Howitzers for Christmas!

Yes, a couple of howitzers for your Christmas!   These artifacts sit today at the Washington Navy Yard.

8-inch Siege Howitzer Model 1841

I like to “stay on target,” so allow me to relate a Christmas connection regarding these cannon, in lieu of a traditional holiday greeting.

Slightly Damaged 8-inch Howitzer

The Navy acquired these two pieces as trophies following an action on Christmas Day, 1863, outside Charleston, South Carolina at the town, now mostly a placename, of Legareville.

In 1863, General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida (but primarily preoccupied with the defenses of Charleston), instructed his subordinates to set up ambushes of Federal gunboats patrolling the inlets and tidewaters along the coast. Particularly annoying to the Confederates were the gunboats operating in the Stono River near Charleston.[1]  As winter approached, a detachment of Brig. Gen. George Gordon’s Federal Division landed at Legareville to dismantle buildings for construction materials to be used on nearby Morris Island.  The Navy covered the Federal infantry with a gunboat anchored in the river’s main channel for support.[2]

Confederate Brigadier General Henry Wise, commanding the Sixth Military District put an elaborate ambush plan in motion.  The Confederates sent a force constituted of two 30-pdr Parrott rifles and four 8-inch Siege Howitzers pulled from the Charleston siege train, a field artillery battery, 460 men from the 26th and 56th Virginia Infantry, and a small force of cavalry, all under the command of Colonel P.R. Page of the 26th Virginia.[3]  The plan called for a set of concealed batteries overlooking the marshes southwest of Legareville.  The Parrotts and howitzers would disable or drive off the gunboat.  That accomplished, the infantry supported by the field battery would storm Legareville and capture the Federal force.[4]   The Confederates completed the battery positions and maneuvered the forces into place on Christmas Eve night, 1863.

Legareville Area of Operations

The gunboat USS Marblehead had duties off Legareville that Christmas morning.  The Marblehead was a 700 ton, two masted steam gunboat, mounting two XI-inch Dahlgren guns, two 24-pdr smoothbore guns, and one 20-pdr rifle (likely a Parrott).  Lieutenant-Commander Richard W. Meade, Jr., commanded the Marblehead.

USS Marblehead (US Naval Historical Center)

Downriver, where the Kiawah River joins the Stono, the USS Pawnee stood by in support.  At 1,558 tons, the Pawnee was provisioned for eight IX-inch Dahlgens, one 100-pdr Parrott Rifle, one 50-pdr Dahlgren Rifle, and two 12-pdr boat howitzers.[5]  Commander George Balch commanded the Pawnee.

USS Pawnee (US Naval Historical Center)
USS Pawnee (US Naval Historical Center)

Further downstream stood the 200 ton mortar schooner C.P. Williams, armed with one 15-inch Mortar, two 32-pdr guns, one 20-pdr Parrott, and two 24-pdr howitzers.[6]  Acting Master S. N. Freeman skippered the mortar schooner.  These three vessels fell under the overall command of Commander Balch.

At around 6 a.m. that Christmas morning, the Confederate heavy guns began firing on the Marblehead.   The gunboat immediately went into action, but at a reduced pace to to a leaky boiler.[7]   In spite of this handicap, the gunboat remained on station, preventing any movement of the Confederate infantry.  Meanwhile, the Pawnee and C.P. Williams moved up.  By 6:35 a.m., Balch brought the Pawnee up the Kiawah River in position to enfilade the Confederate batteries.  Around 7 the mortar schooner joined in.  With the weight of eighteen heavy guns, the Confederate position soon became untenable.  By 7:30, the Confederates withdrew from the battery positions.[8]

General Wise reported the loss of one artillerist killed and five wounded.  The loss of eight horses along with damage to equipment meant two of the 8-inch howitzers remained behind.[9]  Col. Page felt the failure was largely due to inaccurate artillery fire, stating the Marblehead “…was never touched by the artillery.”[10]  General Beauregard echoed this sentiment in his short summary of the action, “Expedition to destroy two gunboats in the Stono yesterday failed through bad firing of our batteries.”[11]

Disputing that assessment, Lt. Cdr. Meade detailed damage to his vessel noting, “she has 12 shot in the hull (1 between wind and water); 18 shot struck in the upper works and aloft. We have one 30-pounder shell which lodged in the steerage and did not explode, showing that the rebels had something heavier than mere field pieces.”[12]  Three of the Marblehead‘s crew were killed and four wounded.[13]  So clearly some of the Rebel rounds found a target.

The Federal infantry at Legareville advanced up a causeway in pursuit of the Confederates, and found the two abandoned howitzers.  Lacking horses or other means of getting the weapons over the marshes, the infantry spiked the howitzers and destroyed the carriages.[14]  On the 28th, Lt. Cdr. Meade lead a landing party to the battery locations, navigating up the creeks.  Meade found the removal by water easier, bringing off the howitzers.  He reported these to be “…8-inch seacoast howitzers, weighing 2,650 pounds each, and throw a shot of 69.5 pounds weight.”   He also noted one of the pieces was loaded, and extraction of the round revealed “… a cylinro-conical projectile (with soft metal base), weighing 100 pounds….”  Meade saved the round for the Bureau of Ordnance’s examination.[15]

Meade’s reference to “seacoast howitzers” likely was a miss-identification of the Army weapon.  The weight given complies with that of the 8-inch Siege Howitzer Model 1841.  Two Army models of 8-inch seacoast howitzers weighed between 5,740 and 8,517 pounds.  Further support for the siege howitzer identification is a photograph showing just such a weapon on board the Pawnee, but on a Navy style truck carriage.

8-inch Howitzer on USS Pawnee

After the war, the two howitzers became part of the U.S. Navy Yard’s collection of trophies.  If these pieces could talk, they might relate only a minor action in the larger scope of the war.  But that Christmas in 1863 was far from peaceful.

Happy Holidays to you all, and let us pray our future is filled with peaceful Christmases.



1.  Ripley, Warren. Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War, 4th Edition. Charleston, S.C.: The Battery Press, 1984. pp.50-1.

2.  Report of Brig. Gen. George H. Gordon, U.S. Army, commanding division, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume 28, Serial 46, pp. 747-8.  Gordon mentions the 74th Pennsylvania Infantry in pursuit of the Confederates in the Christmas Day action, but is not specific with regard to the Legareville detachment’s composition.

3. Manigualt, Edward.   Siege Train:  The Journal of a Confederate Artilleryman in the Defense of Charleston, edited by Warren Ripley.  University of South Carolina Press, 1996. p. 101.

4.  Report of Brig. Gen. Henry A. Wise, C.S. Army, commanding Sixth Military District, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume 28, Serial 46, p. 750.

5.  Canney, Donald L.  The Old Steam Navy, Volume One: Frigates, Sloops, and Gunboats, 1815-1885.  Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1990.  p. 86.

6.  Based on report of ammunition expended, enclosure to Report of Acting Master Freeman, U.S. Navy, commanding U.S. Schooner C.P. Williams, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series I, Volume 15, p. 194.

7.  Report of Lieut-Commander Meade, U.S. Navy, commanding U.S.S. Marblehead, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series I, Volume 15, p. 190.

8.  Report of Commander Balch, U.S. Navy, commanding U.S.S. Pawnee, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series I, Volume 15, p. 189.

9.  Report of Gen. Wise, Army OR, p. 750.

10.  Report of Col. P.R. Page, Twenty-sixth Virginia Infantry, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume 28, Serial 46, p. 750.

11.  Report of General G.T. Beauregard, C.S. Army commanding Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida,  Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume 28, Serial 46, p. 749.

12.  Report of Lieut-Commander Meade, U.S. Navy, transmitting list of damages sustained by the U.S.S. Marblehead, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series I, Volume 15, p. 192.

13.  Report of Assistant Surgeon Kidder, of the U.S.S. Marblehead, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series I, Volume 15, p. 191.

14.  Report of Gen. Gordon, Army OR, pp. 748-9.

15.  Report of Lieut-Commander Meade, U.S. Navy, regarding the removal of the guns, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series I, Volume 15, p. 194-6.  The weight of the gun was corrected in an addendum to the report.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

4 thoughts on “Howitzers for Christmas!

  1. I’ve seen the Legareville batteries, and I believe the one you have labeled “lower battery” is actually the middle battery, while there was an additional battery, usually referred to as the “lower battery,” farther southwest, about the same distance from the middle battery as the middle is from the upper.

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