“Their salvation is in sticking to their pieces” – Small arms for artillery batteries?

I hope readers are finding the summary statements of value, and possibly of use in their research.  Thus far we are about halfway through the December 1862 summaries.  And we will “trudge” through the rest of those in order.  While I could overload the audience with a full report – to include tools, implements, lubricants, medicines, etc. – for now I’ll stick to the basic particulars of interest, being the cannons, projectiles, and small arms.  Of note, I am not including the number of cartridges (unfixed powder bags) and loose powder reported by battery.  That’s just a convention I’ve adopted for these posts.  Inclusion would require an addition bit of work creating the snip.  And I figure that is somewhat redundant, as the real count we want is the number of “things” that can be shot out of the cannon… or in other words, the projectiles themselves.  If anyone needs to know the number of powder bags, sponges, or gimlets reported by a particular battery, drop me a note.

One section that I have opted to include is the small arms reported.  The section is part of a page already “in play” when examining the number of projectiles. So it’s not a lot of labor to trim that portion out.  Normally I would not be concerned with the number of muskets, pistols, and sabers, since the real combat value of the battery is with the big guns.  But I do find it a worthwhile point of examination.  Some batteries reported, if at all, only a handful of small arms.  Others seemed to be armed to the teeth.  The variance, while not of great significance, is worth examination.

First, let us step back and ask what a battery was supposed to be armed with, by regulation, and why it would be so armed.  While we might determine minutia such as the number and types of hammers that a well equipped battery might have on hand, the manuals of the period do not provide such details for small arms.  There is no “table of organization” as we might consult for today’s artillery.  We might assume the intent was each properly equipped artillerist receive a saber and pistol.  But as seen from the summaries, that was rarely the case.

Artillery instruction manuals from the Civil War period do offer drill for saber, though not for pistols or muskets.  Much of these drills were simply copied from the cavalry manuals with no commentary.  The assumption is these weapons were intended as a last resort defense for the gunners.  For normal drill, those “long knives” were not mentioned and not included.   The drill is focused on moving, maneuvering, and firing the piece.  However, in Instructions for Field Artillery, there is mention of how the saber would be carried in action:

The chiefs of the pieces act as guides, and direct movements of the carriages…. they wear the sabre sheathed, unless it is ordered to be drawn…. In mounted batteries the cannoneers wear the sabre belts only, the sabres being carried on the ammunition chests.

These selected sentences from the larger passage (detailing the placement of the crew when moving tactically) give not only indications as to were the sabers were stored but also an additional use of the edged weapon.  The chief of the piece, being a guide and director, might also use the saber as a command and control measure.  In the confusion of battle, he’d be easier to identify with the saber, be it sheaved or flashing about, as opposed to the rest of the crew.

So how useful were sabers stored in the ammunition chests?  Out of reach and out of mind!  Best to put those long knives and pop-guns in the ammunition chests… once the ammunition ran out the artillerists might have need of those small arms.  John Gibbon, the artillerists artilleryman, would have removed them even further from the crew:

Artillery cannot defend itself when hard pressed, and should always be sustained by either infantry or cavalry.  The proposition made to arm the cannoneers with small arms, such as revolvers, short rifles, &c., is calculated to do more harm than good.  They should be taught to look upon their pieces as their proper arm of defense, to be abandoned only at the very last moment.  The fate of many a battle has turned upon the delivery of a few rounds of grape or canister at short range upon an advancing column; and if they have the means, how natural for men to resort to them for personal safety in time of extreme danger, forgetting for the moment that the fate of the whole army may be imperiled whilst they are defending themselves only!  Let the rifles, therefore, be given to the infantry, and the sabres and revolvers to the cavalry; guard the artillery with these arms, and teach them that their salvation is in sticking to their pieces.

Gibbon’s advice on this matter bore through on many battlefields of the Civil War, as any student of the subject might well enumerate.  I would point out, beyond the context of the small arms question, the preference would be for artillery not to be sitting in a position pressed closely by infantry.  Rather the guns should be re-positioned so as to provide fires at range in order to blunt an enemy attack.  But, things will not work as preferred which is why canister was issued.  Still, the act of loading canister would be the queue for the crew, if they didn’t already have such in mind, to prepare for rapid retirement… should the blast not have the intended effect.   Regardless, as Gibbon stressed, the artillerists had little use for pistols and sabers in such a tactical setting, rather needing their hands filled with implements at such a moment.

But before we wave off these small arms as just some unnecessary encumbrance for the battery, we need to think beyond just the battlefield.  As affairs existed in 1862, there were plenty of reasons why a battery might want or need to have small arms on hand.  Operational needs often meant light batteries were placed in fortifications, employed as pickets, or given missions normally assigned to cavalry or infantry.  And to accomplish such roles, small arms were needed.  I keep such in mind when reviewing the summaries.  I know, for instance, that the 1st Connecticut Light Battery, posted at Beaufort, South Carolina, had use for 135 Navy revolvers, 13 cavalry sabers, 46 horse artillery sabers, and 86 foot artillery sabers.  Some batteries needed those edged weapons and revolvers, even if for others they were superfluous.

(Citations:  Instructions for Field Artillery, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Company, 1861, page 249;  John Gibbon, The Artiillerist’s Manual, New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1860, page 401.)