What can a picture tell us? : Mortars at Yorktown

No doubt you’ve seen this wartime photo a time or two.

Yes, Federal officers and crews proudly posing with those massive 13-inch seacoast mortars. Usually, this photo carries a caption mentioning McClellan’s slowness and maybe something about poor intelligence. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

The scene is Battery No. 4, near the Moore House, facing the Confederate lines at Yorktown in May 1862. The battery contained ten 13-inch mortars manned by the First Connecticut and Second New York Artillery.

Being a “cannon crazy” historian, I always look for identifying marks in photos like this one. I’m always in the quest to identify a surviving gun in a wartime photo. Trouble is, this photo does not expose the two places where the mortars offer identifying marks – the muzzle and right side. And apparently the photographers were fond of the left side of these mortars.

However there is one photo with an angle showing the muzzles. And a fine steroview it is:

Because Fort Pitt used rather small (compared to the amount of space on the muzzle face) font stampings, only the nearest of the battery offers a chance at identification.

At the top above the muzzle are the initials “J.R.E.” preceded by the number “94.” John Rufus Edie inspected cannons at Fort Pitt only during 1862. Edie inspected two batches of 13-inch mortars in that year. The first were low registry numbers delivered in January that year. The second batch of 37 were registry numbers 75 to 111 delivered in April and May.

The number is a bit harder to interpret. Most 13-inch mortars display the weapon’s weight, followed by the registry number and inspector’s initials at the top of the muzzle face. Assuming the foundry used that standard for this mortar, this would be registry number 94.

So figure Edie inspected number 94 sometime in April, and, based on the photograph, the Federals rushed it right up to the front lines. What’s more, things like 17,000 pound mortars don’t just grow on trees. There are contracts, raw material to gather, casting, and cooling. Figure three months or so lead time here. Some might fault “Little Mac” for being slow, but apparently the Ordnance Department stepped up their game.

The mortars at Battery No. 4 were examples of the overwhelming Federal war machine. The cast iron beasts were products of plans projecting a need – before Yorktown, Pulaski, New Orleans, Island No 10, and even Fort Donelson – for heavy siege weapons.

Number 94, as far as I know, doesn’t survive today. To bad. It had an interesting story.

4 thoughts on “What can a picture tell us? : Mortars at Yorktown

  1. FYI: The officer resting on the closest mortar is/was Capt. Kellogg of Middletown, Ct. The unit was commanded then by Col. Tyler. Mortar #95 (Fort Pitt foundry) is now located in Hartford, Ct. in front of the state capitol building across from Lafayette’s statue.

    • Thanks Andrew. I admit to looking hard at the photos for #95, knowing the units that served the battery and the location of the survivor.

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