Civil War Cannon and Artillery

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Civil War Cannon History
The Big Guns of the Civil War

American Civil War Artillery
An Introduction to Civil War Cannon

During the American Civil War (1861-1865), the Artillery was a separate, specialized branch of the army that supported the Infantry. The basic organizational unit for cannons was called a battery, made up of four to six guns with approximately 70-100 men commanded by a Captain. There were many models and sizes of Civil War cannon, but the two basic types were known as smoothbore and rifled. A smoothbore cannon barrel is just like a pipe, smooth on the inside. In contrast, a rifled cannon has grooves cut into the inside of the barrel, which forced the ammunition to rotate like a football. A rifled cannon was more accurate and had a greater range than a smoothbore gun. As the conflict progressed, Union and Confederate commanders and field artillery officers continued reforming their artillery. Prompted by the battles of 1862 and early 1863, they created strong chiefs of artillery at the division- and corps-level and grouped batteries into battalions in the Confederate army and brigades in the Union army. In doing so, the Union and Confederacy centralized their field artillery even more and enhanced their ability to mass fire. Following the Civil War, the U.S. War Department slowly modernized its field artillery. Indian warfare, a surplus of Civil War cannons, and problems with the new technology discouraged introducing rifled, steel breechloaders. Nevertheless, the War Department replaced its smoothbore and rifled muzzleloaders with steel breechloaders by 1898.

Civil War Cannon
1857 Model Napoleon.jpg
1857 Model Napoleon

Civil War Cannon
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3-Inch Ordnance Rifle

American Civil War cannon (1861-1865) had experienced few advances since the early days of artillery. Guns and ammunition were unreliable as well as dangerous to operate. Barrels or tubes were made from iron or bronze and gun carriages were built of white oak with iron fittings. Loading the cannon was referred to as muzzle-loading, meaning it was loaded from the front and directly into the muzzle of the big gun.
While many artillery types came into use during the Civil War, ranging from small howitzers to massive siege guns, there were two gun classifications or categories: smoothbore and rifled. The United States Army clung to smoothbores at the beginning of the 1860s, because they were easier to load than rifled muzzleloaders, and rifled breechloaders were dangerous because they leaked gases at the breech, often exploded when fired, and were more expensive than smoothbore muzzleloaders.
Smoothbore cannons were widely used for the duration of the conflict, but with the advent of the rifled barrel, the newly designed rifled cannons were being pushed onto the Civil War battlefield with the gradual phasing out of the smoothbore gun. Although smoothbore artillery had remained in the ranks of both Union and Confederate armies because of necessity, rifled cannons were generally, not always, preferred because they were capable of firing projectiles more accurately and at greater distances.
Field artillery smoothbores, under conditions prevailing during the war, generally gave better results than the smaller-caliber rifle. At Gettysburg in July 1863, nearly half of all the artillery pieces employed by both armies were smoothbore, but only field cannons and howitzers were used due to the mobility required in the campaign. While the 3-inch rifle had twice the range of a Napoleon, in the broken, heavily wooded country where so much of the fighting took place, the superior range of the rifle could not be used to full advantage.
During battle, horses and caissons were unlimbered and moved to the rear or a safe place nearby. The gun was aligned by hand, loaded and fired. Upon firing, the gun would recoil a few feet or to a dozen yards, depending on the powder charge and amount of ammunition. After firing, the piece was rolled back by hand and realigned, being swabbed and loaded as it went. And efficient crew could, aim, and fire twice in one minute. When under heavy attack, artillerists had been known to fire four canister shots in a minute. Swabbing the barrel could not be hurried because this necessary step helped to cool the tube and also extinguish any lingering sparks before the next charge was inserted.
Advancing infantry usually made batteries their prime targets, for the capture of field pieces were a great prize. Often as crews were limbering up to leave the location, the enemy would shoot the horses, requiring the pieces to be abandoned. It capture was unavoidable, artillerists would even shoot their own horses to prevent the enemy from moving the cannon. Spiking the weapon, that is to drive a piece of metal into the firing vent, also rendered it inoperative for a time.

Standard Civil War Artillery or Field Pieces
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10 Most Common Civil War Field Pieces

Smoothbore and Rifled
All firearms larger than small arms are known as artillery or cannon. Although there were dozens of different types of cannon used during the Civil War, they all fell into one of two categories: smoothbore or rifled cannon. They were further designated by the weight of their projectile (12-pounder, 24-pounder, 32-pounder, etc.), the caliber or size of their bore diameter (3-inch, 8-inch, 10-inch), method of loading (breech or muzzle), and often their inventor or the factory in which they were made (i.e. Dahlgren, Napoleon, Rodman, Parrott, Whitworth). A further distinction involved the path of their trajectories: guns had a flat trajectory, mortars a high, arching path, and a howitzer a trajectory between the other two. Civil War artillery was also classified according to its tactical deployment, including field, seacoast, and siege artillery. Cannon were made of steel, bronze, or iron, depending on the availability of material.

The favorite artillery piece in both the Union and the Confederacy was the Napoleon, a smoothbore, muzzle-loading, 12-pounder "gun-howitzer." Developed under the auspices of Louis Napoleon of France, it first appeared in the American artillery in 1857. Relatively light and portable, the Napoleon was used as both an offensive and defensive weapon by both armies. Initially made of bronze, Napoleons were cast from iron when the South ran short of the other metal. Its maximum effective range was about 1700 yards, but it was most effective at about 250 yards or less. Firing canister, the Napoleon probably inflicted more casualties than all other artillery pieces combined.

The most used rifled guns were the 3-inch Ordnance and 10-pdr Parrott rifles. These cannon were more accurate and had a longer range - up to about 2,300 yards - than their smoothbore counterparts. During most battles, however, the longer range was unnecessary and relatively ineffective. During this period, a gunner had to see his target in order to shoot with any accuracy, and the shorter range Napoleons were adequate for that purpose.
However, rifled cannon were particularly effective in knocking down fortifications and played decisive roles at Vicksburg and Atlanta. Almost all Civil War cannon were muzzle-loading; breech-loading models, such as the British 12-pounder rifled Armstrong and Whitworth cannon, were generally unreliable and awkward. The 12-pound mountain howitzers were among the smallest and most portable artillery and were useful in battles fought in the mountainous regions of the Western theater. Naval and siege cannons, including Dahlgrens and Rodman smoothbores, were among the heaviest and most powerful. The 8- and 10-inch siege howitzers had ranges of over 2,000 yards and could fire 45- and 90-pound shells. Artillery ammunition included solid shot, grape, canister, shell, and chain shot, each of which came in any of the nine common artillery calibers. Solid shot and shell were used against long-range, fixed targets such as fortifications; chain shot, consisting of two balls connected by a chain, was used primarily against masts and rigging of ships.

Very frequently used was canister; which, like its larger cousin, "grape shot," was a scattershot projectile consisting of small iron balls encased in a container. Canister projectiles came packed in a tin can while grape shot was usually wrapped in a cloth or canvas covering and tied with string which made it look like a bunch of grapes. When fired, the can or wrapping disintegrated, releasing the shot in a spray. In effect, then, a gun loaded with grape shot or canister acted like a large, sawed-off shotgun; it was particularly lethal when fired at a range of 250 yards or less. Grape was less often used by the field artilleries of the day as it was more effective to fire the smaller and more numerous canister balls at an advancing enemy. Thanks to its superior industrial strength, the North had an overall advantage over the South in all types of artillery, as well as a higher percentage of rifled cannon to smoothbore cannon.

Civil War Cannon
Civil War Artillery and Field Pieces.jpg
Civil War Artillery and Field Pieces

Civil War Artillery History
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Civil War Cannon

Civil War Cannon History
Most Widely Used Civil War Cannons.jpg
Most Widely Used Civil War Cannons

Common Civil War Cannons
Common Civil War Field Pieces.jpg
Common Civil War Field Pieces

Civil War (1861-65)

At the opening of the Civil War most of the materiel for both armies was of the same type—smoothbore. The various guns included weapons in the great masonry fortifications built on the long United States coast line beginning in the 1790's—weapons such as the Columbiad, a heavy, long-chambered American muzzleloader of iron, developed from its bronze forerunner of 1810. The Columbiad was made in 8-, 10-, and 12-inch calibers and could throw shot and shell well over 5,000 yards. "New" Columbiads came out of the foundries at the start of the 1860's, minus the powder chamber and with smoother lines. Behind the parapets or in fort gunrooms were 32- and 42-pounder iron seacoast guns; 24-pounder bronze howitzers lay in the bastions to flank the long reaches of the fort walls. There were 8-inch seacoast howitzers for heavier work. The largest caliber piece was the ponderous 13-inch seacoast mortar.

Siege and garrison cannon included 24-pounder and 8-inch bronze howitzers, a 10-inch bronze mortar, 12-, 18-, and 24-pounder iron guns and later the 4-1/2;-inch cast-iron rifle. With the exception of the new 3-inch ordnance wrought-iron rifle, field artillery cannon were bronze: 6-and 12-pounder guns, the 12-pounder Napoleon gun-howitzer, 12-pounder mountain howitzer, 12-, 24-, and 32-pounder field howitzers, and the Coehorn mortar. A machine gun Invented by Dr. Richard J. Gatling became part of the artillery equipment during the war, but was not much used.

Civil War Cannons
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Civil War Artillery

The smaller smoothbores were effective with case shot up to about 600 or 700 yards, and maximum range of field pieces went from something less than the 1,566-yard solid-shot trajectory of the Napoleon to about 2,600 yards (a mile and a half) for a 6-inch howitzer. At Chancellorsville, one of Stonewall Jackson's guns fired a shot which bounded down the center of a roadway and came to rest a mile away. The performance verified the drill-book tables. Maximum ranges of the larger pieces, however, ran all the way from the average 1,600 yards of an 18-pounder garrison gun to the well over 3-mile range of a 12-inch Columbiad firing a 180-pound shell at high elevation. A 13-inch seacoast mortar would lob a 200-pound shell 4,325 yards, or almost 2-1/2 miles. The shell from an 8-inch howitzer carried 2,280 yards, but at such extreme ranges the guns could hardly be called accurate.

On the battlefield, Napoleon's artillery tactics were no longer practical. The infantry, armed with its own comparatively long-range firearm, was usually able to keep artillery beyond case-shot range, and cannon had to stand off at such long distances that their primitive ammunition was relatively ineffective. The result was that when attacking infantry moved in, the defending infantry and artillery were still fresh and unshaken, ready to pour a devastating point-blank fire into the assaulting lines. Thus, in spite of an intensive bombardment of almost 2 hours by 142 Confederate guns at the crisis of Gettysburg, as the grayclad troops advanced across the field to close range, double canister and concentrated infantry volleys cut them down in masses.

Field artillery smoothbores, under conditions prevailing during the war, generally gave better results than the smaller-caliber rifle. A 3-inch rifle, for instance, had twice the range of a Napoleon; but in the broken, heavily wooded country where so much of the fighting took place, the superior range of the rifle could not be used to full advantage. Neither was its relatively small and sometimes defective projectile as damaging to personnel as case or grape from a larger caliber smoothbore. At the first battle of Manassas (July 1861) more than half the 49 Federal cannon were rifled; but by 1863, even though many more rifles were in service, the majority of the pieces in the field were still the old reliable 6- and 12-pounder smoothbores.

It was in siege operations that the rifles forced a new era. As the smoke cleared after the historic bombardment of Fort Sumter in 1861, military men were already speculating on the possibilities of the newfangled weapon. A Confederate 12-pounder Blakely had pecked away at Sumter with amazing accuracy. But the first really effective use of the rifles in siege operations was at Fort Pulaski (1862). Using 10 rifles and 26 smoothbores, Colonel Gillmore breached the 712-foot-thick brick walls in little more than 24 hours. Yet his batteries were a mile away from the target! The heavier rifles were converted smoothbores, firing 48-, 64-, and 84-pound James projectiles that drove into the fort wall from 19 to 26 inches at each fair shot. The smoothbore Columbiads could penetrate only 13 inches, while from this range the ponderous mortars could hardly hit the fort. A year later, Gillmore used 100-, 200-, and 300-pounder Parrott rifles against Fort Sumter. The big guns, firing from positions some 2 miles away and far beyond the range of the fort guns, reduced Sumter to a smoking mass of rubble.

The range and accuracy of the rifles startled the world. A 30-pounder (4.2-inch) Parrott had an amazing carry of 8,453 yards with 80-pound hollow shot; the notorious "Swamp Angel" that fired on Charleston in 1863 was a 200-pounder Parrott mounted in the marsh 7,000 yards from the city. But strangely enough, neither rifles nor smoothbores could destroy earthworks. As was proven several times during the war, the defenders of a well-built earthwork were able to repair the trifling damage done by enemy fire almost as soon as there was a lull in the shooting. Learning this lesson, the determined Confederate defenders of Fort Sumter in 1863-65 refused to surrender, but under the most difficult conditions converted their ruined masonry into an earthwork almost impervious to further bombardment.

Civil War Cannon History
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Union Artillery Battery in Line


With Rodman's gun, the muzzle-loading smoothbore was at the apex of its development. Through the years great progress had been made in mobility, organization, and tactics. Now a new era was beginning, wherein artillery surpassed even the decisive role it had under Gustavus Adolphus and Napoleon. In spite of new infantry weapons that forced cannon ever farther to the rear, artillery was to become so deadly that its fire caused over 75 percent of the battlefield casualties in World War I.

Many of the vital changes took place during the latter years of the 1800's, as rifles replaced the smoothbores. Steel came into universal use for gun founding; breech and recoil mechanisms were perfected; smokeless powder and high explosives came into the picture. Hardly less important was the invention of more efficient sighting and laying mechanisms.

The changes did not come overnight. In Britain, after breechloaders had been in use almost a decade, the ordnance men went back to muzzle-loading rifles; faulty breech mechanisms caused too many accidents. Not until one of H.M.S. Thunderer's guns was inadvertently double-loaded did the British return to an improved breechloader.

The steel breechloaders of the Prussians, firing two rounds a minute with a percussion shell that broke into about 30 fragments, did much to defeat the French (1870-71). At Sedan, the greatest artillery battle fought prior to 1914, the Prussians used 600 guns to smother the French army. So thoroughly did these guns do their work that the Germans annihilated the enemy at the cost of only 5 percent casualties. It was a demonstration of using great masses of guns, bringing them quickly into action to destroy the hostile artillery, then thoroughly "softening up" enemy resistance in preparation for the infantry attack. While the technical progress of the Prussian artillery was considerable, it was offset in large degree by the counter-development of field entrenchment.

As the technique of forging large masses of steel improved, most nations adopted built-up (reinforcing hoops over a steel tube) or wire-wrapped steel construction for their cannon. With the advent of the metal cartridge case and smokeless powder, rapid-fire guns came into use. The new powder, first used in the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78), did away with the thick white curtain of smoke that plagued the gunner's aim, and thus opened the way for production of mechanisms to absorb recoil and return the gun automatically to firing position. Now, gunners did not have to lay the piece after every shot, and the rate of fire increased. Shields appeared on the gun—protection that would have been of little value in the days when gunners had to stand clear of a back-moving carriage.

During the early 1880's the United States began work on a modern system of seacoast armament. An 8-inch breech-loading rifle was built in 1883, and the disappearing carriage, giving more protection to both gun and crew, was adopted in 1886. Only a limited number of the 8-, 10-, and 12-inch rifles mounted en barbette or on disappearing carriages were installed by 1898; but fortunately the overwhelming naval superiority of the United States helped bring the War with Spain to a quick close.

Civil War Cannon History
Civil War Rodman Cannon.jpg
A 15-inch Rodman Gun in Battery Rodgers, Alexandria, VA.

(About) Model 1861 15-inch Rodman weighed 49,909 lbs. and could fire a 352 lb. shell 5,018 yards (4588 m.). The Union produced 323 15-in. Rodmans, which saw action primarily against ships. Ca. Civil War. Courtesy Library of Congress.

During the Civil War, United States forces were equipped with a number of British 2.95-inch mountain rifles, which, incidentally, served as late as World War II in the pack artillery of the Philippine Scouts. Within the next few years the antiquated pieces such as the 3-inch wrought-iron rifle, the 30-pounder Parrott, converted Rodmans, and the 15-inch Rodman smoothbore were finally pushed out of the picture by new steel guns. There were small-caliber rapid-fire guns of different types, a Hotchkiss 1.65-inch mountain rifle, and Hotchkiss and Gatling machine guns. The basic Pieces in field artillery were 3.2- and 3.6-inch guns and a 3.6-inch mortar. Siege artillery included a 5-inch gun, 7-inch howitzers, and mortars. In seacoast batteries were 8-, 10-, 12-, 14-, and 16-inch guns and 12-inch mortars of the primary armament; intermediate rapid-fire guns of 3-, 4.72-, 5-, and 6-inch calibers; and 6- and 15-pounder rapid-fire guns in the secondary armament.

The Japanese showed the value of the French system of indirect laying (aiming at a target not visible to the gunner) during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). Meanwhile, the French 75-mm. gun of 1897, firing 6,000 yards, made all other field artillery cannon obsolete. In essence, artillery had assumed the modern form. The next changes were wrought by startling advances in motor transport. signal communications, chemical warfare, tanks, aviation, and mass production.

See also:

Sources: Antietam National Battlefield Park; National Park Service; Library of Congress; McKenney, Janice E. The Organizational History of Field Artillery 1775-2003. Army Lineage Series, Center of Military History, United States Army; Manucy, Albert Ed., Peterson, Harold L. Artillery. Through The Ages, A Short Illustrated History of Cannon, Emphasizing Types Used in America (Interpretive Series History No. Three) (1949). National Park Service (Reprint 1985); Alberts, Don E. The Battle of Glorieta: Union Victory in the West. College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 2000; Benton, James G. Ordnance and Gunnery. Gettysburg, PA: Reprint, Thomas Publications (Original 1862.); Cole, Philip M. Civil War Artillery at Gettysburg. New York: Da Capo Press, 2002. ISBN 0-306-81145-6; Daniel, Larry J. and Gunter, Riley W. Confederate Cannon Foundries. Union City, Tennessee: Pioneer Press, 1977; Eicher, David J. The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. ISBN 0-684-84944-5; Grizzell, Stephen, Bull Pup: The 1841 Mountain Howitzer; Hazlett, James C., Edwin Olmstead, and M. Hume Parks. Field Artillery Weapons of the American Civil War, rev. ed., Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983. ISBN 0-252-07210-3; Nosworthy, Brent. The Bloody Crucible of Courage, Fighting Methods and Combat Experience of the Civil War. New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 2003. ISBN 0-7867-1147-7; Pfanz, Harry W. Gettysburg: Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993. ISBN 0-8078-2118-7; Ripley, Warren. Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War. 4th ed. Charleston, SC: The Battery Press, 1984. OCLC 12668104; Thomas, Dean S. Cannons: An Introduction to Civil War Artillery. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1985. ISBN 0-939631-03-2; Boatner, Mark M. Civil War Dictionary; Encyclopedia of the Civil War. The Civil War Society.


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