Civil War Arms Collection Order Raises Historical & Contemporary Questions

What can’t the government order in a “national emergency”? (Battle of Gettysburg, Thure de Thulstrup, Restoration: Adam Cuerden, Public Domain)

U.S.A. – -( “You will see that I have been authorized to collect all military arms of Pennsylvania at my own expense for the purpose of remodeling, and then to be returned again to regular organized companies,” a June 12, 1861 letter from Maj. O.H. Wheeler to Maj. [unintelligible] Carothers ordered. You are deputized by me to demand and collect from whose hands the same may be found, all military arms both good and bad in the county of [Beaver]… and give receipts.”

A major had the authority to do that?  What law or executive or martial law order was passed to allow for the military to compel civilians to surrender their arms? And noting the space where “Beaver” was filled in was a blank on a form letter, was the entire state subject to the order? What about other states in the Union? And people were OK with that?

These were questions I set out to find after being sent the original letter and a handwritten July 26 response (see below) by a reader who chooses to be identified as “a Tennessee supporter.” I am here to report my utter failure at getting answers to any of my questions.

It’s not like I didn’t try—it’s just that I’m not a historian, and if similar accounts appear on the internet, I don’t know how to find them. Case in point, I started with “O.H. Wheeler” and quickly found Google to be uncooperative, at least as it relates to this (I did find a Pennsylvania attorney by that name involved in a lawsuit in the 1870s and “irregular practices” disputes in the 1880s, but cannot state with certainty it is the same individual.) The closest I came was finding the Major “apparently held a position in the Adjutant General’s Office from 1861 – 1862 and a box containing “23 items and 1 folder” concerning “personal and job applicants” information is identified by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Bureau of Archives and History, Pennsylvania State Archives.

Having come up empty on the internet, I ventured out to my local historical society (before it closed down due to the pandemic). They had a roster for Ohio but not a lot else of relevance and suggested a trip to the National Archives might be in order. Unfortunately, as fabulously lucrative as what I do is, there’s not a lot left over for a travel and expense account after the demands for my lavish lifestyle of paying bills and taxes take their toll. Similarly, when I saw the Historical Society of Pennsylvania wants a “basic research fee” of $60 per hour, I decided I’d rather eat that week. Add to that, travel isn’t exactly encouraged in these days of Coronavirus precautions, and you can’t visit closed document repositories.

The next step was to reach out to those I know who have some history street cred, and I am fortunate to have established an internet relationship over the years with Clayton Cramer. He’s the author of the landmark “The Racist Roots of Gun Control” and a principal debunker of Michael Bellesiles’ exercise in wishful historical fiction, Arming America, with the end result that the author’s Bancroft Prize was revoked and he was compelled to resign from Emory University.

Without access to relevant records obtainable only after unknown research requirements, Mr. Cramer didn’t have direct knowledge of this situation. He did, however, offer a tangentially related perspective.

“Clement Vallandigham was a Copperhead lawyer who protested these disarming orders (on 2nd Amendment grounds), largely directed at Democrats,” Cramer recalled.  “He was eventually expelled from the Union.  After the war, he was defending someone in a murder trial, pulled the trigger on the ‘unloaded gun,’ and died.”

For what it’s worth, the client was acquitted.

As mentioned above, along with the Wheeler letter was a handwritten missive I’m assuming was the reply. I have to assume because I can only make out every other word, and that really makes me wonder how these people transmitted orders to the field with lives hanging in the balance if communications weren’t crystal clear.

“18th century handwriting is often beautiful,” Cramer responded.  “The decline in the 19th century is very obvious.  Reading wills from that century is really painful …  A distant ancestor’s signature on his deed for what is now part of downtown New Haven was impossible for me to read.”

You can see what he’s talking about by looking at the Constitution. True, it still looks strange to the modern eye, but I can still read it. That reply letter, forget it, and I spent time with my son trying to decipher it and writing down words we could make out before giving up. And with that, here are the documents in question — feel free to download and enlarge them and see if you have better luck than I did:

Wheeler letter ordering the collection of civilian arms.
Response (Front)
Response (Reverse)

Perhaps some of you are knowledgeable about this and can educate us in “comments,” or know someone you think can who you can send this to. Perhaps some of you will have no problem reading the handwriting that frustrated my poor deciphering skills. Perhaps there are Civil War buffs or historians who know all about such disarmament orders who will slap their foreheads and easily point us to resources that tell us more.

My primary interest in this is to determine where Wheeler got off ordering arms to be surrendered, and what would have happened had a gun owner told him to go pound sand.  The antis are constantly trying to convince us that “gun control” in this country is a time-honored practice as their way of establishing, if not legal precedent, the perception that we’ve always been fine with it. To back that up they cite ordinances precluding the storage of powder in homes, edicts condemning concealed carry, and Wyatt Earp and his disarmament diktats in Tombstone

My counter-argument is just because people went along with it and did not mount legal challenges does not mean those “laws” would have been upheld if they had been contested in court.  Then again, seeing as how these letters are from the Civil War, we can’t forget that the Lincoln administration also got away with suspending habeas corpus, suppressing newspapers, and even, according to a disputed account, considered arresting the Chief Justice of the Supreme  Court. With that as background, it hardly seems a stretch that the order to collect private arms and turn them over to the troops would not have been considered “lawful” under the circumstances.

And that raises the real question that should concern us: Could that “precedent” still be applied today in a “national emergency”?

UPDATE: See a transcription of the handwritten letter.

About David Codrea:David Codrea

David Codrea is the winner of multiple journalist awards for investigating/defending the RKBA and a long-time gun owner rights advocate who defiantly challenges the folly of citizen disarmament. He blogs at “The War on Guns: Notes from the Resistance,” is a regularly featured contributor to Firearms News, and posts on Twitter: @dcodrea and Facebook.

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I don’t know if the Yankees got away with this or not, but an unarmed citizenry invites tyrants, from home or abroad, to take away rights from our populace. “You cannot invade the mainland United States. There would be a rifle behind every blade of grass.” is attributed to Admiral Yamamoto of the Japanese Navy. I believe he was also the man who said “I am afraid we have awoken a sleeping giant” after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. While the second quote may have been based on the US military, the first was based on the fact the citizenry… Read more »

Ryben Flynn

Neither quote is true. Google them.

Dave in Fairfax

RB, Neither is Truth, but both are truth. Save your Dixie Cups.


I read these precedents set during the civil war as further evidence that licensing and registration must be opposed at every turn. If they don’t know who has what, or even who has anything, it would be extremely difficult for them to confiscate anything.


Finnky, right on!


Lincoln’s illegal activities are legion as noted in this article but also including nearly opening a second front in New York with his illegal draft. ( The Constitution allows only for calling up the militia not conscripting individuals) So the gun confiscation does not surprise me in the least. If there was ever a case of the cure being worse than the disease then the civil war was it. 675,000 Americans died because of Lincoln. One of the worst presidents ever.


And to think he arrested members of the press. Who disagreed with his policies. Sending some to prison without Right of Habeas Corpus and banishing some to the South. Also keep in mind he only called for the freeing of slaves in the south. Not in the north. Always remember. The Victor writes the history. Now more than ever. Keep Your Powder Dry.


Darkman, good info that most folks are not aware of.


whaddya speck from a former corporate railroad lawyer? The railroad comanies were as crooked as a hound’s hind leg, and looked for crooked but articulate and persuasive lawyers to “make things happen”. The hagiograpjy we were shoveled as kids had to be so over the top as to border on unbelieveable ese we’d have seen through it then. I personally would be very curious to learn more about the thinking and motives of Mr.Booth, who managed to do us all a favour (though not within the law, for certain) by ending this tyrant’s reign. The faux history that persists needs… Read more »


Will, The South is gonna rattle again!


Q, we are all free people, until government says we are not because of an emergency situation. They love to control us!


Well its obvious that most of what is happening now is un-Constitutional.


Have you seen NY lately besides the news ?

Hank in Fort Worth

First one is easy, second will take some time but I’ve been deciphering for fifty years. Dear Sir: You will see that I have been authorized to collect all the military arms of Pennsylvania at my own expense for the purpose of remodeling, and then to be returned again to regular organized companies. You are deputized by me to demand and collect from whose hands the same may be found, all the military arms both good and bad in the county of (Beanere, Beavere ?) (See P?r. Dig., 598, Sec. 111) and give receipts. No patriot or good citizen will… Read more »


This is what I’ve been able to make of it. Let me first say that I think the author of this particular letter was drinking. His writing gets visibly worse as it progresses, telling me that the alcohol was beginning to take effect. It looks like he even spilled some of it onto the document itself. Hookstown PA. July 26 1861 [Friday] Gen. H. B. [?] (Because I could get no Internet return on this rank with these initials.) Dear Sir, Your form of the 22nd unit to Major Ledlie (James Hewett, Civil Engineer for American railroads, promoted to Brig.… Read more »


I don’t think the 2nd letter is a reply. It looks to me that Carothers is writing a Beisel about the orders.from Wheeler. Telling him to box up the arms and where to send them


Many Years ago, when I was 10 or 11, we were visiting my Great Uncle Lawrence Stanley in Elijah, GA. At that time (1970 or 71)he owned a rifle from one of his great (?x) grandfather’s that dated back to the late 18th century. According to him, the rifle had been refurbished/relocked in the early years of the Civil War from a Flintlock to a Cap and Ball percussion for use by an ancestor in the war (most of the older lockwork mechanism he kept with the rifle). Uncle Lawrence is now long gone, and his descendants no longer stay… Read more »


Here’s my take on this letter. Carothers sent it to Leut. N. B. Beisel. Looks like LT Biesel wanted to keep the arms that Wheeler wanted collected and sent to him. My interpretation. ? designates words I couldn’t decipher. FUN! Here’s my take: Your ? of 22nd ? to Major Lettell is before me. I am at a loss to understand how it is that this for Adjutant Gen’l and thought you to hold the arms and equipment ? in your possession the order is in direct ? order to the instructions received by me on yesterday to collect all… Read more »


Yeah. I saw that after I posted my translation. That was fun.