Civil War Artillery: Load & Fire A Cannon

So…what were the steps for loading and firing a Civil War cannon on the battlefield? In this blog post, we’ll explore the basic steps for that process, but keep in mind that “protocol” and rules were sometimes changed by necessity, especially if a gun crew lost men in battle.

The process for loading and firing would have been usually done on orders and under the direct supervision of the battery’s captain. Unless told otherwise, the crew would have fired the cannon on his command. This is a quick overview of the process.

“Load”

At this command, the crew prepares the cannon for the next firing. One man “tends the vent” – covers the venting hole with his leather encased thumb to prevent air from entering the cannon and allowing any sparks to catch fire and explode the barrel. Meanwhile, two other men clean the gun. One inserts a wet sponge into the barrel to extinguish any smoking remains from a previous shot. The other uses an implement called a “worm” or “wadhook” to pull out any pieces of cartridge or other pieces of debris that might still be inside the barrel.

Notice the artillery line and the man going for ammunition. (Battle of Shiloh)

While those three guys clean the cannon’s barrel, another crewman brings the next charge (powder and some sort of projectile – canister, round shot, explosive shell, etc.) from the ammunition chest to the gun and places it in the muzzle after the cleaning process is finished. The charge is rammed into the barrel while an artilleryman continues to guard the vent.

When the charge is seated within the cannon, the waiting artillery removes his thumb from the vent, pulls a priming wire from his bag, and places it through the vent, puncturing the cartridge and allowing it to reach the gunpowder. That priming wire can stay in place until the cannon is positioned to fire which could be accomplished immediately or later.

“Aim”

Note: “Aim” was not usually the order. It was more a positioning of the cannon and the wording of the orders could vary depending on the circumstance.

At this point, the gun is moved forward/into position. After each firing, the cannons recoiled, forcing the artillerymen to reposition them by hand to the original or new position to achieve the best opportunity to hit the targets chosen by their commander.

The cannon’s barrel can be depressed or elevated to sight the gun and orders would be given for specific elevations, range, and projectile trajectory.

“Ready”

On this order, the priming wire is removed. A friction primer is connected to the lanyard and the primer is inserted into the vent. A cannoneer pulls the lanyard taut, then waits for the next order… Meanwhile, the others of the gun crew take a step away from the loaded piece or lean away. The crew must be in the right positions to ensure that no one gets run over by the recoil or accidentally injured.

“Cushing at the Angle” by Dale Gallon ( https://www.gallon.com/shop/civil-war/fire-at-the-angle-framed-limited-edition-print/ )

“Fire”

On this order, the cannoneer tugs the lanyard, applying enough force to create a spark from the friction primer which ignites the powder in the cartridge deep within the gun and sends the projectile hurling out of the barrel, though the air, and toward its target.

The process then begins again…

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Let me know if you’d like us to share the actually steps for this process as written in an 1850’s artillery manual… Today, we kept it simple, but complicated details are in my research files!

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