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Artillery: The King of Battle - Part I

Updated: Feb 12


"Through the Wilderness" by Civil War sketch artist Edwin Forbes. (Library of Congress)

 

"The King of Battle"

This past summer we shared a two-part history email series about the weaponry and equipment that Civil War infantrymen typically used and carried while campaigning on central Virginia’s battlefields. It is only fair to provide equal time to a partner branch of service that provided invaluable service time and time again at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Mine Run, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.


In this Part I CVBT history email we will share some of the basics of field artillery in order to better understand what primary types of equipment artillerists worked with to accomplish their combat role. Since the vast majority of the artillery on central Virginia battlefields was field artillery—as opposed to heavy artillery—we will restrict our discussion to that type. In a follow-up history email, we will learn about the various implements and duties of artillerists, along with some of their accounts about fighting on the battlefields that CVBT works to preserve.

It may not surprise those who are familiar with CVBT’s history to hear that many of the properties the organization has helped save since its founding in 1996 are on acres where artillerists either served their guns or was contested tactical ground ideal for artillery placement. The long list includes Pelham’s Corner, Slaughter Pen Farm, Latimer’s Knoll, Norfolk Artillery, Willis Hill, Chancellorsville Day One, Talley Farm Ridge, the Beckham Tract, Fifth Corps Brock Road tract, and Myer’s Hill.

Pelham's Corner on the Fredericksburg battlefield is just one of several sites that CVBT has helped save that saw historically significant artillery action. (Tim Talbott)

 

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Artillery Organization

For much of the war, the Army of the Potomac used a system of six-gun batteries (three sections - left, middle, and right) with four or five batteries (composing an artillery brigade) assigned to each corps. A May 1864 reorganization reduced batteries to four guns (2 sections each) and assigned them to brigades. Another reorganization in March 1865, while at Petersburg, stipulated that the Second and Sixth Corps use six batteries and the Fifth and Ninth Corps contain five batteries each.

What eventually became the Army of Northern Virginia started the war with four-gun batteries allotted to brigades and serving under the infantry brigade commander. However, early in 1862, Brig. Gen. William Nelson Pendleton suggested a battalion organization of four-gun batteries that eventually took root as the army transitioned from a division-based structure to corps. This change better allowed for massing artillery fire when desired and usually made the artillery independent of the infantry, which helped increase its efficiency and communication.

 

Equipment and Implements

Although this illustration utilizes a 6-pound smoothbore piece as an example, it provides a good look at the various parts of a cannon. The 6-pound piece was used extensively in the Mexican-American War, but by the Civil War the U.S. Army started phasing them out in favor of better guns. The Confederates continued to employ 6-pounders that were among their state arsenals into the early years of the conflict. (Public domain)


Of the three branches of service (infantry, cavalry, and artillery), none required more moving parts for its operation than the artillery. There was a plethora of essential implements that went along with effective cannon service. In some cases, if a piece of equipment went missing or broke, it could jeopardize the potential impact that a single piece (and thus its battery) could provide to the army. In order to try to keep things brief, we will focus on only some of the large primary pieces of equipment in Part I.

At the most basic, the artillery piece itself consisted of two parts: the tube (barrel), which was usually made of cast iron, wrought iron, steel, brass, or bronze; and the carriage, which was constructed of wood and supported the tube. The carriage had spoked wheels for mobility and a stock and trail that projected from the piece’s rear. Iron parts attached to the carriage reinforced its strength and durability and helped in its operation and mobility. Field artillery carriages came primarily in three different sizes and depended on the size/weight of the tube it supported.

The vast majority of Civil War artillery pieces were muzzleloading, meaning the detachment loaded it from the front. While there were some breechloading British Whitworth rifled pieces, they were quite rare.

Part of a Federal battery is shown in this photograph at an unidentified location.

(Library of Congress)

 

Three Kings


The three most common field artillery pieces found on central Virginia battlefields were:


Model 1857 12-pound Napoleon

Modeled on the original French versions that were named for Napoleon III, this dependable and durable smoothbore piece had good range for a non-rifled tube. Its ability to throw a variety of projectiles effectively made it a favorite among artillerists. The Confederates developed their own version of the Napoleon, which removed its normally distinctive muzzle swell.

This example of a 12-Pound Napoleon sits at Spotsylvania's Muleshoe salient. (Tim Talbott)



3-inch Ordnance Rifle

Constructed of wrought iron, artillerists treasured the 3-inch Ordnance Rifle for its relative light weight, durability, and accuracy. While limited somewhat at close distances when compared to the smoothbore Napoleon, the 3-inch Ordnance Rifle boasted a noted and impressive target precision up to a mile.

This 3-inch Ordnance Rifle marks part of the Union artillery position on May 3, 1863, near the Chancellor House ruins at Chancellorsville. (Tim Talbott)


10-pound Parrott Rifle

Named for its developer, Robert Parrott, and made of cast iron, but with a distinctive wrought iron reinforcing band around the breech, the 10-pound Parrott also enjoyed wide popularity. While heavier than the 3-inch Ordnance Rifle, and with a greater tendency to burst despite its reinforced breech band, the 10-pound Parrott Rifle rivaled the 3-inch Ordnance Rifle in accuracy. The 20-pound version of the Parrott obviously brought additional heft to its load and required a stronger carriage than its smaller 10-pound brother.

Also located at the Chancellor House ruins is an example of a 10-pound Parrott Rifle. Note the wrought iron band around the tube's breech. (Tim Talbott)

 

Support Vehicles

Supplementary to the artillery pieces, a battery also contained additional horse-drawn vehicles that supported its work.

A two-wheeled vehicle called a limber carried an ammunition chest. Typically, six horses were harnessed to the limber. The artillery piece hooked to the back of the limber in order to pull it. Horse-drawn limbers also pulled the battery wagon and the forge.

This reproduction limber helps interpret artillery action at Fairview on the Chancellorsville battlefield. (Tim Talbott)



The caisson was a two-wheeled vehicle that held two ammunition chests and was connected to a limber pulled by six horses. The caisson also mounted a spare wheel on the rear.

This figure shows a caisson hooked to a limber. Note the two ammunition chests on the

caisson and the spare wheel on the rear. (Pubic domain)



A battery wagon hauled numerous tools and spare parts for the battery. It was a two-wheeled vehicle with a hinged rounded covered lid that opened from the side.

The battery wagon, like the artillery piece and caisson, was attached to a limber

and was pulled by a team of six horses. (Public domain)



A portable forge that contained a fireplace and bellows was also an important part of the battery’s equipment. An artificer used the forge to make repairs to the iron parts of the artillery pieces, and well as fit horseshoes to the battery’s numerous equines.

The forge allowed battery artificers to make field repairs and shoe their equines.

(Public domain)


Horses

Equines were perhaps the artillery’s most important pieces of support equipment. These beasts of burden provided batteries with the power needed for mobility. Simply put, without horses, the guns did not move very far. Typically, a team of six horses pulled a limber and an artillery piece. Combined, the piece's tube and carriage usually approached or surpassed a ton in weight. Artillerymen preferred horses to mules as mules were often more skittish in combat situations than horses. Like cavalrymen, artillerists had to care for their horses by feeding and grooming them each day. Along with the horses, leather harnesses and collars, and other associated equipment needed constant care due to wear and tear and battle damage.

With field artillery (also known as mounted artillery), three of the artillerists rode the three left-side horses, while other comrades walked. In the case of horse artillery, which usually accompanied the cavalry, all the artillerists rode horses.

This wartime photograph shows a battery of four guns with the horse teams behind them.

Note the riders on the three left-side horses. (Library of Congress)


Gibson's Horse Artillery appears in this photograph taken at Fair Oaks, Virginia.

Note that all of the artillerymen are mounted. (Library of Congress)

 

Sources and Suggested Reading

John Gibbon. The Artillerist’s Manual. Baker and Godwin, 1860, (reprint Morningside, 1991).

Earl J. Hess. Civil War Field Artillery: Promise and Performance on the Battlefield. Louisiana State University Press, 2023.

Philip Katcher. American Civil War Artillery, 1861-1865: Field and Heavy Artillery. Osprey Military, 2001.

 

Parting Shot

CVBT's first preservation victory came at Willis Hill in 1996 when it partnered with the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites (now the American Battlefield Trust) to acquire this ground where artillery action occurred on December 13, 1862, during the Battle of Fredericksburg, and on May 3, 1863, at the Second Battle of Fredericksburg.

(Tim Talbott)


"The enemy, having deployed, now showed himself above the crest of the ridge and advanced in columns of brigades, and at once our guns began their deadly work with shell and solid shot. How beautifully they came on! Their bright bayonets glistening in the sunlight made the line look like a huge serpent of blue and steel. The very force of their onset leveled the board fences bounding the small fields and gardens that interspersed the plain. We could see our shells bursting in their ranks, making great gaps; but on they came, as though they would go straight through and over us. Now we gave them canister, and that staggered them. A few more paces onward and the Georgians in the road below us rose up, and glancing an instant along their rifle barrels, let loose a storm of lead into the faces of the advance brigade."

Lt. William Miller Owen, Washington Artillery of New Orleans, recalling the December 13, 1862, view from Willis Hill.

 


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Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Mine Run, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.

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