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A TIDBITS SPECIAL REPORT
THE STORY OF THE SEELY PATENT CAPPER
One of the earliest documented wartime capping devices was the Seely capper, invented by Edgar D. Seely of Brookline, Massachusetts. The patent date stamped into the brass of the capper is given as October 29, 1861, reflecting the original patent letter for his “Improvement in Percussion- Cap Primers” (No. 33,626). He
was issued a second patent on October 27, 18631 (No. 40,432), also termed an improvement as it has double the capacity of the original. The patent models from this second patent, in both musket and pistol size, are displayed along with their Patent Office tags. Both are engraved on one side “E.D. Seely” in a script font.
Relatively rare now, the unexcavated musket capper shown in this display is about 7 inches long, ¾ inch tall and ½ inch wide. It carries two rows of top hat caps, about 25 caps per row, superimposed on one another. In simple terms, it utilized elastic cords to power ‘followers,’ that in turn pushed caps along the inside of the case, where they were held in position for capping the weapon by a pair of ‘nippers.’ After one row was used the capper was turned over and the process repeated with the other row. A ring was provided at the other end of the case from the nippers to suspend the capper from the uniform or a belt.
Although Seely approached the secretary of war early in 1862, it would take nearly three years to get any functional cappers produced and into field trials. Utilizing a common practice for the early part of the War, Seely tried political pressure to get his invention adopted by the Army. He had gone to his Congressional representative, The Honorable F. Blair, Jr., who in turn contacted the secretary of war, who then directed the chief of ordnance to ‘investigate the merits’ of the invention. Chief of Ordnance General James W. Ripley promptly reported to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in February 1862 that:
... Mr. Seely’s ‘gun capper’ has been submitted to this office, and after a careful examination of it, I am of the opinion that it will not answer for the Military service for the following reasons, viz:
It is delicate and complicated in its construction and therefore, liable to get out of order in the hands of the troops.
It costs sixty cents more than the present cap pocket [$1.00 vs. 40¢] which is found convenient and serviceable.
An apparatus, closely resembling this in principle and structure, was put into the hands of the troops some years since to be used in the field. It did not answer the purpose for which it was intended and was abandonned. [sic]
The magazine of the ‘capper’ cannot, I think, be conveniently filled in the excitement of action.
In addition to the above, I think very little time would be saved in priming, for the same number of motions is required with the ‘capper’ as with the fingers.2
These arguments were straightforward and might have deterred other men from pursuing their ambition. But not Seely! He then tried getting letters of recommendation from officers in command, and succeeded in getting, “about one year ago, certain certificates from Genls. Lane, Rosecrans, Porter, and other officers of the Army relating to my ‘Patent Cap-Primer.’” In January, 1863 he asked Ripley: “I would like to have the Certificates or copies of them given to W.P.N. FitzGerald [sic], Esq. if it is consistent with your rules. I think Capt. Benton took charge of them, there are about twenty different pieces of paper, some containing several names others with single names. I shall consider it a favor if you will enclose them to Mr. FitzGerald.”3 They were duly returned on the 16th of January, 1863, and on the 17th of January Seely wrote another letter to the secretary of war, proposing “to furnish the United States for the use of the Army, One Hundred Thousand—or more—of [my] ‘Seely Patent Gun Capper,’ as soon as practicable, at one dollar each, to be inspected and delivered in New York or in Washington as the Gov’t may elect. I enclose papers showing the opinion of distinguished officers of the Army as to the utility of this article for service in the field.”
Interestingly, it was one H. Dwight who wrote to the Assistant Secretary of War,
The Hon. P.H. Watson, on April 9, 1863, proposing to furnish Seely’s Patent Capper or Primer at eighty dollars per hundred, or only eighty cents each. He indicated General Silas Casey requested three regiments (one in each of his three brigades) be equipped with the cappers. Dwight offered to “furnish three thousand of the same for these Regts within Thirty days after an order to that effect shall be made by the Department and will afterwards furnish any larger number, at the rate of at least Ten Thousand monthly.”5 Chief of Ordnance Ripley replied on April 11th with essentially the same arguments he had made a year earlier (in February 1862) as to the unsuitability of the capper.6 Mr. Fitzgerald, Dwight’s attorney, continued the pressure with another letter to Assistant Secretary of War Watson in May, requesting “an order for ‘Seeleys [sic] Cappers’ to fill the request of Genl Casey....”7
The perseverance finally paid off (Seely or Dwight must have been well connected!) with an order for 1,000 of the ‘improved’ cappers in November 1863. On November 24, 1863 the new Chief of Ordnance General George D. Ramsay wrote Mr. Fitzgerald that:
By authority of the Secretary of War I offer you an order for one thousand (1000) Seeley’s [sic] Gun Cappers, to be of such form and proportions as you may determine and deem best for the purpose intended.
These one thousand gun cappers are to be delivered to the Commanding Officer of the New York Arsenal on Governor’s Island, N.Y. and will be paid for on usual Certificates of Inspection and Receipt at the rate of not over eighty cents each; the price to be less if you can afford to make them cheaper.
Please signify your acceptance or non acceptance of this order. If you accept be pleased to state when you will be able to deliver them; and also furnish one as a standard pattern by which they shall be inspected.
The contract was subsequently modified to reflect the correct contractor, Mr. Dwight (Mr. Fitzgerald merely having acted on behalf of Mr. Dwight, as his attorney), and that the delivery place would be the Washington Arsenal rather than the New York Arsenal. 8 Clearly the chief was not impressed with the item, but merely bowed to political pressure. He even let the contractor determine the best design to achieve the purpose intended! All Ramsay wanted was a sample to guide the perfunctory inspection process that would be given the cappers.
This contract was annulled for lack of delivery on February 6, 1864. However, another was issued the same day “by authority of the Secretary of War...,” with language virtually identical to that of the first contract.9 This contract was accepted by Dwight, with delivery predicted to be on or about the first of March 1864.10 Ramsay wrote Major Benton at the Washington Arsenal to anticipate the delivery of the Seely’s Gun Cappers, and provide for their inspection.11
Nine months later, on November 17, 1864, Dwight finally wrote the new Chief of Ordnance General Alexander B. Dyer about the non-delivery of the cappers:
Sir, I rec’d an order from your Dept. dated Feby 16th ,[sic] 1864, for 1,000 ‘Seely’s Gun Cappers’ ‘to be of such form & proportions as you [i.e., I] may deem best for the purpose intended’ which cappers I was to deliver on or about the 1st of last March. After manufacturing them according to the light I then possessed I found there was a defect in the mode of manufacture which produced a latent imperfection in the instrument impairing its strength and durability.
To furnish these under the order given me by the Department with so liberal margin of discretion to me in the mode of construction I felt would be unjust to the Department and to myself, so that instead of furnishing those I had made
I immediately set about obviating the defect. In this I have met with the most gratifying success and am now able to furnish you with an instrument with which I am perfectly satisfied and which will I think meet with your entire approbation. This however has required time, care and labor, and I have but recently succeeded.
The object of this application is to pray you to extend the time for furnishing the cappers embraced in the said order until the latter part of December proximo for the reasons above stated.
I am waiting here for an answer and a prompt reply will be greatly [sic] oblige me.12
Likely none had been made in the intervening year that were ‘defective’ and the delay was actually due to the device being more complicated to manufacture than expected. However, knowing the secretary of war was the direct initiator of the contract, the chief accepted the excuse for the delay in delivery. This time Dwight was true to his word, notifying Dyer on December 30, 1864 “I ship this day per Adams Express Co. Two Boxes containing in all 1,000 say one thousand ‘Seely’s Gun Cappers’ of the most approved construction, addressed to the ‘Comd’g Officer of the Washington Arsenal: Mr. Fitzgerald expects to call on you on Tuesday Morn next on my behalf.”13
Chief of Ordnance Dyer then directed Major Benton at Washington Arsenal to send 300 cappers to Mr. D.J. Young at Harpers Ferry, now in West Virginia, and another 300 to Lt. Joseph P. Farley at City Point, Virginia. Both of the latter were instructed that “These cappers are intended to be issued to troops for service in the field, and you will be pleased to issue them to such officers, as you deem best suited to report upon their merits. You will request such officers to make report[s], as soon as practicable; and, will transmit such reports to this office.”14
The 116th New York Infantry, “the best in the Nineteenth Army Corps” according to General Philip Sheridan, was selected to receive a portion of those sent to Harpers Ferry. Colonel George M. Love, commander of the 116th, needed very little time “to report that I consider them worthless and have this day [February 7, 1865] collected them from my men, to be turned into the O.[rdnance] O.[fficer] at Harpers Ferry, of whom I received them.” Colonel Love objected to the small capacity of 50 caps, their liability to get out of repair and the fact that “a soldier can prime his piece as quickly from the cap pouch as with this ‘capper’” General Sheridan endorsed the colonel’s letter by noting “the colonel states that the men do not want these gun cappers, as they consider them worthless. I forward the report of this efficient officer with no further comment than that his opinions are endorsed by me fully.”15 Not only was the War coming to a conclusion, the unfavorable field trials doomed any further consideration of the Seely capper. Six hundred had been issued for testing and some were returned. What became of them--or the unissued 400 cappers--remains unknown.
Actually we do know what became of one of the cappers. The relic Seely Patent Gun Capper shown in Fig. 4 was recovered from the vicinity of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, a number of years ago. Undoubtedly it was one of those issued to the 116th New York Infantry, and ‘lost’ or discarded before it could be recalled by Colonel Love, making it in any case a rare relic of the War. Both it and the unexcavated example are marked identically in five lines on one side: E.D. Seely / Pat’d Oct. 29, 1861 / Made by / S.E. and J.N. Root / Bristol, Ct. As already noted the1861 date reflects the original patent date, which was for a single level capper; his second patent coming in 186316 for a similar device having two “magazines,” as he termed them. The 1863 design is what Dwight actually manufactured.
It might be noted a Seely capper is shown in the original volume of Lord’s Encyclopedia.17 Although not identified as such, another Seely capper is shown in Lord’s third volume.18 Despite the number actually made, and with 400 unissued at the end of the War, Seely cappers are rarely seen on the collector’s market.
1 H. Ross Jones was issued US patent 35524 dated June 10, 1862, noting “my invention is
directly applied to a capping-tube patented to Edgar D. Seely, October 29, 1861.”
2 General James W. Ripley to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, February 18, 1862, E 1001, Correspondence
and Reports Relating to Experiments, 1818-70, Class 7 Ex-7-42, RG 156, OCO, NARA.
3 Edgar D. Seely to General James W. Ripley, January 7, 1863, E 21, LR WD-68, RG 156, OCO, NARA.
4 Edgar D. Seely to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, January 17, 1863, E 21, LR WD-69, RG 156, OCO, NARA. 5 H. Dwight to The Hon. P.H. Watson, Assistant Secretary of War, April 9, 1863, E 21, LR WD-