Napoleon Guns at Antietam

Returning to the Antietam thread, the battlefield today boasts a fair sampling of 12-pounder Napoleons for the visitor to examine. Although not as easy to identify from a distance as the Parrott Rifles, the 12-pounder Bronze Field Gun, Light, Pattern of 1857 is also one of the weapons closely identified with the American Civil War. Also known as the Model 1857 or more commonly as the “Napoleon,” this field piece marked the peak of muzzle-loading smoothbore technology in America. Only the 3-inch Ordnance Rifle appears more often in reports.

Production of the Napoleon began in 1856. The first prototype (which survives on display at Petersburg National Battlefield, last time I checked) closely followed European trends for the “Canon-Obusier,” and explains the common name referencing French Emperor Napoleon III. This prototype was found insufficient for American tastes, and all examples which followed were three inches longer, altering the center of gravity, presumably to make the weapon easier to handle. On the books, the Ordnance Department officially designated these as “12-pounder Bronze Field Gun, Pattern of 1857, Modified.” Initial deliveries (about 35 in total) of the modified version sported handles over the trunnions. These were eliminated from later production examples, offering the shape most battlefield visitors easily identify. In the strict sense of the word, the American “Napoleons” were not “gun-howitzers,” as they lacked a powder chamber. So for accuracy’s sake, these are field guns which happen to have the ability to fire as howitzers.

Four Five companies produced 12-pounders for Federal contracts. Ames Manufacturing Company of Chicopee, Massachusetts produced the prototype and 96 additional examples by February 1863. Cyrus Alger & Co. of Boston delivered 170 between August 1861 and January 1864. Miles Greenwood’s Eagle Iron Works in Cincinnati, Ohio provided 50 examples during 1862. Henry N. Hooper & Co. of Boston produced 370 Napoleons, with deliveries ceasing in March 1864. And the largest producer was Revere Cooper, Co., also of Boston, with 443 produced through April 1864. Yes, the dates are correct, the production of the Federal (not Confederate, as that is another subject) ceased in the spring of 1864.

At Antietam today, examples from Alger, Hooper, and Revere mark both the battery locations and the spots where six generals were killed or mortally wounded. Here is the breakdown by location:

  • 4 pieces on Cornfield Avenue, near the Battery B, 1st Maryland Light Artillery monument: Registry number 26 from Alger and registry numbers 47, 53, and 79 from Revere. All four stamped 1862.
  • 2 pieces on Dunker Church Road, near the Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery tablet: Registry number 33 from Revere stamped 1862. Number 213 from Hooper produced in 1863. The later piece cannot be inspected closely at present, with the field fenced off for cattle.
  • 1 piece at the Mumma Farm: Registry number 91 from Alger, produced in 1862.
  • 3 pieces on carriages around the Sunken Road: To the east of the tower is registry number 254 from Revere. On the Confederate side of the road are registry number 78 and 87 from Alger. Both of the later are badly worn, and the markings are difficult to read.
  • 1 piece at the artillery display near the Visitors Center, near the location of S.D. Lee’s Battalion: Registry number 39 from Alger made in 1862.
  • 2 pieces at the north end of Branch Avenue: Registry numbers 41 and 161 from Revere. Both made in 1862.
  • 6 mortuary monuments. These are only identified by the rimbase numbers, as the muzzels are buried: Foundry number 1097 (Registry number 82) from Alger is the Branch monument. Foundry number 1109 (Registry number 81) from Alger is the Mansfield monument. Foundry number 252 (Registry 232) from Hooper is the Anderson monument. Foundry number 978 (Registry number 36) from Alger is the Richardson monument. And without readable markings, but identified by secondary sources as registry numbers 23 and 39 from Revere are the Starke and Rodman monuments, respectively.

Of those seen at Antietam, all but two date from 1862. All but two (not the same two) were inspected by Thomas J. Rodman, inventor of the Rodman process and gun. (Not to be confused with the Division commander Isaac P. Rodman mortally wounded on the field.)

Sources: On site inspections, with consultation of Ripley’s Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War and Hazlett, Olmstead, and Parks’ Field Artillery Weapons of the Civil War. Please see my references page for more details.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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