Category Archives: Parrotts

“I am now lacquering or varnishing the interior … of the shells.” : Parrott offers remedies for Parrott failures

From the last weeks of June 1863 right up to the fall of Charleston in February 1865, the story of the siege was dominated by the sound of heavy Parrott rifles firing bolts and shells towards the Confederates.  The performance of these heavy rifles was extreme for its day, and duly noted by observers.  Just as noteworthy, however, was the rate at which those guns failed… sometimes dramatically failed.  As some went looking for explanations,  bad light reflected upon the weapon’s inventor – Robert P. Parrott.  On June 21, 1864, Parrott sent a letter to the Commander of the Department of the South, Major-General John Foster, offering his analysis of the problem and a solution… and a novel suggestion to use the big rifled guns in yet another manner:

Office West Point Foundry,
30 Broadway, New York, June 21, 1864.

Maj. Gen. J. G. Foster-

My Dear Sir: Though I suppose most of the points of importance in regard to the service of my guns are by this time understood, there are one or two that are of such exceeding interest that I am induced to mention them. The greatest difficulty now to be encountered is in the premature explosion of shells in the bore of the gun. The charge of powder they will hold is quite large, and owing to the elongated form of the projectile or to its being driven into the groves, there seems to be a tendency of the parts of the broken shell to wedge in the bore, thus carrying away muzzle or some other part, or, at any rate, giving the gun a violent strain which is afterward and perhaps by other accidents developed into the destruction of the gun. As a means of diminishing this danger, I am now lacquering or varnishing the interior surface of the shells.  Even when freshly put in it operates favorably. A little poured in at the fuse hole and then caused to run over the sides by laying the shells down and rolling it will answer.

The reason for this seems to be that on firing the gun the powder charge of the shells is violently thrown back, and explosion is caused by the friction or attrition of the powder against the rough surface of the bottom and sides of the shell. These are made smooth by the lacquer or varnish, &c.

I have used the 100-pounders as mortars by loading them with a very small charge of powder, 3 ¼ pounds, and setting out the ring of the projectile in one place only so as to nearly fit a groove, by this means, which admits of the shell going down, merely placing the expanded portion in one of the grooves of the gun, and have got a high-curve traveling, say a range of 2,000 yards, with 20 degrees elevation. I have no doubt that when such a fire happens to be desirable it can be obtained readily with the heavy rifles. The starting out of the ring in this way causes it to take the grooves with this low charge.

With the best wishes for your health and success, most truly, yours,
R. P. Parrott.

What Parrott described here, and in other correspondence, was the “rasping” of the shell powder within the shell itself when movement initiated on firing.  More so than in a standard smoothbore shell, the rifled shell was moving violently on two different plains of action.  This friction, he felt, caused the powder to ignite prematurely.

Throughout the long months of use on Morris Island, gunners greased, flushed, and cleaned their Parrott ordnance.  Though I’ve often noted in those wartime photographs, the shells seemed haphazardly lain in the beach sand.  Now, with Parrott’s advice, the ordnance crews preparing the shells had an additional precaution of lacquering the interior.

While a sound, logical step to take, nothing could repair the damaged reputation of the guns….  And at the same time, the faith of the ordnance department remained, for the most part, unshaken by the bursting guns.  West Point Foundry continued with deliveries of large caliber Parrotts.  And the Army kept using them – for decades to come.

And since I’m discussing Parrott and West Point Foundry, let me mention again a portion of that cannon production site is set aside in a park along the Hudson River.  Furthermore, Trudie A. Grace and Mark Forlow’s book on the history of West Point Foundry is in bookstores and available on line now.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 143-4.)

Guns and numbers: Paddy Griffith and some historiography concerning the Reserve Artillery

Paddy Griffith’s Battle Tactics of the Civil War is nearly three decades old now.  Perhaps I’m showing my age by saying the book came out while I was an undergraduate in college.  From a personal perspective, it was a landmark book – the first “dive” I made into the nuts and bolts of Civil War tactics coming at a time when my instruction drove me to consider all the footnotes – and chase those footnotes with deliberation.  Over the years, my well worn copy of the book has yellowed and aged.  Likewise my opinion of the work has aged.  I can’t say I accepted all of Griffith’s ideas at the start.  Nor can I say I have completely rejected all of it now.  But along the way, just as the lines in a pitched battle, the delineation has moved about considerably.

However one point which I can say remained a “salient” throughout, and comes to mind during my recent writings here on the blog, is a passage in which Griffith discusses the ratio of smoothbore Napoleon guns to light rifled guns in the Army of the Potomac.  Leading into the paragraph, Griffith noted some disadvantages of rifled guns – shells tended to drill into the ground before exploding, defective shells, small caliber and thus small bursting charge, and, lastly, the limitations of small bore canister rounds.  Having established at least a need to retain a mix of smoothbores and rifles, Griffith went on to say:

The limitations of rifled artillery were fully understood at the time, and although the Confederates could never get enough for their needs the Union forces complained of an overabundance of this type of weapon.  Early in the war McClellan had decided that the Army of the Potomac needed only one rifle for every two smoothbores, but he never succeeded in bringing the ratio down to less than two rifles to each smoothbore; nor could Hunt force it much lower when he tried to get rid of some of the rifles after the battle of Fredericksburg.  At the start of the Wilderness battle smoothbores were still in a minority and it was only when Grant sent home 122 pieces, in order to disencumber his collapsing road network, that Hunt was able to seize a fleeting opportunity.

There is a paragraph with all sorts of exposed lines and open flanks!  And those flanks are in the footnotes.  Griffith cited two secondary sources for this paragraph – L. Van Loan Naisawald’s Grape and Canister and an unpublished PhD. thesis by Perry Jamieson. While Jamieson’s later works include Attack and Die, Crossing the Deadly Ground, and other works addressing tactics of the era, his thesis is, to my knowledge, still unpublished.   So I’ll not address the one page cited from Jamieson’s thesis as part of my rebuttal here.

However, Naisawald’s book should be familiar to any artillery-minded reader.  Naisawald’s work came out in 1960.  I’ll say it is “dated” and leave the matter there.  That, of course, does not allow me to dismiss it as a source.  Quite the opposite!  The passages cited from Naiswald lead us first to the organization of the Army of the Potomac under McClellan.  Naiswald states,

… the short-range, light 12-pounder smoothbore – the Napoleon – was to be the backbone of his artillery; two-thirds of the field batteries were to be equipped with this weapon, and the remaining one-third with rifled cannon – a new innovation in warfare.

So what was Naiswald’s source?  He does not offer.  I would, however, refer back to Brigadier-General William F. Barry and that initial organization in the summer of 1861.  Barry suggested a ratio of guns somewhat dissimilar to that given by Naiswald, and broke distinctly upon the ratio of guns to howitzers, not smoothbore to rifles.  Only after the Peninsula Campaign did Barry suggest the howitzers and 6-pdr field guns should be replaced completely by Napoleons.

Naiswald went on to say that Napoleon production lagged early in the war while rifled guns rolled out in large numbers.  That, Griffith could have called upon to explain the abundance of rifles.  But the overly generalized statement about gun production falls apart when one considers the raw numbers – guns accepted by the ordnance department, specifically looking at Napoleons, Parrotts, and Ordnance rifles:

Federal Field Gun Production

Federal Field Gun Production

I probably should give you a fancy, colored chart.  But the numbers speak fine enough themselves.  Napoleon production peaked twice – late 1861-to mid-1862; then again in the fall and winter of 1863-4.  Production of the Napoleons, for the Federals that is, ceased entirely after that.  On the other hand, after the initial surge to start the war, rifled gun production remained comparatively steady.  Save one quarter with no deliveries, most quarters included delivery of over 60 guns.  The totals of all weapons is worth considering here – 2591 guns of these three types, where I would estimate the Federal armies (all armies) only needed 1000 to 1300 field guns of all types.  (And that by the way, is one reason we have so many of these guns still around today as memorials!)

Griffith also cites two other passages from Naisawald – one detailing the artillery re-organization made in the Winter Encampment and the other discussing the re-organization made in mid-May.  I’ve linked to my blog posts relating to those two specific changes, to keep things brief. Bottom line here, Naisawald never provides an overall count of Napoleons and rifles.  Nor does he offer any analysis of the ratio.  For good measure, at the time of the reorganization, every corps had an equal number of Napoleons and rifles – 24 of each.  The Artillery Reserve included 36 Napoleons and 24 light rifles (and fourteen “heavy” rifles).  The rifles predominated in the Horse Artillery where 16 Napoleons paired with 44 rifles.  But weight and tactical application was the justification for the disparity in rifles with those horse batteries.  In short – the figures do show a slight majority of light rifles, but only due to the horse artillery.  There was not a “two rifles to each smoothbore” ratio as Griffith stated.

All of this leads up to those 122 guns “sent home” by Hunt.  Did Hunt select rifled guns so as to balance the ratio?  I submit that was not the case.  Hunt chose to reduce every battery by two guns, which in effect retained the ratio.  Aside from that across the board reduction and the 20-pdrs, the batteries that Hunt “sent home” were from the Ninth Corps.  If Hunt was seizing any “fleeting opportunity,” it was to send away some batteries he had suspicions about.

There!  Thus ends a Paddy Griffith rant.  I feel better now.

(Citations from Paddy Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989, Page 169; L. Van Loan Naisawald, Grape and Canister; The Story of the Field Artillery of the Army of the Potomac, 1861-1865, Oxford University Press, 1960, page 35.)

Abbot to Hunt: “Every step has been taken to hurry forward…”

In April 1864, Brigadier-General Henry Hunt sent recommendations and instructions to form a siege train supporting the Army of the Potomac’s next campaign.  On the first day of May 1864, Colonel Henry Abbot sent an update on his preparations toward that end:

Fort Richardson, VA., May 1, 1864.
Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt,
Chief of Artillery, Army of the Potomac:

General: Yours of the 29th ultimo is received. I will at once make requisition for the sand-bags, as you suggest. I propose to take ten 8-inch siege howitzers. I have the following ordnance, and ordnance stores afloat at the present time, and the list is daily increasing: 4 ½-inch guns–18 guns, 20 carriages, 10 sets implements, 10 platforms, 3,600 rounds; 30-pounder Parrotts–2 guns, 10 carriages, 10 platforms, 2,600 rounds; 10-inch mortars–10 guns, 10 beds, 1,000 shells; 8-inch mortars–20 guns, 8 beds, 2,290 shells; Coehorns–1,900 shells; 1 battery wagon (D); 1 forge (A); 1 large sling cart; with many smaller articles. Every step has been taken to hurry forward the remainder, and it is loaded as fast as received. I have now 7 schooners, about 200 tons each.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Henry L. Abbot,
Colonel First Connecticut Artillery.

Notice that Abbot chose to work with the slack Hunt offered in regard to the 8-inch siege howitzers (which Hunt accepted with reservations).  Instead of forty 4 ½-inch siege rifles, the siege train contained a mix of 4 ½-inch and similar caliber 30-pdr Parrotts.

Hunt wanted 1,000 rounds per gun.  But the number accumulated by May 1 fell far short of that goal.  Hard to believe in the vast storehouses and magazines around Washington and Baltimore there were not many thousands of these projectiles.  I would offer a similar observation about the battery wagon and forge.  Far more was needed for a siege train of the size requested.

But with seven schooners to transport the siege train, Abbot had the means to deploy this force at almost any point in tidewater Virginia.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 36, Part II, Serial 68, page 320.)