The Role of Civil War Field Artillery on the Battlefield

Some points to ponder as I work up some posts regarding field artillery tactics.

First – In 1845, the Army published its consolidated Instruction for field artillery, horse and foot.  Note the last three words offer variations for artillery accompanying cavalry and infantry, respectively.  “Mounted” artillery was not standardized until later.  This manual, for the most part, simply instructs leaders how to move and fire the guns.  The text offers little to explain the desired effects of artillery fires, how artillery should be employed, or the appropriate battlefield functions of artillery.  In short, the manual does not define the role of artillery. (And in all fairness, that was a topic introduced in other instructions, particularly those classes at West Point.)

Second  – John Gibbon offered some insight into the role of field artillery in his Artillerist’s Manual of 1860:

Posted along the front of the line, [artillery] serves to maintain the combat; to spare the rest of the troops; to support their movements, and to make an opening for them to act.  A portion of it, held in reserve, appearing at the decisive moment, produces by its rapid and terrible effect, the most important results….The principal advantages of the fire of artillery over that of infantry, are – that the striking of the shot and shell gives a means of correcting the fire, not possessed by small arms…. The moral effect due to the power of artillery is increased by the noise of the explosions, which can be heard in the midst of the most active firing of small arms…. Artillery is used against troops, either deployed or in squares, by forming openings preparatory to a charge of cavalry.  It also repulses the enemy’s columns of attack, throwing them into disorder…. Artillery is one of the greatest use in attacking posts and intrenchments; and a city which would resist troops without artillery, would quickly yield after receiving a few shot and shell.

Pardon the patchwork of the quote.  Gibbon spent a lot of time in that passage explaining that artillery played a more important role with raw, untrained troops.   But the desired “role” for field artillery on the battlefield is apparent.

Third – Turning to the 1861 Instructions for Field Artillery, written by William French, William Barry, and Henry Hunt, the “role” is also defined:

Field artillery is used to attack and defend the works of temporary fortification; to destroy or demolish material obstacles and means of cover, and thus prepare the way for the success of other arms; to act upon the field of battle; to break an enemy’s line or prevent him from forming; to crush his masses; to dismount his batteries; to follow and support a pursuit and to cover and protect a retreat.

The effect of field artillery is generally in proportion to the concentration of its fire.  It has therefore for its object, not to strike down a few isolated men, and here and there to dismount a gun, but by a combined and concentrated fire to destroy an enemy’s cover; to break up his squares and columns; to open his ranks; to arrest his attacks, and to support those which may be directed against him.

There’s a lot to consider and analyze there.  Keep in mind these last two quotes are descriptions, by some of the most influential officers in the artillery branch, of how the guns should be used on the battlefield. These sentences are as close to field artillery “doctrine” as one might find in the pre-war instructions.  These citations should frame any discussion about the effectiveness of artillery at a specific battle or in general through the war.  Be it proven sound or not, the “doctrine” was the foundation for the tactical approach to the battle used by artillerists during the war.

With that in mind, do the writings of Gibbon, French, Barry, Hunt, and other contemporaries represent a tactical evolution towards that “modern war” as often described?

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

2 thoughts on “The Role of Civil War Field Artillery on the Battlefield

  1. One could argue that the doctrine was already developed by the Civil War. A training school for the artillery was already established at Fort Monroe by Secretary of War Calhoun in 1824. The school was provided further funding and support in 1836 by Secretary of War Poinsett. It was at that time that the artillery fielded one of its first light artillery battalions.

    By the start of the Mexican-American War, there was a large part of the American artillery that was highly trained thanks to the efforts of men like Brevet Major Samuel Ringgold. The tactics of the horse drawn, light artillery earned the nickname “flying artillery”, and one could argue rather successfully that it was Brevet Major Ringgold and his artillery that won the at the Battle of Palo Alto.

    As for your question at the end, the mission of the artillery has not changed a whole lot as the mission of the modern artillery is to “destroy, neutralize, and suppress the enemy by cannon, mortar, and rocket fires, and to integrate all assets of fire support into the combined arms operation.”

    Good stuff here, though. You do the history of the Redlegs proud.

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