Whitworths and a rail gun: Confederates haul guns out from Richmond

I’ve written a bit about the changes to the Federal artillery park during the Overland Campaign – specifically about the inclusion of Coehorn mortars.  As mentioned a few days ago, though they lacked Coehorns at that time, the artillerists of the Army of Northern Virginia employed howitzers in a similar role at Cold Harbor (and afterwards).  But this was by no means the only “unusual” Confederate artillery making an appearance in June 1864.

Because these guns are on prominent display at Gettysburg, even those who care little for artillery recall the Confederate use of 12-pdr Whitworth breechloaders – or as I prefer to avoid confusion over the “pounder” designations, 2.75-inch Whitworth Breechloading Rifles.

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And for record, it is important to specify “breechloader” and “muzzleloader” with respect to Whitworths of this caliber, as both types were used by the Confederates.

Wash NY 1 Aug 035

In my opinion, the two Whitworths used at Gettysburg receive more attention than merited.  The tactical situation did not allow employment which might take advantage of the weapon’s attributes.  At the same time, the deficits of the weapon, chiefly slow rate of fire and light payload, diminished any contribution of the two guns.  Reading contemporary primary source accounts, I get the sense the Confederate gunners considered these weapons sort of useful substitutes in lieu of Napoleon guns or other light rifles.

In the spring of 1864, Confederates retained several of the Whitworths in and around Richmond. Though not part of the Army of Northern Virginia’s park, as the campaigning armies neared Richmond, the Whitworths made an appearance in a reinforcing role.  The Federals first encountered these guns at Totopotomy Creek.  Captain Charles Turnbull, engineer with Second Corps, reported on May 30:

The enemy has a Whitworth gun in position and firing on Generals Gibbon’s and Barlow’s skirmishers. The gun cannot be seen, and it is supposed to be firing at long range. They have also been throwing shells at the Shelton house, where we have a battery. Their guns will be silenced as soon as they can be seen. General Hancock is developing the line of the creek.

Here, unlike at Gettysburg, the tactical situation allowed the Confederates to exploit the one great attribute of the Whitworth – long range accuracy.  Keeping the gun under cover of terrain, they could keep up a harrassing fire on specific targets.  Very much akin to the sharpshooting done with the shoulder fired Whitworth rifled-muskets.  Brigadier-General David M. Gregg, commanding Second Division of the Cavalry Corps, reported encountering Whitworths used in a similar mode on June 4.  And on June 7, Major-General G.K. Warren reported “the enemy has a Whitworth gun firing at very long range” on his line at Cold Harbor.

What allowed the use of the Whitworths to advantage here was the static nature of the line.  Able to select a target, and a location from which to engage the target, the Confederates could deliberately prepare the battery for action. Where a good target presented itself, or where a particularly annoying Federal position required a response, the Whitworths were called upon.  Further south, defending the approaches to Petersburg and the vital roads between that place and Richmind, on June 9, General P.G.T. Beauregard called for a Whitworth to deal with just such a particular target:

Enemy has erected an observatory at Cobb’s which overlooks surrounding country. The 12-pounder Whitworth at arsenal is absolutely required to destroy it. Please send it by express forthwith, with ammunition complete.

Later correspondence indicates the Whitworth in question was in demand at other sectors.

Another “novelty” artillery which made another appearance at this time 150 years ago was the rail gun.  Or more accurately, I should say “re-appearance.”  In 1862, the Confederates built and employed a gun on an armored railroad car.  The gun’s first appearance was during the Seven Day’s battles.  On June 7, Warren noted:

I have the base of a shot fired from the iron-clad car on the railroad.  It is a 32-pounder.

In all likelyhood this was the same gun employed by Confederates at Savages Station on June 29, 1862.  And, that is likely the same weapon seen in a series of photographs taken after the fall of Richmond.

Certainly that 32-pounder outclassed the field artillery at hand for the Federal artillerists.  But of course the main limitation on that big weapon was the availability of railroads.  And months before the Federals had foreseen the need to counter big guns like this.  Those were the reason Colonel Henry Abbot was instructed to secure several large Parrott rifles for use with the siege train.

Just a couple of examples where uncommon artillery were employed as the 1864 campaigns entered the summer months.  With operations in Virginia turning from those of maneuver towards static lines, more of the “novel” artillery made appearances.  There is indeed a good justification for the Petersburg National Battlefield to have a diverse collection of artillery on display outside the visitor’s center.

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(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 36, Part III, Serial 69, pages 324, 675, and 885.)