Archive for November, 2013

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Field Guns vs. Muskets

Civil War canister shot

(Credit: Minnesota Historical Society)

The idea that the increased range of the minie ball-firing rifle musket made the artillery charge obsolete has a somewhat sound basis, since both a field gun firing canister and a rifle musket are usually quoted as having the same maximum effective range of 400 yards. Since a soldier couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn except by accident with an old smoothbore musket somewhere past about 50 yards, the musket’s increase in range meant infantry could trade fire with canister-belching artillery. According to conventional wisdom, infantry should win that contest every time.

Unfortunately, even in theory it’s not that simple. As has been noted in many studies, the low velocity minie ball has a strongly parabolic trajectory, one that few Civil War soldiers were trained to compensate for. At the same time, canister balls spread out from the muzzle in a cone pattern. Without a practical and scientific field study, it is impossible to say with certainty which could put more balls on target by virtue of accuracy: the cone pattern of the field gun or a mass of infantry who couldn’t shoot straight at medium-to-long range.

The one thing we can do is compare weight of metal, a favorite exercise of mine drawn from my love of the “age of sail.” I did something similar in my post on buck and ball.

The standard canister round for an 1857 12 pounder Napoleon, the classic “smasher” of the Civil War, held 27 balls weighing .43 lbs each, for a total of 11.6 lbs per round. Shrapnel from the casing was also dangerous, but to keep things simple I’ll focus solely on intended projectiles. Firing two rounds per minute, the Napoleon gets off 23.2 lbs of metal.

The .58 minie ball weighs just a hair over one ounce. Using the usual yardstick that a good soldier could get off three rounds per minute, that means you need 62 infantrymen to equal one 12 pounder Napoleon in terms of weight of metal. A Confederate four-gun battery flings as much metal in a minute as the typical veteran infantry regiment, and a six-gun Union battery quite a bit more.

Keep in mind that assumes that the artillery is firing single canister. Hard-pressed artillery batteries habitually relied upon double, or even triple canister loads for short range work. On that footing, it’s easy to imagine a single six-gun battery matching the sheer firepower of an entire brigade in weight of metal terms.

If you follow the conventional wisdom, the artillery charge┬ánever worked during the Civil War, or when it did work that was a mere fluke. That myth is easily debunked by the very prominent examples of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s use of Morton’s artillery at Brice’s Crossroads, or the adventures of Confederate horse artillerist John Pelham. There were many other less well-known examples of artillery being pushed up to the front, either with or without infantry, and successfully attacking the enemy with canister.

Conversely, what often goes unobserved is that if the minie bullet could ostensibly gun down artillery crews who dared to attack the infantry because of their increased range, they should have just as easily been able to chop up those same crews fighting in defense if they were fighting from similar ranges. Once the guns were in action, the tactical implications of infantry vs. artillery were basically the same. Yet while infantry could, and sometimes did, chew up artillery crews manning a defensive position in a firefight, the conventional wisdom is that artillery, particularly with infantry support, was the Civil War battlefield’s king of defense.

“Once they were in action” is the critical point there, which goes straight to a dictum about tactics: no tactic is guaranteed of success in every and all circumstances. Pushing the artillery forward in the Civil War could still work if it were done under the right circumstances, namely those that ensured the guns could get into action before they were brought under heavy musket fire, and that they would be adequately supported once in action. The increased range of the musket complicated things, but as the positive examples prove, not to such an extent as to make the artillery charge impossible.

The famous “Napoleon” 12-pounder smoothbore

Perhaps the biggest point of dispute in modern Civil War historiography is how much impact the rifled musket actually had. Paddy Griffith fired the first volley in this conflict in 2001 with his Battle Tactics of the Civil War, which was followed up by Brent Nosworthy’s The Bloody Crucible of Courage: Fighting Methods and Combat Experience of the Civil War and Earl Hess’s The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth.

A major sub-point in this dispute over real vs. legendary tactics is the offensive role of artillery, namely the artillery charge. Conventional wisdom is that the rifled musket caused the breakdown of the artillery charge tactic, which was such a successful part of the Napoleonic System. That conventional wisdom is, unfortunately, grossly simplistic and terribly flawed.

The Myth of the Napoleonic Artillery Charge
The first problem with the usual understanding about the artillery charge lies in the myths that grew up around Napoleonic tactics. Ostensibly, the classic Napoleonic combined arms pattern was to use cavalry to force the enemy infantry into dense formations and to cover for bringing up artillery; then artillery at close range would blast holes in the infantry with canister; the disorganized enemy infantry line would then be set upon and routed by infantry attack; and the cavalry would return to pursue.

The problem is that this exact scenario never actually happened, and the artillery charge — pushing guns unsupported by infantry up into canister range — was about as uncommon on the Napoleonic battlefield as it was on the Civil War battlefield. The best example of the Napoleonic artillery charge was at Friedland in 1807, but otherwise it’s difficult to find another textbook example, and even then Friedland doesn’t correspond to the whole myth of Napoleonic combined arms.

Another confusing issue with the artillery charge is the role of light foot guns used in direct support of infantry regiments. Napoleon himself abandoned the practice of assigning small caliber guns, like the three-pounder “grasshopper” or French four-pounder, during the peak of his army’s prowess. However, such guns were common enough prior to that, and Napoleon reintroduced them when the general quality of his infantry started to decline, appreciating their “stiffening value.” Some other European armies, such as the Prussians, never abandoned the practice of supporting infantry regiments with light guns.

One has to wonder how much of the notion of the Napoleonic artillery charge came from these light field guns accompanying the infantry and fighting alongside them on the firing line?

Gun Weight
Another aspect of the efficacy of the Civil War artillery charge vis-a-vis its Napoleonic forebear is the differences in cannon weight. An obvious problem for bringing guns up to attack an enemy on their own is how easy it is to move them around, with weight and terrain being the two main factors.

A light gun, like the British three-pounder, weighs about 500 lbs. The U.S. Model 1841 six-pounder field gun, which was widely used during the early years of the Civil War and roughly corresponds to many medium field guns of the Napoleonic era (which were six- or eight-pounders), had a tube weight of about 850 lbs. The Model 1841 twelve-pounder howitzer, which also corresponds to a number of Napoleonic arms, had a tube weight of 788 lbs.

The famed twelve-pounder “Napoleon” (as in Napoleon III) was an innovation principally because it combined aspects of the field gun and howitzer into the same weapon, but it was also ponderously heavy at 1,227 lbs for the tube alone. The new rifled cannon were often as heavy or heavier. While the popular three-inch ordinance rifle was a mere 816 lbs, the 10-pounder Parrot weighed 1,750 lbs, and these weapons weren’t of as much use at “smashing” an opponent with canister as the Napoleon in any case.

In theory, Napoleonic artillery charges were made by horse artillery, “galloper guns,” which were generally lighter and had more horses in the team for greater mobility. The old U.S. Army had something similar in its “flying artillery,” but never on the same scale, and even less so during the Civil War. Also, in horse artillery units the crew is mounted, while in foot artillery units the crew marches alongside the guns until battle, and then either rides the limbers or runs into battle.

If you’ve got bigger, heavier guns with men riding atop them, clearly they will be unwieldier on the battlefield. Yet this very serious change in the fundamentals of artillery often goes without comment in works on Civil War tactics. Frankly, I think how long it takes a battery to get into position, unlimbered, and into action — time — is at least as important to its tactical effectiveness as rifled muskets bringing them under fire at greater ranges.

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