Balloons and Artillery at Dr. Gaines Farm

One of Civil War Trust’s latest preservation efforts is a large parcel of property, covering 285 acres, at Gaines Mill, Virginia.  The targeted ground is that over which General James Longstreet’s men attacked on June 27, 1862.

But like many locations in Virginia, the site was not a “one event” spot.  A month earlier, Federals occupied positions around Dr. Gaines farm.  At that time the balloonist made an appearance, as the Federals worked across Chickahominy  Creek at New Bridge.  An article on Civil War Trust’s site briefly discusses this skirmish with regard to the aeronaut activities.  Thaddeus Lowe established the “Balloon Corps” station on Gaines Farm in late May.  On May 23, batteries of the 2nd US Artillery, from the Army’s horse artillery, deployed in the same area.   Company A, 2nd US Artillery, under Captain John C. Tidball, shelled Confederate positions and received some direction from the balloonists.

In his official report on the action, Tidball wrote:

I have the honor to report that about 12 m. on the 23d instant my battery was ordered from its camp near New Bridge, over the Chickahominy River, for the purpose of shelling the ground occupied by the enemy in the vicinity of that bridge.

The pieces were placed in battery near the mansion of Dr. Gaines, and from there opened a steady and well-directed fire on the point indicated. The enemy made no reply, but, from the report of those in the balloon, fled from their position. After firing 93 rounds the battery was withdrawn, and a few minutes afterward started on its march toward Mechanicsville. A few rods after the head of the column, of which the left section of my battery constituted an advanced portion, had passed the bridge over Bell’s Creek, several cannon-shots were fired by the enemy from pieces on the eminence immediately in our front…. (OR Series I, Volume II, Part I, Serial 12, page 656).

Sort of a one-sided action, almost a routine action in many regards.  But Tidball’s mention of the balloon is worth analysis.

There are many mentions of “indirect” fire employed during the Civil War, or more specifically – “spotted” fire.  Contrary to our American pride, this style of fire control was not developed during our mid-19th century conflict, but rather dates back practically to the concept of siege weapons (in other words ancient stuff).  However the use of balloons, signal flags, telegraph, and other technologies came into play during the Civil War.

The question does arise why the combatants did not make more use of spotted fires.  Well there were some problems with technology.  The oft cited issue involved the lag in communications.  However one can imagine Lowe, a few hundred feet above Tidball’s guns, shouting down, “… a little to the left…” or “… give it one more turn of elevation….”  But at best Lowe could only offer a description of where the shot fell.  He could not aid the direction of the next shot.

You see, the real problem was not with communications, but with the guns themselves.  In order to “spot” a round, the observer and gunners must have some reasonable way to have the projectile fall in a predictable manner – in other words, consistent shot pattern.  Civil War artillery lacked recoil dampening or compensating systems.  The projectiles used rudimentary time fuses which were prone to failure.  The projectiles themselves, both rifled and smoothbore, were apt to take erratic ballistic courses.  And none of this took into account the effects of wind, weather and temperature.  Putting two successive rounds in the same spot required luck in addition to the skill of the gun crew.

Predicted fire would have to wait a few more decades until recoil systems, better projectiles and guns, advanced firing tables, and proper weather reports would enable gunners to place rounds on a target with some degree of regularity.  At that point, “spotting” was not only possible, but required!

Fire Effects Considered: The Rifle Musket and Artillery

If you’ve read even a bit about Civil War tactics, you are probably aware of the oft cited change on the battlefield ushered in by the rifle musket.  From my view-point, the discussion lands in two camps – the “traditionalists” who contend the minie ball and rifle musket changed everything; and the counter, revisionist if you want, argument featuring interpretations by assessing battlefield accounts and raw data.  I call these “quantitatives” as I don’t think their goal is to revise history, but rather make it sharper to the actual form.  (And I’ll gladly acknowledge I prefer the quantitative camp myself.)

While I’ve long played the role of skeptic in discussions about the “modernity” of the Civil War, there is some weight to the traditionalist argument.  There were new, or at least fresh, aspects to the battlespace in 1861-65.  We might argue if those aspects were indeed first seen here in America or on other fields prior to Fort Sumter.  But I think most would agree the battlefield had changed in some manner in the time after the last major American combat experience (the Mexican War), more so since the War of 1812.  But can we attribute that simply to the advent of rifle muskets?

The quantitative stance offers a wealth of combat experiences and data which suggest the impact of the rifled musket was not as great.  Perhaps I said it above, simply alluding to some change but not sweeping changes in the battlespace.  Indeed the most damming evidence presented is that battle ranges did not increase with the longer effective range of the rifle muskets.  Personally I tend to follow that logic.  On battlefield after battlefield, I’ve paced out battle lines.  The ground doesn’t lie.

Another point often refuted by the quantitative response is the notion that the casualty rates rose due to more accurate fire.  Historian Paddy Griffin offered the comparison to actions on many European fields as an example.  The “bloody” nature of Civil War fields is just as much a function of the number of men involved and the tactical formations used.  Griffin derived a statistical conclusion that some fraction of 1% of all bullets fired in the war actually hit an enemy target.  This tends to lead down the path of counting bullets – or in the case of artillery the number of projectiles from a canister round.  And we see that in venues ranging from forum message boards to works of well grounded historians.

A typical vignette I’ve seen offered when “counting bullets” would involve two brigades of infantry lined up to fight.  The narrative often notes the ammunition expenditure, time that all the regiments were involved, and then the number of casualties at the end.  The story line ends up very compact – they came, they fired, they died.  But wait, not all died.  Indeed not all were even casualties.  The “battle math” simply deducts the casualties in order to derive each unit’s combat strength come the end of the battle.  Simple numbers, no fractions.

I guess that is where I depart from the pure quantitative analysis of the data.  The targeting of an enemy, using a weapon system, is conducted with the purpose of disrupting that enemy’s plans or designs.  Yes, a subset of targeting is to inflict casualties.   But from a pure process standpoint, the casualties are but a by-product on the way to the true goal – that of hindering the enemy’s chosen course of action (be that offensive or defensive in nature).

Consider the disruption within the ranks of the receiving end, both ancillary and psychological.  If I may present this from a cold, analytical setting, those killed are a liner reduction in combat strength.  Those wounded are more progressive reductions, as some will invariably aid them (either by orders or not).    More telling is the reduction in combat strength on those completely unscathed.  How many in the ranks are stunned – be that for seconds, minutes, hours, or even days – into inaction?  The bullet does not need to hit flesh to be effective in its task.  And even that effect is but a scratch of the full impact.

The same effect is even greater when considering artillery.  While we might (unfairly) discount the artillery as ineffective in the close range, blood-letting infantry fights, we must consider the longer effective range of the big guns.  During the Civil War, field artillery could – and frequently did – engage the enemy at ranges exceeding 800 yards (the extreme for the rifle musket).  As with the infantry battle line, the desired effect of the long ranged artillery fire was to disrupt the enemy’s plans.  An artillery battery might fire all afternoon without inflicting a single blood casualty, but that does not mean it was not successful in the assigned task.

To me this says we need to avoid the pitfall of “counting bullets” in the quest to understand the dynamics of the tactical battlefield.

Sunbury’s Confederate Iron Guns

When showcasing the Confederate iron 6-pdr field guns from Tredegar I featured the guns at the Brawner Farm on the Second Manassas battlefield.  Another place to view a set of these iron smoothbores is Sunbury, Pennsylvania at the foot of the Northumberland County Civil War memorial.

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Northumberland Civil War Memorial

Because the iron fence prevents “walk around” I’ll still suggest Manassas for students who wish to examine the guns closely.  But Sunbury is a good side trip for those traveling down Highway 15 (on the way to… say… Gettysburg?).

Of the three guns, only one has visible markings to speak of.

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6-pdr Iron Field gun - Tredegar #1486

The muzzle on this gun displays the familiar Tredegar foundry number mark.  In this case #1486.

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Muzzle of Tredegar #1486

On the breech, just in front of the vent, is the weight stamp of “918”.

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Breech of #1486

Records show that Tredegar cast #1486 on April 9, 1862.  The gun is among four others sold to the Confederate Army on May 10.  The others being #1485, #1487, and #1477.  These appear on the same invoice as the 3-inch Rifled Field Gun #1464.  Certainly the smoothbore #1486 at Sunbury and the rifled #1464 at Gettysburg share the same outward appearance from the flattened knob to the straight muzzle.

However the other two 6-pdrs at Sunbury have the older style knobs and muzzle swells.  While there are no markings to confirm these as Tredegar guns, the form matches that of the earlier 6-pdr iron guns (and 3-inch rifles for that matter).  Good coats of paint hide the years of weathering.

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Shiny 6-pdr Field Gun, Presumed Tredegar

One of these has a tall, and relatively undamaged, muzzle sight post.  The neck of the knob has cut-outs similar to those seen on Tredegar rifled guns.  Another indication of the connection between 6-pdr and 3-inch iron gun patterns.

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Breech of Unmarked 6-pdr

The last of the three displays scars and scuffs under the otherwise good paint.  It also lacks any front sight fixtures.

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Unmarked 6-pdr at Sunbury, Presumed Tredegar

There are other guns at Sunbury’s monument.  Two 8-inch Siege Mortars of Model 1861 sit in between the field guns.  While stopped with tampons, the markings are easy to read.  No doubt the subjects for a future post!

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8-inch Siege Mortar Model 1861

However there is one more 6-pdr at Sunbury, also an iron gun.  But this piece was likely cast well before the Civil War.

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Unknown 6-pdr at Sunbury

The external form resembles guns cast in the first decades of the 19th century.  While this gun has rimbases for the trunnions, it also has a key-hole vent.  Certainly fodder for speculation and perhaps another post.

But as nice as these American iron cannons are, I must admit the highlight of Sunbury’s downtown display is this piece:

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77mm FK16 German Field Gun

This gun, a German 77mm FK16, came home with World War I veterans and speaks to another time and another place in history.