One of Civil War Trust’s latest preservation efforts is a large parcel of property, covering 285 acres, at Gaines Mill, Virginia. The targeted ground is that over which General James Longstreet’s men attacked on June 27, 1862.
But like many locations in Virginia, the site was not a “one event” spot. A month earlier, Federals occupied positions around Dr. Gaines farm. At that time the balloonist made an appearance, as the Federals worked across Chickahominy Creek at New Bridge. An article on Civil War Trust’s site briefly discusses this skirmish with regard to the aeronaut activities. Thaddeus Lowe established the “Balloon Corps” station on Gaines Farm in late May. On May 23, batteries of the 2nd US Artillery, from the Army’s horse artillery, deployed in the same area. Company A, 2nd US Artillery, under Captain John C. Tidball, shelled Confederate positions and received some direction from the balloonists.
In his official report on the action, Tidball wrote:
I have the honor to report that about 12 m. on the 23d instant my battery was ordered from its camp near New Bridge, over the Chickahominy River, for the purpose of shelling the ground occupied by the enemy in the vicinity of that bridge.
The pieces were placed in battery near the mansion of Dr. Gaines, and from there opened a steady and well-directed fire on the point indicated. The enemy made no reply, but, from the report of those in the balloon, fled from their position. After firing 93 rounds the battery was withdrawn, and a few minutes afterward started on its march toward Mechanicsville. A few rods after the head of the column, of which the left section of my battery constituted an advanced portion, had passed the bridge over Bell’s Creek, several cannon-shots were fired by the enemy from pieces on the eminence immediately in our front…. (OR Series I, Volume II, Part I, Serial 12, page 656).
Sort of a one-sided action, almost a routine action in many regards. But Tidball’s mention of the balloon is worth analysis.
There are many mentions of “indirect” fire employed during the Civil War, or more specifically – “spotted” fire. Contrary to our American pride, this style of fire control was not developed during our mid-19th century conflict, but rather dates back practically to the concept of siege weapons (in other words ancient stuff). However the use of balloons, signal flags, telegraph, and other technologies came into play during the Civil War.
The question does arise why the combatants did not make more use of spotted fires. Well there were some problems with technology. The oft cited issue involved the lag in communications. However one can imagine Lowe, a few hundred feet above Tidball’s guns, shouting down, “… a little to the left…” or “… give it one more turn of elevation….” But at best Lowe could only offer a description of where the shot fell. He could not aid the direction of the next shot.
You see, the real problem was not with communications, but with the guns themselves. In order to “spot” a round, the observer and gunners must have some reasonable way to have the projectile fall in a predictable manner – in other words, consistent shot pattern. Civil War artillery lacked recoil dampening or compensating systems. The projectiles used rudimentary time fuses which were prone to failure. The projectiles themselves, both rifled and smoothbore, were apt to take erratic ballistic courses. And none of this took into account the effects of wind, weather and temperature. Putting two successive rounds in the same spot required luck in addition to the skill of the gun crew.
Predicted fire would have to wait a few more decades until recoil systems, better projectiles and guns, advanced firing tables, and proper weather reports would enable gunners to place rounds on a target with some degree of regularity. At that point, “spotting” was not only possible, but required!