“Thar’ ain’t no good way to charge a battery.” But that is not to say it cannot be done

Basil Duke was among the most prolific ex-Confederates writing during the decades after the Civil War.  He is most known for his work regarding General John Hunt Morgan’s operations.  I call attention to a passage from Morgan’s Cavalry today, detailing an incident from the battle of Shiloh involving the Kentucky troopers in Morgan’s command.  From Duke’s recollections:

The Federal troops at this point were posted on an eminence, covered with underbrush, and in front of which was a ravine.  Eighteen or twenty pieces of artillery, strongly supported, were planted on this hill, and were playing furiously.  For perhaps an hour Hardee’s efforts to advance were foiled….

We had never seen anything like that before.  We had occasionally been fired upon by a single piece of artillery, when we had closely approached the enemy’s encampments on Green river; and we used to think that hardly fair.  Now the blaze and “volleyed thunder” of the guns on that hill seemed to our excited imaginations like the output of a volcano in active operation. An hour or two previously, a young fellow, belonging to some Confederate battery which had been disabled, had asked permission to serve with us for the rest of the day.  He was riding an artillery horse and had picked up a rifle and a cartridge box on the field, so I put him in the ranks.  While we were expecting the order to charge, my eye happened to fall on this youngster, and it occurred to me that I might get from him valuable information germane to the business on hand.  I therefore took him aside, and remarked: “You say you have served in the artillery for a year and you ought to know a good deal about it.  Now, General Hardee is going to order us to charge that Yankee battery yonder, and I want you to post me about the way to charge a battery.”

“Why, good Lord, Lieutenant!” he exclaimed with much emphasis.  “I wouldn’t do it, if I was you.  Why your blamed little cavalry won’t be a duce high agin’ them guns.”

I became angry, because I was not feeling hopeful or comfortable, and his prediction “mingled strangely with my fears.”

“Haven’t I told you,” I said, “that General Hardee will order us to take those guns?  Now, don’t express any opinion, but answer my question, ‘What’s the best way to charge a battery?'”

He looked me squarely in the eye for a few seconds, and then said very earnestly: “Lieutenant, to tell you the God’s truth, thar’ ain’t no good way to charge a battery.”

The order to charge was not given: I will confess, greatly to our relief….

While the drafted artilleryman felt otherwise, cavalry was capable of charging a battery.  And we have many episodes of such from the Civil War.  If a commander was deliberate about the matter, there was indeed a “good way” for cavalry to charge a battery.  The commander had to take stock of several factors – time and distance being foremost.  And, as always, tactical formation came into play.

Time and distance?  An example from fifty years after the Civil War comes to mind:

(Citation from Basil W. Duke, Morgan’s Cavalry, New York and Washington: The Neale Publishing Company, 1906, pages 84-5.)

2 thoughts on ““Thar’ ain’t no good way to charge a battery.” But that is not to say it cannot be done

  1. Obviously Hollywood (or “Aussiewood”) changes history for dramatic purposes. I question the wisdom and accuracy of charging horses at a full gallop for close to 3000 yards (nearly 2 miles) as portrayed in the movie clip. In Jack Coggins book, “Arms and Equipment of the Civil War” (p. 75-76) he shows a timeline of a cavalry charge against artillery, while simultaneously illustrating the artillery response per gun, and by ammunition type. I’ve not seen this presented anywhere else, and presume Mr. Coggins gleaned it from contemporary tactics manuals(?) Starting 1500 yards from enemy artillery, he shows cavalry advancing 620 yards at the trot (2:48), 440 yards at the maneuvering gallop (1:24), and the final 440 yards at the full gallop and charge (0:42). During the attack, the artillery responds as follows: (per gun) 7 rounds spherical case during the first 3:32 (roughly 800 yards advance), followed by 2 solid shot (0:48), and finishing with 2 rounds of canister per gun in the last 0:34 (350 yards at the full gallop). Given the rainbow trajectories of Civil War artillery, as rapid advance as practicable would make accurate adjustments by observation of effect almost impossible beyond seat of the pants anticipation. Until approaching the flattest part of the trajectory, say within 350-400 yards or so, rapid advance, especially coupled with reasonably wide spacing of horsemen, could lead determined and fearless cavalry to victory over an unsupported battery. (which is why infantry support is obviously so crucial to protect the guns!!) Thanks for the great post!! JW

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