Guns and numbers: Paddy Griffith and some historiography concerning the Reserve Artillery

Paddy Griffith’s Battle Tactics of the Civil War is nearly three decades old now.  Perhaps I’m showing my age by saying the book came out while I was an undergraduate in college.  From a personal perspective, it was a landmark book – the first “dive” I made into the nuts and bolts of Civil War tactics coming at a time when my instruction drove me to consider all the footnotes – and chase those footnotes with deliberation.  Over the years, my well worn copy of the book has yellowed and aged.  Likewise my opinion of the work has aged.  I can’t say I accepted all of Griffith’s ideas at the start.  Nor can I say I have completely rejected all of it now.  But along the way, just as the lines in a pitched battle, the delineation has moved about considerably.

However one point which I can say remained a “salient” throughout, and comes to mind during my recent writings here on the blog, is a passage in which Griffith discusses the ratio of smoothbore Napoleon guns to light rifled guns in the Army of the Potomac.  Leading into the paragraph, Griffith noted some disadvantages of rifled guns – shells tended to drill into the ground before exploding, defective shells, small caliber and thus small bursting charge, and, lastly, the limitations of small bore canister rounds.  Having established at least a need to retain a mix of smoothbores and rifles, Griffith went on to say:

The limitations of rifled artillery were fully understood at the time, and although the Confederates could never get enough for their needs the Union forces complained of an overabundance of this type of weapon.  Early in the war McClellan had decided that the Army of the Potomac needed only one rifle for every two smoothbores, but he never succeeded in bringing the ratio down to less than two rifles to each smoothbore; nor could Hunt force it much lower when he tried to get rid of some of the rifles after the battle of Fredericksburg.  At the start of the Wilderness battle smoothbores were still in a minority and it was only when Grant sent home 122 pieces, in order to disencumber his collapsing road network, that Hunt was able to seize a fleeting opportunity.

There is a paragraph with all sorts of exposed lines and open flanks!  And those flanks are in the footnotes.  Griffith cited two secondary sources for this paragraph – L. Van Loan Naisawald’s Grape and Canister and an unpublished PhD. thesis by Perry Jamieson. While Jamieson’s later works include Attack and Die, Crossing the Deadly Ground, and other works addressing tactics of the era, his thesis is, to my knowledge, still unpublished.   So I’ll not address the one page cited from Jamieson’s thesis as part of my rebuttal here.

However, Naisawald’s book should be familiar to any artillery-minded reader.  Naisawald’s work came out in 1960.  I’ll say it is “dated” and leave the matter there.  That, of course, does not allow me to dismiss it as a source.  Quite the opposite!  The passages cited from Naiswald lead us first to the organization of the Army of the Potomac under McClellan.  Naiswald states,

… the short-range, light 12-pounder smoothbore – the Napoleon – was to be the backbone of his artillery; two-thirds of the field batteries were to be equipped with this weapon, and the remaining one-third with rifled cannon – a new innovation in warfare.

So what was Naiswald’s source?  He does not offer.  I would, however, refer back to Brigadier-General William F. Barry and that initial organization in the summer of 1861.  Barry suggested a ratio of guns somewhat dissimilar to that given by Naiswald, and broke distinctly upon the ratio of guns to howitzers, not smoothbore to rifles.  Only after the Peninsula Campaign did Barry suggest the howitzers and 6-pdr field guns should be replaced completely by Napoleons.

Naiswald went on to say that Napoleon production lagged early in the war while rifled guns rolled out in large numbers.  That, Griffith could have called upon to explain the abundance of rifles.  But the overly generalized statement about gun production falls apart when one considers the raw numbers – guns accepted by the ordnance department, specifically looking at Napoleons, Parrotts, and Ordnance rifles:

Federal Field Gun Production
Federal Field Gun Production

I probably should give you a fancy, colored chart.  But the numbers speak fine enough themselves.  Napoleon production peaked twice – late 1861-to mid-1862; then again in the fall and winter of 1863-4.  Production of the Napoleons, for the Federals that is, ceased entirely after that.  On the other hand, after the initial surge to start the war, rifled gun production remained comparatively steady.  Save one quarter with no deliveries, most quarters included delivery of over 60 guns.  The totals of all weapons is worth considering here – 2591 guns of these three types, where I would estimate the Federal armies (all armies) only needed 1000 to 1300 field guns of all types.  (And that by the way, is one reason we have so many of these guns still around today as memorials!)

Griffith also cites two other passages from Naisawald – one detailing the artillery re-organization made in the Winter Encampment and the other discussing the re-organization made in mid-May.  I’ve linked to my blog posts relating to those two specific changes, to keep things brief. Bottom line here, Naisawald never provides an overall count of Napoleons and rifles.  Nor does he offer any analysis of the ratio.  For good measure, at the time of the reorganization, every corps had an equal number of Napoleons and rifles – 24 of each.  The Artillery Reserve included 36 Napoleons and 24 light rifles (and fourteen “heavy” rifles).  The rifles predominated in the Horse Artillery where 16 Napoleons paired with 44 rifles.  But weight and tactical application was the justification for the disparity in rifles with those horse batteries.  In short – the figures do show a slight majority of light rifles, but only due to the horse artillery.  There was not a “two rifles to each smoothbore” ratio as Griffith stated.

All of this leads up to those 122 guns “sent home” by Hunt.  Did Hunt select rifled guns so as to balance the ratio?  I submit that was not the case.  Hunt chose to reduce every battery by two guns, which in effect retained the ratio.  Aside from that across the board reduction and the 20-pdrs, the batteries that Hunt “sent home” were from the Ninth Corps.  If Hunt was seizing any “fleeting opportunity,” it was to send away some batteries he had suspicions about.

There!  Thus ends a Paddy Griffith rant.  I feel better now.

(Citations from Paddy Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989, Page 169; L. Van Loan Naisawald, Grape and Canister; The Story of the Field Artillery of the Army of the Potomac, 1861-1865, Oxford University Press, 1960, page 35.)

2 thoughts on “Guns and numbers: Paddy Griffith and some historiography concerning the Reserve Artillery

  1. I really enjoy it when you bring good civil war books into you discussion..

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