Cannons…. Cannons

If you read Ranger Mannie’s blog frequently, you know he can post set of photos to illustrate a point better than many magazine editors.  One of his latest installments is a look down the mouths of various types of Civil War artillery pieces.   Good stuff!

Mannie hit some excellent points on that post.  Each of these “makes and models” of artillery had unique attributes which set them apart, not just visually, but operationally.  Some of these attributes were related to construction techniques.  Others were related to performance considerations – rifling and powder chambers for example.  Some were “good” attributes others were bad.  For instance, as Mannie points out, the Parrott rifle lent itself to rapid production, but had a nasty habit of bursting.  Some weapons gained a reputation for dependability with few vices (say the Ordnance Rifle).  Others were quickly discarded once better pieces were available.

Something we tend to do, with our distance of nearly 150 years, is to gloss over and say “a cannon is a cannon.”  Well, at the time, on the field of battle, the men often made decisions which factored the positive and negative attributes of these various artillery pieces.  Which battery or section should be posted to bolster an infantry skirmish line?  Do the guns of that battery have the range to counter an enemy’s battery on the opposite ridge?  Are those bronze rifles accurate enough for employment in counter battery fire?  If the fighting gets close, will we need the smoothbores?

And that is just at the tactical level.  Imagine being an ordnance officer trying to decide if the use of puddled iron would be preferable over traditional casting.  Or if the wrought iron construction implemented by the fine folks at Phoenix Iron Works was better than Robert Parrott’s guns?  Or on the Confederate side, if one can depend on a railroad equipment shop, turning to cannon production, to deliver dependable products?

All of which leads me to those cannon on the battlefield.  As you can probably tell from a few of my postings, I’ve got a spot next to my marker hobby for the study of the artillery pieces.  You can usually pick me out at the battlefield as I’m the guy taking dozens of photos of markers, monuments, AND various angles of the cannons.  Often the story of the gun unfolds just reading the markings, or in some cases scratching, upon these old gun tubes.

Here’s an interesting scar in front of the trunnions on a Napoleon (Revere Cooper, Registry # 72) upon Cemetery Hill, Gettysburg.  Wonder where that came from?

Shot Scar on 12-pdr Napoleon
Scar on 12-pdr Napoleon

Or in other cases, the piece was altered post war, offering a less romantic but still interesting story.  Here’s an example of a 6-pdr Field Gun, altered to a James Rifle during the war, then altered to look like a Napoleon by the park staff at Gettysburg, circa 1890.  Note the enlarged bore, forming a “lip” in the muzzle.  Then about six inches into the “mouth,” the rifling starts.  From the breech end, we see the base ring normally seen on standard 6-pdrs has been turned off.  As has the step in front of the trunnions, were the reinforce meets the barrel.  All intended to present a smooth, Napoleon-like appearance.  Except one thing – the gun is far too small for a 12-pdr!

Bore of "False Napoleon"
Bore of False Napoleon
Breech End of False Napoleon
Breech End of False Napoleon.

Of course there are also the “rock stars” of the cannon world.  John Calef identified this gun as the weapon which opened the Battle of Gettysburg.  It is easily identified by the registry number “233” at the 12 o’clock position on the muzzle face.

3-in Ordnance Rifle, Registry #233
3-in Ordnance Rifle, Registry #233

As Ranger Mannie says, these are “mute witness in iron and bronze.”  We would be remiss if we didn’t listen to the stories these guns have to tell.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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