The Sharps Carbine
Before the Civil War, in what was known as "Bleeding Kansas," the Sharps Carbine, bought by abolitionists and “free-state” advocates, became more than just an effective weapon. It became a symbol of freedom and morality.
The Sharps Rifle first became popular while Kansas decided to become a free or slave state. The decision itself was left up to the voters of the state, the method was known as popular sovereignty, and tensions escalated. Large amounts of voter fraud occurred as a result of both pro-slavery and pro-free-state citizens pouring into Kansas to vote. Those forces quickly turned violent. In 1855 Sharps rifles and carbines first entered the scene in the hands of anti-slavery men. Between 1855 and 1856, multiple individuals and organizations ordered the Sharps, including the New England Emigrant Aid Company, the Abbott Account, the Cabot Account, Thayer, Beecher, the New York Kansas Committee, and the Massachusetts Kansas Committee.1
The Sharps soon became a point of tension for those involved in the Kansas affair. As the order of 100 Sharps Model 1853 carbines were being shipped to Kansas, pro-slavery men found out about the guns and confiscated all of them. However, the breech blocks were sent in a separate shipment, and the pro-slavery men could not obtain them. Eventually the stolen Sharps found their way back into anti-slavery hands through legal proceedings.2 Due to its role, the Sharps became a symbol of freedom for anti-slavery people.3
Pre-Civil War Use
There was more “Moral power in one of these instruments as far as the slaveholders were concerned than in a hundred bibles”
—Henry Ward Beecher,
quote retrieved from The Gun that Shaped American Destiny by Martin Rywell, p.6
Congregationalist Clergyman Henry Ward Beecher was an abolitionist who raised funds to buy the Sharps. Beecher believed that they could inflict justice upon the pro-slavery people through use of those carbines. In order to fool pro-slavery men and U.S. patrolmen, he disguised the Sharps through the shipping packaging. He and his cohorts painted the boxes white and used the label “Bibles.” The Sharps Carbine became known as “Beecher’s Bible” because of the preacher’s actions.4
A couple years later, in 1857, the Massachusetts State Committee’s order of 200 Sharps Model 1853 Carbines for abolitionists was stopped in Iowa on its way to Kansas to prevent their confiscation by soldiers patrolling the Kansas border.5 Tabor, Iowa, the city where the order was stopped, was known for its abolitionism. One of the orders’ deliveries was halted, the Massachusetts State Committeea then allowed John Brown to have possession of them, wanting him to sell some at a reduced rate to abolitionist citizens of Kansas and hold onto the remaining guns. The Massachusetts State Committee gave Brown 100 guns. Brown did not follow those orders and planned to inspire a slave insurrection, a trigger that was possible due to his access to the Sharps.6 On October 16, 1859, Brown raided Harper’s Ferry, Virginia and was stopped by Col. Robert E. Lee and his men. One hundred four Sharps carbines along with 160 boxes of Sharps Pellet Primers were confiscated in Maryland, and Lee’s men took some of the other carbines. All of those Sharps were stored in Harper’s Ferry and fell into Confederate hands at the start of the war.6
a According to Historian John Walter in The Guns That Won the West: Firearms on the American Frontier, 1848-1898, the organization’s name was the Massachusetts—Kansas Aid Committee.7
1 Winston O. Smith, The Sharps Rifle: Its History, Development and Operation (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1943), 13.
2 Smith, The Sharps Rifle, 14-15; William B. Edwards, Civil War Guns: The complete story of Federal and Confederate small arms: design, manufacture, identification, procurement, issue, employment, effectiveness, and postwar disposal (Secaucus, New Jersey: Castle, 1982), 23.
3 Smith, The Sharps Rifle, 15.
4 Smith, The Sharps Rifle, 16; Edwards, Civil War Guns, 23.
5 Edwards, Civil War Guns, 1.