“The Coehorn mortars were employed wherever circumstances would permit”: Mortars at Spotsylvania

When the Army of the Potomac broke winter quarters in early May 1864, the Artillery Reserve brought along a somewhat novel weapon – 24-pdr Coehorn mortars.

Seven Days 26 May 12 170

Eight of these mortars, with 100 shells each, traveled with the reserve park, manned by Company E, 15th New York Heavy Artillery.  Of their performance and utilization, Brigadier-General Henry Hunt provided a single sentence in a section of his report on the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House:  “From the 8th to the 16th the Coehorn mortars were employed wherever circumstances would permit of their use, and always with good results…”  The results were so good, in fact, that by June, every corps in the army received their own allotment of Coehorns.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Hunt saw these light mortars as a means to provide fire support in a particular niche not served by the normal field guns (and for which he did not think howitzers could provide).  Recall the Coehorns had provided remarkable support during the siege on Morris Island the previous summer.  And were requested, but not provided, for the siege at Vicksburg – where ersatz wooden mortars filled in.

That niche, defined, was to lay explosive projectiles on a position shielded from direct line of sight, and thus fire.  Such a tactical requirement was seldom of great importance in a pitch battle, with maneuvering forces.  But where the armies sat in close proximity for days on end, and fortifications grew up to protect those forces, the mortar’s high angle fire was of great importance.  So 150 years ago today, with the armies tangled in a series of entrenchments in Spotsylvania County, those eight Coehorns were arguably more useful than a couple batteries of 3-inch rifles.

There was one other suggestion for vertical fire made by Hunt prior to the campaign which might rank as novel… or perhaps even bizarre.  I’ll take a look at that in a later post.  But as a teaser, think a “gun-howitzer-mortar.”

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 36, Part I, Serial 67, page 286.)

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