Fort Sumter’s Largest – The 10-inch Columbiads

According to the reports forwarded prior to the opening of hostilities, the largest caliber weapons mounted in Fort Sumter in April 1861 were 10-inch Columbiads.  Two of these guns sat on the barbette tier facing Morris Island.  The defenders mounted a third to fire at extreme elevation to fire as a mortar from the parade ground.

The design history of the 10-inch Columbiad parallels that of the smaller 8-inch type, but in smaller quantities.  After the 10-inch Model 1840 Seacoast Howitzer (10 produced), the Army ordered seven 10-inch Model 1842 Seacoast Howitzers from Cyrus Alger.  As discussed earlier, the Army refined the seacoast howitzer design into the Model 1844 columbiads in both 8- and 10-inch variety.  As seen on the particulars below, the Model 1844 increased length and weight over the previous model.

Just as with the smaller 8-inch Model 1844, the 10-inch from that model year featured elevating ratchets on the breech face, a split “button” knob cascabel, raised base ring, nearly cylindrical first reinforce, tapered second reinforce, chase ring, and a muzzle swell.  Also like the smaller Model 1844s, the 10-inch used a sub-caliber powder chamber – 8 inches in diameter by 8 inches in depth (plus a six inch “mouth” before reaching the full 10 inch diameter bore).

Ft Sumter 3 May 2010 231
Breech Face of 10-inch Model 1844 (later banded)

The 10-inch Model 1844 fired limited variety of projectiles.  The Ordnance Instructions of 1850 provided these particulars:

  • Solid shot 9.87 inches in diameter weighing 128 pounds.
  • Shell weighing 101 pounds with a 1 pound, 6 ounce bursting charge (or 3 pounds to fill the shell)
  • An 86 pound carcass containing incendiary fuel.

Note the regulations do not list particulars for case shot (shrapnel), grape or canister for the 10-inch caliber.

The instructions of 1850 also provided a rather detailed range table for the 10-inch Model 1844 (columns from left to right are – weapon, powder charge, projectile, elevation, range, and notes):

Several details to highlight from this table.  When placed at extreme elevation for use akin to a mortar, the 10-inch offered the phenomenal (for that time) range of 5650 yards for shot and 4825 yards for shells.  But as the notes indicate, above 6 degrees the solid shot ceased to ricochet across the water.

At first, the reader may “ho hum” these figures, but consider the main design goal of the columbiad – combining attributes of the gun, howitzer, and mortar.  As the elevation increased from zero to six, the weapon performed as a gun;  Between six and about 30 degrees, as a howitzer (but with a correspondingly heavier powder charge); and above 30 degrees as a mortar.   I cannot think of a better depiction of the columbiad’s unique capabilities short of actually firing the weapon.

The Ordnance Instructions of 1862 added a bit more about the performance of the 10-inch columbiad.   In a chart recalling tests in 1852, the instructions offered penetration data against oak at different ranges.  At 2000 yards (roughly the range at six degrees of elevation) a 10-inch columbiad solid shot penetrated 27 inches of oak.  At 4000 yards a solid shot broke through 11 inches.  And at 4800 yards the solid shot still penetrated 8 inches.  For shell over the same ranges the penetration was 19, 6.25, and 4 inches respectively.  This performance made the 10-inch columbiad a threat to any wooden warship of the day.

Ft Sumter 3 May 2010 235
Muzzle Profile of 10-inch Model 1844

After a respectable number of 10-inch Model 1844 through 1857, the Army ordered seven 10-inch “New Columbiads” or Model 1857.  Very likely the ordnance officers tested all of those to destruction prior to the war.  None are even tentatively identified in wartime photos and none survive today.  From those tests, however, came the techniques and specifications for the later Rodman guns (for comparison the last column in the chart at top).

By process of elimination then, likely the three 10-inch columbiads at Fort Sumter in April 1861 were Model 1844s.  Two survivors remain in the Charleston area today.  Both rifled and banded by Confederates during the war.   Today one of the rifled and banded Model 1844s sits inside Fort Sumter.

Ft Sumter 3 May 2010 230
10-inch Columbiad Model 1844 - Rifled and Banded

In the past, this gun sat on a wooden carriage, pointed at mortar elevations.  The location is rather close to the location the fort’s garrison mounted a 10-inch columbiad in a similar manner, pointed towards Charleston.   Some have cited this with indignation as a some intention of “brutality” on the part of the Yankees.  A quick look at the ranges involved reveals even at elevation the columbiad might just reach Charleston’s fabled White Point Gardens, a.k.a. “the battery,” where… well the garrison expected the rebels to place a battery!  Further, the same azimuth covered the middle of the harbor and was only a few degrees off from Castle Pinckney.  Thus the pointing of the piece towards downtown Charleston is not as barbaric as some might hold.

Another 10-inch Model 1844 sits across the channel at Fort Moultrie.

Fort Moultrie 3 May 2010 575
10-inch Columbiad Model 1844 at Fort Moultrie

But you’ll notice the more elaborate system, including bronze trunnion and band, on this columbiad.  This is one of my favorite Civil War artillery pieces, mostly because the composition of the cannon actually tells the story.  Because it is a tale laced with technical details and big name personalities, I’ll save the details of rifling and banding of 10-inch Columbiads for a later date.

Both the Sumter and Moultrie 10-inch Columbiads were actually at Fort Sumter during the events of April 1861.  Today the stand as silent witnesses to the beginning of the Civil War.


Aside from on site notes and links provided above, sources consulted for this post were:

Ordnance Manual for Use of the Officers of the United States Army.  Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1862. (Google Books copy)

Birkhimer, William, Historical Sketch of the Organization, Administration, Material and Tactics of the Artillery, United States Army.  Washington:  James J. Chapman, 1884.

Olmstead, Edwin, Wayne E. Stark, and Spencer C. Tucker. The Big Guns: Civil War Siege, Seacoast and Naval Cannon. Alexandria Bay, NY: Museum Restoration Service, 1997.

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

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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