Unmasking the Masked Batteries

Yesterday, while discussing the action along the railroad in Vienna, Virginia, I made mention of the “masked battery” which figured prominently in accounts.

In his official report of the action at Vienna on June 17, 1861, Brigadier General Robert C. Schenck wrote, “On turning the curve slowly, within one-quarter of a mile of Vienna, were fired upon by raking masked batteries of, I think, three guns, with shells, round-shot, and grape….”   While Schenck recorded the events with the authority of a participant, what does come into question is the technical accuracy of his account.  In the first place, the Confederates employed 6-pdr field guns at Vienna.  And as I noted in an earlier post, 6-pdrs were not issued grapeshot.  Instead canister became the standard close-range, anti-personnel ammunition for that particular type.   But Schenck was a politician, not a professional soldier.  So I cannot fault him for picking up a two-decade old meme  (“A little more grape, Mr. Bragg!”) and running with it. Perhaps we should also consider Schenck’s use of the term “masked batteries” in context.

First off, what WAS a masked battery?  In the usage found in military manuals, the term carried several connotations.  Certainly the term “masking” commonly referred to the use of terrain, trees, or other features to advantage.  British cadets at Sandhurst were told that:

Guns in position should, in fact, be concealed from the sight of the enemy till a fire from them is on the point of being opened, and they should be exposed as little as possible during the action.  Often they may be covered by banks or hedges, or be temporarily masked by bodies of troops.

On our side of the Atlantic, Dennis H. Mahan’s Elementary Treatise on Advanced-Guards and Outposts instructed officers that:

The artillery will be placed at those points where it can best sweep the ground over which the enemy must approach to attack the weak points of the position.  It should be covered by an epaulment*, and be masked until it is necessary to open its fire.

In an 1855 Glossary of Military terms, a masked battery was “screened from the sight of the enemy by any contrivance.”  Nothing really groundbreaking, unless you consider the spades used to create the artillery positions.  Examples of such employment may be noted from sources from the 18th century, if not earlier.  So we see in the instructions of the day that “masking batteries” implied the placement of the guns in such a way to reduce exposure and maximize effect.

However other references to “masked batteries” implied use of disguises – more  sinister, perhaps.  A list of terms used in fortifications from the Elementary Principles of Fortifications, by John T. Hyde, published in England in 1860, defined a masked battery “…when the battery is so concealed or disguised, as to not be seen and recognized by the enemy, until it opens fire.”   Perhaps more to the point, and from someone who knew well how artillery operated on the American battlefields, in the 1891 edition of the Manual of Heavy Artillery, John C. Tidball described masked batteries (among a dizzying list of other types of batteries) as “artificially concealed until time to open upon the enemy.”

Thus when considering a military definition of “masked batteries” the Civil War era writer might simply refer to a good position offering cover and/or concealment; or the writer may indeed refer to some employment using a disguise or ruse.  Events at Fort Sumter earlier in 1861 may have provided the general population exposure to both uses of the term.  The Star of the West came under fire from a masked battery, in the former sense of the word, during the abortive resupply attempt of January 1861.  Later when the Confederates started the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861, they demolished a house on Morris Island to reveal a concealed battery.

Consider also that the actual phrase “masked battery” seems to have fallen into disfavor as the war progressed.  Reports of Big Bethel, Bull Run, and Balls Bluff feature the phrase.  Indeed the “masked battery” here in Leesburg is what I’d consider a position in the manner defined by Mahan – concealed using terrain and covering an enemy avenue of advance.  But as far as we can tell, Leesburg’s “masked battery” was not employed as such.  As the war progressed, there are fewer direct attributions of masked batteries by name.  Reports from 1864 refer to artillery positions which were masked by bushes or trees, but not as “masked batteries.”

So what did Schenck mean when he wrote of “raking masked batteries?”  Personally, I think Schenck used the term in the same manner he lifted “grapeshot” from his list of word choices.  The term was in play in conversation at the time, and Schenck threw it down.  If so, then we should consider that portion of the report for what it is – an authentic account of the action that lacks in technical precision.

Want a second opinion on the matter?  When writing about McDowell’s sluggish advance from Alexandria to Manassas in his memoirs, former Confederate E.P. Alexander wrote:

… For the newspapers reporters of those days, with the appetite for sensations which still distinguishes the craft, had made a great bugbear of “masked batteries.” The term originated at the attack upon Fort Sumter, where a certain battery was constructed, masked by a house which was destroyed just before opening fire.  After that masked batteries figured on every field and in every event.  When Butler was repulsed at Big Bethel it was a masked battery which did it.  When Schenck’s railroad reconnoissance from Alexandria on June 17, accidentally ran into Gregg’s reconnoissance from Manassas at Vienna, and was fired into by Kemper’s six-pounders, the mysterious masked battery got the credit.  Soon, to read the newspapers, one might believe the woods were infested with such batteries, not to mention “Louisiana Tigers” and “Black Horse Cavalry,” two other scarecrow names which had caught the reporters’ fancies, and been made to do enormous duty.

Well and this sort of springs into another observation I would make about “masked batteries.”  Every tactic has a counter-tactic.  In the case of masked batteries (in either sense of the term), the counter is to employ proper force protection measures – i.e. good reconnaissance, movement with fire support in place, and mutual support from maneuver elements.  All of which, of course is also exactly how any army should proceed on a march into hostile territory, regardless of the presence of Alexander’s “scarecrows.”

And of course the follow up question here is how much we have further distorted reality in secondary accounts?  Have historians falsely elevated the importance of the “masked batteries”?

NOTE:  Epaulment in this context means, ” a side-work or work to cover sidewise, made of gabions, fascines or bags of earth. It sometimes denotes a semi-bastion and a square orillon, or mass of earth faced and lined with a wall, designed to cover the cannon of the casemate.”