A trip recently to the Wilderness Battlefield offered an opportunity to examine a Civil War artillery piece with a post-war history. Those who have studied the artillery know them as “False Napoleons.”
The story is rather bland for those interested in gallant charges and great cannonades, but interesting to those of us who like to listen to the story those guns tell – by way of their markings, scratches, and alterations. As even a casual student of artillery knows that by mid-war the 12-pounder Napoleon became the predominant smoothbore gun in both armies. Only in the side show theaters or under emergency situations did the 6-pdr Field Guns continue to see service after 1864.
So the 6-pdrs were gradually retired early, eventually to gather dust in the armories of the post-war Army. Then in the 1890s as the first battlefield parks were established, the old 6-pdrs were called out of storage to serve as displays representing the wartime batteries. For most of the battlefields, the 6-pdr could at least “pass muster” under review of the returning veterans, as the type saw some service during the actions there. But at Gettysburg there was only one 6-pdr on the field during the battle. This allotment of guns to that battlefield didn’t stand to pass review of the trained eye.
The War Department did what it could, and attempted to sew a silk purse from the sow’s ear. About 1895, the Gettysburg National Park Commission opted to make modifications to the 6-pdrs they had on hand, disguising them as 12-pdr Napoleons. This “surgery” required the removal of external adornments, enlarging of the bore (for a short length), and general “smoothing” of the profile. I’ll go into the particulars more below. While to my knowledge no definitive total exists for those pieces modified, based on tallies of survivors today, at least twenty-nine pieces received these alterations. Most were Model 1841, but included in the batch were a Model 1838, several 3.8-inch James Rifles originally cast in the Model 1841 form, two Leeds & Co. Confederate 6-pdrs, and one example which likely was cast by John Clark of New Orleans. Please refer to a recent Gettysburg Daily article featuring Licensed Battlefield Guide George Newton for additional background on these guns.
Of course years later when Gettysburg shared some of their fine artillery collection with the new battlefield parks, the example in my photo above was sent to Virginia. I’m not certain that Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania was the first stop for the old, altered gun, but that’s where she came to be. Today it represents the position occupied by a section of Battery D, 1st New York Light Artillery (commanded by Lieutenant William Shelton) during the first day of the Wilderness. The section advanced to support Warren’s ill-fated attack on Ewell’s line across Saunders Field. However, those Napoleons (real 12-pounders of course) were unable to support the infantry, and was soon caught up in the Confederate counterattack. As one can easily see from the photo above, the guns were not in a particularly good position. Eventually two different Confederate brigades fought themselves for the right to claim the guns as trophies.
The guns at the National Parks move around a bit. Last year the gun was positioned near the Hazel Grove site, at Chancellorsville, representing a Confederate battery. I’m told the gun will move again. It stands on the opposite side of Virginia 20 from the exhibit shelter, and too many visitors are braving traffic to see the piece (where they should be safe, proceed to stop 2 of the tour and walk down). Guess sometimes you must sacrifice historical accuracy for safety.
This particular piece was produced by Miles Greenwood & Co, of Cincinnati, Ohio in 1861, a bit of information confirmed from a look at the trunnion cap.
The registry number is barely visible on the muzzle, which also shows the effect of the machining. The number appears under the biological trace smear…o.k. it’s under the bird dropping! (smile and wave…)
Compare this muzzle to that of an unaltered Greenwood Model 1841 6-pdr (smoothbore) at Manassas:
So some of the muzzle features remained. The cavetto below the muzzle swell certainly remained. But of course the bore is much larger on the altered piece. And before going too far, full disclosure, #77 at the Wilderness was rifled to the James system.
As produced, this “Model 1841” had a 3.8 inch rifled bore, with 15 lands and grooves, instead of the 3.67 inch smoothbore of the regulation piece. This technically made #77 a James Rifle, Type 1 under the Hazlett/Olmstead classification system (see references below). So this piece had an interesting design history even before the 1890s. But our focus for this article is the enlarging of the bore, seen here. This forms what some observers incorrectly called a “flash cup,” referring to a Naval ordnance practice for pre-war guns. In this case, the bore was simply enlarged for about twelve inches to deceive the casual observer. This view also presents a nice study of the James rifling, down to the projectile seat. The wasp’s nest is a safety reminder: don’t ever assume the piece is unguarded today.
Looking around the rest of the piece, starting at the breech, the weight marking survived the alteration as seen here with “873” under the knob:
The base ring, which by regulation diagrams was 1.5 inches wide, raised a quarter inch above the reinforce, and 10.3 inches in diameter, was machined off.
The machine lines passing over the vent are either traces of the equipment which passed over during the process; or evidence that a little of the metal was removed over that area to further “smooth” the appearance. The neck of the knob and the fillet where it joins the breech was machined smooth. Also looking at the breech end, we see more evidence of the gun’s “James rifle” past.
The James sight dropped down the hole seen here behind the vent. The small hole on the breech face allowed a retaining screw to lock the sight down.
Further toward the muzzle, the shoulder of the piece’s reinforce was machined smooth.
And only a “ghost” the astragal of the chase ring remains:
Overall the effect is a gun which kind-of, sort-of, maybe can pass as a Napoleon if one does not get too close.
But when placed beside other pieces, even from a distance, the “False Napoleon” stands out. I see these guns as a mixed blessing. In one regard, it is disappointing to see such artifacts altered from their wartime appearance simply for what I’d consider superficial reasons. On the other hand, the alteration activity is part of the rich administrative history of Gettysburg the National Park. As such, by examining and interpreting the alterations, those long silent guns are speaking to us today.
Aside from on site notes, sources consulted for this post were:
Hazlett, James C., Edwin Olmstead, and M. Hume Parks. Field Artillery Weapons of the Civil War, Revised Edition. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004.
Ripley, Warren. Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War, 4th Edition. Charleston, S.C.: The Battery Press, 1984.
Smith, Timothy B. The Golden Age of Battlefield Preservation: The Decade of the 1890s and the Establishment of America’s First Five Military Parks, Knoxville, Tenn.: The University of Tennessee Press, 2008.