The Artillery BatteryHistory > The Artillery Battery
Frederick the Great, the warrior King of Prussia, once said his artillery lent “dignity to what otherwise would be a vulgar brawl.” What Frederick realized was that, of the three main combat arms of 18th-century warfare, artillery required far greater knowledge, care and finesse than did infantry or cavalry. The validity of Frederick’s observation was recognized in the United States a century later; Graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point were apportioned to the branches of service based upon their class standings. The top tier went into the engineers, the second into the artillery, the third to the cavalry and the bottom to the infantry.
While engineering was the most sophisticated discipline within the art of warfare and required the most advanced knowledge of mathematics and applied physics, it was essentially a noncombatant arm. Artillery also required an advanced knowledge of mathematics and applied physics, but gunners always had to put their learning to use during the chaos of battle. The artillery branch demanded of its commanders technical knowledge not required of cavalry and infantry commanders, and thus, of the combat arms in the 19th-century U.S. Army, the artillery received the most accomplished West Point graduates.
In practical terms, an artillery commander had greater responsibility than did a commander of cavalry or infantry. An infantry captain had, on paper, to care for about 100 men. He saw to their training, arming, clothing and equipping, feeding and discipline. A cavalry captain also had to watch over about 100 men, but he was also responsible for 100 horses that required equipping, training, feeding and care.
By comparison, an artillery captain in a full six-gun battery had responsibility for 152 men, 154 horses, 6 field pieces, 14 or 20 limbers, 6 or 12 caissons, a traveling forge, a battery wagon and two supply wagons. Four-gun batteries were common in both armies during the Civil War, and an artillery captain may have had the number of men in his command reduced by a third. Even so, the breadth of his responsibility exceeded that of the leaders of full-strength cavalry and infantry companies. Ironically, while artillery required of its commanders the highest level of competence, it also offered the slowest opportunities for advancement, since it was a small branch of service with far fewer senior officers than the infantry.
Before describing the various hardware components of a Civil War artillery battery, it is necessary to understand how one was organized. The commanding captain was assisted by a lieutenant for each section, which consisted of two guns, with their accompanying men, horses, limbers and caissons. The lieutenants were section leaders. Each gun, with its men, horses and attendant vehicles, operated as a detachment under the command of a sergeant known as the chief of the piece. When in action, each gun, with one limber supplying ammunition, was commanded by a corporal called the gunner, and each gun’s caisson with an additional limber was stationed to the rear under command of another corporal. Drivers, who handled the horses, and cannoneers, who manned the guns, were privates.
In addition to the men in line of command, a battery would also have two buglers and a guidon-bearer, as well as a first sergeant who was responsible for the battery’s paperwork and during battle was available to do any task assigned by the officers, including assuming command of any gun or section whose chief was incapacitated. Ideally, each battery would have several artificers to work the traveling forge, performing farrier services and minor equipment repair in the field. (Sometimes several batteries together in a battalion would share a forge and artificers.) If a battery was fortunate enough to have a supply wagon or two, there would be additional teamsters and horses or mules. One Confederate battery maintained its own ambulance, at least for part of the war, to evacuate its wounded.
At first during the Civil War, individual batteries were apportioned out to infantry or cavalry brigades for tactical support in the field, with the batteries subject to ultimate command by officers not trained in artillery. First the Army of Northern Virginia, then by war’s end most other armies, adopted a battalion system whereby four to six batteries were organized into artillery battalions commanded by majors or lieutenant colonels. Battalions were assigned to support divisions – at least in the infantry – and additionally, major armies maintained separate trains of reserve artillery that could be deployed in battle as the commanding general saw fit.
Artillery assigned to infantry support was called mounted artillery, a misnomer since all the cannoneers marched on foot. Officers, sergeants, guidon-bearers, buglers and drivers were mounted. Artillery assigned to the cavalry was called horse artillery, and everyone of necessity was mounted so that they could keep up with the troopers. That meant that the battery could have an additional 60 horses, bringing the total to almost 220, further adding to the captain’s burden of responsibility.
Federal and Confederate armies were composed overwhelmingly (about 80%) of infantry, and that arm bore the brunt of pitched fighting. Cavalry and artillery were support arms. With the advent of rifled infantry weapons, it was no longer practical for artillery to be deployed along the front line of battle, as it had been up through the Mexican War. The exposed artillerymen were inviting and easy targets for enemy infantrymen armed with rifled muskets. During the Civil War, artillery had to adjust to a new role as long distance support for the infantry or cavalry, a task that was facilitated in part by the application of rifling to cannons.
That change of role led to considerable fumbling and bumbling at first, but field commanders soon learned how to mass artillery for long range use, as Union Major General George B. McClellan did at Malvern Hill, as the Army of Northern Virginia did at Antietam – “artillery hell” in the words of Colonel Stephen D. Lee, a Confederate artillery battalion commander at that battle – and as Brigadier General Henry Hunt, a Federal artillery commander, did at Gettysburg, where he positioned each of his more than 300 artillery pieces so advantageously that every one was used during the battle.
Civil War artillery pieces came in a bewildering number of types. Those used in pitched battle were classified as field or light artillery, a designation meaning that the guns were light enough (a ton, more or less) to be hauled around by horses and manhandled when in action to provide tactical support for field armies in active campaigning. Light artillery stood in contrast to heavy artillery, the big guns seen in photographs of Civil War fortifications and places of permanent defense, such as the extensive works defending Washington, DC, or seacoast fortifications.
Cannons were classified by the weight or caliber of the projectiles they fired. The smallest Civil War field artillery pieces fired 6-pound balls, and the largest fired 30-pound “bolts,” or shells. The most common calibers and sizes were 2.9- or 3-inch (or 10-pound) shells and 12-pound round balls, but 20-pound bolts and 24-pound round balls were not uncommon.
The difference between round balls and bolts pointed to another basic way to differentiate Civil War artillery – smoothbores and rifles. Smoothbore cannons had been around since the dawn of gunnery. The insides of the barrels, the bores, were smooth and fired round iron balls, round explosive-filled case shot, or canister and grapeshot, without the advantage in range or accuracy provided by rifling. Yet smoothbore guns were surprisingly accurate. The famous 12-pounder Napoleon, the workhorse of Civil War artillery, could fire a round ball with reasonable accuracy up to 1,600 yards.
The advantages of rifling – the cutting of spiral grooves inside a gun bore to impart a spin to the projectile, thereby increasing range and accuracy – had been known for hundreds of years before the Civil War. Up to then, however, what prevented the widespread application of rifling was that virtually all cannons and small arms were muzzleloaders; that is, the ammunition had to be loaded by ramming it down the barrels from the front end of the guns. The projectiles had to be slightly smaller than the caliber of the bores to facilitate getting them down to the breech.
With smoothbore weapons, firing round, gently tumbling projectiles with reasonable range and accuracy, the difference in size was not too important. But for a rifled piece to work, the projectile had to fit tightly against the grooved bore. Until breechloading guns were perfected (as they were starting to be at the time of the Civil War, though most effectively in small arms), muzzleloading rifle projectiles had expandable bases. When fired, the projectile bases expanded to bite into the rifling, thereby giving a spin to the projectile. To further increase range and accuracy, an elongated projectile with a pointed front end was advantageous. In small arms, this was the famous lead Minnie bullet of the Civil War, and in rifled cannons it was an iron bolt with an expandable soft metal ring or base.
The difference in range and accuracy between a smoothbore and a rifled artillery piece was like the difference between throwing a basketball or a football. Whereas a smoothbore Napoleon had a range of 1,600 yards and could hit a barn at that range, a rifled 10-pounder Parrott gun could hit a barn door at up to 2,100 yards. While rifled cannons were ideal for long range sniping, smoothbores, with their large bore sizes, were better at firing canister (a tin can filled with small iron balls) like a giant shotgun at massed troop formations in close quarters at 400 yards or less.
Many Civil War batteries were made up of a combination of rifles and smoothbores. The officers and gunners had to be conversant with the capabilities of each type of gun in their batteries. One Confederate made Napoleon had a table of ranges crudely engraved into the cascable (outside rear of the breech) for shot and shell. The table differed slightly from the standard table for Napoleons, which suggests that someone intimately familiar with that particular gun knew its idiosyncrasies well and wanted others using it to know, too.
One final distinction between Civil War cannons was the type of metal used for the barrels. Bronze was the ideal gunmetal during the age of smoothbores. It was a very resilient medium that rarely if ever failed during use. It was, however, more expensive to cast a gun of bronze than one of iron, which was commonly used. When rifling came along, bronze had to be abandoned because it eroded under pressure and the rifling quickly wore out. Thus Civil War rifled guns were made either of cast iron or wrought iron. Wrought iron guns, while less likely than those of cast-iron to fail or explode, and were also tricky and more expensive to fabricate.
Whether smoothbore or rifled, bronze or iron, small- or large-caliber, every Civil War cannon had the same implements assigned to it for use in loading and firing. Two rammer staffs, used to pound home rounds and to sponge the bore after each firing, were secured to the underside of the gun carriage when not in use. A corkscrew like device called a worm, for snagging and removing powder sack remnants after firing, and a water bucket to keep the sponge wet were also attached to the carriage’s underside. Each gun carried two trail spikes that could be inserted into the rear of the gun’s trail to serve as an aiming lever. Finally, neatly coiled on the top of a gun’s trail was a heavy piece of rope, called the prolong, used in manhandling the gun.
In action a gun required, besides the gun corporal, seven cannoneers who performed specific functions with the implements to load and fire the gun. As casualties mounted, the manuals of the period provided protocols for operating the guns with reduced numbers, down to two men. Every man was trained to perform every function on the gun. There are even accounts of single individuals operating cannons during battle.
Each gun was hitched to the rear of a two-wheeled vehicle called a limber, upon which rode a limber chest with up to 50 rounds of ammunition. The limber was attached by means of a wooden limber pole to four or six horses arranged in pairs. Each left-hand horse had a rider, called a driver, who handled his horse and the one to its right. The horses required elaborate sets of leather tack (sometimes rope in the Confederate Army) and saddles for the drivers. Besides ammunition, the limber chest contained friction primers used to fire each round, a detachable rear sight used by the gunners to aim, or point, the piece, and various implements to cut and attach slow-burning fuses used to detonate explosive shells when they arrived over their targets.
Various leather or canvas accouterments were also transported in the limbers. Pouches for primers, gunners’ haversacks for conveying rounds from limber to gun, and thumbstalls (leather sheaths to protect a cannoneer’s thumb while he sealed the cannon’s vent during loading) would be found there. Also in the limber chest were lanyards (cords with handles and hooks used to set off friction primer), vent wires with which loaded rounds’ flannel powder sacks were opened prior to firing, vent brushes, gimlets for clearing clogged vents, and locks for the chests.
In action, a limber was posted immediately to its gun’s rear, so that ammunition and supplies were close at hand. Assigned to each gun and deployed farther to the rear during action would be another limber and limber chest. Hitched to this reserve limber was the caisson, which was also a two-wheeled vehicle. It carried two more limber chests of ammunition, plus a spare limber pole and a spare wheel. Limber and caisson combinations were also hauled by six-horse, three-driver teams. In battle, limbers and limber chests could be rotated from gun to caisson.
The battery wagon, which also had horses and drivers, served as a traveling pit stop for guns, limbers and caissons. It contained all sorts of extra parts and tools, such as shovels, axes and jacks, needed to maintain the other vehicles.
Watching a well-drilled artillery battery in action – cannoneer serving guns, driver managing horses, limber rotating to the rear for ammunition, artificer manning forges and making repairs, all under the watchful eye of the battery commander – must have been like watching a well-choreographed ballet. No wonder Frederick the Great thought that artillery lent dignity to what otherwise would have been a “vulgar brawl.”