The Artillery
The Expectation and Usages 1864

     During the winter of 1863 while the inactivity of the armies lay in wait for the warmer and drier weather necessary for active campaigning, much attention was paid to the organization, fitting and refitting of the units, ordnance, commissary, and quartermaster supplies required to mobilize the greatest assembly of destructive manpower to the continent. The artillery that supported the seizure and occupation of such ground which it must hold victorious had been no exception to the rule. While encamped along the north side of the Rappahannock River along the farming country of Culpeper, Virginia; Brigadier General Henry J. Hunt began setting to paper the guidelines he desired of the battery operations while employed against the enemy in the upcoming campaign.

     None other than the battery commander, whose eyes had been trained to employ the best suited ground for the precision of his weapons, would be responsible for the real estate with which the guns were brought to bear. If placed in position by the general officer of his division or corps, he had been given the right to express objections to the ground chosen provided his expertise dictated better ground could be utilized for the same purpose. The artillery officer was trained to seek a position in fire efficiency, proper cover to protect his own batteries from destruction, positioning as not to cause unnecessary casualties to friendly combat troops, and agility to move out with the infantry to continue its supporting role in the taking of ground.

     The topography of the ground must be well studied by the battery commander, as that the means of moving it to the front, flanks or rear should be cleared of all obstacles that are liable to cause hindrance of the movement. The retirement from a posted position may be accomplished in withdrawing by section or half battery remaining under the protection of its fire alone. Walls and fences ought to be torn down and any ditches filled up to avoid calamity upon rapid movement.

     The concentration of battering outweighed the distribution of fire power along the line. In the hilly regions of combat, moderate elevation of the muzzles were highly recommended as that projectiles traveling over the heads of infantry yet closer to the ground produced a higher destructive rate than those projectiles dropped in from a higher elevation. The desire; in all cases, were to fire at lines of battle from the oblique, and upon columns of moving troops against the greatest depth. Solid shot and in some rare cases, shell would be used against walls, log stockades and barricades, as well as sweeping any wooded area.

     The Army of the Potomac up until this time had depended too much on solid shot from the smooth bore guns and wasted too much shell. The rifled field pieces were permitted to fire percussion shell direct to act as a substitute for solid shot or shrapnel without the use of a fuse. Canister was used at close quarters both in the open field as well as any skirt of woods in which the enemy was expected to charge from. The destructive firepower upon the flank of an enemy battery would prove invaluable in wiping out both men and horses.

     It was common practice to protect such guns and their emplacements either by impregnable positions or assigning infantry troops to guard against sudden attacks upon them. Should a force of infantry attack, the battery emplacement, and the troops supporting the pieces were to wheel their outward flanks forward as to sweep the ground in front with covering fire. In advancing with infantry troops, battery commanders were reminded to stay out of rifle range from wood lines inside enemy control to avoid the men and horses being picked off by sharpshooters.
     All field pieces carried along its own ammunition chest. Each section of the battery, two pieces generally, would load from one caisson body until the ammunition was exhausted. The empty would immediately be sent to the rear for replenishment while the two guns began to load from the other.

     Should a line of battle be formed, expected to receive an attack of the enemy, the artillery should be posted either on the flanks of the infantry and cavalry or between the intervals of both. As a rule, artillery should not be posted in a position where it was to shoot over head of its own combat troops. In close quarters fighting, these positions would be useless as that canister would be the preferred load for an infantry advance against the line, but would strike both friend and foe alike. If orders for the infantry were to advance, the battered ground before them would impede a rapid forward movement, and with the knowledge of marching forward, having a loaded cannon directly behind, generally succeeded making them feel uneasy and in some cases demoralized them.

     The honor of the battery rested with its commander, in that the position chosen to unlimber should provide rapid movement in every direction should the battlefield circumstance change and the flexibility of the battery, change with it. When ground of such choosing does not afford such maneuverability, the commander should concern himself with very strong supports and the guns fought to the very last, should they be captured, they are lost to the enemy with honor. Disgrace came to the artillery officer if a gun, or even an opportunity of service, should be lost through neglect or the absence of foresight on his part. There is honor in a lost gun to the enemy only if their sacrifice was permitted for the safety of other combat troops; however, the enemy ought to be dearly punished for it.

     The exchange of fire between batteries had been the nature of too many artillery units, but the officers of such units should be in the practice of directing their fire in sectors where the enemy is most vulnerable to danger. Upon the defensive, all pieces were to be used as anti-personnel weapons, concentrating most on movements of infantry and cavalry. The object was not to maim or kill by the numbers, but if the fire remain concentrated, rather than distributed shot and shell across the field; a demoralized enemy becomes the greater objective.

     The proper purpose of the cannon is to destroy material obstacles and disorganize massed groups of soldiers, but once again many had chosen to fire upon wagons or single horsemen, small parties or in worse cases, shelling the woods on mere suspicion that the enemy may be in an area just beyond the tree line. When firing battery to battery, all six pieces were to concentrate on one target until it was destroyed and then chose another with a similar objective. Should a marching column of soldiers be selected as the prime target, all cannon were to focus on the center in an effort to break it apart. Skirmish lines and smaller bodies of troops as a general rule were not to be fired upon.

     Artillery officers withstood heavy responsibility in the waste of ammunition for rapidly firing at large bodies of troops and opening at long range. Some batteries have been known to fire three or four hundred rounds in small skirmishes frequently averaging or sometimes exceeding one round per minute for each gun. Ammunition chests have been emptied in less than ninety minutes, and in other cases, takes an entire battery out of service for lack of ordnance in the chests. Waste such as this left the artillery officer's superiors to conclude on his ignorance of the proper use of his arm, and found lacking in the capacity to command a battery. The campaign allowance was always calculated to suffice for a general action as well as the combats that preceded it. Under these circumstances, an officer who expends all his ammunition in just a few hours rendered himself liable to the suspicion that his reckless expenditure was prompted by a desire to quit the field. As the campaign season of 1864 would get underway, no battery would be permitted to leave the field under these conditions again; the guns and crew would remain while ammunition would be furnished to them.

     The rifled cannon, the preferred artillery piece of the federal armies, had been choice due to its accuracy. Careful pointing along with close observation required time and produced a much slower rate of fire. With the exception of firing canister at short range, nobody was expected to fire more than one round per two minutes from each gun in the battery, the standard calculation ought to be one round per four to six minutes. The fire of the batteries should be slow when the enemy is at great distance, is to quicken when the distance diminishes, and is to become rapid when canister shot is being loaded for effective close range.

     At the completion of an engagement, the battery commander will file a general return of the losses of men and material, along with a separate report of the fight. The return will provide a specification of the men and horses killed or disabled during the action. He will be responsible to see that all disabled horses are replaced, ammunition chests are filled up and reassign officers and men, if necessary, so as to render his battery serviceable at the earliest possible moment. This shall all be handled before the officer sleeps.

     All supplies and baggage with the exception of the knapsacks of cannoneers and articles authorized by regulations will be duly thrown off the carriages on the march by the brigade commanders; none shall be permitted upon the gun carriages. Upon level ground the soldiers of the battery were permitted to ride two men to a piece or four to a carriage, but no more; as long as it did not put unnecessary strain on the horses pulling the load. Cannoneers may from time to time change places with the drivers of the wagon. Upon the approach of a hill and without waiting for orders to do so, the men will dismount from their seated positions.

     The strictest adherence to the regulations within any branch of the military was to be closely followed, for the discipline regarding the orders saved lives when engaged in armed conflict. Though officers and men may have steered a different course during stressful circumstances; the casualty rate and loss of materials required them to be trained once more. Brigadier General Henry J. Hunt; may have been the staunch disciplinarian, but he was going to get his men home at the end of the war alive, and they would return home with what a veteran never should return home without; honor.

Dan (Aldie) Daniel Moran
© 2006

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