Confederate Artillery Service


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Jan 05, 2024

Confederate Artillery Service

[The following interesting and valuable paper was written in 1866 as an appendix

[The following interesting and valuable paper was written in 1866 as an appendix to a proposed history of Longstreet's corps by its able and accomplished Chief of Artillery.]

Edward Porter Alexander during the Civil War.

As the Confederate artillery labored throughout the war under disadvantages which have scarcely been known outside of its own ranks, and which can hardly be fully appreciated except by those who have served with that arm, I have thought it better to give in this form a connected account of the difficulties encountered, and the gradual improvements made in this branch of the service.

The drawbacks upon its efficiency at the beginning of the war were very serious, and came both from its organization and from its equipment. The faults of its organization were recognized, and gradually overcome, within eighteen months. The deficiencies of equipment, the result of causes many of which were beyond control, continued with but partial mitigation to the end of the war. The batteries were generally composed of but four guns, which is not an economical arrangement; but as no objection was made to it, either at army headquarters or at the War Department, and as the scarcity both of horses and ordnance equipment made it difficult to get, and more so to maintain a six-gun battery, it resulted in that few six-gun batteries were put in the field, and nearly every one of these was eventually reduced to four guns.

During the first year of the war each brigade of infantry had a battery attached, which was under the orders of the brigade-commander; while the remaining batteries with the army were organized into one or more regiments, or battalions, under the command of the Chief of Artillery on the staff of the Commanding General.

The infantry at this period was organized in divisions, the commanding officer of which each had, or was supposed to have, on his staff a Chief of Artillery, who was to exercise a general supervision over the brigade-batteries of the division.

Confederate Generals in Alexander's article.

This organization was very inefficient, for the following reasons. The brigade-batteries depended for their rations, forage, and all supplies, upon the brigade-staff, and received from brigade-headquarters all orders, and thus acquired an independence of the division Chief of Artillery, which was often fostered by the Brigadier Generals resenting any interference with parts of their commands by junior officers, and took from the Chiefs of Artillery the feeling of entire responsibility which every officer should feel for the condition and action of his command. In action the Brigadier could not give proper supervision both to his infantry and artillery; and the Chief of Artillery with the best intentions could himself manage the batteries but inefficiently, as they were so scattered in position along the line of battle. Now it is well known that, for artillery to produce its legitimate effects, its fire should be concentrated; and it is plain that under the above organization there could be but little concentration of batteries, except by bringing in the general reserve, which was commanded by the Chief of Artillery of the army. This body, however, not being in intimate relations with the infantry, who always develop the situation, and being invariably put on the march either behind the infantry commands or on some road to itself, was never promptly available on an emergency. Indeed, if the history of the general reserve artillery during its entire existence be investigated, it will be found that although excellent in material, and comparatively so in equipment, the service that it rendered was greatly disproportionate to its strength. It resulted, therefore, that although the numerical strength of the Confederate artillery was as great in the first year of the war as ever afterwards, its weight in the scale of actual conflict is never seen to affect the result, until the second battle of Manassas. For instance, during the Seven Days’ battles around. Richmond, General [Robert Edward] Lee's artillery numbered about three hundred guns (nearly four guns to every thousand men), ninety-eight of these being in the general reserve; but in the history of the fighting this powerful organization has only left the faintest traces of its existence. Now the wretched character of the ammunition which filled its chests may well be charged with many of its shortcomings; but an examination of the official reports of the battles will show, that scattered, and either uncommanded or too much commanded, as it was, there was an entire absence of that ensemble of action necessary to the efficiency of all arms, but peculiarly so to the artillery; and that when fought at all, it was put in only in inefficient driblets. I select two or three examples where the most important consequences were involved.

Lieut. General A. P. Hill. Hill was killed on April 2, 1865, just seven days before Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House, during a Union breakthrough in the Third Battle of Petersburg,

On the morning of the 30th of June, 1862, General [Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall"] Jackson, leading four divisions in pursuit, struck the enemy's rear-guard at White Oak Swamp about 9.30 A.M., and decided to force the crossing with artillery. It was 1.45 P.M. before twenty-eight guns could be concentrated and opened.1 The only battery of the enemy in sight was at once driven off, but in a short while eighteen guns were opened in reply from behind a wood, and a brisk contest was maintained until dark, when the enemy withdrew, having kept Jackson's whole force out of the critical action fought by [Lieut. Gen. James Longstreet] Longstreet and A. P. Hill [Lieut. Gen. Ambrose Powell Hill Jr.] late in the afternoon at Frazier's Farm. The superior ammunition and guns of the enemy made this contest about an equal one; but even had the Confederate equipment fully equalled the Federal, the odds were by no means sufficient to warrant the expectation of any very speedy and decisive result. At one thousand yards’ range, a well-manned artillery can hold its ground for a long time against double its force of ordinary field-guns, especially if the ground affords the least cover. In this case the distance was fully a thousand yards, and a very dense wood entirely concealed each party from the other's view. All the firing was therefore at random, and the damage sustained was trifling on each side, if we except the disabling of one gun in the Federal battery exposed to view at the commencement of the affair. If it was deemed impossible to use the infantry to force a crossing, at least seventy-five guns (that number might have easily been had) should have been crowded in the Confederate line to hope to accomplish anything by such a random fire.

View of White Oak Swamp, during the Peninsular Campaign, May–August 1862.

Trees shattered by artillery fire on south side of Plank Road near where Gen. Stonewall Jackson was shot at Chancellorsville, Va.

Bull Run, Va. Ruins of railroad bridge at Blackburn's Ford. Photographer's assistants having lunch by the river. The dark bottle in front of the basket has "Whiskey" on the paper label.

At the same time that this affair was going on, General [Major Gen. Benjamin] Huger's division, numbering about eleven thousand muskets, and accompanied by thirty-seven guns, while pressing down the Charles City road was checked about two miles from Frazier's Farm, where Longstreet and Hill were already engaged, by a "powerful battery of rifled guns." posted on high open ground. General Huger says, "General [Major Gen. William] Mahone advanced a battery of artillery (Moorman's) [Capt. Marcellus Newton Moorman], and a sharp artillery fire was kept up for some time. The enemy's fire was very severe, and we had many men killed and wounded." General Mahone says, "Two pieces of Moorman's battery were put in position and opened fire on his position, which was returned by the enemy with energy and effect." The contrast between the results accomplished by the artillery forces of the two armies is very striking in these two instances, and is even more so in the battle of Malvern Hill, which, it is well known, was decided by the powerful artillery concentrated by the enemy. General Lee had designed that a very heavy artillery fire should precede the infantry attack, and ample time (from 10 A.M. to 5 P.M.) had been allowed for all dispositions to be made. The execution of this design is best described by General D. H. Hill [Daniel Harvey Hill] in his official report: "Instead of ordering up one or two hundred pieces of artillery to play on the Yankees, a single battery (Moorman's) was ordered up and knocked to pieces in a few moments. One or two others shared the same fate of being beaten in detail. Not knowing how to act under these circumstances, I wrote to General Jackson that the firing from our batteries was of the most farcical character."

Globe Tavern. Meade's Headquarters at the Battle of Malvern Hill in Virginia.

The serious defects of the artillery organization were, however, not entirely unappreciated, even before the experience of the Seven Days. On the 22nd of June, General Lee had issued an order which would have materially improved its condition, had there been time for its operation to become effective. It did not do away with the institution of the brigade-batteries, but its tendency was encouraging, toward the formation of one battalion of the artillery in each division, by imposing specific duties and responsibilities on the Chiefs of Artillery of the divisions, who before existed and acted only at the discretion of their division-commanders, and were often charged with the additional duties of chief of ordnance. Under the influence of this order and the experience of the battles, the brigade-batteries, though not abolished by order, were during the summer gradually absorbed into division-battalions, numbering from three to six batteries each, and commanded by the division Chief. These battalions first appeared on the field as such at Second Manassas, and the service rendered by them there is notorious. They were no less efficient at Sharpsburg [also known as Antietam] and Fredericksburg, and the utility of the organization being now proven, it was no longer left to division-commanders to effect, (in some divisions it had even yet been but partially done, owing to a lack of field-officers of artillery,) but it was formally adopted by order, and general orders from the War Department directed a similar organization in all the armies of the Confederacy.2 General Lee's order effecting this organization was issued on the 15th of February, 1863. It divided the artillery of each of his two army corps into six battalions, all of which were to be entirely under the command of the Chief of Artillery of the corps, and the whole force to be superintended by and to report to the Chief of Artillery of the army, who also personally commanded a small reserve of two battalions. In the Second Corps four of these battalions numbered four batteries each, one numbered five, and one six. In the First Corps five battalions numbered four batteries each, and one six. The two battalions of the general reserve numbered three each. This organization was well tested in the battle of Chancellorsville, where, in spite of the difficulties of the Wilderness, the cooperation of the artillery with the infantry was never excelled in promptness and vigor. When the Third Army Corps (A. P. Hill's) was formed, in June, 1863, the general reserve was broken up, and its two battalions, with one from each of the other corps and a newly organized battalion, were transferred to it, so that at the commencement of the Gettysburg campaign each of the three corps (composed of three divisions of infantry each) had with it five battalions of artillery, averaging eighteen guns each.3 In the Second and Third Corps a Chief of Artillery was appointed at once to the exclusive command of the whole force, but in the First Corps no regular appointment of a Chief was made until the spring of 1864, the ranking battalion-commander present, meanwhile, bearing the title and assuming the office responsibilities of the entire command.

This organization was maintained until the close of the war, and fuller experience with it only developed its merits and suggested no practical improvements. A theoretical drawback, perhaps, existed in the fact that the Chief of Artillery of each corps really had two independent commanders, namely, his corps commander and the army Chief of Artillery, between whom there might arise conflict of orders. The objection would be very material if the Chief of Artillery should be considered like the Chief of Cavalry as the actual commander of that arm; but it vanishes when he is regarded simply as a staff-officer of the Commanding General's, charged with the supervision of that rather peculiar branch of the service, and only giving orders through the corps commander, except in matters of mere routine and report. The original orders directing the organization were not explicit upon this point, but common-sense and circumstances soon gave the proper turn to the matter, and not the slightest discord ever occurred.

When first organized, the battalion suffered for lack of field and staff-officers, owing to the fact that they were not organizations authorized by law, and consequently no appointments could be made for them. Field-officers of artillery were indeed authorized by Congress at the rate of a Brigadier-General to every eighty guns, a Colonel to every forty, a Lieutenant-Colonel to every twenty-five, and a Major to every twelve, which should have amply supplied officers of these grades. The promotions, however, were either never made in full, or else the officers appointed were sent to other duties, for during the whole of 1863 the majority of the battalions had but one field-officer, which was often insufficient. The staff-officers for the battalions, and for the Chiefs of Artillery, were provided generally by details from the batteries, which, though somewhat detrimental to the latter, operated well enough, except for quarter-master and commissary duties, for which bonded officers of these departments are absolutely required. Supernumerary officers of these and the medical departments were, however, gradually collected, and the battalions being then organized and supplied exactly as regiments, everything worked smoothly. It was at one time attempted to furnish all quarter-master, commissary and ordnance supplies through officers of these departments attached to the staff of the Chief of Artillery of the army, but the system was found so inconvenient that it was soon abandoned, and these supplies were drawn through the same channels by which the infantry of each corps were supplied. Each battalion organized from the united resources of its batteries a "forge train," under control of the ordnance officer, which was ample for all blacksmithing and harness repairs, and more economical and efficient than when each battery had to depend only on itself. No ordnance wagons accompanied the battalions, the total supply of reserve ammunition being concentrated into one train under the ordnance-officer on the staff of the Chief of Artillery of the corps. These trains never exceeded one wagon to three guns, which was sufficient when within a day's march of a depot of supplies, but compelled the greatest saving in the use of ammunition when on active campaigns. Indeed, the limited resources of the Confederacy, the scarcity of skilled workmen and workshops, and the enormous consumption, kept the supply of ammunition always low. The Ordnance Department in Richmond were never able to accumulate any reserve worth mentioning even in the intervals between campaigns, and during active operations the Army of Northern Virginia lived, as it were, from hand to mouth. The great majority of the batteries took the field without having ever fired a round in practice, and passed through the war without aiming a gun at any target but the enemy. The order "save your ammunition" was reiterated on every battle-field, and many an awful pounding had to be borne in silence from the Yankee guns, while every shot was reserved for their infantry.

Confederate Bormann time fuse.

Wartime drawing of a Bormann time fuse and cross-section of a spherical case shot.

The scarcity of ammunition was, however, the least difficulty connected with it, for its quality was the greatest incubus under which the artillery labored. When the war commenced a small amount of smooth-bore ammunition was on hand in the Southern arsenals, which was of good quality, and was used in the early affairs and issued to the batteries first put in the field. This ammunition was all put up with the Bormann fuse, and this fuse being adopted by the Confederate Ordnance Department, a factory was established for its manufacture. Large quantities of ammunition fitted with these fuses were sent to the field in the summer of 1861, and complaints of its bad quality were immediately made. Careful test being made of it, it was found that fully four-fifths of the shell exploded prematurely, and very many of them in the gun. The machinery for their manufacture was overhauled, and a fresh supply made and sent to the field, where the old ones were removed and the new were substituted, but no improvements was discernable. The trouble was found to be in the hermetical sealing of the under-side of the horse-shoe channel containing the fuse composition. Although this was seemingly accomplished at the factory, the shock of the discharge would unseat the horse-shoe-shaped plug which closed this channel, and allow the flame from the composition to reach the charge of the shell without burning around to the magazine of the fuse. Attempts were made to correct the evil by the use of white-lead, putty and leather under the fuse, and in the winter of 1861 these correctives were applied to every shell in the army with partial but not universal success. Repeated attempts were made to improve the manufacture, but they accomplished nothing, and until after the battle of Chancellorsville the Bormann fuse continued in use, and premature explosions of shell were so frequent that the artillery could only be used over the heads of the infantry with such danger and demoralization to the latter that it was seldom attempted. Earnest requests were made of the Ordnance Department to substitute for the Bormann fuse, the common paper-fuses, to be cut to the required length and fixed on the field, as being not only more economical and more certain, but as allowing, what is often very desirable, a greater range than five seconds, which is the limit of the Bormann fuse. These requests, repeated and urged in January, 1863, on the strength of casualties occurring from our own guns among the infantry in front during the battle of Fredericksburg, were at length successful in accomplishing the substitution. The ammunition already on hand, however, had to be used up, and its imperfections affected the fire even as late as Gettysburg. The paper-fuse was found to answer much better, and no further complaints of ammunition came from the smooth-bores.

Confederate Burton Bolt

Diameter: 2.94 inches

Bore Diameter: 3.0 inches

Cannon: 3-inch Rifle

Overall Length: 5.67 inches

Weight: 7.0 pounds

Construction: Bolt

Fusing System: None

Sabot Material: Lead

Sabot Width: 1.41 inches

Battlefield: Shiloh Battlefield, Tenn.

Comments: Fired from a Confederate 3-inch rifle with 12 lands and grooves, left hand twist. Base measures 1.53 inches in diameter. Burton projectiles, in this pattern, had a wooden cup that fitted against the lead ring. Archer projectiles did not employ a wooden cup. The weight difference between these two projectiles is 1.6 pounds, and were fired in the same type of 3-inch Confederate rifle. (The Atlanta History Center, Thomas Swift Dickey Sr. Collection)

Confederate Archer Bolt

Diameter: 2.96 inches

Bore Diameter: 3.0 inches

Cannon: 3-inch Rifle

Overall Length: 5.97 inches

Weight: 8.6 pounds

Construction: Bolt

Fusing System: None

Sabot Material: Lead

Sabot Width: 1.58 inches

Battlefield: Early battlefield pickup, unknown location.

Comments: Fired from a Confederate 3-inch rifle with 12 lands and grooves, left hand twist. Has remains of the twine between the shell and sabot. This twine was lubricated and when the lead ring was compressed against the side the lubrication was forced into the rifling. The sabot has impressions of the linen covering which was an attempt to prevent leading of the bore. Base measures 1.54 inches in diameter. (Glenn Dutton collection)

Tennessee Sabot, Type I Shell

Diameter: 2.95 inches

Bore Diameter: 3.0 inches

Cannon: 3-inch Rifle

Overall Length: 8.38 inches

Weight: 6.4 pounds

Construction: Shell

Fusing System: Time

Fuse Material: Wood

Sabot Material: Copper

Battlefield: Big Black River, Miss.

Comments: Still has remains of the wood cushion between the bolt and the sabot. Length of the iron body is 6.79 inches. Recovered from where a caisson overturned in the Big Black River. (The Thomas Swift Dickey Sr. Civil War Collection, The Atlanta History Center)

The difficulties which beset the rifled guns and their ammunition were, however, even greater than those under which the smooth-bores suffered so long, and they were never so nearly solved. With the exception of a single battery of six ten-pounder Parrott rifles and one or two imported Blakely guns, the Confederates possessed no rifled field-pieces at the commencement of the war. Several foundries, however, undertook their manufacture at an early day, under the direction of the Ordnance Departments of Confederate or State governments, and soon turned out a number, generally of three inches calibre, and with five or seven grooves. They were all adapted to the same ammunition, but were not of uniform length or shape, and varied in weight from a thousand to twelve hundred pounds. Several of these guns were used at the first battle of Manassas, and three of them were engaged in the first "artillery duel" at Blackburn's Ford on the 18th of July, 1861. The projectiles furnished for them at that time were of two kinds, known as the Burton and the Archer, both of which were expected to receive the rotary motion from a leaden ring or sabot which the discharge forced into the grooves. They differed about two pounds in weight, and the charges for them differed three ounces; but as the latter could not be easily distinguished from each other, they were used indiscriminately. In the excitement of the battle these projectiles were supposed to possess superior accuracy and effect to the Parrott projectiles used by the enemy, and very favorable reports were made of them, and their manufacture was increased. It was some months before cooler occasions exposed the error and the utter worthlessness of the projectiles. They never took the grooves, and consequently their range was less than that of the smooth-bores, their inaccuracy was excessive; and in addition to this not one shell in twenty exploded. Their manufacture was discontinued early in 1862, and a new projectile [Tennessee Sabot], having a saucer-shaped copper sabot attached by bolts after the shell was cast, was substituted for it.4 This shell was a slight improvement on Burton's and Archer's, as it sometimes took the grooves and then its flight was excellent. It failed, however, about three times out of four from breaking its connection with the copper sabot, and it very frequently exploded in the gun; while of those which flew correctly, not one-fourth exploded at all. It may readily be imagined that practice with them was very uncertain, even at a fixed target whose distance was known. Against an enemy in the field it was of little real value. Attempts were made to insure the ignition of the fuse by filing notches in the copper sabot to allow the flame of the discharge to pass, but they did not succeed. This was the condition of the three-inch rifled guns during the whole of 1862, and these projectiles were used also in the beautiful United States "three-inch Ordnance Rifles," of which about forty were captured during the year. In 1863 several improvements were attempted in the method of attaching the copper to the shell, and the saucer-shaped sabot was finally exchanged for a band or ring of copper, cast around the base of the shell, which form was continued until the close of the war. It considerably resembled the heavy Parrott projectiles, and was the best field rifle-shell the Confederates ever made, but was always liable to explode in the gun, to "tumble," or not to explode at all. The last defect was partially corrected by the use of "McAvoy's [sic] Fuse Igniter," a very simple and ingenious little contrivance attached to the fuse when loading, and later by fuses with strands of quickmatch for "priming." The first two defects were very serious and of very frequent occurrence, not only with the three-inch rifles, but still more so with the Parrott guns. The "tumbling" was due to imperfect connection between the copper ring and the shell, which in its turn was due to the inferior quality of iron necessarily used (the best iron was saved for gun metal), to unskilled workmen, and to the fact that the demand greatly exceeded the supply, and even those which a careful inspection would have condemned were better than none.

McEvoy Fuse Igniter

McEvoy's fuse igniter consisted of a wood cylinder and a lead weight held in place by an iron pin. The lead weight‘s interior contained a fulminate compound, surrounding the serrated wire, which ignited when the propellant charge forced the weight towards the paper time fuse. Former Charles "Chuck" Jones collection.

"R H Crist" is written on the top. This fuse igniter was brought home by Capt. Robert H. Crist (1829–1912) of Company L, 1st Indiana Heavy Artillery (a.k.a. the Jackass Regiment) — the only heavy artillery regiment from the Hoosier state. (Research by Jack W. Melton Jr. identified this souvenir to Crist on Sept. 18, 2022)

McEvoy Fuse Igniter

Non-excavated McEvoy fuse igniter with copper time fuse plug and paper time fuse. Written on the wood is: "Picked up at Battle of Baton Rouge, La. to fire into and explode casions [sic]." Pictured on page 63 in the book, Artillery Fuses of the Civil War, by Charles H. Jones, (2001). Former Charles "Chuck" Jones collection.

Excavated McEvoy's fuse igniter with the iron pin and lead weight. C.A. McEvoy received a Confederate Patent on Jan. 7, 1863, for his fuse igniter.

The causes of the premature explosions were never fully understood. They were generally attributed to defects in the casting, which either allowed the flame of the discharge to enter the shell, or by weakening the shell caused it to crush under the shock of the discharge and the "twist" given by the grooves of the gun.

As a single illustration of the extent to which these defects of the Parrott projectiles sometimes went: at the siege of Knoxville, Captain [William W.] Parker's battery of four captured Parrott rifles fired one hundred and twenty shell at the enemy's batteries and pontoon-bridge, of which only two failed to "tumble," or to burst prematurely. Of the most valuable kind of rifle ammunition, shrapnel, the Confederates made none, on account of the scarcity of lead. Of the next most useful kind, percussion shell, (invaluable for getting the range,) few were to be had until the last year of the war. The fuse then used, Girardey's, was excellent, probably better than any of the enemy's patterns, and it possessed the peculiar excellence of being carried loose in the chest and applied to any shell at the moment it was needed, so that just as many shells could be made "percussion" as the gunner wished. This perfection of the fuse, however, was only reached during the fall of 1864, and before that period the percussion shell had a fuse-plug specially fitted to it at the arsenal, and the supply furnished was very small.

Girardey Percussion Fuse

Non-excavated. Overall length is 1.783 inches. Top diameter cylinder is .556 inches, flange diameter is .755 inches, and has a paper covering the tapered tube. Taper is from .490 to .423 inches. The protective tin cap has been waterproofed with black Japanning. Former Charles "Chuck" Jones collection.

For more information on the Girardey percussion fuse, see The Artilleryman Magazine, Vol. 36, No. 4, Fall 2015, pp. 14-15.

Girardey Percussion Fuse (Excavated)

Overall length is 1.566 inches

Copper tube diameter is .276 inches. .543 is the tube flange diameter and diameter of the top striker flange is .379 inches.

For more information on the Girardey percussion fuse, see The Artilleryman Magazine, Vol. 36, No. 4, Fall 2015, pp. 14-15.

The scarcity and bad quality of our rifle-ammunition gave security to the enemy on many occasions where he could have been seriously annoyed, if not materially damaged. When Bragg invested Chattanooga, in October 1863, the Confederate guns with good ammunition could have reached every foot of [Gen. Ulysses Simpson] Grant's crowded camps, and with an abundance of it could have made them untenable. The effort which was made only showed how much demoralization and harm an effective shelling might have accomplished. In many other instances the Confederate artillery was amiable and forbearing by force of necessity, one illustration of which will be sufficient. At Bermuda Hundreds the enemy erected a signal-tower of open frame-work, about a hundred and twenty feet high, from the top of which the Confederate lines were impudently overlooked. What could be seen from it was very little, and it probably was never the cause of any harm; but as it was only 2,500 yards from Confederate ground, the artillery were very anxious to demolish it, and preparations were made to do so. A thousand rounds of good percussion-shell would doubtless have accomplished it easily, but some experimental firing in preparation for the attempt showed so very great a proportion of defective shell that it was abandoned.

A few of the favorite English rifled guns were brought through the blockade, and used in the Army of Northern Virginia, comprising the Clay, Whitworth, Blakely, and Armstrong shunt-pattern. The Clay gun was a breech-loader, and was called an improvement upon the breech-loading Armstrong, which was manufactured for the English Government only, and could not be obtained. Its grooving and projectiles were very similar to the breech-loading Armstrong, and its breech-loading arrangements appeared simpler and of greater strength. On trial, however, it failed in every particular. Every projectile fired "tumbled" and fell nearer the gun than the target, and at the seventh round the solid breech-piece was cracked through and the gun disabled.

Clay breech-loading rifle projectile with lead jacket covering cast-iron body. (Mike Ward Collection)

One muzzle-loading six-pounder and six breech-loading twelve pounder Whitworths were distributed through the army, and often rendered valuable service by their great range and accuracy. They fired solid shot almost exclusively; but they were perfectly reliable, and their projectiles never failed to fly in the most beautiful trajectory imaginable. Their breech-loading arrangements, however, often worked with difficulty, and every one of the six was at some time disabled by the breaking of some of its parts, but all were repaired again and kept in service. As a general field-piece its efficiency was impaired by its weight and the very cumbrous English carriage on which it was mounted, and while a few with an army may often be valuable, the United States three-inch rifle is much more generally serviceable with good ammunition. The Blakely guns were twelve pounder rifles, muzzle-loaders, and fired very well with English ammunition ("built-up" shells with leaden bases), but with the Confederate substitute, they experienced the same difficulties which attended this ammunition in all guns. The only advantage to be claimed for this gun is its lightness, but this was found to involve the very serious evil that no field carriage could be made to withstand its recoil. It was continually splitting the trails or racking to pieces its carriages, though made of unusual strength and weight. Of the Armstrong shunt-guns, six were obtained just before the close of the war, and they were never tried in the field. They were muzzleloaders, and nothing could exceed their accuracy and the perfection of the ammunition. Their heavy English carriages were more unwieldy than those of the American rifles, but taking all things into consideration, the guns are probably the most effective field-rifles yet made.

English 12-pounder Whitworth breech-loading rifle. Stenciled on the carriage trail is "RICHMOND ARSENAL / 1864."

6-pounder Whitworth bolt. (West Point Museum Collections, U.S. Military Academy)

English Armstrong Shell

Cannon: 3-inch muzzle-loading Armstrong rifle

(The Thomas Swift Dickey Sr. Civil War Collection, The Atlanta History Center)

Besides these English rifles, a few captured James rifles (brass six-pounder smooth-bores, grooved to fire the James projectile), and some old iron four-pounders grooved, were tried in the field for a short while, but were found to be very poor, and as a multiplicity of calibres rendered the supplying of ammunition very difficult, they were soon turned in. In fact, the variety of calibres comprised in the artillery was throughout the war a very great inconvenience, and materially affected the efficiency of the ordnance-service both in the quantity of ammunition carried and the facility with which it was supplied. At the commencement of the war this variety was often almost ludicrously illustrated by single batteries of four guns, of four different calibres, and it was only after the battalions were well organized in the winter of 1862 that anything was done to simplify this matter.

Model 1841 6-pounder bronze field gun rifled using the James pattern. Alger, Reg. #755, dated 1861. (Shiloh National Battlefield Park)

The heavy guns which defended the James river against the enemy's fleet were principally the ordinary eight-inch and ten-inch columbiads, and "Brooke's rifles" of six and four-tenths and seven inches calibre. These rifles only needed telescopic sights (which could not be made in the Confederacy) to be perfect arms of their class, their trajectories being more uniform than the sighting of the guns could be made by the eye. In addition to these rifles Captain [John Mercer] Brooke also furnished some heavily banded smooth-bores of ten and eleven inches calibre, to fire wrought iron balls with very high charges against the ironclads, which would doubtless have been extremely effective at short ranges.

Dutch Gap Canal, James River, Va. A Confederate 10-inch Columbiad gun on the James River above Dutch Gap Canal.

Confederate Battery Brooke on James River above Dutch Gap Canal. The cannon in this work, is a double-banded Brooke rifle.

On several occasions during 1863 and 1864 where mortar-fire was desirable in the field, the twelve and twenty-four pounder howitzers were used for the purpose very successfully, by sinking the trails in trenches to give the elevation, while the axles were run up on inclined skids a few inches to lift the wheels from the ground and lessen the strain of the recoil. The skids would not be necessary where the desired range is not great. During the siege of Petersburg a number of iron twelve and twenty-four pounder Coehorn mortars were made and rendered excellent service. Wooden mortars were also made and tried for short ranges, but even when they did not split, the ranges were so irregular that they could not be made useful.

In the location of batteries to defend lines of intrenchment, the campaign of 1864 gave the Confederate artillerists and engineers much experience, and a few of the deductions therefrom may not be out of place.

Embrasures for the protection of the guns and men became unpopular, and were considered very objectionable, except for the rare cases where guns are to be reserved entirely for a flank defence of important points. The objections to them are that they restrict the field of fire, and thus render it difficult to conform the defence to unforeseen attacks. They are liable to be choked by the enemy's shot, and can only be repaired with much exposure of the men, and they do not accomplish their intended object, the protection of the men and guns. Sharpshooters’ balls coming obliquely through the embrasures, or glancing off the gun or carriage, and artillery projectiles piercing the angles of the cheeks, make the limits of the dangerous space in rear of the embrasures very vague, and men are often unnecessarily exposed and hit without being aware of their danger. The barbette-gun not only has a greater field of view, but is more rapidly made ready, can be concealed from view until wanted, can only be silenced by being hit, offers a less conspicuous mark than an embrasure, and can be worked with less exposure of the artillerists. To accomplish this, trenches were dug in front of the gun and on each side about a yard from the wheels, in which the artillerists stood while loading and manoeuvring the gun, their heads being below the parapet, and only the hands of those ramming being exposed. The dangerous space was well defined and easy to be avoided, and only the head of the gunner while in the act of aiming was at all endangered. Mantlets for the gunners’ protection while aiming were proposed, and some were constructed of thick oak-plank to rest upon the axles and trunnions, and they were used to some extent. The material of which they were composed, however, prevented their general adoption; for wooden mantlets would cause the explosion of a percussion-shell if struck by one, and would themselves make dangerous splinters. Barbette-guns are easily withdrawn from the enemy's view and fire, and yet kept ready for instant use.

Magazines were seldom built except where the guns were exposed to a mortar-fire; dismounted limber-chests covered with tarpaulins being used instead without disadvantage. A very important adjunct to each battery was found to be a "look out" upon each flank. The "looking out" is the most important part of the battery service, not only that no time may be lost on any appearance of the enemy, but that the aiming of the gunners may be superintended and corrected; and to insure its being well done it should be made as safe as possible.

Except in the siege of Petersburg the Army of Northern Virginia seldom built second lines of intrenchments in rear of the first; not from any doubt of their value, but because they rarely had the force to spare from the front line. Even when the second line at Petersburg was built it was principally intended as a means of covered communication which could not be otherwise obtained, and in was only occupied by a few guns in rear of the most exposed points of the first line, which were designed to check the enemy should he penetrate them. Where the ammunition is safe to be fired over the heads of the first line, it would doubtless be an excellent plan to put all of the rifled guns in detached batteries in rear of exposed points, where they would have an excellent effect in checking an enemy who should penetrate and either seek to advance or sweep down the lines. An instance of the effect of such batteries may be found in the battle of the Crater, at Petersburg, July 30th 1864, which is indeed about the only case where the Confederate lines ever had even detached batteries in rear of a point gotten possession of by the enemy. Flanner's battery [Commander Captain Henry G. Flanner] in the Jerusalem plank road five hundred yards directly in rear of the Crater, and Wright's, about the same distance towards the left, checked every effort of the enemy to advance upon Cemetery Hill according to his programme, or to move down the lines on either side of the Crater for some hours, and until an infantry force was collected to retake it. Each battery took in flank any advance upon the other, and the enemy was kept under shelter of the earth thrown up by the explosion. A somewhat similar position of batteries first checked the Yankee advance after the capture of Fort Harrison, Sept. 29th, 1864, and the Confederate assault on Fort Steadman on the 25th of March 1865 was discomfitted in the same way. Indeed the Federal intrenchments very frequently comprised a second line of redoubts, if not of infantry parapet, in rear of the first, and its very moral effect often prevented attempts upon the first which promised well.

Federal picket line in front of Fort Steadman. Note in the foreground are two spherical projectiles, three cartridge boxes and an ammunition box stenciled "FROM / WATERVLIET / ARSENAL."

"Siege of Petersburg" by artist Alfred Waud. Note the mantlets for the gunners’ protection hanging in front of the cannon.

Lest some of the statements of this article should be misunderstood to reflect in any way upon the Ordnance Bureau of the War Department, it is but just to close it, not only by disclaiming any such intention, but with the express statement that the energy, enterprise and intelligence which characterized the administration of this bureau were of the highest order, and that the results accomplished by it make a record of which its officers may well be proud. On assuming its duties at the commencement of the war, its admirable chief, General J. [Josiah] Gorgas, might well have hesitated at the task before him. The emergencies and demands of the war were already upon him, and the immense supplies which it became his duty to provide were of a character which the South had neither the factories nor the skilled workmen to produce. With scarcely a single assistant instructed in the peculiar and technical details which are the first elements of an ordnance officer's attainments, and without even an office organization for the transaction of business, the whole machinery of a department was to be organized, which, to illustrate with the history of a single article, should induce the formation of saltpetre from the atmosphere by slow chemical affinities; separate and refine it from impurities by most delicate processes; provide for it, and combine with it sulphur and charcoal in the dangerous operations of the powder manufactory; transport it safely to the arsenal and put it up in safe and convenient cartridges; transport it to the field of battle, and have it at hand where the particular gun to which it is adapted shall receive it ready for use at the moment it is required. And in addition to these operations, the same department, to prevent waste and loss, and to know and anticipate the wants of the army, must institute a system of reports and accounts, which shall not only keep its chief informed of the supplies in the magazine of every gun, and in the cartridge-box of every soldier in the whole Confederacy, but which shall trace every ounce of saltpetre in all of its various shapes, and hold to a rigid accountability every man who handles it from the moment that it is washed from the nitre-bed until its use upon the battle-field. With indefatigable energy General Gorgas formed and put in motion this whole machinery, selecting his important subordinates with such excellent judgment that the efficiency of the ordnance service was not only always equal to the demand upon it, but, in spite of continually increasing demands and decreasing resources, (from the gradual loss of blockade-running facilities and of valuable territory,) and in spite of serious interferences with the skilled labor of the arsenals and workshops by continued conscriptions, its efficiency continually increased, and all of its functions were faithfully performed as long as there was an army to need them. It is true that the Confederate armies were never in condition to use ammunition as lavishly as the enemy frequently did, but the supply never failed to be equal to the actual emergency, and no disaster was ever to be attributed to its scantiness. Wherever insufficiency was apprehended and economy imposed, in fact the scarcity arose far more from the lack of transportation to carry it with the army than from inability of the arsenals to furnish it.



Article Source:

"Confederate Artillery Service," E. P. Alexander, Southern Historical Society Papers, Volumes 11-12, 1883, pages 98-113. The text in [brackets] were added by the publisher for clarity. Images were added to help visualize General Alexander's article.

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