Toys for Boys; Artillery

26 02 2012

Artillery has a magical way of irritating the average Civil War infantryman.  Because of its tremendous range compared to the rifled musket, it punished the soldier that had found good position and was not eager to move.  Many battles hinged on where guns were or could be placed.  Little Round Top, probably the most famous brigade (smallish) action of the war, was fought over a hill that would have utterly exposed the entire union position had just a single confederate cannon made it up to its summit.

Artillery organization varied wildly depending on the wants or needs of the greater mass of infantry that it supported.  In my Champion hill order of battle you can see this. Pemberton’s Confederate artillery was organized such that each brigade(~1800 men) had one battery (4-6 guns).  On the table this will mean that for every four or five regiments, there will be a stand of cannons.  Grant’s Union artillery is organized such that each division (~5000 men) has three batteries (12 – 18 guns).

The ratio was mostly the same for both my armies but the Union army is organized in a way such that guns could be more concentrated.  This is a good way to organize your army if your infantry commanders trust your artillery commanders as it allowed larger collections of artillery to be where they needed to be.  Imagine, you are a lightly engaged confederate brigade in Pemberton’s army.  You get one artillery battery!  Your lightly engaged Union opponent gets no Artillery!  Huzzah!  Keep imagining!  You press your advantage and advance.  The fighting gets hot!  Across the way you can see 15 cannons being set up because an alert Union artillery officer knows where he needs to be.  You still have one battery.  Boo!

A single piece of artillery would have been serviced by about a dozen soldiers. Each gun would have been attached to a horse lead caisson or limber that carried its crew, equipment and some of its ammunition into battle. Usually 6 horses would be attached to the limber.  A lieutenant would have commanded a “section“ consisting of two guns, their combined crew and limbers.

can22

Guns would be delivered into battle and quickly “unlimbered” from the caisson and the caisson moved to a safe but convenient distance.  This is about 20 – 50 yards; close enough that you can quickly grab ammo and get back to your gun, but far enough that a direct hit on the caisson wouldn’t kill everyone.  Remember… the caisson has the ammo in it! 

can11

Civil war artillery came in two flavors; smoothbore and rifled. This is a fun fact.  No one sat around and said that the right mix of big guns was two major types of artillery.  This just happened.  Like most wars of the industrial era, the civil war was filled with innovative technology that was just this “far away” away from being perfected but not quite done yet.  Badass tech o’ the future had a tendency to do its job better but frequently had tremendous drawbacks.  For instance,  blowing up and killing it’s operator, being devilishly hard to make, or not being available at the scale needed to equip an army.

Smoothbore artillery

Smoothbore cannons were made of brass and were drop dead simple weapons.  They were just a long smooth tube with a small hole at the back on top that could be fitted with a fuse.  Quite annoyingly for the soldier firing the gun, they were loaded at the “wrong end” (known as the muzzle).  This makes them simple to operate but shockingly dangerous.  Let’s walk through the process shall we?

  1. Load the gun.  A 2 pound packet of gunpowder about the size of a bag of rice or beans is pushed into the gun along with a big ol’ cannon ball.
  2. Aim the gun.  Sadly this involves tools and math.  But, unlike regular math, if you get the problem right, you blow stuff up.  Fun math!  Rock on.
  3. Fire the gun.
  4. Watch stuff blow up.  This step is optional and would be highly dependent on whether or not you are being shot at.
  5. Fish out the burning burlap baggie that held the gunpowder.  Not optional.
  6. Swab the gun.  This is a feeble attempt to remove cinders or debris from the barrel.
  7. If the cannon is really hot, water can be poured on it from a bucket in a feeble attempt to cool it down.
  8. Repeat.

Does anything stand out about this process as being overly dangerous?  Imagine you are the guy pushing the gunpowder into the barrel of the cannon after its been constantly fired for an hour or so and is hot enough to burn flesh.  The signature wound of a nineteenth century artillery man is the loss of one or both arms to the powder igniting as it is being pushed in.  Proper drill here involves pushing the powder in using only the non dominant hand.  This must have been very comforting to practice.

Below is a lovely video of a smoothbore being fired.  Notice the guy pushing the powder in using both hands.  Yikes!

6 pounder smoothbore

Note: This video is of a “6 pound” smoothbore.   That makes this a very “small” cannon. 

The smoothbore of choice for both armies was the 12 pound “Napoleon’.  Interestingly enough the cannon is not named for the famous diminutive emperor but his grandson who was the current monarch of France and whose army developed the weapon design.  Napoleons where plentiful at the time of the war and both sides knew how to make them. This gun was the staple of all armies in this period.

Polished Napoleon

Smoothbore cannons had a theoretical range of 1600 yards (almost a mile!).  At this range cannonballs could kill and maim but this was usually the result of an accident as there was no way to aim a smoothbore cannon at something bigger than a barn from this far.  Smoothbore cannons fired ordinance in much the same way that knuckle ball pitchers through base balls; wildly.  The effective range of a smoothbore was 800 yards.  At this range that barn is in deep trouble.  This range compares vary favorably with the ranges on the infantry rifles of the period which typically got effective at 200 yards.

Depending on the distance to target,smoothbores had three different types of ammo; solid shot, grape shot and exploding shell.  Solid shot would be used at long range and grapeshot (think a coffee can filed with gumball sides ball bearings) would be used up close.  In addition, both sides used shells with fuses that were designed to create a secondary explosion (with shrapnel) at a particular range.  These were crap and typically killed the wrong people though they were as common as dirt..

Grapeshot rocked up close but infantry typically didn’t hang out at the appropriate range.  Solid shot was the secret weapon of the smoothbore cannon.  What it lacked in accuracy, it more more than made up for in deadliness.  Cannonballs would bounce for hundreds of yards and would remain lethal for most of that time.  They could pass through several waves of soldiers, killing one or two each time, and continue till finally rolling to a stop near the rear.  So long as the target of the cannon was spread out such that it was larger than a barn,it didn’t really matter where the cannon ball went.  Smoothbore cannons were extremely effective against infantry.

Rifled Artillery

Because rifles were bleeding edge technology there where a huge variety of them available.  No matter how many cannon designs were out there, none were globally adapted and all had issues.  One thing that is true of all rifled cannons is that the barrels of the cannon had spiraling that made the fired shells go very straight.  Their accuracy was quite good.  They could hit the proverbial barn door and given that cannons are themselves about that size, that made rifles ideal for counter battery fire.

Rifles of this period were made of iron, not brass.  This is due to the fact that the shell fired from the cannon caught the spiraling of the gun and would take on a spin.  Brass would be blown smooth very quickly by this pressure.  So instead of using church bell to make a cannon, designers used grandma’s iron skillet. Iron was more rigid than brass, preferring to break instead of bend… which is good until its not good.   BTW… if you were to mount grandma’s iron skillet on a gun carriage and leave it outdoors for a few weeks it would not turn that groovy blue green that brass does.  It rusts.  Badly.  To stop this they were constantly painted and repainted black.

CW_Arty_10lb_Parrott_rear

Iron is MUCH heavier than brass so you couldn’t make rifles as big  as smoothbores. This really limited how big these guns could be.  To save on material, they would reinforce back of the rifle (the “breach”) with an iron band giving them a really distinctive looks.  This improved things but they still were considered dangerous weapons.  To make matters worse (and aren’t we always making things worse), Iron smelting is a really uneven, inconsistent process.  Many guns would be built flawed and there was no way to work out which ones where lemons.  Steel would make better, lighter cannons but steel is in the future.

MORE FUN RIFLE TRIVIA!  Shells needed to be snugly fit in the irregular shape of the barrel so they would grab the rifling on the way out of the gun.  This mean that the shell (weighing about 10 or so pounds) would need to be SCREWED into the gun.  Really.  While being shot at!  OH… and that “powder could blow up at any second problem”… you still have that!

MORE FUN!!!  Rifled shells don’t bounce.  You had better hit what you are shooting at because you are NOT going to get lucking on the hop.  Rifled shells hit the ground and burrow.

THE FUN CONTINUES!!!!!!!  Grapeshot in a rifle… not so much.  You could do it but it was a smoothbore afterwards.

KEEP THE FUN GOING!!!!!!!!!! Many different makes of rifle were produced during the war.  The two most common where the 3” ordinance rifle and the 10 lb. Parrott which had a muzzle width of <wait for it> 2.9”.  Really.  Remember that “snug” thing.  Their bullets where not interchangeable but not really different in size.  Much hilarity ensued.  Usually mistakes could be avoided so long as you were not in a hurry or badly needed ammunition… otherwise you would send both types and just asked if the wrong type be returned.  The Union army was so nonplused by this problem that it reworked it’s Parrotts to have a ordinance rifle compatible 3” muzzle.

Now for the good news…  Rifles had a theoretical range of 1800 yards. This is slightly longer than their smoothbore neighbors.  They also had an effective range of 1800 yards meaning that the gun was accurate… always.  It was as capable as the crew firing it and could be aimed at actual targets. 

At the battle of Pine Mountain Georgia in 1864, General Sherman ordered that a cluster of confederate officers be fired on at extreme range with a battery of 3” ordinance rifles. Three shells were fired, the third of which killed (nay, messed up badly) General Leonidas Polk. This episode led Sherman to write Halleck his famous line “We killed Bishop Polk yesterday and have made good progress today…”

Rifles where extremely useful at suppressing enemy artillery and would provide literally dozen’s of insanely accurate shots before exploding and killing their crews. 

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