller showed that the 6,000 Palmetto 1842 muskets were assembled from parts obtained largely from the US Armory at Springfield, Massachusetts.9 These parts are not “Condemned” or second quality. On examination, these parts appear to be surplus or over-run parts of the same quality as the Federal standard. Only rarely, is a punch mark found.
Figure 3. This photo shows a Palmetto Musket barrel retaining Springfield “V P Eagle” proof marks. - Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society (#990.100.125).
Here on the Springfield barrel Glaze overstruck the Springfield Eagle with his Palmetto Tree proof mark and added the “W.G&CO.” stamp to the left barrel flat. (Note the Eagle’s beak appearing out of the top of the Palmetto Tree proof, (Figure 3).
Figure 4. Palmetto pistols were assembled from Federally “Condemned” parts. Note the large Condemnation letter “C” on the barrel below the bolster and twice inside the bridle mortise.
The origin of Palmetto pistols however is an entirely different story. Lewis Southard documented that Asa Waters obtained parts for the assembly of 1000 Palmetto pistols from Ira N. Johnson who had purchased the Henry Aston factory along with his Federally Condemned parts (stamped with a "C" or punch mark). Waters obtained these condemned parts at undoubtedly a very favorable price as as they were of little use to Johnson (Figure 4). It is important to note that the Palmetto pistol project was also put off until 1853 at the same time as the Palmetto rifle project.1
Figure 5 On the left is the large Condemnation “C” struck in a hidden location, in this case the backstrap of an 1842 pistol. On the right is a small fine Federal Inspector initial “c”. In this case, the “c” was struck on the exposed surface of a Robbins & Lawrence 1841 rifle trigger bow.
Obviously, the use of the letter “C” for two different purposes could lead to confusion. It should be pointed out that the larger Condemnation “C” marks were struck in non-visible places on a fully assembled arm, whereas the Federal Inspector initials are smaller like the “c” pictured here and struck in visible locations (Figure 5). In this case, the Federal Inspector is James P. Chapman, a civilian employee at Springfield, who also inspected arms for H. Aston and Robbins & Lawrence.
Palmetto Rifles are yet again a different story. Apparently, the Palmetto Rifles were assembled from parts made in New England for this very special rifle
Figure 6 Letter from Asa Waters to Robbins & Lawrence dated “Feby 14th 1852”. - Courtesy of the Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.
Although there is no archival information from Robbins & Lawrence, there is evidence of a business relationship between Asa H. Waters and Robbins & Lawrence in the Waters Family Papers at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts.
In a 1852 letter (Figure 6), Waters is complaining to Robbins & Lawrence that:
“We have now waited patiently for nearly three months for the Stocking Machinery (for muskets) which you are building for us”
Figure 7 A letter dated December 16, 1852 from Waters to Glaze suggesting that Robbins & Lawrence might be able to supply Model 1841 rifle parts. - Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.
It is clear from this December 1852 letter that the Palmetto Rifle project, like the pistol project, had not yet begun (Figure 7). The letter reads:
“Messer Robbins & Lawrence have discontinued the making of rifles (Model 1841) for U.S. and if you should need any component parts we have no doubt you can obtain them there very cheap – Some kinds at least – Very Respectfully yours A.H. Waters & Co.”
A letter dated May 16, 1853 (Figure 8) reveals that in April of 1853, Benjamin Flagg was at the Springfield Armory purchasing additional items for the continuing Palmetto musket project. While in New England, it is likely that he was in contact with Asa Waters and working on both the Palmetto pistol and Palmetto rifle projects as well.
Figure 8 May 16, 1853 letter from W. Glaze to E. Ingersoll, US Armory, Springfield Mass. - Courtesy of Paul Brill and Ernie Hinson.
Palmetto Swords are yet again an entirely different but far simpler project. Glaze apparently simply purchased all the 2,526 swords, directly from Schnitzler & Kirschbaum of Solingen, Germany likely through the New York arms dealer W.H. Smith & Co. In this case, the swords arrived new, hardened and fully finished requiring only the stamping of the “W. Glaze &Co.” and “Columbia SC” markings on the ricasso14 (Figure 9).
Figure 9 This rare early sword has both Palmetto Armory sword markings. Courtesy of The Charleston Museum, Charleston, South Carolina.
Stamping these hardened swords caused a progressive deterioration of the dies. It appears that the “W.Glaze &Co.”, die was lost very early in the process and thus it is quite rare but not before it was used on at least one musket barrel.
Palmetto Rifles depart from US standard Model 1841 rifles in number ways.
This “Model” Rifle, No.1 was 1 of 8 made at Harpers Ferry in 1841 and was used as a model for all future rifle production (Figure 10). Of particular interest is the “implement” or toolbox. Note In the center, there is a circular 50 cent sized mortise. This mortise was intended to hold a round brass handle that screwed on the end of the ramrod and served as a palm-handle to facilitate loading the .54 caliber round ball down the tight 7 groove rifling (Figure 11). This concept was quickly discarded and few of these brass “handles” were ever made and thus are incredibly rare. Although this idea was discarded, the mortise remained and has become a valuable clue to identity of the stock maker. Nearly 93,000 Model 1841 rifles were made and all had this unused mortise. Conveniently, the cutting of this mortise was done in a different manner by each manufacturer and thus leaving a fingerprint by which to identify the stock maker.
Model Number 1
Figure 10 This rare “Model” 1841 rifle is marked “No.1”. - Courtesy of Donald R. Tharpe, VA
Figure 11 A rare round brass handle is present in its proper mortise in the toolbox. - Courtesy of George D. Moller, CO.
The Palmetto Rifles appear to be made primarily of new parts. Only some of the buttplates bear the US marking which were then overstruck with SC. All other parts are unmarked. No Federal inspector's initials nor “C” condemnation marks have been found to date. Note the US Model 1841 Rifles and the 1842 muskets and pistols were the first US arms made to gauge, thus allowing interchangeability of parts. So, over the years, some Palmetto rifles acquired Federal parts while Palmetto parts drifted away into Federal rifles. To draw any conclusions, one must seek pure uncontaminated Palmetto Rifles to establish a baseline (Figure 12).
The Palmetto Rifle lock has several notable features (Figure 13):
Figure 12 This Palmetto Rifle is original, as issued and unaltered. This rifle was formerly in Don Bryan’s collection, VA. and was shown on page 141 of the 1998, “Arming the Glorious Cause”15. - Courtesy of Frederick G. Novy, CA.
Figure 13 This Palmetto Rifle Lock Plate shows the early intact COLUMBIA S.C. 1852 stamp with both periods, a fine intact “Spiral Tree” Palmetto Armory insignia, and the Palmetto inverted “V” checkering of the hammer spur.
The shape of the hammer seems a little different than either the Eli Whitney or the Robbins & Lawrence. The hammer checkering is an inverted V pattern unlike either Whitney or Robbins & Lawrence, suggesting this may have been done in Columbia.
The lock plates are marked with the Palmetto Armory “Spiral Tree” surrounded by the letters PALMETTO, ARMORY, S*C. forward of the hammer and “COLUMBIA / S.C. 1852” on the lock tail. Palmetto Rifle lock plates are found both with and without the period following the S in "S.C." following "Columbia" on the lock plate tail. The loss of the period is part of the deterioration of the die. Both Palmetto Rifles and Palmetto Pistols exhibit this finding which would indicate that they were being assembled and marked at the same time.
The Palmetto Rifle lock is struck with the “Spiral Tree” Insignia. There have been many attempts to duplicate this insignia but there is always some obvious imperfection when the suspect plate is compared to an original. This photo shows clearly the features of the genuine marking (Figure 14).
While there was progressive deterioration of the frond and leaflet detail over time, due to the wear and tear of the stamping process, the lettering and the trunk remained intact throughout the use of the stamp to the end (Figure 15).
Figure 14 Here many of the key features of the “Spiral Tree” insignia are shown. Comparison of these features with a suspect plate will determine whether the stamp is an original or a fake.
Figure 15 Here is seen the progressive deterioration and loss of Palmetto Tree fond and leaflet detail on later struck examples.
No “bushy tree” markings as seen on muskets have been found on Palmetto Rifles or Pistols, thus far.16 There is however a report of a “Bushy Tree” Palmetto Pistol published by Topper & Topper in 1988. Although the text states: “Variation of Palmetto pistol. Note bushy palmetto tree encircled with PALMETTO ARMORY S.C.”, these photos appear to be of a Palmetto Musket lock with the “Bushy Tree” insignia. It is unclear as to why the authors implied that the “Bushy Tree” insignia was on a pistol.
The Palmetto Rifle toolbox has unique features, which allows us to identify its maker. The router tooling used to cut the “implement” or toolbox is unique to each maker. In this manner, we can eliminate Harpers Ferry, Remington and Tryon as possible makers. The two most likely manufacturers of the Palmetto rifles are Robbins and Lawrence of Windsor, Vermont and Eli Whitney of New Haven, Connecticut.
The US Model 1841 rifle toolbox was drilled for a spare nipple or cone, while the Palmetto Rifle toolbox was never drilled. (Figure 16). Thus, these stocks must have been newly manufactured for the Palmetto Rifle project and cannot have been made from recycled Federal stocks.
Figure 16. Note the US Model 1841 toolbox with spare nipple in place and the Palmetto Rifle toolbox without the hole for a spare nipple.
The Robbins & Lawrence and the Palmetto toolboxes show they are cut with two rows of dime sized router tools and the center mortise was cut in such a fashion as to create a central slightly elevated nubbin which is the hallmark of Robbins and Lawrence toolboxes (Figure 17). These finding are present in all Robbins & Lawrence stocks from 1847 to 1852.
Figure 17 Note the two rows of router cuts and the central nubbins characteristic of Robbins & Lawrence and Palmetto toolboxes. Note the divot cut in the bottom wall of the Whitney toolbox.
In comparison, the Whitney toolbox is cut with a larger 50 cent sized router. In addition, the Whitney router always cuts a slight divot in the bottom wall of the toolbox while cutting the center mortise. This is a constant feature of Whitney toolboxes from 1844- 1855.
These physical findings indicate without a doubt that Palmetto rifle stocks were initially cut on Robbins & Lawrence machinery. Drilling of the band spring holes, the ramrod spoon spring mortise and pin, fitting the buttplate and final finishing were done at Columbia. Drilling the holes for the band springs was particularly difficult and there are numerous examples of the pins protruding into the barrel channel.
There must have been an unusual problem fitting the buttplate to the Palmetto stock. Two sets of matching letters would indicate that at two different times, the parts were separated (Figure 18). This is truly a unique feature of Palmetto rifles and is not seen on any other 1841 rifles. This might suggest that the buttplates came from a different source than the stocks.
Figure 18 Note matching letters on the underside of the buttplate tang and its corresponding site in the tang mortise of the stock.
Palmetto Rifle buttplates are struck with a plain SC or an SC overstrike of US indicating that some left over buttplates were used (Figure 19). Two different SC fonts were used in overstrikes. Of particular interest is the Palmetto Tree Proof Mark struck on the buttplate tang. This oddity is documented in “Arming the Glorious Cause” 1998, page 160. Don Williams acquired this rifle in 1946 and it remains in his family to this day. One other example is known. These proof mark strikes on a buttplate shows extreme lack of stamping supervision.
Figure 19 Buttplate tang markings, some US butt plates were used and overstruck with SC.
Apparently, another activity at the Palmetto Armory was the assembly of the sling swivels to the nose caps and the trigger guards. Here, the protruding rivets or pins were not dressed off as was the Federal standard, a unique Palmetto Armory feature (Figure 20).
Figure 20 Note protruding rivets or pins of sling swivels on both the nose cap and trigger guard.
As noted earlier, South Carolina had required that the 274 rifles made by Eli Whitney in 1849 be equipped for a socket bayonet. This requirement continued with the Palmetto Armory rifle (Figure 21). This tapered muzzle modification allowed use of the Model 1816 bayonet which was likely in good supply rather than the newer M1835/40/42 bayonet, which was then the current Federal standard for the 1842 musket (Figure 22).
Figure 21 South Carolina had a special requirement that the Palmetto Rifle be equipped for a socket bayonet.
Figure 22 Palmetto Armory Rifle bayonet with simple SC marking.
The origin of the Palmetto Rifle barrels is a more difficult problem. Logically, one would think that all Palmetto Rifle parts came from a single source, in this case Robbins and Lawrence, as the evidence shows that that company supplied the stocks. However, the mating of the breech plugs to the barrel leads us in different direction.
It may be significant that these matching letters are the mirror image of the matching letters found on Whitney rifles (Figure 23).
Figure 23 Here the Palmetto Rifle has two sets of matching letters L to L and S to S on the breech plug and the left side of the barrel.