Tag Archives: William Rosecrans

150 Years Ago: Guns, ammunition, harnesses, and wagons to replace losses at Stones River

Some days ago, I offered the composition of the artillery in the Federal Army of the Cumberland going into the Battle of Stones River.  Always good to offer a “before” and “after” comparison.  And again I turn to the report of Colonel James Barnett, the army’s chief of artillery.  (Most of the figures that follow are from the table accompanying his report, reproduced here.)

Barnett accounted for the men engaged at the close of his report, “The whole number of men engaged in servicing the batteries was 86 commissioned officers and 2,760 non-commissioned officers and privates.”  Of this force the casualties from three days of battle were 63 killed, 204 wounded, and 106 captured or missing.  Roughly, the artillery arm suffered a 13% casualty rate across the board.  As might be surmised from a simple examination of the battle, the batteries supporting the Right Wing (Major General Alexander McCook) suffered the most casualties.

Of course batteries consisted of three major “components” – men, horses, and guns.  Yesterday I mentioned the quartermaster’s report detailing the loss of horses and mules.  Lieutenant Colonel John W. Taylor indicated the loss of 555 artillery horses.  There are several line item discrepancies between that report and that of Barnett, who indicated the artillery lost 569 killed, 60 wounded (and likely later destroyed), and 59 missing horses.  In other words, 133 more horse casualties than Taylor reported.  Because horses require harnesses, Barnett listed the loss of 119 harnesses of all types.  (And if you are counting, Taylor reported the army lost 1,540 overall.)

Next the guns… Barnett recorded the loss of 28 guns, with one disabled.  In particular, two batteries lost six guns apiece – Battery E, 1st Ohio and Battery C, 1st Illinois.  Losses, again as one would expect, were heaviest on the right side of the line where the Confederate attacks of December 31st fell.  Indeed, lost or disabled guns came from batteries supporting the three divisions of the Right Wing and Negly’s (Second) Division of the Center.  (The report of Lieutenant Alexander Marshall, Battery G, 1st Ohio, which supported Negly’s division, offers a notable study in the retreat of a battery caught in an impossible tactical situation.)  Overall, the Army of the Cumberland lost over 20% (yes, one-fifth) of its guns in battle.

Barnett did not delineate the number of lost limbers or caissons.  The army did lose three battery wagons and five forges, with one of each reported disabled.  These losses were slightly offset with the capture of six guns, three caissons, three forges, and two battery wagons.

The last statistic to mention from Barnett’s report is the number of rounds  expended – 20,307.  That translates to an average of 148 rounds per gun.

As the numbers indicate, the artillery arm was in bad need of resupply and refit after the battle. Correspondence between Major General William Rosecrans and Washington bears this out, with requests for artillery ammunition, harnesses, horses, and guns.  One request, made by Rosecrans to General-in-Chief Major General Henry Halleck on January 4, 1863, stands out in reference to the guns:

I require, to replace batteries lost in battle in the cedar thickets eighteen 12-pounder light field guns, twelve 3-inch rifled guns or Parrott, six 24-pounder howitzers, with harnesses, forge, and battery wagons complete.  We must have them wit hall possible dispatch.  Can you send us a couple of new batteries? There was one ready in Cleveland.

General Horatio Wright, commanding the Department of the Ohio, indicated the next day he’d ordered forward two replacement batteries.

The types of cannons requested by Rosecrans is at the same time expected and yet somewhat odd.  I doubt anyone, then or now, would wonder about the request for more Napoleons, 3-inch Ordnance Rifles, or Parrotts.  But 24-pdr howitzers?  Well the big howitzers filled a tactical niche the army required.  Battery M, 4th US Artillery received two of the 24-pdr howitzers during the refit period.

The new guns requested in January were but the first of many that the Army of the Cumberland received prior to the next major campaign.  By the type of its next major battle, at a creek named Chickamauga in September 1863, the army would have many more 3-inch rifles, 10-pdr Parrotts, and Napoleons.  But it would keep significant number of 6-pdr field guns, 12-pdr howitzers, and bronze James rifles.  But that is a subject best left for a post down the road a bit.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 20, Part I, Serial 29, pages 241-2 and Part II, Serial 30, pages 297-8.)

150 Years Ago: A few hundred yards difference

Success and failure on the battlefield is measured by a lot of small increments.  Sometimes it is hours… or minutes… or seconds.  Other times the measure is yards … feet … inches.  Such was the case 150 years ago on December 31st at the battle of Stones River.

As Confederate troops neared the Nashville Pike around noon, General William Rosecrans deployed what reserves he had.  For about two miles from Overall Creek to the Round Forest, the Federal lines bent back to the pike.  The pike was not just a terrain feature on the map, rather it was the army’s supply lines.  Losing that road meant retreat, route, or worse.  The nation could ill afford a second major military disaster in the month of December 1862. We often use the cliche “last ditch defense” to describe a position.  This was truly a last ditch defense.

On the far right of the defense, cavalry fought cavalry as Brigadier General John Wharton’s Confederates arguably missed the greatest opportunity of the battle.  Blue troopers from Colonel Lewis Zahn’s and Colonel Robert Minty’s brigades held their end of the line.

To their left, infantry from different divisions made a stand in the cotton fields around the Widow Burris’ house.  (Recalling yesterday’s post on preservation, those fields are outside the park boundaries.)

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Fields south of Asbury Lane today

The blue line fell back, disorganized at some points, but ultimately held – some two hundred yards short of the pike.

To the center of the line defending the pike, General Rosecrans committed his reserves.  That reserve was the Pioneer Brigade, some men with just twenty rounds.  Supporting them was the Chicago Board of Trade Battery and Battery B, 26th Pennsylvania.  Their lines formed barely 150 to 200 yards to the southwest of the pike.

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Position of the Chicago Board of Trade Battery

That part of the line held.

To their left, more infantry and artillery – a “grand battery” with over two dozen guns – anchored the defense of the high ground that is today the National Cemetery.  Lieutenant Francis L. Guenther, commanding Battery H, 5th US Artillery, held his fire as the Confederate infantry approached.  When urged to action by his commander, Guenther responded, “I see them sir. They are not near enough.”  When the Confederates marched closer, Guenther’s guns unleashed a rain of canister into their ranks.

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Gunner’s view across the pike from a Parrott Rifle

And that part of the line held.

At the Round Forest, Colonel William Hazen’s brigade was the core around which a stout defense formed.

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James Rifle at the Round Forest

The blue troops held the position against all the Confederates threw at the Round Forest.

Later that evening, some two hundred wagons arrived on the pike from Nashville bringing much needed ammunition and other supplies to the Army of the Cumberland.  The day’s fighting was at an end, and the results were inconclusive at best for either side.  But the arrival of those supplies ensured the Federals could stand their ground the next day.

And what did that next day bring?

Think not of the battlefield, but off the battlefield – the Emancipation Proclamation. As the wagons rolled into the army’s perimeter, an important executive order took effect.  Slavery would be abolished.  Of course, as politics would play into the actions, the order didn’t directly apply to those within sound of the guns that day.  But in time, slavery in the United States would be abolished.

The Army of the Cumberland held that day. A few days later they moved into nearby Murfreesboro as the Confederates retreated.  Long months passed before the army again moved forward, this time reaching the hills of northern Georgia.  But where the army went, it now carried emancipation as if an unfurled standard.

Those last few hundred yards beside the Nashville Pike were more than just grass, dirt, and trees.  It meant survival for an army and by extension the freedom of thousands well away from the battlefield.  One-hundred and fifty years later, we cannot disassociate the actions along the Nashville Pike from where we are, as a nation.

150 years ago: Canvas or wood for your pontoons?

As our attention turns to Fredericksburg, the topic of pontoon bridges enters the sesquicentennial threads.  I’ve discussed the nature of constructing these bridges in detail, with respect to those placed at Edwards Ferry in June 1863.  We think of the wooden pontoons most often within the context of the Civil War.  Big wooden boats like the ones on display at Chatham overlooking Fredericksburg today.

Chatham 13 Dec 014

These were not the only type of boats used for pontoon bridging during the Civil War.  One alternative was a frame, either wood or iron, with either canvas or rubber covering.  An example of the frame with canvas type appears in a wartime photo taken at Rappanannock Station in 1864.

Almost looks like it was setup on some display just for the benefit of the photographer!

The canvas boat was of course lighter and easily broken down for transport.  But there were some down sides to canvas boats.  A message from Major (or was it Brigadier?) General Horatio Wright to Major General William Rosecrans in early December 1862.

I’m pulling this message out of context, so some background is in order.  Considering his orders and line of march, Rosecrans decided the Army of the Cumberland, or Fourteenth Corps if you prefer, needed a pontoon bridge set.  He figured on about 700 feet of bridging.  Authorities in Washington approved, and directed Rosecrans to order the equipment from Cincinnati, where engineers in General Wright’s Department of the Ohio could supervise the outfitting.  There was some back and forth about the type of boat to issue – wood or canvas.  The preference of the Army’s engineers is apparent in Wright’s response on December 7, 1862:

Canvas boats are not so reliable as wooden ones. Unless great care is used, canvas necessarily mildews and then soon rots. If used by soldiers for shelter, it would soon become damaged for boats. It is not entirely water-proof, even after it lies in the water some time. It is doubtful whether canvas boats are as reliable in ordinarily rapid streams as wooden ones, especially if the bridge’s required to serve a long time, as on a line of communication. Canvas is more easily punctured and worn by floating bodies, and requires to be taken out of the bridge to be well repaired. It takes more time to unload, put together, and launch a canvas boat than to simply unload and launch a wooden one. According to Duane’s book, a canvas boat train requires as many wagons to transport it as a wooden one. Wooden boats can be produced here as rapidly as canvas ones, and are rapidly calked and repaired when leaky, provided they are made of seasoned timber. Wooden boats are much better for use as boats, or to combine into rafts. Unless for a very short campaign, with careful and experienced engineer troops, I would advise the adoption of wooden boats. Buell’s pontoons were made of green lumber. We can get seasoned now. Shall I order wood or canvas?

The reference of “Duane’s book” is, I believe, to the Manual for Engineer Troops by Captain James C. Duane.  As an instructor on various engineering topics, Duane had the opportunity to research pontoon bridging, compare to practices in other armies, and experiment with different materials.

I could probably pull another dozen pages from the manuals and wartime accounts to further illustrate respective advantages and disadvantages of wooden boats vs. canvas frame boats for pontoons.  Wood, at least seasoned wood, was more durable and required less maintenance.  Not mentioned, but cited in the engineering manuals of the day, wood stood up well against rocky stream bottoms, where canvas ripped.

With respect to the number of wagons needed, there’s a lot of other factors that were not considered with Wright’s response.  Duane indicated a wooden boat, or “French style,” pontoon train required 34 wagons each loaded with a pontoon boat, seven balks, numerous lashings, oars, boat-hooks, and an anchor.  On the other hand the canvas train required 29 wagons each with a canvas pontoon, trestle, with balks, oars, and boat-hooks.  Notice the canvas boat wagons included some, if not all, the superstructure of the bridge.  The wooden pontoons, being fixed size and structure, were much more bulky on the road.  The wagon carrying the canvas pontoon was smaller and lighter.

Wartime experience called upon some reassessment in regards to the preference of materials.  In 1869, a board of engineers submitted a new manual covering bridging operations (eventually approved and published in 1870).  The board noted:

With regard to the canvas boat, it soon became apparent that it was precisely what we required for our advance-guard train. It is light, simple, strong, easily repaired, and when packed can safely be transported with the superstructure of the bridge as rapidly as any column of troops can move.

The board of officers submitting this manual included Duane.  The board also noted that the canvas bridging also worked well for expedient ferry operations.

I’ve found no direct record to confirm the type of pontoons delivered to Rosecrans.  The Army of the Cumberland used both types at times later in the war, for what it is worth.

But turning back to the Eastern Theater for a moment – what if  Major General Burnside’s pontoon train had included a set of these “advance guard” canvas pontoon boats?