Civil War Tactics: Field Artillery

This entry is part 6 of 21 in the series A Soldier's Life

Confederate artillery piece in ColumbusLike the other arms of the two Civil War armies, the artillery evolved dramatically during the four years of the war. In fact, artillery saw more innovations and experimentation during the Civil War than during all other previous wars combined.

Like the other branches of the armies, artillery had a variety of roles on the Civil War battlefield. The most common type was termed field artillery. At the start of the war most artillery was the smoothbore type. Most of the officers in the antebellum army were older men who believed that since smoothbore weapons had won previous wars there was no need for innovation.

American inventors were subjected to years of expensive experimentation, field trials and political maneuvering before their innovations were accepted by the War Department. Many of the inventors invested their own money in their projects and stood to lose everything if they were not accepted.

The majority of artillery at the onset of the war was the smoothbore type. Smoothbore artillery refers to weapons that are not rifled. Smoothbore field artillery of the day fit into two role-based categories: guns and howitzers. Further classifications of the weapons were made based on the type of metal used, typically bronze or iron (cast or wrought), although some examples of steel were produced.

Smoothbore artillery was also identified by the bore dimensions that roughly equalled the weight of the projectile that it fired. Smoothbore guns were designed to fire solid shot projectiles at high velocity, over low trajectories at targets in the open, although shot and canister were acceptable for use. The barrels of the guns were longer than corresponding howitzers, and called for higher powder charges to achieve the desired performance.

Howitzers were short-barreled guns that were optimized for firing explosive shells in a high trajectory, but also for spherical case shot and canister, over a shorter range than the guns. While guns fired at enemy forces arrayed in the open, howitzers were considered the weapon of choice if the opposing forces were concealed behind terrain features or fortifications.

In the early war, guns and howitzers were often mixed in the same batteries but as more rifled cannon appeared on the battlefield this changed.  Antebellum allocations called for 6-pounder field guns matched with 12-pounder howitzers, 9 and 12-pounder field guns matched with 24-pounder howitzers. But the rapid expansions of both combatant armies, mass introduction of rifled artillery, and the versatility of the 12-pounder “Napoleon” class of weapons all contributed to a change in the mixed battery practices.

Rifled artillery was first invented in Great Britain. Rifling was a system of lands and grooves in a barrel which caused a projectile to turn as it exited the muzzle, thereby improving trajectory and accuracy. The grooves were cut into the smoothbore gun and the lands were the original diameter and spaces left after the rifling process.

Rifled weapons had to be stronger than smoothbore because a greater stress was inflicted on the gun by a tighter seal necessary for the projectile to take the rifling, resulting in vastly greater pressures in the breech to overcome the friction between the projectile and the rifled bore. Rifled artillery was generally more accurate and could be fired for greater distances with more force.

At the start of the war, the Confederacy’s only immediate sources of artillery were the various Federal arsenals and forts throughout the South. Their only cannon manufacturing facility was the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia. During the war the Confederacy built several additional foundries but Tredegar still produced 1,100 cannon, approximately one-half of the Confederacy’s production. Therefore, they were forced to acquire a large part of their artillery needs from Great Britain.

The Federal government had some 4,000 pieces of artillery at the start of the war but only 165 were of the field artillery type. The balance were fixed artillery pieces used for coastal defense. The North had more foundries and were able to produce artillery at a greater rate than the South. By the end of the war, the army had 3,325 guns, of which 53% were field pieces.

The Confederacy had many disadvantages in the manufacturing of both artillery and ammunition. The Confederacy had to rely to a significant extent on captured Union artillery pieces (either on the battlefield or by capturing armories, such as Harpers Ferry). It is estimated that two-thirds of all Confederate field artillery was captured from the Union.

The Confederate cannons built in the South often suffered from the shortage of quality metals and shoddy workmanship. Another disadvantage was the quality of ammunition. The fuses needed for detonating shells and cases were frequently inaccurate, causing premature or delayed explosions. All that, coupled with the Union gunners’ initial competence and experience gained as the war progressed, led Southern forces to dread assaults on Northern positions backed up by artillery.

Field artillery was just that, artillery that was used by the field armies in battles and engagements. Artillery was organized in batteries 6 guns for the Union Army and 4 guns for the Confederate Army.

Union batteries were usually of the same caliber which simplified training and ammunition requirements. Each gun, or “piece”, was operated by a gun crew of eight, plus four additional men to handle the horses and equipment. Two guns operating under the control of a lieutenant were known as a “section”. The battery of six guns was commanded by a captain.

Artillery brigades composed of five batteries were commanded by colonels and supported the infantry organizations as follows: each infantry corps was supported directly by one artillery brigade and, in the case of the Army of the Potomac, five brigades formed the Artillery Reserve.

This organization, championed by Maj. Gen. Henry J. Hunt, Chief of Artillery in the Army of the Potomac, allowed the artillery to massed for greater effect rather than being distributed all over the battle field. Many historians consider the Third Day at Gettysburg to be the Union artillery’s finest action. Hunt insisted on preserving his ammunition supply over the objections of Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock in order to have it available to defend against Pickett’s Charge.

Confederate batteries usually consisted of four guns, in contrast to the Union’s six. This was a matter of necessity, because guns were always in short supply. And, unlike the Union, batteries frequently consisted of mixed caliber weapons.

Confederate batteries were generally organized into battalions (versus the Union brigades) of four batteries each, and the battalions were assigned to the direct support of infantry divisions. Each infantry corps was assigned two battalions as an Artillery Reserve, but there was no such Reserve at the army level. The chief of artillery for Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, Brig. Gen. William N. Pendleton, had considerable difficulty massing artillery for best effect because of this organization.

Although virtually all battles of the Civil War included artillery, some battles are known better than others for significant artillery engagements, arguably critical to the overall outcome:

For a more detailed description of the artillery of the American Civil War, I wrote a three-post series on the subject that begins here.



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