Lebetter’s Manufactory armed Rutherford Rifles

Greg Tucker, ‘Rutherford for Real’, published 2010  (‘Rutherford for Real‘ may be purchased for only $20 by contacting frank@frankcaperton.com)

By Greg Tucker, President Rutherford County Historical Society

When hostilities began between the Union and Confederate forces in 1861, Tennessee funded the opening of several ‘county armories’ to manufacture ordnance for the Confederate military.  One of these was in Murfreesboro.

“Caught in patriotic fervor of the conflict,” according to the authors of ‘Confederate Rifles & Muskets’ (Graphic Publishers, 1996), William Ledbetter volunteered to assist the state by establishing a ‘manufactory for rifles’ in Murfreesboro.  At that time Ledbetter was a former state senator, former mayor of Murfreesboro, co-publisher of the Rutherford Courier and former circuit clerk for Rutherford County.

In 1861 Ledbetter was 61, a bank executive, and owned iron mining interests in Stewart County, TN. As the war progressed, his son, Richard, was sent to Stewart County to oversee the mining activity.

Another son, Captain William Ledbetter, led Company I (comprised of Rutherford County volunteers) in the First Regiment Tennessee Volunteers that was mustered into service at Nashville in May 1861.  Col. George Maney from Franklin commanded the Regiment.  (A youthful Sam Davis was among the volunteers.)

The regiment consisted of ten companies.  Nine of the company names referred to the men of the unit – “Guards, Grays, Riflemen, Boys.”  The Rutherford company, however, took the name “Rifles.”  At least one historian has speculated that each soldier in Company I (the “Rutherford Rifles”) carried a new “factory-fresh” rifle.  (Confederate recruits were expected to bring their own firearms, and most brought “old hunting rifles” or ancient shotguns.)  Apparently, the elder Ledbetter made certain that his son’s company would not be disadvantaged by the quality of their arms.
(During his boyhood on the family’s Salem Road plantation, Captain William Ledbetter acquired the nickname “Doc.”  The name arose from an incident while the boy was six to eight years old.  He got into the family supply of medicines, gathered up his playmates (slave children on the plantation) and liberally medicated each child according to his own imaginative diagnosis.  Although some short-term discomfort followed, all survived the medicating and the “game” was soon discovered.  Thereafter, the plantation workers referred to young William as “Doc.”  Apparently fond of the nickname, Captain Ledbetter named one of his own sons Doc Lytle Ledbetter.)

To aid in construction of the Murfreesboro Armory in 1861, the State of Tennessee advanced the elder Ledbetter $7,500 against future deliveries. When all of the state’s ordnance facilities were transferred to the Confederacy, Ledbetter continued to oversee the Murfreesboro Armory with the honorary Confederate rank of major and a salary of $100/month.  Under Confederate control (October 1861 – March 1862), the armory produced an estimated maximum of 480 new rifles (some estimates are somewhat fewer) and repaired and re-bored about 320 “Tennessee rifles.”

The time devoted to working on the old Tennessee rifles was a source of “considerable irritation” for the Nashville Ordnance Officer responsible for supplying small arms for the Confederate forces in Kentucky during the early months of the war.  In October 1861 the Ordnance Officer wrote to his superiors: “To alter and repair these (old hunting rifles) will absolutely take as much time as to make new ones…  To repair them we have to stop our armory at Murfreesboro now turning out 60 new good guns per week…”

The reply from the Confederate bureaucracy in Richmond was short and to the point: “You are instructed to receive and put in order all Rifles sent to you by Col. Carroll for arming his regiments in East Tennessee. J. P. Bingham, Act’g Sec’y War.”  The Richmond leadership was perhaps concerned as to the availability of raw materials and component parts.

The Confederate county armories were dependent on others for the essential “rifle locks.”  The Ordnance Officer reported in June 1862: “About 260 Guns have been made at county shops but the attempt to get a good gun has failed.  The difficulty in the way was the Lock.  Only the common Rifle Lock could be had, which is unfit for Army use.  A very good gun was made in Murfreesboro… but the lock was the trouble there.”  Ledbetter noted in February 1862 that “we have only locks enough to last two weeks & must have another supply, or be compelled to stop then.  What must be done?”  The armory did close a month thereafter and the lathe and molds were moved to Atlanta.

(The street location of the Murfreesboro Armory cannot be determined from available records.  This Civil War rifle factory should not be confused with the old National Guard Armory built on the Nashville Pike, now called the Old Nashville Highway, in a different era for a different purpose.)

Other material shortages were also common at the Murfreesboro factory.  Writing on his bank stationery, Ledbetter thanked the Ordnance Officer for “a barrel of recently received oil” and further explained: “We also send down this morning 2 Boxes new Rifles-40, that will do to rely upon.  But you must have them tried and the sights adjusted. We did not have the powder and lead to do it.”

Ledbetter did not attempt to design a new rifle, but instead copied what was believed to be one of the better rifles available at that time – the U. S. Model 1841 Harpers Ferry rifle.  (Confederate records identify the Murfreesboro Armory production as ‘Mississippi rifles.’)

According to the current “Standard Catalog of Firearms” (Krause 2009), the Murfreesboro Armory rifle “with patchbox and double strapped nose cap… barrel bands pinned to stock… (measures) overall length 48-3/4″; barrel length 33″; .54 caliber…serial number on various parts including the barrel.” Much sought after by collectors, the catalog value in “very good” condition is $27,500.

Special thanks to Rick Davis, Billy Ledbetter and Mike Puckett for research assistance.

Greg Tucker can be reached at gregorytucker@bellsouth.net.

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