6.4-inch Parrott Rifles, Part 3

Earlier posts about the 6.4-inch Parrott Rifles focused on the design and manufacture of the guns along with the functional considerations, such as projectiles and mountings.   Now I will turn to the operational employment of the weapon.  From the Army perspective, the 6.4-inch rifle filled three functions – disrupting enemy attacks on friendly fortifications (garrison), battering enemy fortifications (siege), and sinking enemy warships (coast defense).

For the former role, a multitude were placed in the Washington defensive perimeter.  Aside from the gun shown in the wartime photo at Fort Totten (seen in part 2), the Army placed other 6.4-inch rifles at several forts around the capital.  On the Virginia side, two 6.4-inch Parrotts at Fort Worth and one 6.4-inch Fort Richardson covered approaches along the Little River and Columbia Pikes (and protected the Orange & Alexandria Railroad through Cameron Run).     Pairs of the big Parrotts covered the Chain Bridge from Batteries Cameron, Parrott, and Kemble.   Around the northern half of the defenses, Forts Sumner, Reno, DeRussy, Totten, and Lincoln featured 6.4-inch Parrotts.  The arrangement provided for overlapping fires covering most approaches to the capital from Maryland.

A report by Brigadier General A.P. Howe dated May 17, 1864 indicates those guns were in place prior to the only major test of the defenses – Confederate General Jubal Early’s July 1864 “Raid.” [Note 1]  During the fighting in front of Fort Stevens on July 11-12, 1864, gunners at Fort DeRussy fired 18 case shot, 10 shells, and 4 bolts from the 6.4-inch Parrott, at ranges out to 4,500 yards.  [Note 2]

The Army also employed a 6.4-inch rifles in a garrison role on Maryland Heights overlooking Harpers Ferry.  Heavy rounds from that gun could range many notable crossing points on the Potomac, and out past School House Ridge to the west.  Other 6.4-inch rifles saw service in the Western Theater, notably the Nashville defenses.

For the siege role, the most notable use came outside Charleston, South Carolina.  In late July 1863, Federal batteries began breaching operations against Fort Wagner on Morris Island.  Among the batteries arrayed for the task were nine 6.4-inch Parrotts.  While Fort Wagner was the primary target, Federal gunners did send rounds toward Fort Sumter and the city of Charleston during the Morris Island siege operations.  The range to Fort Sumter varied between 3,500 and 4,300 yards.   Between August 30 and November 7, 1863, ten 6.4-inch Parrotts burst during these bombardments – over 100% attrition rate.  (Replacements were secured from reserve stocks and loans from the Navy) [Note 3]  After Confederates evacuated Fort Wagner, the big Parrotts joined other weapons in an impressive, if ineffective, reduction of Fort Sumter.  And the 6.4-inch rifles fired some incendiary shells into Charleston in hope that “Greek fire” might damage the city.

Backing up a bit, the first combat action of the 6.4-inch Parrotts was in the siege role on the Yorktown, Virginia line in 1862.  Later as part of the siege train employed around Richmond and Petersburg in 1864, the big rifles were used as heavy battering weapons.  Some of the type were detailed to the Dutch Gap area  to guard against sorties by the Confederate James River squadron.  A photo of Fort Brady shows one of the 6.4-inch rifles on a front pintel barbette.

This anti-ship implementation was an example of the third major role of the 6.4-inch Parrotts.  As the Confederate Navy posed localized threats, seacoast or riverway defense employment was less common for the Parrott rifles.  Besides the James River, other anti-ship emplacements included the New Bern and Plymouth, North Carolina defenses.  The later point received one 6.4-inch to oppose the CSS Albemarle then operating in the Roanoke River.

For the Navy, anti-ship use was a more important role for the big Parrotts.  Among the ships outfitted with 6.4-inch Parrotts were the ironclads USS Galena, USS Benton, USS Essex, and several of the City Class river gunboats.  Ocean-going ships such as the USS San Jacinto, USS Minnesota, USS Hartford, and USS Pawnee carried 6.4-inch rifles on pivot carriages.   Many ships acquired early in the war received 6.4-inch Parrotts.  The former ferryboat USS Southfield was among those, with one Parrott complemented with three 8-inch shellguns.

Confederates acquired at least one 6.4-inch Parrott during the war.  Brigadier General Henry Abbot reported one among the ordnance captured at Fort Fisher.  In his table, the gun is listed as “6.4-inch Parrott, U.S.” and in serviceable condition.   The U.S. designation stands apart from notations for Brooke and other rifled guns in the same caliber. [Note 4]   As Parrotts in this caliber were not produced before hostilities, my conclusion is the big rifle was captured from the Federals.  Likely candidates are the defenses of Plymouth or the Southfield mentioned above.  In the April 1864 battle of Plymouth, Confederates captured a 6.4-inch Parrott and an 8-inch Parrott from the Federal garrison. [Note 5]   Additionally the Southfield was sunk in shallow water by the Albemarle during the battle.  However it is unclear if the Southfield carried a Parrott into the battle, as her rifle had burst earlier that year.

The 6.4-inch (or if you wish the 100-pdr) Parrott saw use in nearly every theater of war, including a handful dispatched to San Francisco for harbor defense.  Reports from the field provide a wealth of details pertaining to the type’s service.  Respected for range and accuracy, and in spite of the tendency to burst, the 6.4-inch remained in Army and Navy inventories almost to the turn of the century.

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Notes:

  1. OR, Series I, Volume 36, Part II, Serial 68, pages 883-896.
  2. Report of Capt. John Norris, Second Provisional Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery, of the Defense of Washington, OR, Series I, Volume 37, Part I, Serial 70, pages 238-9.
  3. Reports of Brig. Gen. John W. Turner, U.S. Army, Chief of Artillery, including bombardment of Fort Sumter, OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 212-225.
  4. Reports of Bvt. Brig. Gen. Henry L. Abbot, First Connecticut Heavy Artillery, commanding Siege Train, of operations January 1-March 31, OR, Series I, Volume 46, Part I, Serial 95, page 167.
  5. Reports of Maj. Gen. John J. Peck, U.S. Army, commanding District of North Carolina, OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, page 292-3.  (The 8-inch Parrott was turned over to the Confederate Navy)
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