Daily Archives: 5 January 2009

Confederate Iron Napoleon

Well let me get back to the blogging habits starting this new year, and continue looking at some interesting artillery pieces on display at Petersburg National Battlefield.

More than once source has mistakenly labeled this piece a “12-pdr Parrott Field Gun”:

Tredegar Iron 12-pounder Field Gun

Tredegar Iron 12-pounder Field Gun

Well it does have a reinforcing band, technically using the Parrott concept.  But this gun tube was made in Richmond at Tredegar Iron Works.  Looking closer to the band, clearly this is not a Parrott:


Band of Tredegar Napoleon

The edges of the band are smoother, nearly blending into the breech.  True Parrotts on the other hand have crisp, flat angles by comparison.

And just to verify, yes this is a smoothbore, with a 4.62 inch diameter bore.

Smooth as a Baby's....well Smoothbore

Smooth as a Baby's....well Smoothbore

Several secondary sources discuss markings, but either due to lighting or paint, none were clearly visible on my visit.  The sources indicate a muzzle marking set showing 1249 // 102 // J.W.B. // T.F. // 1865.  Translation – weighing 1249 pounds, registry number 102, inspected by J.W.B. (no solid identification), cast by Tredegar Foundry in 1865.    The sources also indicate a stamp of the foundry number 2243 on the left trunnion.

Particulars of the Iron Napoleon conform to dimensions of standard Confederate bronze examples – 72 inch overall length, 4.2 inch diameter trunnions, and of course the 12-pounder 4.62 inch bore.  However, iron being a denser metal, the weight of 1250 pounds is a bit more than the 1215 pounds of a typical Confederate bronze weapon of the same class.  Federal bronze Napoleons weighed around 1230 pounds typically (with some variance in the lots).   The Iron Napoleon used the same ammunition, was mounted on the same carriages, and its increase of weight was tactically insignificant.

The switch to iron from bronze was certainly prompted by a shortage of the later metal for gun making.  (There were only so many bells to melt down, you know?)  But iron was not exactly the metal of choice for field pieces.  Throughout the 1830s and 40s the U.S. Ordnance Department had supported experiments with various metal mixes and casting techniques.  All of which were dead ends.  After 1841, with some experimental exceptions, regulation field pieces were made of bronze.  (That is until the iron rifles of Phoenix Iron Works (3 inch Ordnance Rifle) and Parrott made their appearance in the 1860s.)

The problem with iron at the time was described in contemporary accounts as “brittleness.”  With the support of our modern perspective, we know the issue was three-fold – the mixture of the metal itself, cooling techniques, and the design of the gun tube.  Eventually the Ordnance officers and gun founders figured out a happy balance of metal mixtures and gun tube design.  But Tredegar for some reason did not adopt the “recipe” for gun metal nor the cooling techniques, as was done in the north.  But Tredegar was happy to “borrow” the northerner’s gun tube design features.  Aside from the Parrott type wrought iron reinforcing band, note the blending of trunnion rimbases to the gun tube.

Tredegar produced an estimated 125 of these iron Napoleons during the war, of which less than ten survive (or at least are known to survive) today.  Aside from the example at Petersburg, another is on display in Richmond.  Four examples were recovered from a landfill at old  Watervliet Arsenal, New York and actually attributed to the nearby Parrott producing West Point Foundry!

This example stands guard at Battery 5 of the Dimmock Line at Peterburg today.

Napoleon in the Dimmock Line

Napoleon in the Dimmock Line


Sources consulted:

Hazlett, James C., Edwin Olmstead, and M. Hume Parks. Field Artillery Weapons of the Civil War, Revised Edition. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Ripley, Warren. Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War, 4th Edition. Charleston, S.C.: The Battery Press, 1984.