Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Artillery During the Civil War

by Kathleen L. Maher

The American Civil War has been a lifelong fascination for me. In The Chaplain's Daughter, my hero Gideon Sharpe is a wounded Confederate artillery captain, and his world brought me to some interesting research. This is by no means an exhaustive report, but I hope to provide a peek into the universe of battle from the perspective of the artillery. 

First, there are different branches of artillery--heavy, light, coastal, field, siege, and navy artillery. I will focus on field artillery, since that is my hero's area of service with General Beauregard's army. I chose to focus on a 3-inch Ordnance Rifle, because I had the privilege of seeing one discharge at a living history event, and to pepper the presenter with questions! He was so gracious, and showed me each position, command, and piece of equipment, with explanation. Three cheers for those who portray living history with such dedication to accuracy. 

The 3-inch Ordnance Rifles manufactured in Pennsylvania had a wrought iron 69 inch long tube which alone weighed over 800 lbs, a 2.9 or 3 inch opening (bore), and fired a 9 pound projectile with a 1-pound charge. The wrought iron pieces were pretty near indestructible, as opposed to the cast iron which were prone to crack. Even the bronze casts made in the south were not quite as durable. They were among the most accurate field pieces in the war with a  range set at 5 degrees that could reach over 1800 yards. (There are 1760 yards in a mile.) The projectile fired would travel at a rate of over 1200 feet per second. That's a pretty powerful mid-range weapon for the times.

The 3-inch ordnance rifles were muzzle loading, which means they had to be packed with their projectiles from the mouth, rather than breech loading, which would be from the rear. This posed some unique challenges. Smoke from the last charge could very well ignite a powder bag inside the bore, so a wet sponge attached to a pole would have to be inserted to extinguish any remaining sparks or smoldering pieces. A "worm" was a pole with a coil or screw on the end which would fish out any remaining pieces of powder bag or canister. 

Carrying the powder bag or charge was possibly the most dangerous position, and often assigned to a small person who made a harder target for long range snipers to hit. Often a child was used as the "Powder monkey." If a bullet struck the powder bag close enough to the gun, it would take the whole battery out of commission. If the wet sponge didn't do a good enough job at extinguishing any remaining sparks, and the powder was loaded, someone would lose an arm or worse. 

Another piece of equipment is the caisson. It is the platform on which the cannon balls, ordnance, or canister were transported. The limber was the wheeled conveyance pulled by either a two, four, or six-horse team to transport the cannon or the caisson. Each horse was expected to pull approximately 700 lbs, so the size of the team depended on the total weight of the load. 

Ordnance is an explosive that would be shot at medium range to take out buildings, fortifications or in some cases, advancing armies. Smoothbore cannons shot cannonballs, but rifled guns discharged a "bolt" which was a shot with no explosive charge, either spherical or cylindrical. Spherical shot could ricochet, increasing its potential impact, but cylindrical shot would more often lodge, so accuracy was important. The rifling carved inside the bore was a spiral which set the projectile spinning in mid air the way a football quarterback spins a football to improve accuracy. 

Canister was the most deadly and used against advancing troops of infantry or cavalry. It was a container filled with sawdust and small projectiles, which upon discharge would break apart and unload like a massive shotgun. Grapeshot was almost obsolete by the Civil War, and had been first used aboard ships to take out rigging or clear the deck. It consisted of balls linked together to create a spinning, whirling effect like an airborne lawnmower blade... you get the idea. 

Here is a brief excerpt from my book to show a battery in action:

Gideon’s horse danced under him, tense as though sensing his anticipation. Fiery ants marched through his veins awaiting the 3” Ordnance Gun explosion. The volley from his artillery battery shook his eardrums until he heard white. Then, sight melded with halting spasms of sound as his hearing recovered. He sorted through the din, scanning nameless shell-jacketed men. His own voice, full of adrenaline, shouted amidst the clamor of supporting infantry gunfire.

Turning to his gunnery sergeant, he shouted. “They’re coming on again. Turn the grape loose on ’em!”

The gunner’s voice boomed over the din. “Post on lim-ber! Load by de-tail.”

Grey-clad boys scampered at the gunner’s command, their darting movements drawing new tension to Gideon’s fist, clenched about his short sword. The four-man battery took turns about the barrel, lacking the rhythmic order of trained men.

Gideon grunted disapproval. He’d seen a man’s arm blown off from loading powder into a smoldering bore. “You boys’ll be the death of me,” he muttered and reined Red forward, snapping his fingers at his artillerymen. “Worm!”

Confused looks exchanged between the two stationed in front of the gun’s axle.

Getting no response, Gideon directed the near soldier to take the corkscrewed pole to fish out the spent powder bag from the cannon’s mouth. Then he pointed at the other. “Wet sponge!”

The young man swabbed the cannon with his damp-clothed pole and hastened back to position.

“Advance the round.”

The powder monkey delivered a one-pound powder sack from the caisson to the first soldier waiting at the mouth of the gun, walking backwards to protect the charge from enemy fire, looking over his shoulder with a glint of terror in his eyes. The powder went in, and next, the canister containing lead shot. The ram-rod drove the round deep into the gun as the cresting wave of rifle fire rose from the field below.

GIVEAWAY! One lucky commenter will win a kindle copy of The Chaplain's Daughter. The more shares, the more entries! I'll choose a winner on Sunday the 12th at 8 PM. Don't forget to leave your email addy here so I can contact you, and let me know how many times you shared.

Good luck!

"Where every underdog has his day."
Kathleen L. Maher’s first crush was Peter Rabbit, and she’s loved conflicted heroes ever since. She has two novellas in BARBOUR BOOKS' collections: Victorian Christmas Brides and Lessons on Love. Winner ACFW Genesis Award. Author of Sons of the Shenandoah Series: The Abolitionist's Daughter and The Chaplain's Daughter.
Kathleen and her husband live in an old farmhouse in upstate NY with their children and a small zoo.

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  1. I always love to chat with reenactors. A dear friend has been a Civil War Reenactor for decades. He's a walking encyclopedia of interesting facts. I am amazed at the items he has on display near his tent for visitors to the Union campsite. I made it a point to interview a man portraying a doctor. Fascinating information.
    Cindy Huff cindyhuff11 at gmail dot com

    1. Cindy, is it OK to say I am deeply jealous? LOL I wish I could pick your friends brain :-) thank you for coming by. I’ll bet the doctor had some hair-raising tales.

  2. It makes me sad to hear that children were used to load the guns. Thanks for the post.

    1. It is rather sad Connie. But often these were orphans Or boys whose family was it more, and they had nowhere else to go, and the army would look after them, make sure they ate and had shelter. No doubt it was a difficult time in our country‘s history for everyone.

      Thank you for always stopping by. You are the sweetest. Good luck in the drawing

  3. I have always wanted to see a reenactment. Thank you for chance to win. Can't wait to read this book!

  4. Thank you Joy! I’ve Been to a few small re-enactments with fewer than 100 participants. I would love to go to a big event. I fear I might be a pest, though. Asking too many questions. Lol.
    Good luck in the drawing!

  5. This book sounds totally awesome!! Civil War is one of my favorite topics! Would love to read it!

    1. Thank you Paty. I seem to learn new and amazing things about the history of this time period all the time. Just when I think i’v Heard it all I get a new nugget or tidbit.
      Good luck in the contest.

  6. And the winner, drawn by, is Paty
    Congratulations Paty. Thank you all for leaving comments. Be sure to stop in on our party Wednesday from 3-6 PP Eastern for more chances to win.