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At Ease - What is Horse Artillery?

Horse Artillery


Did you see the news? Central Virginia Battlefields Trust is working to preserve an artillery position occupied by two cannon from the Stuart Horse Artillery along the Flank Attack at Chancellorsville! We thought it seemed like a good opportunity to address the big question in the room:


What is Horse Artillery?

It's a really great question, and it can also be a confusing one. During the Civil War, horses pulled the majority of field artillery pieces, so does that mean that all cannon were "horse artillery." Not quite!

While it is true that horses hauled most cannons to, on, and off battlefields, the designation "horse artillery" is more specific. It's actually rooted in European tactics and organization, so let's reel back the timeline to the 17th Century and the Thirty Years War when gunpowder and cannons were the newest, hottest thing on European battlefields.

Lennart Torstenson, artillerist for the Swedish king, Gustavus Adolphus, started experimenting with highly mobile artillery to support massed infantry formations (think about warfare in the days of long pikes, shields, and not very accurate guns). Torstenson experimented with a hybrid of artillery and cavalry with the idea that the cannon could move rapidly to support his infantry and take advantage of close firing at the enemy. Other European powers continued the experimentation and several decades later the concept came to Frederick the Great's attention.

This Prussian king formed the first designated Horse Artillery unit in 1759 and innovated their tactics to ride close to the enemy infantry, fire a few artillery rounds and quickly withdraw. He pioneered the concept of making every artilleryman in this unit a cavalryman, leading to the close historical ties between horse artillery and cavalry which also influenced the American Civil War use of the tactics and designations.

While horse artillery gained popularity on European battlefields in the late 18th Century, it reached its height of power during the Napoleonic Era around the turn of the 19th Century. Under Napoleon, horse artillery formed part of the cavalry and was highly organized to perform its rapid, close-quarter mission. The Napoleonic tactics became the inspiration for American Civil War commanders, but different terrain and changing military tactics created challenges.

Horse Artilleryman of Napoleon's Imperial Guard (Public Domain)


Horse Artillery & The American Civil War

The United States military had experimented with horse artillery prior to the Civil War. During the Mexican American War (1846-1848), units had taken decisive roles in several of the more open-field battles. During the Civil War, both sides organized horse artillery, though the Federals often referred to it simply as "light artillery." Since the terrain of Civil War battlefields usually limited the role of cavalry to scouting, shielding, and raids (not typically "grand Napoleonic cavalry charges"), horse artillery morphed its tactics as well, often acting as cover for retreats or occasionally setting up an ambush or supporting infantry in an advance.

Second U.S. Horse Artillery


Confederate Horse Artillery at Chancellorsville

The Stuart Horse Artillery (Confederate) had been organized during winter of 1861-1862 under the command of Captain John Pelham. During the campaigns of 1862, Pelham and his gunners had sharpened their skills and become a daring unit, pulling cannons to exposed positions to fire and then retire, adapting well to the terrain and needs of the over-all battle, raid, or campaign. Pelham was mortally wounded at the Battle of Kelly's Ford in March 1863 and General J.E.B. Stuart selected Major Robert F. Beckham to take command of the unit. At Chancellorsville, Beckham wheeled guns into a covering position on May 1st, taking serious losses. On May 2, 1863, he positioned cannon on the Orange Turnpike beyond the right flank of the Union's XI Corps; here, he spent the day watching the road and waiting for "Stonewall" Jackson to complete the famed infantry flank march. Beckham sent two cannon into action during that late afternoon flank attack, blasting down the turnpike and keeping pace with the running infantry. With his two guns, he used classic horse artillery tactics in support of the Confederate infantry and helped to secure the road. To learn more about Beckham's role during the Chancellorsville Flank Attack (including the compliment he received from "Stonewall" Jackson, visit our website. CVBT is fundraising to preserve one of the horse artillery positions along the turnpike at Chancellorsville. Will you help us?


Parting Shot


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

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