Bull Runnings Research Assignment: Why Were Ricketts and Griffin on Henry Hill?

The other day, Harry Smeltzer and I were bantering back and forth about the Civil War.  And if you know Harry, then you know he’s a “one battle” guy, sorta…. that being First Manassas or First Bull Run, depending on how you button your shirt.  Well that spawned a question to ponder.

The question in mind is exactly what were Captains James Ricketts and Charles Griffin supposed to do with their batteries upon reaching Henry Hill?  As Harry says:

This move has often been criticized over the years, sometimes even described as a turning point of the battle. But, why exactly did McDowell send his artillery there? What was he thinking? How did he want to uses them, as flying artillery, in place of infantry, as what?

Indeed, we often read about how bad the deployment was.  And furthermore how when the Confederates overran the guns, the Federal line just collapsed.  But let us back that up just a bit.  What was McDowell sending those batteries forward to accoplish?  What was their mission?

Mission…  In the modern context, Field Artillery’s mission on the battlefield, as defined in FM3-09.22 is:

The mission of the Field Artillery is to provide responsive lethal and nonlethal fires and to integrate and synchronize the effects of fires to achieve the supported commander’s intent.

I’m not going to say this applied blindly, totally to the Civil War.  But I submit in the sense there are natural rules and practices (what I like to call the “Water flows down hill” rules of military science).  And with that, field artillery’s mission is relatively constant through the ages.  I need to queue up XBradTC here for a proper “military science” comparison of the mission and roles – comparing that of the Civil War to modern employments.

But that is “mission” in the sense of “why does the army have all these cannons in the first place?”  At the tactical level, the derivative of that over-arching mission is an instruction as to what the guns should accomplish with their projectiles.  For instance:  “Drive off the enemy’s guns”; “Drive off the enemy’s infantry”; “Prevent the enemy from attacking the hill”; or “Support the attack of our infantry.”  In short, the commander normally details where he wants the battery commander to stick that shot, shell, and canister.

What we are looking at with regard to Henry Hill is what exactly did McDowell charge Griffin and Ricketts to accomplish with their guns?  Was it simply to occupy the hill?  If so, was that a “mission” that fell within that broader mission sense, cited above?   Or was it in fact an infantry mission, just assigned to the artillery?  Or, was there a traditional artillery mission in mind?

And keep in mind that “employing them as Flying Artillery” is not a mission.  That’s a tactic.  And it is a dubious tactic to apply to the Civil War?  Why do I say that?  Well go back to the manuals of the day…. The Instructions for Field Artillery (1861 edition), John Gibbon’s Artillerist’s Manual, or even across the “pond” to the Royal Army’s Major F.A. Griffinths’ Artillerist’s Manual, for example… none of them mention “flying artillery,” as a tactic, much less define it.

Allow me to over-simplify something that properly requires a full set of posts – The notion of a flying artillery tactic was derived from Napoleonic forms of employment, adapted to American situations… then determined to be simply another way of saying the same thing that already had a name!   You see, the notion of flying artillery was just the use of mounted artillery as mounted artillery was supposed to be used.  The label was simply a way of conveying the jargon of artillery tactics to those smaller minded folks in the infantry.

And even if we allow for “flying artillery” to be a tactic which McDowell might have had on his mind, that is still just a “tactic.”  So if allowing for such usage, it would have been the “how” and not the “what” that we seek here. So let us not get wrapped around this label of flying artillery.

Stick to the target – what was the target – the mission – given to Ricketts and Griffin?  If you have a mind to that question… click over to Harry’s place and drop a comment.

One thought on “Bull Runnings Research Assignment: Why Were Ricketts and Griffin on Henry Hill?

  1. “One battle guy?” Hey, Bull Run ain’t my first trip around the block. In fact, when I first started to look at about McDowell’s and Beauregard’s plans in tandem, I thought “Hmmm…Stone’s River!”

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