Category Archives: Petersburg

Witnesses to a disaster: Napoleons (and an Ordnance Rifle) captured at Ream’s Station, August 25, 1864

150 years ago today, the Army of the Potomac suffered one of its worst defeats of the war at Second Ream’s Station.  I see Timothy Orr has a piece up looking at the 14th Connecticut in the battle.  And Civil War Daily Gazette has a nice overview for those unfamiliar with the battle.

Years ago when visiting the battlefield for the first time, I made a note the battle deserved a proper sesquicentennial post.  In particular I wanted to discuss how the Confederates were able to maneuver in front of, and over, the Federal earthworks.  A grand defiance in the face of the “stalemated” battlefield you read of in general histories of the war.  But… alas… I must plead the date slipped away and my writing hours were too few for the task to be accomplished.

One aspect of the battle that I’d highlight is the performance of the Federal artillery.  Or I should say – lack of dominance on the battlefield.  Partly due to poor positioning, but largely just a symptom of a generally poor performance by the force overall, the Army of the Potomac’s artillery had a bad day all around.  At the end of the day the Confederates boasted the capture of nine pieces of artillery.  And we know exactly what guns they captured, thanks to Major J. G. Barnwell, Chief of Ordnance, Army of Northern Virginia:

ReamsStationGunsCaptured

Of that list there are some survivors around today.  Start with Revere Copper 12-pdr Napoleon #253:

Petersburg 201

Today it is the centerpiece of an exhibit at the Petersburg Visitor center.

And #95 from Henry N. Hooper is at Manassas, near the 14th Brooklyn Memorial:

Manassas 11 Aug 12 030

Cyrus Alger 12-pdr Napoleon #45 has a home today at Pea Ridge, Arkansas:

pea ridge 273

Ames 12-pdr Napoleon #55 is today at Chickamauga-Chattanooga, but I don’t have a current photo of the gun.

Of the 3-inch Ordnance Rifles, #533 is at Gettysburg, guarding the wall near the Angle:

Gettysburg 4 Feb 12 187

While #541 is missing today, #542 is at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and #543 is on display somewhere in Boston, Massachusetts.

So that’s seven out of nine that survive today.  Apparently, being captured increases the survival rate of artillery pieces.

In closing, many, many thanks to the effort of Civil War Trust and other preservation organizations for their ongoing efforts to preserve the battlefield at Reams Station.

Mortars and shells wanted at the front: Importance of horizontal fires at Petersburg

We often read the Petersburg siege demonstrated the emergence of “modern war” in some fashion.  The “coffee table book” history draws the the comparison between Virginia trenches of 1864-5 to French trenches of 1915-8.  There is some resemblance, but no more than any functional nature would derive.  Men can only dig a hole in the ground for protection in a finite number of combinations.  Nice surface comparison, but for the most part the trenches are not exactly a mountain of evidence for the “modern war” argument.

If looking to draw positive connections between Petersburg and the tactical nature of warfare in 1915-18, there are two aspects I suggest we examine – the increased use of vertical fires and  changed operational tempo.  That latter point – what we call OPTEMPO in modern parlance – I’ll save for a later post.  But I have mentioned vertical fires earlier this year in relation to the Overland Campaign… particularly Cold Harbor.  And of course, mortars were heavily employed to support the assault after the mine went off.  In the late summer of 1864, the mortars took on added importance at Petersburg. A series of correspondence on August 14, 1864 demonstrates this. That morning, Brigadier-General Henry Hunt wrote to his capable subordinate, Colonel Henry L. Abbot in charge of the siege artillery, directing mortars to the front:

Four 10-inch mortars with a proper supply of ammunition are wanted in the battery near the Taylor house to control a battery of 32-pounder rifles just beyond the crest, distance from 1,200 to 1,500 yards. It would be well to get them out to-day ready to move; they may be ordered into battery to-night. I will inform you then whether to send them. Please answer.

Hunt’s request was to meet a specific tactical need – silencing a Confederate battery that occupied a particularly troublesome position.  The answer to this problem was not direct, or horizontal fire.  Rather he proposed using heavy mortars to fire indirectly, or vertically, onto the Confederate position.  Abbot answered almost immediately that morning and set in motion actions to place the mortars that night. Abbot later suggested a specific position for the mortars, based on earlier experience along that line:

If the 10-inch mortars are ordered forward, I would earnestly request that they be put in the fourteen-gun battery where Pratt’s 4½-inch guns were. The range is essentially the same. The approach to this battery is very good, and to the old battery very bad, a matter of great importance in supplying 10-inch ammunition on account of its great weight; and, moreover, this battery is well made and the old battery very ill constructed, constantly caving under mortar fire.

 Looking back at Hunt’s map illustrating the artillery support during the Battle of the Crater, Pratt’s battery is indicated by the number “24” and circled in blue below:

PlateLXIV_3D2

The correspondence does not specify which Confederate battery was the target.  For the map above, I’ve highlighted one such battery, which would be “beyond the crest” and approximately 1,500 yards distant.  Notice the close proximity to the mine crater. The range cited was well within the capabilities of field pieces. The Confederate guns mentioned were indeed large caliber weapons.  But the Federals might have concentrated the fires of several batteries to damage the battery.  However, having read about the thousands of shells dumped on Fort Sumter, we must ask how long and at what cost would that be completed? 

There is no mention if Hunt required the use of 10-inch case shot from the mortars, as used during the Battle of the Crater.  That particular projectile, of experimental nature, would have done well to silence the Confederate battery while field pieces demolished the earthworks protecting the guns with direct fire. 

Concurrent with the correspondence with Hunt, Abbot also opened a request for more mortar ammunition… and not just a routine request… to Captain Theodore Edson, Ordnance Officer at Fort Monroe:

I am out of my supply of Coehorn mortar shells and the rebels are taking advantage of it. Please send me any shells and wooden plugs which you can possibly procure, on the mail boat, telegraphing me when they start. I don’t care for prepared ammunition. Time is very important.

Backig this up, Abbot further explained the pressing need for mortar ammunition to Brigadier-General George Ramsay, Army Chief of Ordnance in Washington and indicted this was a long standing request:

I have sixteen Coehorn mortars in position and not a shell in depot for them. The rebels keep up a constant mortar fire on us. I don’t care for prepared ammunition; all I want are shells, fuse-plugs, and paper fuses. These must be received very shortly or the army will suffer. I wrote on 15th ultimo, and telegraphed on 19th ultimo and 11th instant for a large supply. Please inform me at once whether I am to be supplied. Please also send 2,000 Parrott time-fuse plugs for siege guns.

The Confederates had also learned the value of vertical fire, and were now in position to employ some of the heavy mortars from Richmond along with some expedient weapons.  And at the same time, the Confederates were commencing production of their own Coehorn mortars.

Fast forward to 1917. When preparing the American Expeditionary Force for combat in France, American officers found themselves short of artillery in general.  But most acutely they called for howitzers and mortars capable of high angle fires.  Henry Abbot would have given them an “I told you!” look.  Vertical fires would become the dominant form of artillery support on the battlefield.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 42, Part II, Serial 88, pages 182-3.)

 

Artillery support when the Petersburg mine went off

As you might guess, when thinking of the Crater at Petersburg, a subject which crosses my mind is the use of artillery in the operation.  Not to diminish the other aspects of the battle, but the artillery of the Army of the Potomac played an important role there… and is somewhat overlooked in my opinion.  I’m not an expert in the battle.  So I would direct you to one of many folks who have written book length treatments of the battle.

My schedule has prevented me from writing up more on Petersburg up to this time.  Likely, given the sesquicentennial pace, I’ll have to put that on my “after April 2015″ stack.  But I did want to mention the artillery’s role and provide a graphic depiction, by way of Brigadier-General Henry Hunt’s map:

PlateLXIV_3

The map, and a busy map it is, includes a table breaking down by battery the type and number of guns engaged on July 30, 1864:

PlateLXIV_3A

For those who are squinting, the roll call is eighteen 4-½-inch rifles, two 20-pdr Parrotts, fifty-two 3-inch rifles (3-inch Ordnance or 10-pdr Parrotts), thirty-eight 12-pdr Napoleons, ten 10-inch mortars, sixteen 8-inch mortars, and twenty-eight Coehorn mortars.  Grand total is 164 guns and mortars brought to bear on the Confederate lines in support of the assault.

Some of that number were in the 18th Corps sector and not firing directly in support of the assault.  Others were, likewise, firing on the 5th Corps front well to the south of the crater.  But all were firing at some time that morning to suppress or pin down the Confederates in conjunction with the assault.  For comparison, the “great bombardment” by the Confederates on July 3, 1863 during that “contest” at Gettysburg involved about 140 guns.

Hunt’s map indicates not only the battery positions, but also what the targets were.  This adds to the “clutter” on the map. But this is an incredible resource for determining his intent with respect to the fires placed upon the Confederate lines.

PlateLXIV_3B

The snip above looks at the area of the mine, and just south.  Notice there are more dashed blue lines leading to the Confederate redoubt south of the mine than there are the redoubt above the mine.  Suppression of the Confederate line was the intent there.

Another Federal position worth noting is that of Company C, 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery.  Battery number 8 on Hunt’s map contained ten 10-inch mortars.  Circled here in blue.

PlateLXIV_3C1

Those mortars fired on approximately 1,000 yards of the Confederate front, to the south of the crater (blue shading in the snip above).  Recall, these mortars were firing, for at least part of the day, case shot as constructed under Colonel Henry Abbot’s instructions.  Battery Number 19, Company B, 1st Connecticut, with six 4-½-inch rifles, located north-east (center-right on the snip above) of the mortars also covered a large section of the Confederate lines.

One problem with these arrangements is that suppressing fire requires a high rate of ammunition expenditure.  Suppressing fire cannot be sustained, even by a master artillery chief such as Hunt, for longer than a few hours.  At some point, fresh ammunition chests must be rotated in.  The assault had to quickly achieve the initial objectives, or lose the suppressing fire support.