“I have read your letter… and heartily approve it.”: Hunt’s response to Wainwright

Recall Colonel Charles S. Wainwright’s letter, transcribed in his diary entry for March 24, 1864, in regard to the organization of the volunteer artillery.  Wainwright requested an endorsement by Brigadier-General Henry Hunt, Chief of Artillery for the Army of the Potomac.  And on March 26, he received that:

Artillery Headquarters, Army of the Potomac,
March 26, 1864.
Col. C. S. Wainwright:
I have read your letter on the subject of the consolidation of the artillery of New York into a corps and heartily approve it.

The regimental organization, except as a subdivision of a corps for administration or instruction, is, for field artillery, simply absurd, and results in the greatest injury and injustice to the arm and very much injures its efficiency.

The battery is the unit of organization; it corresponds to the battalion of infantry and squadron of cavalry, two, three, or more of which constitute a regiment for administration; but for purposes of combat a brigade, say six or eight batteries, constitute a brigade of artillery, a command fully as important and extended and much more complicated than a brigade of infantry, and requiring from the ground it covers and its distribution a large staff.

Hunt continued with a comparison to the system used by the British.

Colonel Turner, of the British artillery, commanding the field artillery in Canada, spent the day and night with me yesterday. He informs me that the organization of a brigade of artillery in the British army is as follows: One colonel commandant (major-general), 2 regimental colonels, 4 lieutenant-colonels (regimental), 8 batteries, 6 guns each.

Every two batteries are commanded by a lieutenant-colonel, there being no regimental major. The whole of the artillery, consisting of many brigades, constitute the Royal Regiment of Artillery; that is a single corps for administration and promotion.

I have stated this as an illustration of how artillery is organized in other services. In our service the batteries of the same regiment do not and cannot serve together, but their officers have the advantage of regimental promotion, and the field officers take interest in the batteries.

Next, Hunt took up the issue of the many “independent” batteries formed in New York and other states.  For reference, consider the unit list at the New York Civil War Regiments page, showing all the state’s artillery formations.  Wainwright’s 1st New York Artillery Regiment is the first listed.  After that is a mix (ordered by designation) of other regiments, battalions, and independent batteries.  The nature of the later lead to certain staffing issues:

The independent batteries have no field officers; there is no promotion opened to them; no one of any rank takes special interest in them; they are transferred from division to division, from army corps to army corps; there is no central office to take cognizance of them, to record their services, to attend to their wants, to protect their interests. Their officers, condemned to inferior positions without the hope of rising, except on condition of leaving the artillery, see officers of the regiments, their inferiors in length of service and in rank, promoted over their heads and placed in command of them.
This degrades the position, degrades the arm itself, mars the harmony of the service, and I am free to say has very much impaired the efficiency of the artillery. Leaving aside other things, look at our two last battles. At Chancellorsville, with over 400 guns in the army, I had but 5 field officers. At Gettysburg, with over 320 guns, I had but 4 field officers. Nor is this all; the absence of all stimulant to officers in the artillery has driven out of service, either into civil life or into other arms, a very large proportion of our best captains and lieutenants.

Here again, Hunt turns to the examples from field experience.  Hunt and Wainwright were of like mind:

If your proposition can be adopted it might be made to cure all these evils. Field officers should be given to the corps in the same proportion to the number of batteries as are now given in the regiments. Rigid rules should be prescribed for the appointment of lieutenants and for promotion to all the grades, so as to secure it to those whose character, fitness, and service best entitle them to it. Under the present system this is impossible. With the organization you propose it might be made easy.

I trust your letter will produce good effect.
Respectfully, your obedient servant,
Henry J. Hunt,
Brigadier-General, Chief of Artillery.

I don’t wish to play spoiler here, but this proposal (as with similar efforts for the regular army batteries) was for naught.  The army could not under take such a reorganization and consolidation effort just before stepping off on what everyone hoped would be the last round of campaigns in the war.  The next time a war prompted the call up of state volunteers, in the Spanish-American War, New York provided but three batteries.  And by World War I, a division-centric organization relegated the old constructs to history.

A good idea… just a decade too late I think.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, pages 742-3.)


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