A common line of inquiry I receive is in regard to identifying the history of a specific artillery piece. As we can often read the registry number, along with manufacture and inspection details, there is a tantalizing lead to start with. It’s the paper trail for what happened after that origin that we need. And unfortunately, that’s where the trail usually goes cold.
We find, from time to time, registry numbers or other identification information in official reports, letters, or diaries. For instance, a report of weapons captured at Reams Station leads us to a handful of survivors of that action. But that is generally the exception and not the rule. The most important piece of the paper trail that we look for, and is most often missing, would be the ordnance returns from a specific battery.
You might ask… what is an ordnance return? Well, the Army’s Ordnance Department, being a bureaucracy which needed paperwork to survive, required all batteries to submit a periodic report (quarterly in most cases) that detailed all equipment on hand. Kidding about the bureaucracy aside, these served a valuable purpose – providing raw data from the field that the ordnance officers could use to determine the durability and other properties of the procured materials. And one of those data points that the officers considered was the durability of the cannons. The tracked the number of rounds fired from each cannon, by registry number. That, by itself, makes the returns useful for those inquiring about a specific weapon’s history.
But there’s more to the return than just a registry number and rounds fired. Let me walk through an example. I’ll pull up some snips from an ordnance returned filed on December 31, 1863 for Battery B, 5th US Artillery. I cannot recall who sent this return my way. But of the several I’ve collected over the years, it is the best to present the form. And it was written by 1st Lieutenant Henry A. duPont, making it a nice bit of history by itself.
Let’s start with the header. The return started as a circular sent out from Washington. The header in this case briefly lays out the purpose for the return:
You see this particular circular went out under the authority of Brigadier-General George Ramsay, Chief of Ordnance at the time. And as seen in the last line, Ramsay pressed the need for “full, accurate, and reliable” returns.
In the next section, the battery commander provided his unit information:
As this does not have a date received in Washington, this might be a copy that duPont retained for his records.
The next section is the “cool” part for those looking for cannon histories:
So Battery B had six 3-inch Ordnance Rifles at this time in the war. All were from early production lots – 1861 and 1862. And the registry numbers – 36, 158, 278, 309, 362, and 381. For those looking, #36 is at Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania. #158 is now part of a gate at Fort Washington, Maryland. And #381 is at Gettysburg. I should post some pictures of these… but I’m being lazy… .
But beyond the registry numbers, take note of the number of rounds fired. DuPont must have taken care to “balance” his activities between the guns. Keep in mind what sort of activity that Battery B saw in the last three months of 1863. They were posted in the Department of West Virginia. So not as much campaigning and action as, say, their fellow 5th regiment batteries attached to the Army of the Potomac.
That section also had a set of questions about the vents:
As mentioned a time or two here on this blog, vent erosion was one of the durability constraints with Civil War artillery. And the last inquiry invited the Lieutenant’s opinion about the guns. Favorable, as one might imagine. I would point out that this was a return from one battery, reflecting one officer’s opinion. And, one would hope, also the opinion of the other battery officers. While it is tempting to take some comments from this return and apply across the board, keep in mind (particularly for the later sections) we are seeing opinions from just a few.
What did the guns set upon? Carriages, which received their own table:
And what pulled those carriages? Caissons:
We know, based on this information, who produced the rolling stock, where it was issued, and who was the issuing officer.
The return continued with general questions about the other rolling stock supplied to the battery:
Notice the focus of the questions here are towards the durability of the wagons.
Leaving the “wheeled” equipment, the return asked about ammunition:
Again, my intent here today is not to revel in the wealth of details, but rather demonstrate the format of the return. But by all means, these are worth reading. And again, remember that du Pont is reporting his personal experiences with the shells and fuses in this particular time frame for the return. Very likely a large portion of the shells fired were during live fire drills.
This section also asked questions about the friction primers, powder, and ammunition chests:
I think it is important to consider the source of the primers and powder – particularly if any defects are noted. None are mentioned here.
The last sections of the return asked about implements, harnesses, and tarpaulins:
A lot more questions about the harnesses than anything else. I would submit that is because harnesses were vital for mobility of a field battery, yet the most likely item to wear out. And these questions were scoped to find out about durability.
The last question in the return asked “have you lost any guns?”
du Pont had not, and signed his return.
There are several variations I’ve seen for ordnance returns, but this is a typical format. There was a different format for batteries assigned to fixed fortifications. Obviously the lack of rolling stock and horses changed the questions.
Ordnance returns were one of those “necessary evil” forms that had to be completed. Otherwise the guys in Washington didn’t know if the items they were procuring were sufficient for the rigors of the field. The ordnance return was a common chore for all battery commanders during the war. So there were hundreds of these filed during the war.
But, perhaps because these were so common and deemed routine most of the returns were discarded after they were compiled. Every time I do research in the Ordnance papers in the National Archives, there is some hope that the “long lost stash of returns” will be found in some forgotten section.
In the mean time, my focus has been on a product the ordnance officers complied from these ordnance returns. That would be a roll-up of materials showing all items assigned to a specific battery. Sort of a large spreadsheet indicating how many cannons, carriages, caissons, and… even buckles and screws, by battery.
A few years back, my friend Bret Schulte passed along a digital copy of the microfilm of those from the National Archives, so I’ve been able to browse those sections without having to make the drip to downtown DC. I’ve found it useful to confirm what batteries had which types of guns at particular points in time. Although, I would still point out that a lot of data is missing from those compilations. And the long, wide sheet format is difficult to follow. Still, it is useful for what it does offer. Seeing that useful information is a good thing to share, I’m going to package up some of that data – particularly the cannons reported by battery – for posting here on the blog.