Monthly Archives: May 2012

Bottom of the Barrel, part 2: Confederate use of “ancient bronze mortar”

Earlier I mentioned an old Spanish mortar, now at Castillo de San Marcos, which, if inscriptions are believed, was used by the Confederates in Florida.

Recently, searching for wartime illustrations to support a blog post, I ran across another incident where the Confederates used weapons better suited for a museum, even 150 years ago.

The caption reads, “One of the ancient bronze mortars of the time of George II, found at Island No. 10. Formerly in Jackson Square, New Orleans.” The royal seal is fairly well reproduced in the drawing. Better than most of us could probably draw. If the artist did not take artistic license with the perspective, this mortar must be a Coehorn class. I can only speculate some Confederate officer saw this mortar as something to fill a gap…or at least cover a flank.

So from a trophy display in New Orleans to the front lines of the Civil War, a weapon well past its prime saw some limited service. The Confederates drafted what they had on hand to meet needs. And these were not isolated cases of appropriated “trophies”. I’ll offer up more from my files as time permits.

Confederate Napoleons: Odds and Ends

In an earlier post, I pointed to the type classes assigned by modern historians to the various Confederate manufactured 12-pdr Napoleons. Over the last month, I’ve added articles about some of those types and their manufacturers. Those are now linked on my Napoleon gun page, under the Confederate section. Allow me to wrap up some odds and ends here before moving on to other ordnance.

I have a couple of surviving guns to “hunt down.” Or perhaps more accurately wait for the National Park Service to place back on display. Those are the Quinby & Robinson Type 2 gun and the elusive Tredegar Type 3 guns. Beyond that, I have a few “oddities” to track down, or in some cases obtain better photos of. These are mostly cases where markings deviate from the standard. In the case of one Columbus Arsenal Napoleon, I’m looking to get better photos of a fire table etched on the breech.

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Columbus Arsenal Napoleon #52 at Fort Frederick

And there’s a few other loose ends to mention. Based on surviving guns, there are seven confirmed sources for Confederate manufacture (the four government arsenals, Tredegar, Quinby & Robinson, and Leeds & Company). But from time to time I come across documentation of other vendors. Usually, the mention is speculative at best. One of those appears in a letter from General P.G.T. Beauregard to Colonel Josiah Gorgas on March 25, 1862:

COLONEL: Notwithstanding that there was a scarcity of the materials for making bronze field pieces, and fearing moreover that my communications with the east might be cut off for a time at least, whereby I should be thrown upon my own resources, I issued a call upon the planters for their bells. Already that call has met with a patriotic response from all quarters, and a large number of these bells have been placed subject to my orders at points on the navigable rivers and at railroad stations.

The question now is how may these bells be most advantageously transmuted into cannon, to which end I must now invoke your assistance and advice. I desire to have 12-pounder Napoleon smooth-bore and 6-pounder (caliber) rifle guns, which I am advised by General Bragg can be manufactured in New Orleans, where Leeds & Co. have the proper models and all necessary experience. Propositions have also been made from parties at Natchez to cast some guns. I regard it as clearly advantageous to encourage the casting of such guns at different points in this valley, so that should a foundry unfortunately fall into the hands of the enemy we should not be wholly crippled and deprived of our resources, but have several centers of manufacture. I must therefore ask you to supply, through me, drawings and the necessary details and instructions for the Natchez foundry for both descriptions of guns just mentioned.

I must also ask you to establish some just rate of compensation for the work to be done, also the value of the bells, with such other details and instructions concerning their conversion into field pieces as you may deem needful to facilitate and insure the casting of proper guns of the character wanted.
Please answer in part by telegraph.

Beauregard’s request is for a specific set of patterns, identifying the most desired set of field artillery well in advance of authorities in the Ordnance Department. The letter also speaks, as we often see, to the lack of raw materials that hindered the Confederate war effort – bells into guns in this case. The general also correctly identifies a great shortcoming of the Confederacy, as the war effort lacked redundant, and secure, industrial centers. We’ve already seen Leeds & Company produced a small number of guns before the fall of New Orleans. But who were the authorities in contact with in Natchez?

The most likely candidate, identified by Larry J. Daniel and Riley W. Gunter in their book Confederate Cannon Foundries, is the firm of C.B. Churchill & Company. Newspaper reports in 1861 noted the firm had cast test guns early in the war at a facility in Natchez. Around the time of New Orleans’ capture, Churchill relocated inland. Eventually the firm started business again in Selma, Alabama. It supplied projectiles and other materials to the Confederate arsenal in Columbus, Mississippi. I should say a substantial number of projectiles, all things considered. Receipts indicate the firm delivered 387 32-pdr (6.4-inch) bolts for rifled guns in April 1862.

Yes, the stationary came from the Memphis depot. Just over a thousand Confederate dollars for a whole lot of iron bolts for rifled guns. Later receipts indicate the firm produced a wide range of projectiles from 3-inch to 10-inch calibers… but nothing on those Napoleons. After relocating to Selma, the firm ran into many difficulties securing iron, much less bronze, to meet its contract obligations (a story for another post some day that involves a claim against the C.S. government). It is very unlikely Churchill & Company produced any guns.

That said, Churchill & Company remains a question mark with regard to the Confederate Napoleon. I would not look for some surviving Churchill gun, but rather search for additional documents that might provide more details of the firm’s attempted production.

Richmond Battlefields Sesquicentennial Events Timeline

I like the way Richmond NBP laid out this year’s  sesquicentennial events in a side-by-side timeline.  On the left are the historical events.  On the right are scheduled observances.  A handy reference for those planning trips to Richmond in the next few weeks.

Sort of wish that as similar reference was around for the Shenandoah Valley events this year. (If anyone knows of such, please do pass it along in the comments.)

Richmond also has a downloadable guide to the 1862 sesquicentennial, covering out to mid-July.  (My Aide-de-Camp secured a copy while we were touring on Saturday, as a good ADC will do!)  Four living history weekends and scores of presentations… big named speakers mind you… packed into the next seven weeks.  But of course those same seven weeks were lively around Richmond in 1862.

Memorial Day: Two headstones on a batttlefield

Two headstones sit off to the front side of the small cemetery beside Willis United Methodist Church.  The cemetery and church, while not part of the national battlefield park, are part of the Glendale battlefield.

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The 69th Pennsylvania Infantry marched past the church to fill a gap in the Federal lines, just a half mile northeast, during a critical phase of the June 30, 1862 battle.  One of the Confederate formation engaged was Brigadier General James Kemper’s brigade.  In his official report, Kemper wrote:

A more impetuous and desperate charge was never made than that of my small command against the sheltered and greatly superior forces of the enemy.  The ground which they gained from the enemy is marked by the graves of some of my veterans, who were buried where they fell; and those graves marked with the names of the occupants, situated at and near the position of the enemy, show the points at which they dashed against the strongholds of the retreating foe.

One of Kemper’s veterans was Captain Joel Blackard, of Company D, 7th Virginia Infantry.

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Service records show Blackard hailed from Smyth County, in southwest Virginia.  He’d only months before been elected captain of the company.  Kemper singled out Blackard for special mention in his report, but offered no other details of the captain’s death.  Still his headstone marks, as Kemper said in that July 1862 report, the advance of the regiment.

Next to Blackard’s headstone is that of another fallen warrior.

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Staff Sergeant John H. Park served as the flight engineer on a B-26 bomber in the 552nd Bomber Squadron, 386th Bombardment Group based in England in the summer of 1943.   On September 8, 1943, his plane, nicknamed “Margie”, took part in a raid on the Lille-Vendeville airfield in occupied France.  Over the target, “Margie” took a hit from anti-aircraft fire.  Lieutenant Romney J. Spencer, piloting “Margie,” managed to nurse the plane on one engine to within five miles of the Cliffs of Dover.  Losing altitude, Spencer ditched the bomber in the English Channel.  During the crash, Park fell into the bomber’s nose.  Park was either killed by the impact or otherwise unable to escape from the rapidly sinking plane.  He was the only member of the crew to go down with the bomber. (a very detailed account of the mission was written by Chester Klier, historian for the 386th Bomb Group, for the B-26 Crewmembers Website.)

Park’s name appears on a tablet of missing aircrews at the Cambridge American Cemtery and Memorial, Cambridge, England.  And an additional memorial headstone stands next to that of Captain Joel Blackard in the Willis Church Cemetery.

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Two headstones that link wars and battles fought a half a world and decades apart.

Richmonding for a Day

Yesterday the aide-de-camp and I took up roads south and traversed around Richmond.  In recent years (after my relocation here to Northern Virginia), I’ve visited sections of the Seven Days Battlefields.  But, as I realized yesterday, I’ve not traversed the whole in one tour since my teen years.

One of the themes I’ve picked on of late is how our understanding of an event is formed, for better or worse, by the content at first exposure.  That might be markers at Shiloh… or in this case the visitor center at Richmond.

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I remember a day in 1982 when the family piled out of that old red Ford.  This was our entry-way, our portal, into Richmond and the story of the Seven Days Battles. After the obligatory orientation film (the NPS kept those under fifteen minutes back then… imagine you have fifteen minutes to cover the entire story of wartime Richmond?), we stepped out to the back.  From there, we viewed “Richmond,” taking note of the interpretive signs with key points of interest to the Civil War tourist.

On that summer day, the words in the many books I’d read on the Peninsula Campaign were indelibly merged with personal views of the battlefields.  The landscape with rich greens replaced the black-and-white photos from the history books.  Folds in the ground improved upon non-topographical maps.  All of which improved my understanding.

But that experience also imprinted some subjective leans.  Although my father often slowed down to read the historical markers, in places heavy traffic prevented full reading.   Battle sites with confusing or congested roads were recalled as “confusing” battles which needed more study.  Or in the case of Seven Pines, a battlefield not worth much study as the field is paved over.  At least that was my formative assessment back then.  Of course now days my assessment is a bit more mature.  But remains tainted by that first experience, only seeing the site from the back of a car on a hot July day.

Yesterday, the ADC and I “walked” as much of those battlefields as we could.  He and I walked trails, explored earthworks (out of the way earthworks mind you!), pulled off at waysides, and strolled on the sidewalks of residential streets where once were open fields and open battles.  Yes, we did “walk” Seven Pines.  Walked it as best one can.

Of course, he’s in typical pre-teen boy mode.  He wants to know where soldiers were, framing the questions with “good guys” and “bad guys.”  At that age, events must be black-and-white, good-or-bad, right-or-wrong.  The shades of gray come with maturity of understanding.  Or at least that’s how I understand it.

Still I wonder how his understanding will evolve over the years that follow.  His portal to Richmond is, indelibly so, the new visitor center at the old Tredegar factory complex. Different starting points for journeys  across the same ground.  How much will our understanding differ?

Grant and his Generals

How many of the generals in this painting can you name, without using references?*

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The painting hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. The photo does not do the work justice. But the location, hanging over one of the stairways, allows visitors perspective from several good angles. Artist Ole Peter Hansen Balling put motion in this painting, implying if not imparting progress towards the end of a long, bloody war.

When I view the painting, an observation offered by a former commander comes to mind. “Battles, campaigns, and wars,” he would say, “are not won by a single man, even he be a commander. Rather they are won by a team unified by a leader.”

* According to the interpretation offered with the painting, the generals are, from left to right: Thomas C. Devin, George A. Custer, Hugh J. Kilpatrick, William H. Emory, Philip H. Sheridan, James B. McPherson, George Crook, Wesley Merritt, George H. Thomas, Gouverneur K. Warren, George G. Meade, John G. Parke, William T. Sherman, John A. Logan, Ulysses S. Grant, Ambrose E. Burnside, Joseph Hooker, Winfield Scott Hancock, John A. Rawlins, Edward O.C. Ord, Francis Preston Blair, Alfred H. Terry, Henry W. Slocum, Jefferson C. Davis, Oliver O. Howard, John M. Schofield, Joseph A. Mower.

Antietam was a Napoleonic fight? Do tell!

We subscribe to National Geographic Traveler, as I still cling to that dream of a vacation to Nepal. I figure someday all those travel tip columns will come in handy. Seriously, I find the magazine one of the better of the travel mags, and enjoy living vicariously through the articles.

The June/July edition caught my eye after dinner this evening, with a cover headline “Ghosts of the Civil War: Venturing into the Past.” Turning to page 68, I find yet another article on the Civil War by Tony Horwitz. (I’m still working through the irony of Confederates in the Attic written while he lived in the land of the Unionists in the Confederate attic….) Now granted, Horwitz is not a historian, per-say, but he has put out enough print material over the last ten to fifteen years to wear the historian’s robe. Deserving or not.

Horwitz provides this introduction for the battle of Antietam:

The battle at Antietam is easy for the non-Civil War buff to appreciate. Unlike the more famous Gettysburg, which spanned three days, and miles of terrain, Antietam was a Napoleonic clash that lasted 12 hours. Gettysburg was fought in July, when sweaty hordes now flock to the battlefield; Antietam occurred in mid-September….

To paraphrase the late George Carlin, that passage is full of things that tick me off.

First question: if the battle is “easy for the non-Civil War buff to appreciate” then why did Horwitz have to secure the services of top notch guide Stephen Recker? I know Stephen through Facebook and mutual friends. He’s very knowledgeable on the battle. If Horwitz walked away with a sound appreciation of the battle, then it speaks volumes for Stephen’s skill and ability. But let’s face it, Antietam is a complex battle that even the best historians have difficulty interpreting. Generations of historians clung to the “three phases” in order to conveniently step around the complexity. But with a sweep of the hand, Horwitz says this battle is now easy to appreciate simply because it was a brief and geographically limited fight. Go figure! I dare say one can spend a lifetime trying to “appreciate” the West Woods in isolation, much less gain a firm handle on the entire battle of Antietam.

“Napoleonic clash”? What the heck? Paddy Griffith is rolling in his grave. Napoleonic tactics featured well integrated combined arms forces moving rapidly across the battlefield (or at least that’s what folks like Nosworthy and Rothenberg would have us believe). Not a lot of combined arms work at Antietam. Cavalry activity (not during the campaign, but during those 12 hours Horwitz mentions) conform closely to that old jib referencing the lack of dead cavalrymen.  While the Artillery played an important role in the battle, I’d be hard pressed to call it a “Napoleonic” employment. And even if we lay those aside, September 17, 1862 lacked those grand, sweeping, fast movements characteristic of “Bony.” So where was this Napoleonic clash?

Twelve hours? That’s all we get of Antietam? Nay! This is one of the great stumbling blocks of those who attempt to lay some sporting analogy across military history. The battle is but part of a broader, more important, grand-scale activity called… a campaign. You want to appreciate a battle, then you need to study what brought the forces to the battlefield. You need to study the marches, logistics, and sparring that occurred in the lead to the battle… and in the aftermath. The Maryland Campaign (as is probably more accurate) featured more than just 12 hours of fighting. Orders rolled around cigars, South Mountain, School House Ridge, Shepherdstown, … all rather important marks in the campaign that occurred outside that 12 hours.

Lastly, I’m at a loss to explain why visitors would opt for a “sweaty Gettysburg” over a “temperate Antietam.” I’m sure it has nothing to do with the highway infrastructure, 150 years worth of writings, and a Ted Turner movie. You know, all that ancillary stuff…. Also unexplained – why hot, humid Vicksburg does not attract a wave of “sweaty” visitors every July to rival Disneyland.