Artillery – A Few Notes

Artillery! The big guns of the forts and battlefields. For the last year, I’ve been studying Civil War artillery with a focus on tactics and artillery officers. It’s been fascinating and the project has led me into large archives and to remote, unprotected battlefields.

In the next couple weeks, I’m looking forward to sharing some historical notes, and today I thought we’d start with some “general rules” about Civil War artillery and a few helpful tips for looking at gun lines on battlefields. Let’s get started…

  1. As long as a bus?

A historian and battlefield guide gave me this helpful tip while we were looking at artillery battery positions on New Market battlefield. Generally speaking, the length of a six-gun battery took the approximate length of a large passenger bus. Sometimes, they positioned with more room between the guns, but as a general rule you can picture or pace out a long bus to get an idea of the battery placement.

New Recruits for the Southern Artillery in Charleston, South Carolina.

2. Just Remember Half-A-Dozen

How many cannons in a typical Civil War battery? Well, that’s actually complicated. It’s going to depend on whether we’re talking about Yankees or Rebels, which year of the war, which artillery unit, and which battery. In summary, lots of variables. But…for a fast answer: a full strength Union field battery usually had six cannons. “Yeah, I’d like to order a half-dozen cannons. To go, please.” (The Confederates often had four cannons to a battery.)

3. Hold the high ground

Looking at a battlefield or a battle map? You’ll usually find the cannons on high ground. This allowed them to sweep the lower area with devastating projectiles and they could be used in high ground defense.

4. Watch your step

Sometimes, you’ll find gun positions that were fortified. Look for trenches in a sort of U shape and there’s a good chance you’re looking at the remains of defensive earthworks for artillery. Battlefield gun earthworks will look slightly different from the ones found in the remains of earthen forts, but both styles offered some protections for the gunners and their cannons.

Travel hint: Knoxville (Tennessee) has Fort Dickerson which has some great remains of earth works and cannons. For field positions, Fredericksburg (Virginia) is one of my favorites; check out Jackson’s position at Prospect Hill to see some fantastic remains of entrenching for the cannons.

Cannon at Fredericksburg battlefield

5. It’s all about math

And that makes it ironic, because I was a dunce in that subject in school. I’m still trying to get a grasp of the finer points of artillery “science” and the math involved (which is beyond the scope of this introductory blog post), but successful artillery officers were really smart dudes. They had to know how to calculate and adjust the angles to ensure that their projectiles hit their targets at the right time and place.

6. Don’t forget the horses!

Who wants to haul a big, heavy cannon by hand on a campaign? No thanks! Teams of horses pulled the cannons from battlefield to battlefield. When the cannons reached the proper position, the guns would be unhitched and (hopefully) the horses were taken a short distance away to wait out the battle. Other teams raced to bring ammunition from the supply train to the battery’s position. Frequently, the horses did not survive the battle, and sometimes the artillerymen had to come up with clever ways to advance or save the guns or were forced to abandon them due to a lack of transportation.

7. That cost how much?

According to Union artillery officer Henry J. Hunt each fired artillery round cost $2.67. That’s added up quickly for the taxpayers, and Hunt ordered his junior officers to avoid firing unnecessarily.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Next week I’ll share the steps for loading and firing a Civil War era cannon. Stay tuned!

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