Canister and our silly notions about canister

It is my perception is that the average student of the Civil War latches on to some misconceptions about canister as used from field artillery.  And from that misconception, the student (buff, enthusiast, or even credentialed historian as it may be) carries forward to some misunderstandings as to how artillery was used on the Civil War battlefield.  Consider Paddy Griffith’s assessment:

The main effect of artillery came at what may be described as ‘canister range’ – the last 300 yards to the gun, sometimes extending to 500 yards. It was here that the flash and crash of the heavy Napoleons, firing two and a half pounds of powder with each detonation, could numb and stagger the enemy, even when they did not physically hurt him.

The sources provided for this observation is L. Van Loan Naisawald and Jack Coggins.  Now, Naisawald’s Grape and Canister is a good read on the artillery of the Army of the Potomac.  But it is dated (to be kind… I’ll leave it at that).  Coggins’ Arms and Equipment is a good premier for study, but not by any means authoritative on the subject of artillery.

I would say Paddy Griffith is not alone in this “weighted” assessment of artillery – and allow me to use “weighted” in two ways here.  Certainly weighted in the sense that canister was the artillery’s most effective projectile on the battlefield… and that the physical weight of the canister had some value against the infantry…. From that we see some historians attempt to devolve the tactical situation down to raw numbers:

Certainly the two Union artillery batteries had an impact, but the majority of fire came from the infantry. Artillery, even rapid firing double canister, would only be throwing 54 projectiles per tube per minute, (about 650 per minute for all twelve guns) and could keep that up only for a couple of minutes before they ran out of the proper ammo. 1000 infantry would add between 2000 and 3000 rounds per minute, assuming a normal rate of fire, and with 100 rounds apiece, and another 1000 men in support ready to step up when the front line emptied their boxes, the infantry’s fire could be sustained for a much longer time.

That quote is from a blog entry by Dave Powell from 2009.  In context, Powell was discussing a specific circumstance in the battle of Chickamauga in which the artillery was, due to the tactical setting, not employed in a location to take advantage of it’s full capabilities.  We might haggle over bad decisions by leaders on the spot, or discuss the finer points of the situation.  But that discussion starts with an assessment of what the artillery was there to do in the first place. That said, assessing the artillery’s potential killing power simply as a measure of the canister spread is to ignore 90% of the combat potential that artillery brought to the field.  And that, I would submit, is not how leaders of the time would weight their decisions regarding artillery employment.

Specifically toward that assertion, consider the standard load out of the 12-pdr Napoleon ammunition chest (since Paddy Griffith liked it) as configured according to Ordnance Department standards:

  • 12 solid shot
  • 12 spherical case (case shot as I prefer, but sometimes called shrapnel)
  • 4 shells
  • 4 canister

Multiply that times four, as a gun brought that number of chests into action between the limber and caisson, for a total of 128 rounds.  We see that canister constituted only 12% of the ammunition on hand, if we go by regulation.  However, we also know that in service many artillerists adjusted those quantities.  Henry Hunt, for example, before the Overland Campaign (and thus incorporating years of wartime service experience) suggested increasing the number of solid shot at the expense of case shot.  But at the same time he did not want an increase in canister.   So… if Henry Hunt, who we would all agree knew his business, felt that his gunners needed more solid shot, by a factor of four, than canister, what does that tell us about the preferences for projectiles on the battlefield? And furthermore, what does it say about how leaders wanted artillery to be employed?

Better still, let us turn to another authority on artillery… straight from the muzzle if I may … John Gibbon:

The kind of projectile to be used, will depend on circumstances.  Shot and shell should be fired against troops taken in flank or obliquely, against deep columns, and against artillery.  The horizontal fire should be used against troops advancing in mass to force a bridge or defile, or marching over very smooth ground.  Shot had better be used against infantry, and shells and schrapnell [case shot] against cavalry, as this latter arm presents the highest mark, and enables the pieces of the bursting shells to do more execution…. A charge, when within short range, may be received by firing from each piece a solid shot on top of which is placed a round of canister. the firing then as rapid as possible, sponging may be dispensed with, within 150 yards, and as the enemy approaches nearer, canister alone is used, pointing very low at very short ranges, so that the projectiles may ricochet and scatter more.  Canister should not be fired at distances greater than 300 to 400 yards. Shrapnell [case shot] should be used against troops deployed, or in column, by division or squadron.  Schrapnell and shells produce a greater moral effect, generally, than grape or canister.

Here we have clear guidance from one very well respected authority at the time.  We see “weighting” of the type of projectiles in the ammunition chest was indeed derived from the use preferences.  Those preferences were determined based on the intended employment of artillery on the battlefield.

Think about this – what was the artillery battery there to accomplish?

I’d submit that a short answer to that question is simply – to keep the enemy off targeted terrain.  Yes, the “ying-yang” of infantry and artillery.  Infantry was supposed to seize and hold terrain. Artillery was to keep the enemy off terrain (not necessarily to “drive him off” but where that tactical need was drawn…perhaps).  There’s more to it all, of course.  And I don’t wish to over-simplify where such carries perils.  But if we go back to the words of men like Hunt, Gibbon, Barry, and other artillerists from the war, we see that premise on exhibit.  Artillery was best used… intended to be used … in a manner to deprive the enemy of advantageous terrain.

We are coming up to an anniversary of a fine example of just how things “worked” in action.  Turn to June 30, 1862 and Battery G, 2nd US Artillery.  On that day, Captain James Thompson (another officer who knew quite a bit about how one uses artillery…) had orders to deploy his battery in what would become the battle of Glendale, or Frazier’s Farm:

In compliance with instructions from the general commanding the division the battery was posted on the right of the New Market road, supported by Berry’s and Robinson’s brigades, in order to be in position to open fire on the enemy advancing either upon the New Market road or upon the Central road.

Mission statement – Thompson’s battery would deny the use of those roads to the enemy. We may parse it all sorts of ways, but that is what the guns were there to do.  Not to hold ground.  Rather to keep the enemy from using specific terrain (roads) that would allow closer approach.

But… as in so much on the battlefield, not everything works according to plan:

About 400 yards in front was a dense wood, which approached within 100 yards on our right behind a small house. About 4 o’clock the enemy came upon us in line from this wood. I opened fire upon them with spherical case-shot, but they advanced to the débris of two fences I had caused to be thrown down in the earlier part of the day and about 100 yards in front. Canister was now used, and our supports opened fire on them with musketry, and they were stopped. The wood on the right was densely crowded with them in large force, and three successive charges to capture the battery were repulsed by the prompt and gallant supports deployed between the guns and by the murderous double canister from our guns, loaded without sponging.

So.. the Confederates were not so kind as to simply advance up the roads, but rather through the woods in front. But notice the selection of projectiles described.  Starting at 400 yards with case shot, the gunners only changed to canister when their adversary came within 100 yards.  It was self-defense range.  The frightful “double canister… without sponging.”

And the battery held its position, but not without great effort:

The battery was enabled to hold this position until about 8 p.m., after the capture of the battery on our left [Lieutenant Allen Randol’s Battery E and G, 1st U.S. Light Artillery, if memory serves], and until our supply of canister was exhausted, some guns having fired double spherical case-shot, cut to explode on leaving the gun.

To the point here, we can say canister was used with effect on that day.  But we also see that it was used for self-defense of the battery.  It was not the intent of Thompson, or any other artillerist on the field that day, to accomplish the primary mission by means of canister fire.  Just worked out the plan fell apart and weight of canister, along with some case shot, is what saved all but one of Thompson’s guns.

Likewise, we could roll forward one year and a few days to July 2, 1863 and consider several other batteries in tight situations using canister… some also employing double canister without sponging to speed the delivery.  But in all those cases we see a common underlying factor.  Like Thompson’s battery the year before, Captain James E. Smith’s 4th New York was not deployed on the Devil’s Den for the purpose of spewing canister at close range.  Rather it was placed with the intent to keep the Confederates off ground approaching the position.  Circumstances played out differently, as we well know.

Accounts from July 2 are filled with artillerists reporting canister at close range.  But that was an exceptional use on an exceptional day.  We need only say the words “Peach Orchard” and “Dan Sickles” to rejuvenate a 150 year old discussion of plans gone awry. You see, it was more exception than the rule that batteries would be “hard pressed” into self-defense using canister. Rather more often batteries would be employed to do as the artillery chief envisioned over longer ranges.  As such, the artillerists would accomplish their mission with shot, shell, and case. And, by design, that is what made up nearly 90% of the ammunition on hand.

(Citations, other than those linked above, are from  – Paddy Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989, Page 170; John Gibbon, Artillerist’s Manual, new York: D. Van Nostrand, 1863, page 359; OR, Series I, Volume 11, Part II, Serial 13, page 172.)

Fortification Friday: Inundations – the wet obstacle

Some might contend the study of fortifications is a dry subject.  No so!  Not at all!  In fact, there is one form of obstacle which is all wet – the inundation.  The basic idea for an inundation was to employ water as a barrier against enemy movement.  Unless possessing some form of divine powers, the attacker could not charge through such a water barrier.  And nobody wants to attack a parapet wearing wet wool uniforms!

Certainly, a river, lake, or other large body of water would make a significant obstacle.  But let us consider those obstacles to maneuver or approach to the fortification.  If you will, an obstacle at the “macro” level.  And, yes these would prevent the enemy from getting near the fort from one or more directions.  However, for purposes of constructing a field fortification, we are looking more to the “micro” level.  Thus the need is an obstacle that would break up an attack directly on the fort.  Rarely will nature provide the perfect water feature – a pond, swamp, creek, or other – to form such an obstacle.  Often for that purpose, we would need to modify the natural water drainage in a manner to create the desired inundation.  Mahan summarized this sort of obstacle as such:

Inundations. This obstacle is formed by damming back a shallow water-course, so as to make it overflow its valley. To be effective, an inundation should be six feet deep. When this depth cannot be procured, trous-de-loup, or else short ditches, placed in a quincunx order, are dug, and the whole is covered with a sheet of water, which, at the ditches, must be at least six feet in depth.

Twice we see the planning figure of six feet of depth.  Obviously this derived from the average height of a man.

The dam, of course, was the key structure in this arrangement:

The dams used to form an inundation are made of good binding earth.  They cannot, in general, be raised higher than ten feet; they need not be thicker than five feet at top, unless they are exposed to a fire of artillery, in which case they should be regulated in the same way as a parapet.  The slope of the dam down-stream should be the natural slope of the earth; but up-stream the slope should have a base twice that of the natural slope.

In the post-war edition of his treatise, Mahan offered in addition to just earth, the dam could be created with a “crib-work of logs filled in with stone, gravel, and earth” or “successive layers of fascines and gravel.”  The fine points of the dam construction lay more in the realm of civil engineering.  And to those points, Mahan recognized the need for features to maintain the dam against its natural adversary – the impounded water:

Sluices are made in the dams in a similar manner to the sluices of a mill-dam, for the purpose of regulating the level of the water in the pool above, in case of heavy rains.  Waste-wiers are also serviceable for the same purpose, but unless carefully made they may endanger the safety of the dam.

No fancy graphics for us to refer to here.  But from the description, Mahan preferred sluices that channeled the top of the impounded water, and thus over the top of or to the side of the dam.  And he warned against wiers that would require openings within the dam’s structure.  Sort of makes sense from the military perspective.  Wiers are more attractive for the civil engineer who need not worry about enemy artillery.

In most scenarios, more than one dam would be needed to build an inundation obstacle.  So we must consider placement:

The distance of the dams apart will depend on the slope of the stream.  The level of each pool should be at least eighteen inches below the top of the dam, and the depth of water below each dam should be at least six feet. These data will suffice to determine the center line, or axis of each dam.

So there you have it.. call upon the topographical engineers!

Mahan continued to offer advice on employment of inundations in the defense:

Artificial inundations seldom admit of being turned to an effective use, owing to the difficulties in forming them, and the ease with which they can be drained by the enemy.  But when it is practicable to procure only a shallow sheet of water, it should not be neglected, as it will cause some apprehension to the enemy. In some cases, by damming back a brook, the water may be raised to a level sufficient to be conducted into the ditches of the work, and render some parts unassailable. The ditches in such cases should be made very wide, and to hold about a depth of six feet.

Yes, a lot of planning and work was needed to create an inundation.  And that might be undone within a day by simply breaching the dam.  Still, the inundation was attractive were water could be employed, as a by-product of the impoundment, to enhance the properties of the other defensive features of the fortification.

And… when the weather turned cold…

During freezing weather the ice should be broken in the middle of the ditch, and a channel of twelve feet at least be kept open, if practicable. The ice taken out should be piled up irregularly on each side of the channel; and, as a further precaution against a surprise, water should be thrown on the parapet to freeze.

Nothing worse than being wet and cold while looking up at some “frowning” defenses.

Turning back to the vulnerability of the dam, point offered in Mahan’s post-war edition impressed the need to defend those structures:

In a system of inundations the dams should, as far as practicable, be built at points the least exposed to the fire of the assailed.  The head of each dam, on the side of the enemy, should be secured from surprise by a redan, stoccade, or other defense, and the dam itself and its approaches should be swept by musketry and artillery.

Overall, these artificial inundations were somewhat a luxury for the defender.  In addition to all the work building parapets, ditches, traverses, revetments, and other obstacles, would the defender have time to play in the water and build dams?  However, consider also that where running water was close by, the defender had more to worry about with erosion.  A well placed dam might serve as a control measure against that “enemy” of the works.

Perhaps Junius Wheeler had the best assessment of the inundation as an obstacle:

If the depth of the water over the approaches is greater than five feet, the obstacle may be considered as practically insurmountable.

If the depth is less, the obstacle is still a serious one….

You see, soldiers just don’t like water.

(Citations from Dennis Hart Mahan, A Treatise on Field Fortifications, New York: John Wiley, 1852, page 48-49;  Mahan, An Elementary Course of Military Engineering: Part 1: Field Fortifications, Military Mining, and Siege Operations, New York: John Wiley & Son, 1870, pages 77-8;  Junius B. Wheeler, The Elements of Field Fortifications, New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1882, page 181.)

 

Summary Statement, 1st Quarter, 1863 – Indiana’s Batteries, Part 1

After some “time away” let me resume work on the summary statements for first quarter, 1863.  In clerk’s sequence, the next state’s batteries to review are those of Indiana.  For fourth quarter, 1862, I listed twenty-one batteries in one post.  And for the first quarter of 1863 we have twenty five batteries to consider:

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For brevity, I’ll break them down into parts this go around. In this installment, let us focus on the first twelve batteries:

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Plenty enough to discuss with those twelve:

  • 1st Battery:  No report. Through the winter, the battery was in the Department of the Missouri, District of St. Louis, in the Second Division of that district.  However, along with its parent brigade, the battery was transferred starting April 1863 to Fourteenth Division, Thirteenth Corps to join the forces operating against Vicksburg.  Captain Martin Klauss commanded.
  • 2nd Battery: Reporting at Springfield, Missouri with two 6-pdr field guns and four 3.80-inch James Rifles. Lieutenant Hugh Espey commanded this battery, assigned to the District of Southwestern Missouri.
  • 3rd Battery: Also indicated as at Springfield, Missouri but with two 6-pdr field guns, two 12-pdr Napoleons, and two 3.67-inch rifles. Also part of the District of Southwestern Missouri, Captain James M. Cockefair commanded this battery.
  • 4th Battery:  At Murfreesboro, Tennessee with two 12-pdr Napoleons, two 12-pdr field howitzers, and two 3.80-inch James Rifles. Captain Asahel Bush retained command that spring, with assignment to Third Division, Twentieth Corps.  Later in the spring, Lieutenant David Fansburg assumed command with battery moved to First Division, Fourteenth Corps.
  • 5th Battery: At Shell Mound, Tennessee with two 12-pdr Napoleons, one 10-pdr Parrott, and one 3.80-inch James Rifle. Shell Mound was a landing on the Tennessee River downstream from Chattanooga.  And that location was probably valid for the reporting time of December 1863.  In March 1863, the battery was with Second Division, Twentieth Corps, at Murfreesboro.  Captain Peter Simonson moved up to command the division’s artillery brigade, leaving Lieutenant Alfred Morrison with the battery.
  • 6th Battery: Reporting from Lafayette, Tennessee with two 6-pdr field guns and two 3.80-inch James Rifles. Officially assigned to First Division, Sixteenth Corps, Captain Michael Mueller commanded. The battery had postings across west Tennessee until June, when dispatched with the rest of the division to Vicksburg.
  • 7th Battery: McMinnville, Tennessee with two 12-pdr Napoleons and four 10-pdr Parrotts. Captain George R. Swallow’s battery supported Third Division, Twenty-First Corps as the Army of the Cumberland reorganized at Murfreesboro through the winter.  Though McMinnville appears to be derived from the August report filing.
  • 8th Battery: No return. Captain George Estep retained command of this battery.  In the winter reorganizations, the battery was posted to First Division, Twenty-First Corps at Murfreesboro.
  • 9th Battery: No return. Lieutenant George R. Brown commanded this battery, assigned to Fourth Division, Sixteenth Corps.  It was left behind that spring to garrison the District of Columbus, in Kentucky.
  • 10th Battery: At Murfreesboro, Tennessee with two 12-pdr field howitzers and four 10-pdr Parrotts. Captain Jerome B. Cox held command when the battery was assigned to First Division, Twenty-First Corps that winter.  Later in the spring Lieutenant William A. Naylor assumed command.
  • 11th Battery: No return. Captain Arnold Sutermeister’s battery began the winter assigned to the Army of the Cumberland’s artillery reserve at Nashville.  Spring found them assigned to Third Division, Twentieth Corps, preparing for the Tullahoma Campaign at Murfreesboro.
  • 12th Battery: At Nashville, Tennessee as siege artillery.  The fort is named, but I cannot transcribe it directly.  Returns list the battery assigned to Fort Negley, with four 4.5-inch Ordnance siege rifles under Captain James E. White.

We see seven of these twelve batteries assigned to the Army of the Cumberland.  Three were posted to Grant’s command, though only two would be active in the field for the Vicksburg Campaign.  And two were posted to southwest Missouri.  As for armament, from the batteries reporting we see six 6-pdr field guns, eight Napoleons, four 12-pdr howitzers, nine Parrotts, nine James Rifles, and two of those rifled 6-pdr “look-alikes” to the James.  The latter is interesting to flag.  We see again the artillerists and ordnance authorities indicating a difference between the 3.80-inch and 3.67-inch rifles, in the forms.

A lot of smoothbore ammunition to account for:

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As nearly every battery reporting had a smoothbore or two:

  • 2nd Battery: 241 shot, 400 case, and 191 canister for 6-pdr field guns.
  • 3rd Battery: 105 shot, 141 case, and 132 canister for 6-pdr field guns; 136 shot, 406 shell,  227 case, and 300 canister for 12-pdr Napoleons.
  • 4th Battery: 96 shot, 32 shell, 96 case, and 32 canister for 12-pdr Napoleons; 79 shell, 96 case, and 66 canister for 12-pdr field howitzers.
  • 5th Battery: 96 shot, 32 shell, 94 case, and 33 canister for 12-pdr Napoleons.
  • 6th Battery: 320 shot, 160 case, and 80 canister for 6-pdr field guns.
  • 7th Battery: 24 shot, 8 shell, 28 case, and 8 canister for 12-pdr Napoleons.
  • 10th Battery: 115 shell, 100 case, and 116 canister for 12-pdr field howitzers.

Moving to the rifled columns, we find no Hotchkiss projectiles reported on hand.  On the next page, we can focus on James and Parrott projectiles (full page posted for review):

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Looking at the James projectiles first:

  • 2nd Battery: 120 shot and 176 shell in 3.80-inch.
  • 3rd Battery: 52 shot, 273 shell, and 24 canister in 3.80-inch.
  • 4th Battery: 16 shot and 12 canister for 3.80-inch.

The presented quantities beg questions.  First, 3rd Battery had 2.67-inch rifles, as tallied in the first page but apparently had 3.80-inch projectiles.  So we must assume one or the other figure is incorrect.  Second, what about 5th and 6th Batteries and their James?  Well half of that question will be answered later.

And the Parrotts:

  • 5th Battery: 145 shell and 24 canister in 2.9-inch (10-pdr).
  • 7th Battery:  210 shell and 380 case in 2.9-inch.
  • 10th Battery:  463 shell, 225 case, and 94 canister in 2.9-inch.

Here we see a nice match to the reported weapons and projectiles on hand.

Moving to columns for Schenkl’s and Tatham’s projectiles, we have half an answer to a question:

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  • 4th Battery: 205 Schenkl shell for 3.80-inch rifle; 35 Tatham canister for 3.80-inch.
  • 5th Battery: 90 Schenkl shell for 3.80-inch; 32 Tatham canister for 3.80-inch rifle.

So we still don’t know what the 6th Battery had on hand for its James rifles, but the 5th had Schenkl shells and Tatham canister.

Moving to the small arms:

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By battery:

  • 2nd Battery: Twenty-eight Army revolvers and twenty-eight cavalry sabers.
  • 3rd Battery:  Three Navy revolvers and ten horse artillery sabers.
  • 4th Battery: Twenty-six Army revolvers and ten cavalry sabers.
  • 5th Battery: Seven horse artillery sabers.
  • 6th Battery: Twenty-four Cavalry Sabers.
  • 7th Battery: Only two cavalry sabers.
  • 10th Battery: Twenty Army revolvers and nine cavalry sabers.

An allocation of small arms within reason for artillerists assigned to, presumably, strictly artillery duties.

We’ll look at the other half of the Indiana batteries in the next installment.