Henry Hunt on “short howitzers for vertical fire”

When discussing artillery’s ballistic properties, the terms “horizontal fire” and “vertical fire” come into play.  As the names imply, these refer to the path of the projectile relative to the earth’s surface.  Due to gravity and other natural forces, horizontal fire is not ruler-straight, but a flat curve.  Vertical fire, likewise, is not straight up (or one hopes not), but rather a tall curve.  The early gunners of the first artillery pieces learned that different trajectories offered advantages that could be applied to a tactical situation.  In a nutshell, horizontal fire worked well to batter an obstacle while vertical fire could put projectiles over and beyond the obstacle.  Tactical application of basic physics.

By the time of the Civil War, vertical fire had become somewhat a “specialty” technique.  Field artillerists were certainly aware of vertical fire and employed it on occasion.  But on the open battlefields, field artillery fired directly on targets – or horizontally.   The hausse sight saw more use than the gunners’ quadrant.

That in mind, consider correspondence from Brigadier-General Henry Hunt, Artillery Chief, Army of the Potomac, to Brigadier-General George Ramsay, Chief of Ordnance for the US Army:

Artillery Headquarters, Army of the Potomac,
April 21, 1864.
Brig. Gen. George D. Ramsay,
Chief of Ordnance, Washington, D.C.:

General: I have at your request examined the proposition of Capt. [Adolph] Schwartz, aide-de-camp, for the introduction into our service of short howitzers for vertical fire.

As to the necessity, there are but few occasions in which the light 12-pounder gun will not, by reducing the charge and giving high elevations, perform the service required of the short howitzers. The caliber being smaller, a greater number of guns must be brought into requisition and a greater number of shells used, but these field batteries can supply.

In the few cases in which the 12-pounder field gun cannot accomplish the work of the proposed howitzers, from the enemy occupying hollows or low grounds which cannot be seen, or where he is behind works or cover at short ranges which the shells of the gun cannot reach, a few Coehorn mortars would answer the purpose required. These mortars form a part of our system of artillery. Four of them, with their bed, can readily be carried in a common wagon; they have ranges from 500 to 1,000 yards, and eight or a dozen of them, with 50 or 60 rounds each of ammunition, would, with the 12-pounders of an army corps or of an army, answer all the purposes likely to be required.

I do not undervalue the howitzer for its special service, but I think the evil of adding to the number and variety of our kinds of guns and ammunition would outweigh the advantage.

Respectfully, your obedient servant,
Henry J. Hunt,
Brigadier-General, Chief of Artillery, Army of the Potomac.

“Captain” Adolph Schwartz was at that time of the war “Major” Adolph Schwartz, a staff officer serving in the Thirteenth Corps, posted on the Mississippi.  And Schwartz is an interesting character.  Early in the war Schwartz commanded Battery E, 2nd Illinois Artillery (though formed in St. Louis, Missouri).  He served with distinction on many early war battles in the west, in particular at Shiloh.  His wartime service was closely linked to Major-General John A. McClernand.  From Belmont to Vicksburg, Schwartz served as McClernand’s adviser, artillery chief, ordnance chief, and at times adjutant.  The congratulatory order issued after Arkansas Post, which angered William T. Sherman and to some degree U.S. Grant, came from Schwartz, by order of McClernand of course.   (However, I am at a loss to put together Schwartz’ pre-war background.  If any readers have leads, I would appreciate it.)

I’ve looked far and low for a copy of Schwartz’ suggestion.  As an “artillery historian” I have long wanted to see the details suggested and determine what tactical observations Schwartz offered.  And at the same time, this particular letter from Schwartz might help explain the context of Hunt’s response.  I suspect Schwartz suggested use of short-length howitzers of 24-pounder caliber (basing that on the details offered in Hunt’s response).

Because Hunt was asked to respond, one might assume the suggestion was directly addressed to the Army of the Potomac.  But the first strike against that is the reference to “Captain” Schwartz. I doubt that Hunt knew Schwartz directly.  And thus was probably using the rank he saw on the referenced document.  I’m not certain when Schwartz received promotion to major, but do know in January 1863 he was signing orders as a major.   Thus the suggestion likely dated from 1862 or earlier.

So was this a general observation offered by a lowly captain, sent directly to the Ordnance Department following field experience in the Western Theater?  Or was this a suggestion passed up the chain of command, slowly, and eventually landing at the Ordnance Department for comment?  Or does it really matter?  OK… I’ll leave that determination until Schwartz’s suggestion is available.

But let us focus on Hunt’s dismissal of the proposal.  He offered that 12-pdr Napoleons and Coehorn mortars would fill the needs.  And the bottom line, echoing Hunt’s experience from several major campaigns – there was no need to introduce yet another “system” to the field artillery.  He preferred to keep the guns, their trains, and their support arrangements very simple and uniform.

But wait… Coehorns?  Those were not part of the Army of the Potomac’s formal artillery park.  Hunt said, “These mortars form a part of our system of artillery.”  I read that to mean the “big Army’s system of artillery” as in that approved by the War Department and posted to the manuals.  I don’t think he is saying, as of that date, the Army of the Potomac had formally incorporated Coehorns into the artillery park.  There are several references, by Hunt, including Coehorns in the siege train setup to support the Army of the Potomac.  One of which was in April 1864, when Hunt requested twenty Coehorns set aside in Washington as part of the siege train to support the army.  But that siege train was not included with the force about to crash into the Wilderness, but rather a force held in reserve, should the situation call for formal siege operations.

So why am I picking on this response from Hunt about some letter written by an obscure artillerist from the west?  Here’s the point – Hunt didn’t have Coehorns on hand to “answer the purpose required” as a formal part of his artillery reserve when he wrote in April.  However, he did have Coehorns on hand in May.  To be exact, “eight 24-pounder Coehorn mortars with 100 rounds each of ammunition were served by a detachment of Fifteenth New York Foot Artillery.

So… did Schwartz’s suggestion have some influence on Hunt’s inclusion of two wagon loads of Coehorns?

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, page 935.)

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4 responses to “Henry Hunt on “short howitzers for vertical fire”

  1. This is an extremely interesting post. I wasn’t aware of the concept of adding coehorns to the field artillery. As for Hunt’s view regarding howitzers, I see a couple of issues. One is adding another “system”, given the virtual disappearance of traditional howitzers from the A of the P’s artillery. The other would be their assimilation into field batteries as a tactical problem – illustrated, IIRC, by the experience of Weidrich’s NY battery at Second Bull Run, during which he could only dispatch 1 (or 2) section(s) of rifles to meet the Confederate assault on the left because of the short range of his section of howitzers.

  2. This is very intruguing. I have been very interested in the history of indirect fire since reading Michael Grice’s book On Gunnery. It is great to read a primary source describing its use, or perhaps disuse, from this period.

  3. Pingback: “The Coehorn mortars were employed wherever circumstances would permit”: Mortars at Spotsylvania | To the Sound of the Guns

  4. Pingback: Mortars and shells wanted at the front: Importance of horizontal fires at Petersburg | To the Sound of the Guns

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