Category Archives: Fredericksburg

150 Years Ago: Hunt prefers the big siege rifles

One-hundred and fifty years ago (and one day, as I had other pressing news to report yesterday), Brigadier General Henry Hunt offered a report on the effectiveness of the heavy rifles employed at Fredericksburg the previous week.

I have the honor to report that the practice in the recent battle with the 20-pounder Parrott was in some respects very unsatisfactory, from the imperfection of the projectiles, which, notwithstanding the pains which have been taken to procure reliable ones, are nearly as dangerous to our own troops as to the enemy, if the former are in advance of our lines. In addition, the guns themselves are unsafe. At Antietam two of the twenty-two, and on the 13th instant another, were disabled by the bursting of the gun near the muzzle. The gun is too heavy for field purposes, and can be used with advantage only as batteries of position. For the last purpose it is inferior to the 4½-inch siege-gun, which requires the same number of horses and only half the number of drivers. I therefore respectfully propose that, as the allowance of artillery in this army is small, the 20-pounders be turned in to the Ordnance Department as soon as they can be replaced by light field guns,. and that a portion of the siege train (sixteen guns) be organized to accompany the force in the field for service in such positions as require heavy guns, and, in case of a siege, to form a part of the train. Seven such guns are now here. Twelve were asked for, and it is a misfortune they were not furnished. Two companies of the First Connecticut Artillery are serving with the guns now here. I propose that two other companies of that regiment be detailed, each company be organized as a battery with four guns, the whole to be placed under the command of a field officer of the regiment, and attached to the Reserve Artillery.

Ever since the Peninsula Campaign, the Army of the Potomac included a substantial siege train.  Recall the varied set of guns used at Malvern Hill.  By December 1862, the Army’s artillery park was more uniform in composition.  The field batteries assigned to the infantry formations were by and large 10-pdr Parrotts, 3-inch rifles, and 12-pdr Napoleons – although a few batteries of 12-pdr howitzers remained.  The siege batteries used, as alluded to in Hunt’s report, 20-pdr Parrotts and 4.5-inch Ordnance Rifles.

Lending weight to Hunt’s comment about the weight, the 20-pdr Parrott rifle was the heaviest weapon mounted on a field carriage.  On its modified 32-pdr howitzer carriage, a 20-pdr Parrott on the march – with limber, ammunition chest, gun, and carriage – weighed 4405 pounds.  The caisson with three more chests weighed about an other 4000 pounds.

On the other hand, the 4.5-inch rifle rode on a siege carriage.  With limber (no ammunition chest) the 4.5-inch rifle traveled weighing around 7300 pounds.  But before you go second guessing Hunt, the 4.5-inch rifle’s ammunition traveled in separate wagons, in loads that were better configured for transport.

The difference here is “field carriage” verses “siege carriage.”  The 20-pdr on field carriage arrangement allowed the gun to go into action from the march.  The 4.5-inch rifle required more time to prepare for action.  But Hunt felt the 20-pdrs “ready for action” configuration was of little value as the gun was too difficult to maneuver into action.  On the other hand, the weight of the 4.5-inch rifle was of less consequence as it was employed with more deliberation.

Regardless if you follow that logic, the greater concern with the 20-pdr was, as with all the Parrotts, the tendency to burst.  Three failed guns in two actions.  That is compared to the near flawless record of 3-inch Ordnance Rifles.  The 4.5-inch rifle had not seen extensive service to this point, but would enjoy an air of reliability – at least for the moment.  Even later in the war main complaint against the bigger rifle was vent erosion, not bursting.

Despite Hunt’s requests, seven months later the Army of the Potomac still marched with a mix of 20-pdr Parrotts and 4.5-inch Ordnance Rifles.  Ironically, given Hunt’s concerns about mobility, it was the 20-pdrs of Taft’s 5th New York Battery on Cemetery Hill on July 3, not the 4.5-inch rifles of the 1st Connecticut.  The bigger guns were held back because they took up too much valuable space on the roads to Gettysburg.

(Citation is from OR, Series I, Volume 21, Serial 31, pages 189-90.)

Elevating Gear for your 30-pdr Parrott

I’ve used this photo a few times now. It is a 30-pdr Parrott rifle at Lee’s Hill at Fredericksburg.

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30-pdr Parrott, registry #341, on Lee’s Hill at Fredericksburg

The carriage is a metal reproduction, replacing a wooden carriage which had badly deteriorated (and left the 4200 pound gun in an unsafe condition). The carriage is a close copy of a siege carriage. You see the rest or cradle on the stock and the traveling trunnions on the cheeks, which were used to situate the gun to the rear of the carriage while on the move. Notice also the carriage lacks the loop at the base of the trail, seen on the smaller field gun carriages. But there’s another fine point of detail to note about this carriage mounting.

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Side view of the Parrott showing the elevating screw and gear

This Parrott carriage lacks the standard elevating screw and four handled head that is seen on most reproductions. Instead there is a long threaded screw, offset to the left, and a single crank.

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Elevating gear on 30pdr Parrott

Notice how the screw is fixed with a single bolt to an eye on the carriage trail (bottom of this view). The single arm and handle at the top of the screw provides clearance for the gunner. The screw rotates through a brass nut. That nut has a pin fitting directly into a piercing within the knob of the gun.

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Right side of Parrott Breech

Very simple in concept. Turn the elevating screw and the travel of the nut will impart elevation on the gun. The Navy and Army used elevating screws of this type on heavy guns. A good example of such wartime use is this photo from the Washington defenses.

The Parrot rifle on the left has the single handle elevating gear offset to the left.

Just a fine detail point to consider on your next visit to Fredericksburg. My contribution to the “how did it work” file for the day.

150 Years Ago: At Fredericksburg, one shot clears the tannery

The battle of Fredericksburg might have “effectively” ended with the stalled assaults on Marye’s Heights at sunset on December 13, 1862. But the Federals continued to occupy the city and ground in front of Marye’s Heights for two more days.  The battle lines exchanged fire throughout those days. Among the shots fired on December 15 came from 24-pdr field howitzers in Captain George V. Moody’s Madison Light Artillery (Louisiana). Lieutenant Colonel E. Porter Alexander directed those shots.

I’ve cited this before when discussing the use of the heavy howitzers during the war, but as this matches nicely with the 150th narrative, allow me to recite it once more -

… Monday morning was again thick and hazy, but when the sun was about an hour high the nest of sharpshooters in the tanyard announced their ability to see by opening a very lively fusillade. I happened to be nearby, & I at once determined to try & route them. But the building was so nestled in the hollow, & hidden by intervening low hills & trees, that only one gun, one of Moody’s 24 pr. howitzers, could even the peak of its roof be seen. But I knew that if I only skimmed the top of the low intervening hill the shell would curve downward & probably get low enough for the loop holes. The howitzer was on the south of the Plank Road & some 400 yards off. I got the line of the obnoxious corner of the roof & sighted in that line, & then fixed an elevation which I thought would just carry the shell over the low hill, aiming myself, & taking several minutes to get all exact. Then I ordered fire. Standing behind we could see the shell almost brush the grass, as it curved over the hill, & then we heard her strike & explode. At once there came a cheer from our picket line in front of the hill, & presently there came running up an exited fellow to tell us. He called out as he came – “That got ‘em! That got ‘em! You can hear them just a hollering & a groaning in there.”

Alexander’s detailed description offers a ready example of the advantages of the howitzers’ low velocity and high angle trajectory when applied to the battlefield. The 24-pdrs were designed with this type of fire effects in mind. Given the reference about distances and the time taken to set the shot, I would assume Alexander had good measures of the field and was able to properly set the fuse for just the right time.

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24-pdr Field Howitzer at Petersburg

Alexander wasn’t done with Moody’s big howitzers that day. And again, he used the ballistic capabilities of the howitzers to achieve an effect:

… we discovered that quite a little body of the enemy were lying down in a shallow depression about 400 yards from another of Moody’s 24 pr. howitzers, which were my favorite guns. Partly to make the enemy unhappy, & partly to show my companions how effective the gun was, I carefully aimed & fired four shrapnel (each of which contained 175 musket balls) so as to burst each one about 15 feet above the ground & about as many yards in front of the little hollow. While we could not see into it, the bullets & fragment would probe it easily. From the very first shot, we saw, at the far end, men helping three wounded to get out to the rear, but our infantry sharpshooters opened on them & ran them back. The next day, [Lieutenant Colonel Briscoe G.] Baldwin & [Captain Samuel] Johnston visited the spot together to study the effects, & told me that they found 13 dead which they were sure from the fresh wounds & blood were killed by those four shrapnel.

Yes, a remarkable demonstration of the effectiveness of Alexander’s “favorite guns.” Part of me visits this passage and takes hold of the details about how the weapon was used. Certainly a ready example of a “textbook” employment of the howitzer. Yet another part of me reads this and recoils at the detachment of men in combat from the normal moral conventions.

Was this war? Or was this murder?

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Citations from Edward Porter Alexander, Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander, edited by Gary Gallegher, University of North Carolina Press, 1998. Pages 181-2. The account, written after the war, generally follows with the shorter description of the activity of that day offered by Alexander in his official report (OR, Series I, Volume 21, Serial 31, pages 576-7) written in December 1862. However, in the wartime account Alexander states 12-pdr guns fired on the troops in front of Marye’s Heights.