The Cannons
of the Civil War

At the opening of this conflict most of the materiel for both armies was of the same type—smoothbore. The various guns included weapons in the great masonry fortifications built on the long United States coast line beginning in the 1790's—weapons such as the Columbiad, a heavy, long-chambered American muzzle-loadler of iron, developed from its bronze forerunner of 1810. The Columbiad (fig. 14d) was made in 8-, 10-, and 12-inch calibers and could throw shot and shell well over 5,000 yards. "New" Columbiads came out of the foundries at the start of the 1860's, minus the powder chamber and with smoother lines. Behind the parapets or in fort gunrooms were 32- and 42-pounder iron seacoast guns (fig. 10); 24-pounder bronze howitzers lay in the bastions to flank the long reaches of the fort walls. There were 8-inch seacoast howitzers for heavier work. The largest caliber piece was the ponderous 13-inch seacoast mortar.

Siege and garrison cannon included 24-pounder and 8-inch bronze howitzers (fig. 14b), a 10-inch bronze mortar (fig. 14a), 12-, 18-, and 24-pounder iron guns (fig. 14c) and later the 4-1/2;-inch cast-iron rifle. With the exception of the new 3-inch ordnance wrought-iron rifle (fig. 14e), field artillery cannon were bronze: 6-and 12-pounder guns, the 12-pounder Napoleon gun-howitzer, 12-pounder mountain howitzer, 12-, 24-, and 32-pounder field howitzers, and the Coehorn mortar (fig. 39). A machine gun Invented by Dr. Richard J. Gatling became part of the artillery equipment during the war, but was not much used. Reminiscent of the ancient ribaudequin, a repeating cannon of several barrels, the Gatling gun could fire about 350 shots a minute from its 10 barrels, which were rotated and fired by turning a crank. In Europe it became more popular than the French mitrailleuse.

various artillery pieces
FIGURE 14—U. S. ARTILLERY TYPES (1861-1865). a—Siege mortar. b—S-inch siege howitzer. c—24-pounder siege gun. d—8-inch Columbiad. e—3-inch ordnance wrought-iron rifle. f—10-inch Rodman.

The smaller smoothbores were effective with case shot up to about 600 or 700 yards, and maximum range of field pieces went from something less than the 1,566-yard solid-shot trajectory of the Napoleon to about 2,600 yards (a mile and a half) for a 6-inch howitzer. At Chancellorsville, one of Stonewall Jackson's guns fired a shot which bounded down the center of a roadway and came to rest a mile away. The performance verified the drill-book tables. Maximum ranges of the larger pieces, however, ran all the way from the average 1,600 yards of an 18-pounder garrison gun to the well over 3-mile range of a 12-inch Columbiad firing a 180-pound shell at high elevation. A 13-inch seacoast mortar would lob a 200-pound shell 4,325 yards, or almost 2-1/2 miles. The shell from an 8-inch howitzer carried 2,280 yards, but at such extreme ranges the guns could hardly be called accurate.

On the battlefield, Napoleon's artillery tactics were no longer practical. The infantry, armed with its own comparatively long-range firearm, was usually able to keep artillery beyond case-shot range, and cannon had to stand off at such long distances that their primitive ammunition was relatively ineffective. The result was that when attacking infantry moved in, the defending infantry and artillery were still fresh and unshaken, ready to pour a devastating point-blank fire into the assaulting lines. Thus, in spite of an intensive bombardment of almost 2 hours by 142 Confederate guns at the crisis of Gettysburg, as the grayclad troops advanced across the field to close range, double canister and concentrated infantry volleys cut them down in masses.

Field artillery smoothbores, under conditions prevailing during the war, generally gave better results than the smaller-caliber rifle. A 3-inch rifle, for instance, had twice the range of a Napoleon; but in the broken, heavily wooded country where so much of the fighting took place, the superior range of the rifle could not be used to full advantage. Neither was its relatively small and sometimes defective projectile as damaging to personnel as case or grape from a larger caliber smoothbore. At the first battle of Manassas (July 1861) more than half the 49 Federal cannon were rifled; but by 1863, even though many more rifles were in service, the majority of the pieces in the field were still the old reliable 6- and 12-pounder smoothbores.

It was in siege operations that the rifles forced a new era. As the smoke cleared after the historic bombardment of Fort Sumter in 1861, military men were already speculating on the possibilities of the newfangled weapon. A Confederate 12-pounder Blakely had pecked away at Sumter with amazing accuracy. But the first really effective use of the rifles in siege operations was at Fort Pulaski (1862). Using 10 rifles and 26 smoothbores, Colonel Gillmore breached the 712-foot-thick brick walls in little more than 24 hours. Yet his batteries were a mile away from the target! The heavier rifles were converted smoothbores, firing 48-, 64-, and 84-pound James projectiles that drove into the fort wall from 19 to 26 inches at each fair shot. The smoothbore Columbiads could penetrate only 13 inches, while from this range the ponderous mortars could hardly hit the fort. A year later, Gillmore used 100-, 200-, and 300-pounder Parrott rifles against Fort Sumter. The big guns, firing from positions some 2 miles away and far beyond the range of the fort guns, reduced Sumter to a smoking mass of rubble.

The range and accuracy of the rifles startled the world. A 30-pounder (4.2-inch) Parrott had an amazing carry of 8,453 yards with 80-pound hollow shot; the notorious "Swamp Angel" that fired on Charleston in 1863 was a 200-pounder Parrott mounted in the marsh 7,000 yards from the city. But strangely enough, neither rifles nor smoothbores could destroy earthworks. As was proven several times during the war, the defenders of a well-built earthwork were able to repair the trifling damage done by enemy fire almost as soon as there was a lull in the shooting. Learning this lesson, the determined Confederate defenders of Fort Sumter in 1863-65 refused to surrender, but under the most difficult conditions converted their ruined masonry into an earthwork almost impervious to further bombardment.


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