Bottom of the Barrel, Part 3: Confederate 13-inch Mortars

Another example of Confederate use of old ordnance comes from the service files of William Richardson Hunt:

The document accounts for the issue of a 13-inch mortar, mortar bed, 12 shells, and 250 fuse plugs in April 1862 for use at Fort Pillow. Hunt sent the mortar to Captain Hugh T. Scott, ordnance officer at the fort.

Now where did the Confederates acquire a 13-inch mortar? In the decades before the Civil War, the Army purchased only one mortar in that caliber for experimental purposes. Series production of the 13-inch Model 1861 Seacoast Mortar began in late 1861. The Federals first used mortars in those calibers, as I’ve mentioned before, in the sieges at Fort Pulaski, Island No. 10, New Orleans, and Yorktown. Fort Pitt Foundry did not sell any to the Confederates. And there are no instances where these brand new mortars fell into Confederate hands before April 1862.

There is one request for 13-inch mortars, sent to Tredegar Foundry in August 1862 (Big Guns, page 14). But these do not match any known castings or entries in the “gun book.” Tredegar did produce mortar beds and 13-inch shells.

More likely the mortar issued to Fort Pillow was an old foreign type. Reports from both sides mention 12- and 13-inch mortars in the Pensacola, Florida forts. Federals used mortars of each caliber in defenses at Fort Pickens (OR, Series I, Volume 1, Serial 1, page 440). An inventory of Confederate ordnance dated April 20, 1861 cites two 13-inch mortars in the forts around Pensacola (OR, Series IV, Volume 1, Serial 127, page 227). And there’s still one there today. These were iron weapons, typical of the British designs between the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period. Bronze 13-inch mortars from the colonial days survive today, and might also account for the Fort Pillow weapon.

The new American Model 1861 mortars out-ranged the old British mortars, but the two types fired essentially the same projectiles. Perhaps Confederate leaders proposed using the 13-inch mortar at Fort Pillow to harass the Federal mortar boats – mortar on mortar counter-fire. Or perhaps the big mortar was there to cover the land approaches. But no records survive to indicate performance of the mortar, if employed at all.

The mortar sent to Fort Pillow is yet another example of what the Confederates found at the bottom of the barrel. The use of a British seacoast mortar (if my deductions are correct) is not as absurd as the bronze mortars seen in Florida or at Island No. 10. Still all were better suited for museums or trophy yards than the battlefield.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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