A little less grape if you please! A long running misrepresentation

“A little more grape, Captain Bragg.”

Yes, that is the popular version of General Zachary Taylor’s order to Captain Braxton Bragg at Buena Vista. The order took on a life all its own, immortalized in song and story, and helped to propel Taylor into the White House.

A more likely version of the order is, “Double-shot your guns and give them hell, Bragg.”    Why so?  Well good chance there wasn’t any grapeshot in Bragg’s ammunition chests.  That type of projectile fell into disfavor for land use in the first half of the 19th century (although naval users continued to use grapeshot due to its effect on ship’s rigging).  John Gibbon explained the Army’s preference in his 1860 Artillerist’s Manual:

The use of grape-shot for field pieces has been discontinued for a number of years, it being considered that for the ranges of that kind of artillery, the shot of which canisters are made, are large enough, and the canister possesses the advantages of striking a great many more points at one discharge than grape.  There is an advantage, too, in not having so many different kinds of ammunition for a piece.

The 1850 Ordnance Manual did not even mention grapeshot below the 12-pdr caliber:

The chart indicates the size and weight of individual balls of grape.  Composition was typically nine balls with in a “stand.” Although the 12-pdr size is listed, the projectiles defined were for use with 12-pdr siege and garrison guns, not field guns or howitzers.  The same manual indicated the particulars for canister in several calibers:

As with the grapeshot chart, this indicates the size and weight of the balls used within a canister projectile.  The number of balls in a canister varied by caliber.  Note the indicated variation within the 12-pdr caliber – one size for 12-pdr guns, one for 12-pdr howitzers, and one for 12-pdr mountain howitzers.  The ordnance instructions considered the propellant powder used when sizing the canister’s projectiles. The manual also detailed the contents of ammunition chests.  For field artillery, none of these included space for grapeshot.

Yet the term “grapeshot” remained in the popular mind during and after the Civil War.  Soldiers often recorded “storms of grape and shot” during battles.  On the battlefield and in one’s memory, definitions expand and terminology is imprecise.  For instance, later generations of veterans are apt to mention “those 88s” when more often than not the offending German guns were of different caliber.  And so many fighter planes with a “rising sun” insignia became a “Zero” by similar application.

But we know this as technically inaccurate.  Most well written histories providing first hand accounts which reference grapeshot leave the citation in quotes.  That is, of course, the right way to handle the observation.  Although I’d like to see some annotation explaining the incorrect use of the term “grape,” publishers are not keen to waste space on such trivial matters.

More troublesome, we still read about “finds” like Dug Civil War 1″ Grapeshot from Gettysburg. Given the size of that iron ball, the likely identification for that projectile is a 12-pdr howitzer canister ball.  But I’m not saying that for certain (and I am not willing to pay $15.50 for something so clearly misidentified and with little documentation).

Such “finds” are given credence by many “coffee table” books, pop-history, or even some of the more technically oriented references works out there.  For example, the Osprey Publishing offering on Gettysburg has a photo of a stand of grape with the caption:

When the Confederates broke through the Bloody Angle and shook the 69th, Cowan’s battery was at first masked.  When the 69th moved, this kind of ‘grapeshot’ was fired at ten yards into the oncoming Southerners.

I submit that if Cowan’s gunners found grapeshot in their ammunition chests, they’d have been confused as to how to use them. Unlike canister, grapeshot didn’t have fixed powder bags.  In all reality, there were probably no grapeshot within 50 miles of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863 (making allowances of course for shore batteries along the Chesapeake).

Every time I read about “grapeshot,” be that in an authentic citation or as an unwitting use from more recent writing, I must suppress a chuckle at the 160-year-old meme.  But even I would admit that “throw them a few more cans, Captain Bragg” does not sound very inspiring.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

3 thoughts on “A little less grape if you please! A long running misrepresentation

  1. Excellent post. Of course in our own lifetime (and that of our fathers), there is “shrapnel” and a fair-size list of other such military malapropisms.

  2. I just watched a TV show where the crew dug up an intact stand of grape from the Cedar Creek battlefield. Cedar Creek was in late 1864.

    1. Sure… And what was the context?

      I’ve also watched fishing shows where a guy catches nine bass in a thirty minute segment….

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