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Artillery: The King of Battle - Part II

Updated: Feb 12

"Artillery going into Action on South Bank of Rappahannock, May 3, 1863"

(Library of Congress) 


"The King of Battle - Part II"

If you wish to first read "Artillery: The King of Battle - Part I," you may do so here.


Civil War artillerists had one of the most dangerous and demanding jobs on the battlefield. Due particularly to artillery’s effectiveness in defending positions, they were a constant target. Enemy batteries attempted to neutralize them by disabling the piece and reducing the number of men in the detachment that worked it along with the horses that made it mobile. Sharpshooting infantry foes likewise targeted artillerymen and their horses. If an enemy made it too uncomfortable to remain in a position and most of the horses were unable to move the piece, the chances of capturing it drastically improved. Taking an enemy artillery piece was a high honor, and losing one was a disgrace.


Like infantrymen, artillerists spent a significant amount of time drilling in an attempt to reach maximum efficiency and effectiveness. It was of vital importance for artillerymen to become intimately familiar with the pieces of equipment that they worked with and used.


Along with the numerous large primary pieces of equipment such as the piece, limbers, caissons, battery wagons, and forges that we learned about in Part I, there were also various smaller accompanying implements that the artillerists of the detachment needed in order to perform their individual roles. 


"Battery D, Fifth U.S. Artillery in Action, Fredericksburg" (Library of Congress)


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"Fort Richardson, at Quarles House, near Fair Oaks" (Library of Congress) 

The sponge rammer’s solid wooden block end was used for loading the powder charge and projectile, while the other lambs wool-covered end swabbed the tube after firing to extinguish any remaining sparks before reloading. Doing so helped prevent a potential accidental premature firing of the piece when reloading.

These images show both ends of a 3-Inch Ordnance Rifle sponge rammer.

(Photo: Zachary Pittard, Pamplin Historical Park)

A sponge bucket held the water needed to wet the sponge before swabbing the tube.

Sponge bucket 

(Photo: Zachary Pittard, Pamplin Historical Park)

The prolonge is a long heavy rope that rested on the carriage trail and could be used to move the piece without fully hitching it up. The prolonge could also be used to manually move the piece short distances.



(Photo: Zachary Pittard, Pamplin Historical Park)

The worm staff was inserted into the tube after firing the piece to remove any remaining debris.


(Photo: Zachary Pittard, Pamplin Historical Park)

A lanyard, consisting of a wood handle and iron hook and connected by a cord, created the distance needed for the operator to fire the piece and remain outside the danger of the wheels during the piece’s recoil.


(Photo: Zachary Pittard, Pamplin Historical Park)

A friction primer was the ignition device for the piece. It was in some ways similar to a percussion cap for a rifle musket. When placed in the tube’s vent and pulled with the lanyard, the friction primer emitted a strong spark that ignited the powder charge inside the tube and propelled the projectile forward.

Friction Primer

(Photo: Zachary Pittard, Pamplin Historical Park)

A leather gunner haversack transported the powder charge and projectile to the artillerist who placed them in the tube to load the piece.

Gunner Haversack

(Photo: Zachary Pittard, Pamplin Historical Park)

The wooden handspike, which was placed into an iron socket at the base of the carriage trail, allowed the piece to be aimed horizontally. When not in use it is attached to the side or "cheek" of the carriage. According to The Artillerist's Manual (1860), written by John Gibbon, each piece was supplied with two handspikes. 

This cropped view of an A. R. Waud sketch shows a scene near where Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick was killed at Spotsylvania. It also shows an artillery piece with its hand spike in place protruding up from the trail. Note the other hand spike on the piece's right cheek.

(Library of Congress)

This photograph of four horse artillery officers with a 3-Inch Ordnance Rifle shows the handspike

attached to the cheek of the piece. (Library of Congress)

An elevation screw, which was part of the piece’s carriage, raised or lowered the tube vertically.

A reproduction carriage's elevation screw is shown in this image supporting an original bronze Confederate 12-Pound Napoleon tube located at Howison Hill on the Fredericksburg battlefield.

(Tim Talbott)

The pendulum hausse was a rear sight instrument that helped the gunner aim the piece.


An example of a reproduction pendulum hausse.

(Photo: Zachary Pittard, Pamplin Historical Park)

A padded leather thumbstall was used to block the vent while the tube was being sponged. The leather protected the wearer’s thumb from the tube’s high heat. By blocking off the vent, it helped prevent oxygen from entering the tube, thus decreasing the chance that sparks remained active. 

Thumbstall. Note the extra layers of leather to protect the wear's thumb.

(Photo: Zachary Pittard, Pamplin Historical Park)

Once the powder charge and projectile were in the tube, a metal priming wire or vent pick was inserted through the vent that broke open the powder charge allowing the friction primer to ignite the charge when pulled by the lanyard.

Priming wire or vent pick.

(Photo: Zachary Pittard, Pamplin Historical Park)


Operating the Artillery Piece

"First Connecticut Artillery, Fort Richards, Arlington Heights, Va." (Library of Congress)

Note the sponge bucket on the ground between the wheels.

Typically, a group of eight soldiers worked each piece and was known as a detachment. Additional “spare” men tended the horses and other equipment. On the battlefield, each of the seven detachment members had specific duties to perform and received number designations while operating under the instructions of the gunner. Each artilleryman needed to know the roles of the other positions in case he had to take the place of a killed or wounded comrade, and thereby work with reduced numbers.

Number 1 was located at the right front of the piece. His responsibility was to sponge the tube after each firing and to ram the powder charge and projectile down the tube to load the piece.

Number 2 stood at the left front of the piece and inserted the powder charge and projectile into the tube for Number 1 to ram to the tube’s breech. Once the piece fired Number 2 used the worm staff to remove any remaining pieces of the smoldering powder bag from the piece.


Number 3 was at the right rear of the piece and saw to the operation of the vent at the tube’s breech. Wearing a leather thumbstall, Number 3 placed his thumb over the vent to prevent oxygen from entering the tube and possibly igniting sparks while Number 1 sponged it.


Number 4 stood at the left rear. He placed the friction primer in the piece’s vent for ignition and pulled the lanyard to fire it.


Number 5 transported the powder charge and projectile after receiving it from Number 7 and handed it to Number 2 to place in the tube.


Number 6 stood at the limber and tended the ammunition chest.


Number 7 stood at the limber and handed the powder charge and projectile when ready to Number 5.


The gunner aimed the piece and provided verbal instructions for loading.



Ammunition chart from Artillery Ordnance for the United States Land Service,

published 1849. (Library of Congress)

Civil War artillery ammunition could vary depending on a number of factors including the type of piece, the combat situation, and thus the range it required.


As the name implies, a solid shot was typically an iron mass projectile. For smoothbore pieces, a solid shot was usually round, while those fired from rifled pieces were usually conical and were referred to as a bolt. Solid shot could be used at longer distances in an attempt to damage the enemy’s artillery and destroy buildings. It was also used to send through lines of massed troops, which tended to cause great demoralization.   


12-Pound solid shot.

(Courtesy of the Union Drummer Boy)

Explosive shells, as the name implies, were hollow on the inside but contained black powder. When a timed fuse system ignited the powder, the explosion blew the shell into pieces. Like solid shot, explosive shells could be round or conical depending on if the piece was a smoothbore or rifled. Some shells also worked on a percussive ignition system. When the percussive shell hit something, it exploded. However, timed fuses, which created air bursts, proved much more effective than ground explosions.

Cross section of a 20-pound Parrott shell. (Public domain)

Case shot was similar to explosive shells but contained lead round musket balls or conical minie balls in its hollowed space, adding significantly to its potential destructiveness.

A cross-section view of a spherical case shot. (Courtesy of Heritage Auctions)

At relatively close distances, artillerists often resorted to canister as an effective anti-personnel ammunition. Composed of a cylindrical tin container holding iron balls, when fired, it in effect, turned the piece into a shotgun, spreading a swath of destruction in front of the piece.

Canister round. (Courtesy of Jack Melton and Historical Publications)


Artillery Accounts from Central Virginia Battlefields

The Battle of Fredericksburg

Post-war image of Thomas Henry Carter

(Courtesy of Virginia Museum of History and Culture)

“Dead bodies covered the ground. A. P. Hill’s Artillery having been pretty much knocked to pieces I ordered up five rifle pieces & [Col. John Thompson] Brown sent up a large number. Only one piece of my old battery came up, the Parrot, commanded by Wm. He behaved as he always does, most gallantly fighting side by side with [Capt. William R. J.] Pegram & when Jackson ordered the Artillery to advance on the plains below & volunteers were called for, he offered to go with anyone although nearly half of his detachment had been killed & wounded.


It was the most destructive Artillery fire—horses and men piled up in scores in some two hundred yards. A general charge was ordered at sundown. I took fourteen pieces on A. P. Hill’s left & reported to him but was pleased to hear that Jackson had left it discretionary with him to advance or not, & he thought it was too late. As I looked across the wide open flat at the long line of Artillery and infantry growing more obscure as darkness approached & heard the bullets whistling by me all the time I felt much pleased to give up the charge at that hour, for I knew nothing of the ground & a single ditch might have brought the guns to a halt under a murderous fire. Well thank God we won a great victory which I trust may have a powerful moral effect.”


Maj. Thomas Henry Carter, ANV Artillery, describing December 13, 1862  


The Battle of Chancellorsville

Post-war image of George Perkins

(Public domain)

May 2, 1863: “Started off shortly with our two guns in the advance without caissons and entering the woods went on about half a mile when we turned back, cavalry also. The road [Orange Turnpike] was so narrow that we had to unlimber just to get round. Returned to the field just as the sun was setting. We were put in battery facing toward the woods out of which we had just come. Scarcely had we done this when musketry was heard in the rear and our infantry came running in. We faced about and then the bullets began to whiz about our ears. All the batteries in the field opened, ours also.


Our horses frightened by the sudden firing got excited and a portion of them were lost, mine among the rest. The caisson horses ran away and overturned the gun limber scattering ammunition on the ground. We continued to fire very rapidly until the rebels retreated and we were ordered to cease firing. Tried to make things straight and partially succeeded. I lost all my blankets, overcoat, &c. Went out to a deserted battery wagon in front of the pieces and found an overcoat and blanket. Twice during the night there were engagements which kept us awake and in readiness to fight. This fight was very sharp while it lasted. I thought at one time that the rebs would get us all. We lost one man killed and 3 wounded. We fought after nightfall.


Pvt. George Perkins, 6th New York Independent Battery

Mine Run

Capt. Richard Waterman, Battery C, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery

(Courtesy of Find a Grave)

Nov. 30.—Took position at about 7 a.m., and opened upon the enemy’s batteries and field-works with shells and shrapnel. The fire had apparently good effect, the enemy’s fire ceasing. A few minutes before, firing from this battery was discontinued by command of Colonel Tompkins.


Fire of this battery continued about one hour, 150 rounds being expended in proportions about as follows: Percussion shell, 40; fuse shell, 70; shrapnel shell, 40.


Casualties: Henry Nason, private, severely wounded by solid shot, causing amputation of both legs; 2 horses killed, 1 wheel and 1 splinter bar destroyed.


Battery remained in position until dark, then withdrew into park near Robertson’s Tavern.”


Capt. Richard Waterman, Battery C, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, Mine Run Report - December 6, 1863

The Battle of the Wilderness

Wartime photograph of William Thomas Poague

(Public domain)

“Closer and closer the uproar came and at last the enemy’s skirmishers appeared at the edge of the thicket in our front and opened fire on us. I had directed our men to pile up rails, logs, etc., at each gun for protection from bullets that now came constantly our way. Knowing that the skirmishers in our front meant a line of battle behind them, I ordered a slow fire to the front with short range shells. To our surprise no force showed itself, for I surely expected our guns would be charged. I had one gun in the road under Lieutenant Alexander, of the North Carolina battery, which was used with effect in causing the approaching hostiles to leave the road for the brush.


Still our troops were being pressed back until they were nearly on our flank. Several pieces on the right of the battery were turned to fire obliquely across the road on their advancing lines as indicated by the firing, for not a single man could be seen in the tangle of the wilderness.


The progress of the enemy was slow because of the stubborn resistance of Hill’s men. As the latter got opposite our flank more of our guns were turned on them (the enemy) and it was our belief that this flank fire checked their advance, when they had reached a point about opposite our position.”


Lt. Col. William Thomas Poague, ANV Artillery, describing May 6, 1864


The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House

Wartime image of Peter Hunt

(From Memoirs of Rhode Island Officers, published in 1867)

“Dear Mother: I am alright. Have had 6 days fighting. On the 9th [May] inst. I received a little touch from a fragment of a shell on the left leg. It went through my pants and just brought the blood. I am a little sore and dirty as I can be. The battery was in a very severe fight yesterday and lost one gun. Captain Arnold got a bullet in his hat. Lieutenant Blake is all right. Bullets thicker than I ever knew them to be. Musketry more terrible than Gettysburg. We whipped them pretty well at Springfield Farm the 2nd day. Wish I had some clean socks and a shirt.


Yours truly,



Everything is all right, the enemy is falling back this very instant, and the battery is shelling them as I write. Up to knees in mud. Perrin is all right. Pete”


Lt. Peter Hunt, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, on May 11, 1864, “on Po River.”


Sources and Suggested Reading 

Graham T. Dozier, editor. A Gunner in Lee’s Army: The Civil War Letters of Thomas Henry Carter. University of North Carolina Press, 2014.


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


Richard N. Griffin, editor. Three Years a Soldier: The Diary and Newspaper Correspondence of Private George Perkins, Sixth New York Independent Battery, 1861-1864. University of Tennessee Press, 2006.


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.


William Thomas Poague. Gunner with Stonewall: Reminiscences of William Thomas Poague. Bison Books (reprint), 1998.


William H. Runge, editor. Four Years in the Confederate Artillery: The Diary of Private Henry Robinson Berkeley. Virginia Historical Society, 1991.


Sandra A. Turgeon, editor. All Quiet on the Rappahannock Tonight: The Civil War Letters of Lt. Peter Hunt, 1861-1864 – 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery. Independently published, 2017.


Parting Shot

Pvt. Henry Robinson Berkeley.

(Public domain)

"May 18 [1864]: Early this morning [the] Yanks commenced to shell our line near [Spotsylvania] Court House, most of the shell falling in our camp. A. I. Hewitt was badly wounded by one of these shell. Our battery moved behind a piece of woods and after staying there a short time, went up behind the Court House on our left, and to the left of the road leading from [the] Court House towards Orange. We remained quietly for the rest of the day, the Yanks having stopped shelling us." 


Pvt. Henry Robinson Berkeley, Amherst (VA) Battery 



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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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