When the Army of the Potomac marched out of its winter encampment at the beginning of May, arguably the artillery arm was at its best organized, equipped, manned, and stocked levels throughout the war. With colonels commanding artillery brigades directly supporting the maneuver corps, two horse artillery brigades, foot artillery to guard the trains, and a strong artillery reserve (and a siege train in the making), Brigadier-General Henry Hunt could boast about an overpowering force.
But through the first two weeks of the Overland Campaign, that force had not come to bear. At the corps level, several command factors limited, in my opinion, the effectiveness of the artillery. But sitting that aside for discussion on later date, the Reserve Artillery was noticeably absent from the fighting. As Hunt reported:
The Reserve itself moved its position from day to day, being generally encamped between the trains and the army, furnishing guards for the trains and pieces to command roads and approaches, and for the defense of Fredericksburg.
Rear area defense, while important, squandered the combat value of those massed batteries. Furthermore, as the fighting around Spotsylvania continued, Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant determined that force was somewhat an impediment to the movement of the army. As Hunt recorded:
On the 16th, the Reserve was by superior orders broken up, and the batteries composing it ordered to Washington. In order to retain the organizations, men and material, in this army, the reduction of guns contemplated was, upon my recommendation, effected by reducing each mounted battery in the army to four guns, retaining the extra caissons and ordering the surplus guns and Taft’s battery to Washington.
Taft’s battery was the Fifth New York Independent Artillery, with six 20-pdr Parrott rifles.
A very fine point should be made here. Some historians have cited the reorganization to demonstrate Hunt’s preference for 12-pdr Napoleons over the light rifles. I can find no specific references that support such a conclusion. Indeed, with the decision to reduce the batteries from six to four guns, the intent was to keep the same ratio, generally speaking. In short, nowhere does Hunt write that he’d finally shed off excess rifled guns. Instead Hunt’s priority was to retain the structure within the artillery arm, at the expense of gun tubes…. oh, and keeping all the caissons(!).
And to say the Artillery Reserve simply went away is also a mistake. While the organization disbanded, the batteries were incorporated, at the four gun strength, into the corps:
To the Second Corps: Clark’s (B), First New Jersey, four Napoleons; McKnight’s, Twelfth New York, four 3-inch; Burton’s, Eleventh New York, four 3-inch.
To the Fifth Corps: Bigelow’s, Ninth Massachusetts, four Napoleons; Hart’s, Fifteenth New York, four Napoleons; Sheldon’s (B), First New York, four Parrotts; Barnes’ (C), First New York, four 3-inch.
To the Sixth Corps: Brinckle’s (E), Fifth United States, four Napoleons: Stevens’, Fifth Maine, four Napoleons: Hexamer’s (A), First New Jersey, four Parrotts; Ewing’s (H), First Ohio, four 3-inch.
And again, notice the mix of Napoleons and rifles.
Hunt went on to record the changes in command and staff due to this reorganization:
Colonel Burton commanding the Reserve, was ordered to report to the commanding general as inspector of artillery on his staff; the field officers, with the exception of Lieutenant-Colonel McGilvery, assigned to the artillery brigades of the corps, and the different staffs dissolved. The ammunition train remained under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel McGilvery, as a distinct organization, with one battalion of the Fifteenth New York Foot Artillery. This guard was subsequently reduced to one company.
Later in the month, the Horse Artillery was consolidated into one eight-battery brigade, with four guns per battery.
All of this, of course, did not set well with Hunt. Writing his official report in October of that year, Hunt had time for rebuttal, bringing up the history of the Artillery Reserve in his defense:
Whenever, from the character of the ground or from other circumstances, the ordinary amount of artillery attached to troops proved insufficient, it has supplied the deficiency. Its batteries in all our great battles have always gone into action at critical moments, and almost invariably every gun has been called for and employed. Especially was this the case at Malvern, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg. It has also been of great value in another way. Batteries in the corps losing their efficiency either from the want of men or material, the incompetency of their officers or casualties of battle, have been at once replaced from the Reserve, thus keeping the army corps fully effective and giving the broken-down batteries the necessary opportunity and supervision to restore them. In this way the Reserve Artillery has kept up the efficiency of that of the whole army. I have considered this notice of the Reserve Artillery as necessary under the circumstances in order to guard against the inferences which might be drawn from the order to break it up. The inconveniences that have since been felt from the want of it, the order to return the guns to the batteries, now being executed, and the fact that it has been found necessary to keep up the reality, without the proper organization of the Reserve, in order to insure supplies of ammunition to the army and to furnish a place for surplus unattached and disabled batteries, has clearly vindicated the principle of the necessity of such an organization in a large army.
Clearly, Hunt felt no small umbrage at this reorganization… even months later.
One other organizational change with the artillery worth noting. When Ninth Corps formally became part of the Army of the Potomac on May 28th, Hunt likewise reorganized it’s artillery. While the Ninth Corps reserve artillery went to Belle Plain, the batteries assigned to divisions was consolidated at the corps level.
Worthy of note, the guns sent to the rear were not taken off the playing board, so to speak. Several batteries from Belle Plain later moved to Port Royal as part of the force securing the new base of supply as the Army of the Potomac continued south. The Artillery Reserve may have disappeared on the order of battle, but its guns were still around and employed.
There are several threads to follow on this topic. And I’ll serialize those out in smaller posts. So next I’ll address the question – did this reorganization make sense from a tactical perspective?
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 36, Part I, Serial 67, pages 287-288.)