Big Brass Cannons – 24-pdr Field Howitzers

Prior to the Civil War, field artillery retained the type-classification and employment doctrine from the early 19th-century, leaning heavily on the European Napoleonic experience.  While emerging technologies would shift both the classifications and the doctrine during the Civil War, even in 1866, the Army stubbornly clung to the old ways.   Perhaps the best example of this adherence to classification and doctrine was the 24-pdr Field Howitzer.   The weapon class traced back to colonial and Revolutionary War period heavy field ordnance, but had evolved considerably with time.

In that age, ordnance designers built howitzers to loft explosive shells, at higher angles than the guns, onto targets at longer ranges than mortars.  During the Revolutionary War, the 8-inch caliber was popular, but I have found howitzers ranging from 4.62-inch and 5.5-inch calibers from that era.  These were somewhat stumpy bronze pieces.  Contemporary sources credit these weapons with effective ranges of around 750 to 800 yards, and maximum range out to 1300 yards.  (Apologies for the old 35mm photo)

Revolutionary War Howizter at Yorktown

Revolutionary War Era Howitzer - Yorktown, Va

During the early years of the United States, the Army made a switch to iron field pieces.  Initial developments continued the short, stumpy appearance.  However, with iron generally heavier than bronze, the smaller 24-pdr or 5.82-inch caliber was standardized for field pieces (the 8-inch caliber continued for siege and garrison weapons, though).  Unfortunately, the documentation regarding these early American 24-pdr Field Howitzers is almost non-existent.  About the only “facts” we know is from examination of a handful of examples surviving today.  Castillo de San Marcos, in St. Augustine Florida has three such weapons in its collection.  (Again apologies for the old 35mm photo, it has been some time since my last visit to the fort)

Iron 24-pdr Field Howitzers - St. Augustine

Iron 24-pdr Field Howitzers - St. Augustine

The second piece from the camera conforms to the “pattern of 1819″ forms.  But the howitzer closet to the camera, and the third from the end are of unknown patterns.  The pattern of 1819 weapon is about 33 inches long overall, with a 29 inch bore – or roughly five calibers.  No shot tables exist, but likely these pieces inherited the short ranges of their predecessors.  In order to extend range, the most efficient option was to simply lengthen the bore.

Records indicate the Army experimented with several iron 24-pdr field howitzers from 1834 to 1841.  Columbia Foundry in the District of Columbia, Cyrus Alger of Boston, and West Point Foundry in New York delivered at least seventeen examples.  The Army tested several weapons imported from Europe.  Regardless, iron was found, as it was for the smaller 6-pdr field guns, unsuitable at that time.  Alger and N.P. Ames Foundries produced 56 bronze 24-pdr Field Howitzers from 1836 to 1838 to fill the Army’s requirements instead.  Unfortunately none of these are cataloged survivors.  The only particular known for these weapons is the weights of a select few – averaging 1320 pounds.  Quite likely, these conformed to established bronze patterns in use at the time, with breach and chase rings.

In fact, other than the handful of iron pieces mentioned above, the only field howitzers of the 24-pdr caliber surviving today are bronze types produced from 1841 to 1863, conforming to standards established in 1841 for exterior shape.  Of 69 tallied as delivered by Cyrus Alger and N.P. Ames, nearly two-thirds survive today.  Contemporary regulations listed a Model 1844, but with the production starting in 1841, the earlier date for the pattern is consistent.  I will, then, consider these Model 1841 24-pdr Field Howitzers.  From the standpoint of doctrine, the 24-pdr howitzers paired with the 12-pdr Field Guns, if employed to mixed batteries.  Artillerists planned to employ these howitzers supporting the main infantry line and the flying batteries, lobbing shells to break up enemy infantry and artillery covered by terrain or fortifications.

Vacation 586

Model 1841 24-pdr Field Howitzer "No 1"

Of these surviving Model 1841s, numbers 1 and 2 from the Alger production batch stand side by side at Shiloh National Military park, representing Battery D, 1st Illinois Light Artillery (McAllister’s Battery).  The monument stands at the battery’s position in the morning fighting on April 6, 1862.  As part of McClernand’s 1st Division, Army of the Tennessee, the battery went into action with four 24-pdr howitzers near Review Field.  McAllister’s Battery was driven back during the afternoon eventually finding a place in line near Pittsburg Landing, losing two pieces in the process.  In the second day’s fighting, those two remaining 24-pdrs were used to support Marsh’s Brigade of McClernand’s Division.

The summary of that battery’s activities at Shiloh brings up the logical question with regard to handiness of the 24-pdrs in action.  Compare the 24-pdr with the figures for the 12-pdr Field Howitzer, 12-pdr Light Field gun Model 1857 (Napoleon), and the 32-pdr Field Howitzer below:

24-pdr How Table

(Select image to zoom in) (See comments)

Just looking at the raw numbers, the 24-pdr Howitzer, while 100 pounds heavier than the Napoleon, could throw a projectile twice the size to the same range.  Arguably, for the fighting in wood thickets at Shiloh, the 12-pdr Field Howitzers were handier and possessed sufficient range for the action.  But certainly in open fields, one would prefer either the Napoleon or 24-pdr for range.  But the 32-pdr, even given increases in range and throw weight, was much too heavy.

On paper, the only disadvantage of the 24-pdr compared to the Napoleon was the 100 extra pounds of the gun tube.  But that is certainly not all the story.  The Napoleon used a slightly lighter carriage, further splitting the weight difference.  That seemingly small difference in weight required an eight-horse team for the 24-pdr, over the six-horse team of the Napoleon.  Lastly, consider the ready ammunition.  A standard 12-pdr Napoleon chest included 12 shot, 12 case, 4 shells, and 4 canister for a total of 32 rounds.  But the 24-pdr chest contained 12 shells, 8 case, and 3 canister – a total of nine less than the smaller gun.  Further amplifying the weight issue, a chest of 12-pdr ammunition weighed 484 pounds compared to 565 pounds for the 24-pdr.   Thus any commander was faced with a logistic problem – in order to keep the 24-pdr on line with the 12-pdr over a fixed period of time, he had to allocate more horseflesh to hauling more ammunition chests, in addition to animals with the guns.   Yes, in the real tactical world, seldom is an item’s weight a specification overlooked without consequence.

That explanation for the 24-pdr Field Howitzer’s limited use aside, a fair number of the pieces stand on the battlefields and town squares today as reminders of the Civil War.  And, at least the Federal version, is easy to identify from a distance.  The handles over the trunnions are the first indicator.

Handles on Alger  24-pdr (No. 5)

Handles on Alger 24-pdr (No. 5)

The piece above represents Battery F, 2nd Illinois Lt. Artillery (Powell’s Battery), on the defensive line near Pittsburg Landing,  close to the Shiloh visitor center.

The handles were somewhat the continued design practice from those old 18th century guns.  Functionally the adornment offered a purchase for ropes while the tube was mounted.  But as the metallurgical arts progressed, designers realized such features offered stress points and impediments to clean casting.  Early production 24-pdr Howitzers used handles with the half octagon profile shape seen above.  Alger models used a rectangular “pad” where the handle joined the gun tube.   Ames used an octagon shaped pad.  However, later production, in 1862-63, featured completely round handles.

Another visual indicator for the 24-pdr Field Howitzer is the recessed area over the chamber.

Alger 24-pdr FH, No. 2

Alger 24-pdr FH, No. 2

Going back to McAllister’s Battery, this time looking at registry number 2, the line of the recessed area is apparent just in front of the vent.  Since this is a howitzer, and by definition uses a sub-caliber chamber (in this case 4.62 inch diameter), there is less stress on the breech.  As such, the designers were able to save a little weight by removing metal from the casting form over the breech.  The difference in diameter is only about a half inch, but enough to change the weapon’s profile.

Chamber?  Yes indeed:

Shiloh VC 1045

Bore of a 24-pdr Howitzer

Note the lip of the chamber about where the leave sit in registry number 5, again from Shiloh.

Chase and muzzle rings completed the form of the 24-pdr Field Howitzer Model 1841.  So outside of the handles and recessed breech, these weapons look much like an enlarged 12-pdr Field Howitzer of the same model year.

Shiloh VC 1047

Profile of Alger No. 5

Alluded to above, there was a break of sorts in the production of 24-pdrs.  Collectively Alger and Ames delivered around twenty prior to 1848, filling requirements for the peacetime “mixed batteries” with two howitzers and four guns each.  Production resumed again in 1858 with 10 from Alger.  Then in 1862-63 the Federals received about forty more from Alger and Ames.

This of course begs the question, why at a time when the Models of 1841 were being phased out, were the 24-pdrs arriving from the factory?  My guess is the piece performed at least adequately in the field, and of course the type was useful in fixed fortifications also.  Certainly the 24-pdr bronze, at 1320 pounds, was more useful tactically than the 24-pdr Iron Siege and Garrison Howitzer at 1500 pounds.

The 24-pdr Field Howitzer, while not perhaps as popular as the Napoleon which I’ve compared it to, did see a fair amount service during the war.  In addition to Shiloh, western batteries used the type at Vicksburg and other battles up to 1864.  The type remained in the siege trains for Federal armies east and west, and was employed at Petersburg and during the Atlanta Campaign.  A 24-pdr “brass” howitzer featured prominently in the fighting at Monocacy in July 1864.  The crew incorrectly loaded the piece in the heat of combat, rendering it useless, however.  Even as late as 1877, Army manuals required accounting of the weapon and supporting tools.   The Confederates produced a small quantity of their own (which I will focus upon in another post), and also used captured examples.

Alger No. 11 at Washington NY

Alger No. 11 at Washington NY

The plaque in front of Alger foundry’s No. 11 states the Confederates used this particular piece to defend Morris Island, outside Charleston, South Carolina.  The howitzer was taken as a trophy for the Navy’s participation in the siege and reduction of the works, and today stands in Leutze Park, in Washington Navy Yard.  So these weapons were found useful by both sides during the war.   And as time permits, I’ll go into the Confederate use of these weapons, the imported foreign types in the caliber, and the use of the iron siege howitzer mentioned above.

But for now in summary, consider that while 100 pounds does not sound like a lot, it was enough to limit, tactically speaking, the 24-pdr Field Howitzer as a weapon system.

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Aside from on site notes and links provided above, sources consulted for this post were:

Gooding, S. James.  An Introduction to British Artillery in North America.  Alexandria Bay, NY: Museum Restoration Service, 1988.

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.

Muller, John.  A Treatise of Artillery.  Reprint of the 1780 edition.  Alexandria Bay, NY: Museum Restoration Service, 1977.  (Used to reference the standard artillery bore sizes and artillery employment in the colonial-Revolutionary eras.)

Olmstead, Edwin, Wayne E. Stark, and Spencer C. Tucker. The Big Guns: Civil War Siege, Seacoast and Naval Cannon. Alexandria Bay, NY: Museum Restoration Service, 1997.

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

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5 responses to “Big Brass Cannons – 24-pdr Field Howitzers

  1. Two notes on the comparison chart above. First there is an error with the bore size of the 24-pdr – should read 5.82-inch. Also the bore length stated INCLUDES the depth of the chamber. Sorry for any confusion.

  2. The one that got me was the “Dictator” near the end of the Civil War that would power the shells two miles. It is amazing to look at the evolution of weapons. Thanks for the article!

    The History Man

  3. The three eight-inch siege howitzers located in St. Augustine Florida have now been identified.
    Details here: http://gs19.inmotionhosting.com/~milita8/cmh/member/member.cgi/read/8107

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