Author Archives: Craig Swain

“I would propose … the train be intrusted to Colonel Abbot”: Organizing a Siege Train for the 1864 Campaign

Earlier I posted about the reorganization, or if you prefer, consolidation, of the field artillery in the weeks before the start of the Overland Campaign.  Another organizational action, no less critical to the ultimate objective of the campaign, for the artillery supporting the Army of the Potomac was the re-creation of the siege train.  If the upcoming campaign were completely successful, and destroyed the Army of Northern Virginia outside of Richmond, then there would be little need for a siege train or any artillery.  But the most likely scenario (and what did come to pass) involved a siege of Richmond in some form.  Acting on prompts from his superiors, Brigadier-General Henry Hunt put forward his recommendations on April 16, 1864:

Artillery Headquarters, Army of the Potomac,
April 16, 1864.
Major-General Humphreys,
Chief of Staff:
General: I have respectfully to submit the following proposition for the organization of a siege train, should one be required for service with this army near Richmond:

The train should be prepared in Washington, and as a minimum composed of forty 4 ½-inch siege guns, six spare carriages: ten 10-inch mortars, two spare carriages; twenty 8-inch mortars, four spare carriages; twenty Coehorn mortars.

With the proper implements and equipments, tool wagons, sling carts, battery wagons and forges, mortar wagons, &c., the eight 4½-inch siege guns of Abbot’s regiment (First Connecticut Heavy Artillery), lately sent to Washington, to constitute a part of the train. If the material can be brought by water or rail to within a reasonable distance of the point at which the train is to be used, the horse teams of the two siege batteries and those of the Artillery Reserve would be available for transporting the guns, and such additional mule teams as are required to bring them up can, it is supposed, be furnished from the quartermaster’s trains. The ammunition trains of the Artillery Reserve and artillery brigades attached to corps can be employed for the transport of the ammunition.

There should be provided for each siege gun 1,000 rounds of ammunition: for each siege mortar 600 shells: for each Coehorn mortar 200. Of this ammunition 200 rounds per piece should be brought up before opening fire; the remainder to be near enough to enable the supply to be kept up. At least 500 sand-bags should be supplied for each gun and mortar of the train, with an equal number in reserve.

I would propose that the organization of the train be intrusted to Colonel Abbot, First Connecticut Artillery, whose regiment served with the siege train at the siege of Yorktown. That the work may proceed with the utmost rapidity, another regiment of foot artillery (Kellogg’s, Warner’s, or Piper’s) might be added to Colonel Abbot’s command. Colonel Kellogg served with credit in the First Connecticut Artillery at Yorktown and is familiar with the duties. The two regiments of foot artillery in the reserve will be available as reliefs, guards for working parties, fabrication of gabions and fascines, filling sand-bags, &c.

The instruction of the regiments with the train in the mechanical maneuvers, laying of platforms, &c., should commence at once. A thorough knowledge of these duties will save much time when every hour is valuable. The material and working directions for constructing magazines, one for every four guns, should also be prepared in advance, that workmen drawn from the foot artillery regiments with the army may assist the engineers or construct them themselves.

It is understood that there are rifled 32-pounders, 4-inch caliber, in the works at Richmond. Should it be considered necessary to oppose to them guns of corresponding power (100-pounders) the ordnance officer should be instructed to prepare them and their material. This would be a timely precaution.

In case it should be thought necessary to move the train by water up the Pamunkey to the neighborhood of Hanover Court-House, instructions should be given to load the material on barges, double-decked ones if possible, such as are used on the Hudson River for transportation of flour, and do not draw more than 5 feet. This depth I understand is found as far up as the bridge at Widow Lumpkin’s, near Crump Creek, and within 5 miles by land of the railroad. The depth of water and the nature of the road from the bridge to the railway should be ascertained positively before procuring the barges. A decked scow or two and 100 or 200 feet of trestle bridging, similar to that prepared by Major Duane for the pontoon train, but of stronger dimensions, should be provided to enable landings to be effected at any point.

Henry J. Hunt,
Brigadier-General, Chief of Artillery.

Hunt knew exactly the make of weapons he wanted in the siege train.  Notice he still preferred the 4.5-inch rifles over the Parrotts of similar caliber (30-pdr).  And for someone who had worked primarily with field artillery over the last three years, Hunt knew the value of high angle mortar fire in siege operations.  Lower in the proposal, he turns to the heavy 100-pdr Parrotts, but only as a counter to similar caliber Confederate weapons.  Such leads me to believe Hunt saw the artillery’s primary role during any such siege to be firing in support of the engineers advancing parallels, and not demolishing enemy works.

Hunt called for 500 sandbags per gun, with another 500 in reserve.  Given the number of sandbags used the previous summer on Morris Island, I would say his estimates were low.

Notice also, in the last paragraph, how Hunt called out specific locations from which to base the siege trains and how they might be moved forward.  The lessons from the 1862 Richmond Campaign hold up while planning for 1864.

And Hunt knew exactly who he wanted manning the guns and leading those gunners.  Two batteries of the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery, armed with 4.5-inch rifles, had performed well as part of the Army’s artillery reserve.  And the 1st  Connecticut earlier served with the Army of the Potomac in the 1862 campaign against Richmond.  The man to lead the siege trains was Colonel Henry L. Abbot.  Hunt knew exactly what he was getting there.  Abbot was one of the best artillerists of the war, though you’ve probably never heard of him because his specialty was heavy artillery.  For those unfamiliar with Abbot, I hope to introduce him and his work over the last year of the sesquicentennial … that is if Brett does not beat me to it!

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, pages 880-1.)

150 years ago: “… a number of Hale’s War Rockets were thrown from Dixon’s Island…”

For his journal entry on April 15, 1864, Major Edward Manigault noted an uncommon, though not too unusual, weapon employed by the Federals:

At about 5 P.M. a Yankee Gunboat came up the Stono and Commenced Shelling our advanced Pickets about Legare’s Overseer’s House. At the same time a number of Hale’s War Rockets were thrown from Dickson’s [Dixon's] Island at the Stations occupied by the pickets and a force of probably 200 men was thrown forward from “Horse-Shoe Island” on to Bottany Island. Our Pickets, however, maintained their ground and the enemy soon retired.

Some of the Rockets thrown were picked up. The entire Case included a recess on the side for the escape of gas generated by the Burning Composition, also an opening at the rear end for escape of Gas. These Rocket cases empty, I judged to weigh about 18 pounds.

The cases were entirely of cast iron, the head rivetted on to the body post.

These were not the Congreve Rockets cited in the “Star Spangled Banner.”  Rather, as Manigault indicates, these were the type refined by British inventor William Hale and introduced in the 1840s. The 1861 version of the Ordnance Manual described these:

The war-rocket used in the military service is made after Hale’s patent. It consists, 1st. Of a sheet-iron case lined with paper and charged with rocket-composition. 2d. Of a cast-iron cylindro-conoidal head, with a small cavity communicating with the bore of the rocket, and pierced with three holes, oblique to the surface, for the escape of gas.  3d. Of a wrought-iron plug welded into the rear end of the case, and having a hole in its axis for the escape of gas.

The rocket is driven forward by the escape of gas through the hole in the rear end, and a motion of rotation around its axis is given to it by the escape of gas through the holes in the head, whereby its direction is preserved without the use of a directing-stick.

The composition is pressed solid in the case by means of a powerful press, and the bore of the rocket is drilled and reamed out to the proper size.

The sixes of rockets are indicated by the interior diameter of the cases. The two sizes used are the two-inch and three-inch.

Hale refined the rocket several times, with the main variation being the placement and shape of the vent or hole for propelling gas.  An 1866 patent carries this illustration:


Compared to the War of 1812 Congreve Rocket, Hale’s rocket lacked the stabilizing stick on the rear of the rocket.  The illustration below, from John Scoffern’s Projectile Weapons of War, 1858, compares Congreve’s, Hale’s, and an ordinary signal rocket:


While not a “debut” of the rocket as a weapon, the use outside Charleston was a rare employment.  A few days later, Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig wrote a very complementary report about the operational tests with rockets (including that of April 15).  Schimmelfennig requested more rockets.  I’ll continue with the “rocket’s trail” in a post discussing that request in a few days.

(Citation from: Edward Manigault, Siege Train: The Journal of a Confederate Artilleryman in the Defense of Charleston, edited by Warren Ripley, Charleston: University of South Carolina Press, 1986, page 140;  The Ordnance Manual for the Use of the Officers of the United States Army, Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott & Company, 1862, page 314.)

Seddon to Lee: “… the importance of depleating the population of Richmond…”

As the capitals of warring parties and major cities in a very active theater of operations, Richmond, Virginia and Washington, D.C. were at the same time rear areas and front lines.  The populations of both cities swelled. Some due to increased labor demands, but more so as refugees of war sought shelter.  Military camps and hospitals added to the number of people present.  In the case of Richmond, add to that the extensive prisoner holding facilities.   For the Confederate government, the large concentration of people in Richmond – military, civilian, prisoner, and refugee – presented a problem.  The logistics of simply keeping Richmond supplied rivaled that of a field army.

On April 12, 1864, General Robert E. Lee wrote Secretary of War James Seddon and related concerns about the population in Richmond.  Specifically, Lee expressed concerned about how Richmond might be evacuated, should such contingency arise:

No arrangements that our foresight can suggest or our means accomplish should be neglected, and while every exertion should, and I doubt not will, be made to insure our success, we should not be unprepared for unfavorable results, and neglect precautions that may lighten any calamity that may befall us.

Lee called out the number of prisoners, Federal deserters, and paroled Confederates then in Richmond, which he saw as groups to immediately remove from the Confederate capital.  Seddon responded to Lee on April 14, 1864:

General: I have the honor to acknowledge your letter of the 12th instant, just received, and to thank you very sincerely for the valuable suggestions it contained. They fortify me by the might of your authority in the convictions of policy entertained and the line of action I had adopted, to some extent, in pursuance of them. The most earnest efforts are being made to command the full resources for transportation of the railroad lines, and I have not hesitated to stop passenger trains whenever by so doing Government freight could be increased or expedited. The officer in charge of railroad transportation has been sent out, and is now absent on a mission, with all the power the Department could confer, to secure the fullest concert of action and the employment of all the means that could be commanded for transportation. The Piedmont Railroad is being pressed to early completion, but, unfortunately, the recent floods oppose embarrassing impediments, which may delay it two weeks longer than I confidently anticipated. I still hope it may be completed in the early part of next month.

I am thoroughly convinced of the importance of depleting the population of Richmond, and have, on more occasions than one before the reception of your letter, urged on the President the exercise of his influence and authority to accomplish the removal of the population, so far as they could be spared from the necessary work of the city. Such steps have not as yet been taken, for the difficulties and embarrassments attending it must be acknowledged to be of a very grave character. It is next to impossible to make, by the action of the Government, adequate provision for the shelter and support of the numbers which would then be thrown homeless and indigent upon the country, and even those who had means of self-support would find it very difficult to obtain accommodation and supplies. Refugees have begun to be regarded with less of sympathy than of apprehension, for they are looked upon as diminishing the means and increasing the privations of the communities to which they may flee. Still, I fear necessity requires that, to a considerable extent, the removal of the useless population from the city should be attempted, for without such measure I do not see the possibility of accumulating the requisite reserve of supplies to enable us to meet partial reverse and bear brief interruption of communication.

The prisoners of the enemy and our own paroled men are nearly all removed, and the rest will speedily follow. The hospitals and work-shops will be cleared of all who can be spared, and such machinery and stores as are not of immediate necessity I have directed to be prepared and gradually removed. It will be difficult to induce either the people of the city or our officers to make the requisite exertions and sacrifices which a prudent precaution demands, for they repose such confidence in the valor of our troops and the generalship of their commanders as to be incredulous of approaching danger. Still, I hope your counsels and the influence of the Department will not be wholly without avail in inducing the “efforts, self-sacrifice, and labor, until the crisis has been safely passed,” which a prudent forecast of all contingencies demands.

Experience of the past and a just reliance on our means of defense, employed with the skill and energy which have heretofore guided us, may well entitle us to expect, under the blessing of Heaven, deliverance from the worst efforts of our malignant foes: but we should not be the less prepared to be grateful and happy in triumph for having realized our danger and arranged to meet and repair the consequences of a reverse.

Very truly, yours,
James A. Seddon,
Secretary of War.

Sedden’s response indicated that some Confederate authorities had recognized the issue and were acting.  Relocating prisoners further south did provide some relief.  But to some degree, relocating the wartime population of Richmond was akin to bailing the ocean.

There is an irony here, somewhat.  As Seddon observed, the population of Richmond became increasingly dependent upon the government as the war entered its fourth year.  Yet the Confederacy was ill-equipped, by virtue of its philosophy of government, to respond to that dependency.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, pages 1277 and 1279-80.)