One of my all time favorite Civil War photos captures an artillery crew at drill.
It captures the crew at the point when the lanyard was pulled to fire the piece. Of course the photographer caught this image during a dry run. So no flames and smoke. But we do see what must have been a common sight, with the crew braced for the next set of moves in their carefully scripted drill – prepare, load, aim, fire.
Because the gun’s muzzle is displayed front and center, I’ve always wondered if given enough resolution one could trace the gun’s registry number. If the gun was still around, I’d love to match it up in a “then and now” set of photos.
Earlier this week I was browsing the National Archives collection of Brady photos on Flickr, and noticed my favorite photo. Just a few clicks here and there and I cropped a high-resolution view of the muzzle.
Not exactly good enough to read the markings. Five very clear rifle grooves, which beyond a doubt means this piece was a 20-pdr (3.67-inch) Parrott. Shading variations lead me to believe there are markings at the top (12 o’clock) and bottom (6 o’clock) of the muzzle. But not the large lettering that practically ringed the later production Parrotts (example below).
Another detail to consider is the prominent front sight blade. By 1863, Parrotts shifted to an off-center sight line, using a blade on the right rimbase and a socketed knob on the band.
Another detail leading me to think this was an 1861-2 production Parrot is the shoulder in front of the trunnions.
If the photographer’s angle had been perhaps 10 degrees to the right, then we’d likely see a year stamping. Or is that the initials of the inventor “R.P.P.”?
Based on visual evidence, I’d wager this 20-pdr was one of about a hundred produced for Army or state contracts prior to 1863. Of which, about two dozen survive. Maybe a one in four chance the gun is still around to be identified.
Beyond that “gun stuff,” the real joy of looking through these old photos are the fine details one can pick out. I think the expressions on the crew’s faces makes this photo a popular illustration used in books about the war. I like that of what appears to be the number 5 man to the rear and left of the piece.
Is that “just going through the motions” for you? Or is that “I’d better be stiff, I’m going to be in a picture” pose? Hard to tell if that is a smirk or just the line of his mustache. But over his right shoulder is a sign with a number – indicating gun position number 4 in a fortification. The record from the National Archives leaves little to aid identification of the exact fort. I’d suggest this is one of the Washington defenses. The gun position number and related equipment leads me to believe the fort is the same captured in another photo.
The gun on the parapet is a 30-pdr Parrott on a siege carriage. It has a threaded elevation mechanism attached to a hole in the knob. That piece is likely a late production model of that type. Behind it is a seacoast smoothbore on front pintle barbette carriage, my guess is a 32-pdr.
Although I thwarted in my goal to identify the exact cannon, I could waste several hours just scanning through the details of the photo. There’s always some fine detail missed on earlier looks. Even for a familiar photo such as this one!