A Rochester Dentist Helped Save The Union

by Warren Kling

It is somehow eminently appropriate that a dentist invented the machine gun. That dentist was Josephus Requa, born in Ulster County , New York in 1833, the son of Charity Middagh and James Jackson Requa. When Josephus was 14, the family moved to Rochester , where from 1849 to 1852 the boy was apprenticed to William Billinghurst (1807-1880), a gunsmith. In 1853, the 20-year-old Josephus began the study of dentistry and commenced practice two years later in Springwater, Livingston County , New York . By 1858, he had returned to Rochester and opened a dental office in Suite 903 of the Wilder Building .

When he was 31, Dr. Requa married Mary A. Groat in a Schenectady , New York wedding on August 2, 1864 . Their first child, Leroy, was born in 1866, and their second, Florence , in 1868. The baby Florence , however, died on August 1, 1868 at the young age of four months, 22 days.

In 1861, three years before his marriage and coincidental with the beginning of the Civil War, Dr. Requa introduced the first rapid-fire machine gun with metallic cartridges to be used in the war. This is the story of that momentous invention in the history of American weaponry.

The Need for a Rapid-Fire Gun. An article in the Rochester Daily Union & Advertiser on June 29, 1861 reported that Albert Mack, who was employed by the Monroe County Penitentiary, had suggested to Dr. Josephus Requa that the Union army needed a rapid-fire gun. Requa, the article stated, gave it some thought, came up with a design, and mulled it over with his teacher, friend, and master gunsmith, William Billinghurst. A scale model was finished on July 11, 1861 , and after favorable reviews from some prominent Rochesterians, Requa and Billinghurst decided to build a full-size, working prototype. This was manufactured at Billinghurst's shop, which was then located on the second floor of 41 Main Street . It cost $500 to build.

This first practical machine gun was known as the Requa rifle battery and consisted of 25 two-foot-long heavy rifle barrels mounted horizontally on a frame secured onto a two-wheel carrier. Its gross weight was 500 pounds. Twenty-five metallic cartridges were held together by a steel clip and loaded as an en bloc unit. The conical bullets in each cartridge were .52 caliber and weighed one ounce. One percussion cap fired all 25 barrels in a volley, and three men could reload seven times a minute, thereby firing 175 shots per minute. The rifle barrel assembly could be raised or lowered for distance.

Another unique feature of the weapon was the ability to spread the gun barrels in a wider horizontal arc, covering more area with bullets. The gun was nickname d the "street sweeper." It was particularly effective when placed near a bridge or other strategic location where the width of the road or other passageway was restricted, thus making it impossible for the enemy to pass.

Getting the Union Army Interested. After building and testing the working prototype, the next challenge was to interest the Union army in the invention. This proved to be much more difficult than anyone could have imagined. Dr. Requa traveled to Washington , D.C. on April 22, 1862 in the hope of setting up an appointment with appropriate personnel in the Ordnance Department. Failing to get an appointment, Requa, rather than giving up, persisted. He finally secured an appointment with Brigadier General James W. Ripley, who was chief of ordnance procurement. The meeting turned out to be shocking to Requa. General Ripley summarily dismissed him with this logic: Even if the weapon performed as claimed, his soldiers could already fire rapidly enough, and this proposal wasted much too much ammunition. Ripley maintained that this rapid-fire gun would only serve to aggravate the situation and cost a fortune in special ammunition.

Requa Approaches President Abraham Lincoln. The position of General Ripley defied rebuttal, but Requa refused to accept defeat. He secured a letter of introduction to see President Abraham Lincoln and met with him on May 1, 1862 . Lincoln listened attentively to the details of Requa's proposal and Ripley's response. The president then scribbled a note which he handed to Dr. Requa. It was short and to the point: "Gen. Ripley, please see Mr. Requa. A. Lincoln, May 1, 1862 ."

The note, however, proved futile, because General Ripley would not budge from his position. Requa, undeterred, spoke again to President Lincoln. This time, Lincoln took charge of the situation. He told General Ripley that a test should be scheduled and that he would personally be present to witness it.

The President Attends Gun Tests. At last on May 12, 1862 , the machine gun underwent its first military tests by the Ordnance Department. And Lincoln indeed was present but apparently had to leave before the tests were concluded. A series of tests were conducted for range, firing rapidity, accuracy, and penetration, and the results were favorable. Another test, therefore, was scheduled for May 24, 1862 for Brigadier General A. W. Whipple, a Defense Department commander. The test results were issued on May 28, 1862 again with positive results. The concluding comments indicated that the gun would be an asset to the Union army.

All of this promotional effort was taking its toll financially for Dr. Requa, who had been taken away from his dental practice for months. And even after these two successful military tests, there was no purchase order imminent. Requa and Billinghurst, now short of funds, had to secure venture capital. They approached Smith and Bradley, who naturally wanted some tangible evidence of the weapon's value before they committed a large monetary outlay. So a demonstration was planned that would show the accuracy and destructive power of this machine gun battery.

Rochester Demonstration Convinces Financiers. Rochester , New York was selected as the test site. Local newspapers alerted the general public to the fact that this demonstration would occur on August 12, 1862 . As a result, a large crowd gathered to watch as the rifle battery was set up aimed at a wooden barrel target in the Genesee River 1,800 feet away. The firing commenced, riddling the barrel full of holes. The crowd cheered in awe. The financiers agreed to appropriate funds for the manufacture of the Requa rifle batteries. Contracts were then drawn up for component suppliers, such as Remington Arms, who manufactured the rifle barrels. Parmenter & Bramwell in Troy , New York assembled 30 units and 20 more were made in Rochester at Billinghurst's shop.

Patent number 36,448 for the machine gun was issued to J. Requa and W. Billinghurst on September 16, 1862 on the day before the Battle of Antietam, one of the bloodiest of the Civil War.

The Requa Rifle Goes to War. Albert G. Mack, who originally planted the idea in Dr. Requa's mind of the need for a rapid-fire gun, was now captain of a volunteer company, the 18th Independent Battery, New York Light Artillery. He received a few of the first Requa guns assembled in the Billinghurst shop. The 18th Independent Battery became known as "Mack's Black Horse Battery," since the rapid-fire guns were each pulled by a team of charcoal black horses.

On March 7, 1863 , the Rochester Daily Union & Advertiser published a Civil War song written for and sung by Mack's Black Horse Battery. One verse describes their unique strength:

Our men are prompt when the bugle calls,
And our guns can pour a storm of balls;
In the ranks of war, the fiercest blaze
Will be where the Black Horse
Battery plays.

With such publicity, Mack's unit had no trouble signing up volunteers at 31 Reynolds Arcade . The unit operated from September 1862 until July 1865, seeing duty in New Orleans , Louisiana ; and at Port Hudson, Mobile , and Montgomery , Alabama .

Mack's Battery First Performance Less Than Stellar. The first deployment of Mack's artillery unit was to New Orleans , and it proved to be less than stellar. The Requa rifles arrived with the regiment, but 4,000 rounds (25 cartridges per round) of the special ammunition was shipped separately from Rochester by boat. The boat never made it, however, having been sunk near the Florida coast.

The Requa Rifle Scores in Other Battles. The Requa guns had not been officially accepted by the military since no final report had yet been issued by the Ordnance Department. They had, however, performed so successfully in many tests conducted by the military that a number of regiments had ordered and deployed the advanced guns in various Civil War battles. One of these was the recapture of Fort Sumter at Charleston in September, 1863. Other deployments occurred at Petersburg and Cold Harbor in 1864.

Final Test for the First Machine Gun. The last of Ordnance Department tests for the Requa rifle battery took place at the Washington Arsenal in August, 1864, and the final report was issued in 1866. This report indicated, as had the earlier reports from previous tests, that the Requa rifle performed very well, was user friendly, and was very reliable. The department ordered five additional guns after the Civil War had ended.

Dr. Requa, who was exempt from the draft as the only child caring for an elderly parent, enlisted in 1864 as a member of the 5th Regiment of the 84th New York National Guard and was assigned to a Confederate prison in Elmira , New York . The 5th Regiment saw duty for just three months, and Dr. Requa never considered himself a Civil War veteran.

The Requa Rifle Becomes a Museum Piece. The first machine gun by Dr. Josephus Requa was displayed at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901, Buffalo , New York . Requa battery guns can still be seen at various military museums around the country. One held by the military museum in West Point , New York is presently on loan to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington , D.C. The full-scale working prototype, serial No. 1, is presently on display at the Springfield Armory National Historic Site in Springfield , Massachusetts . Others are located at the U.S. Marine Corps Museum in the Naval Yard, Washington , D.C. , and the Kentucky Military Museum in Frankfort , Kentucky .

A few years after the close of the Civil War, the Gatling gun replaced the Requa rifle battery.