Category Archives: Mortars

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.)

“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.)

Mortars at night against Fort Sumter: Another “minor” bombardment

Although not at the rate seen the previous fall, shot and shell still fell around Charleston as the spring season arrived.  Federals on Morris Island continued what is best described as “harassing fire” on Fort Sumter.  Usually no more than a handful of mortar or Parrott rifle rounds.  But on the afternoon of April 3, the pace of fire picked up.  Reports from Lieutenant-Colonel Stephen Elliott, the fort’s commander, reflected this increase.  His report on the morning of April 3 noted the previous night’s activities:

Fort Sumter, April 3, 1864.
Sir: Eight shots were fired while the obstructions were being taken in before daylight this morning; 6 struck, but did no damage, No further change.

Later, after dark, he sent another report:

Fort Sumter, April 3, 1864.
Enemy commenced firing slowly from two mortars at 5 o’clock this afternoon.

And the following morning, he offered this summary:

Fort Sumter, April 4, 1864.
Sir: I have the honor to report the firing continued up to 5 a.m. There were 66 mortar and 1 Parrott shell fired at the fort, of which 57 struck. One negro killed; no injury done to the work.

A “minor” bombardment for Charleston.  Yet anywhere else, that many heavy projectiles would have solicited more than a few casual lines in a report.  Elliot’s carried a humdrum tone.  On the other side of the channel, the Federals might have contested his round count.  The 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery reported firing 80 shots that day from two 10-inch mortars:


The table includes figures for fires on April 29, which I’ll turn to at the appropriate time.  The 3rd’s regimental history described the weather at the time as calm.  The two mortars firing on April 3 were in Battery Seymour, just outside Fort Chatfield.


Given the Federal mortarmen knew better what they fired, I go with 80 shells fired, propelled by 490 pounds of powder, to a range of 1,800 yards.  Seventy five of those hit Fort Sumter with five falling short.  Yet, for all that effort, no serious damage to the fort and only one casualty – one of the laborers at that.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 199-200; Frederic Denison, Shot and Shell: The Third Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment in the Rebellion, 1861-1865, Providence, R.I.: Third Rhode Island Artillery Veterans Association, 1879, page 239.)