150 Years Ago: At Fredericksburg, one shot clears the tannery

The battle of Fredericksburg might have “effectively” ended with the stalled assaults on Marye’s Heights at sunset on December 13, 1862. But the Federals continued to occupy the city and ground in front of Marye’s Heights for two more days.  The battle lines exchanged fire throughout those days. Among the shots fired on December 15 came from 24-pdr field howitzers in Captain George V. Moody’s Madison Light Artillery (Louisiana). Lieutenant Colonel E. Porter Alexander directed those shots.

I’ve cited this before when discussing the use of the heavy howitzers during the war, but as this matches nicely with the 150th narrative, allow me to recite it once more –

… Monday morning was again thick and hazy, but when the sun was about an hour high the nest of sharpshooters in the tanyard announced their ability to see by opening a very lively fusillade. I happened to be nearby, & I at once determined to try & route them. But the building was so nestled in the hollow, & hidden by intervening low hills & trees, that only one gun, one of Moody’s 24 pr. howitzers, could even the peak of its roof be seen. But I knew that if I only skimmed the top of the low intervening hill the shell would curve downward & probably get low enough for the loop holes. The howitzer was on the south of the Plank Road & some 400 yards off. I got the line of the obnoxious corner of the roof & sighted in that line, & then fixed an elevation which I thought would just carry the shell over the low hill, aiming myself, & taking several minutes to get all exact. Then I ordered fire. Standing behind we could see the shell almost brush the grass, as it curved over the hill, & then we heard her strike & explode. At once there came a cheer from our picket line in front of the hill, & presently there came running up an exited fellow to tell us. He called out as he came – “That got ‘em! That got ‘em! You can hear them just a hollering & a groaning in there.”

Alexander’s detailed description offers a ready example of the advantages of the howitzers’ low velocity and high angle trajectory when applied to the battlefield. The 24-pdrs were designed with this type of fire effects in mind. Given the reference about distances and the time taken to set the shot, I would assume Alexander had good measures of the field and was able to properly set the fuse for just the right time.

Petersburg 333

24-pdr Field Howitzer at Petersburg

Alexander wasn’t done with Moody’s big howitzers that day. And again, he used the ballistic capabilities of the howitzers to achieve an effect:

… we discovered that quite a little body of the enemy were lying down in a shallow depression about 400 yards from another of Moody’s 24 pr. howitzers, which were my favorite guns. Partly to make the enemy unhappy, & partly to show my companions how effective the gun was, I carefully aimed & fired four shrapnel (each of which contained 175 musket balls) so as to burst each one about 15 feet above the ground & about as many yards in front of the little hollow. While we could not see into it, the bullets & fragment would probe it easily. From the very first shot, we saw, at the far end, men helping three wounded to get out to the rear, but our infantry sharpshooters opened on them & ran them back. The next day, [Lieutenant Colonel Briscoe G.] Baldwin & [Captain Samuel] Johnston visited the spot together to study the effects, & told me that they found 13 dead which they were sure from the fresh wounds & blood were killed by those four shrapnel.

Yes, a remarkable demonstration of the effectiveness of Alexander’s “favorite guns.” Part of me visits this passage and takes hold of the details about how the weapon was used. Certainly a ready example of a “textbook” employment of the howitzer. Yet another part of me reads this and recoils at the detachment of men in combat from the normal moral conventions.

Was this war? Or was this murder?


Citations from Edward Porter Alexander, Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander, edited by Gary Gallegher, University of North Carolina Press, 1998. Pages 181-2. The account, written after the war, generally follows with the shorter description of the activity of that day offered by Alexander in his official report (OR, Series I, Volume 21, Serial 31, pages 576-7) written in December 1862. However, in the wartime account Alexander states 12-pdr guns fired on the troops in front of Marye’s Heights.

About these ads

One response to “150 Years Ago: At Fredericksburg, one shot clears the tannery

  1. Pingback: 150 Years Ago: Army Parrotts or Navy Dahlgrens tearing open Fort Hindman? | To the Sound of the Guns