The Artillery Charge in the Civil War, Part II

on November 25, 2013 in American Civil War, Strategy and Tactics

~Jump Back to Part I~

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.

One Response to “The Artillery Charge in the Civil War, Part II”

  1. JNO Paulson says:

    Brent Nosworthy and Earl Hess should read this.

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