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:


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


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:


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):


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:


  • 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:


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.

Fortification Friday: Crows-foot, Small Pickets and Entanglements could put you on the disabled list

A fine point about the functional nature of obstacles – determent value is measured in both the ability to impede and injure.  You might call it a philosophical nuance, in context of the military art, but the distinction is important when considering the application of obstacle types.  In practical terms, recall how the abattis and palisade were employed. These were designed, first and foremost, to slow the attackers’ forward progress, if not bar such entirely, by standing on the line of advance.  Granted, if the obstruction were oriented properly and the attacker approaches with a high rate of speed, there could be injuries.  An abattis is all fun and games until someone looses and eye!  But even with a chevaux-de-frise, with the specified iron points, an attacker would need to do something really… well… awkward to induce a blood-letting injury.  Their chief value lay in slowing or stopping the attacker just by being in the way.

On the other hand, there were obstacles that by nature were designed to draw blood.  One of those was the crows-foot.  Mahan described this obstacle as such:

The crows-foot is formed of four points of iron, each spike about two-and-a-half inches long, and so arranged, that when thrown on the ground one of the points will be upwards.  They are a good obstacle against cavalry, but are seldom used.

Crows-foot are called caltrop among audiences which prefer Latin.  Being an American, I eschew those fancy European terms where possible. Crows-foot sounds more “country.”  Any rate, here’s what we are referring to:


Despite Mahan’s lack of enthusiasm for the crows-foot, the obstacle type remains in use today.  The term is used to describe large concrete and steel obstacles designed to deter armored vehicles.  Or on the beach to stop landing craft.  To some degree it is an “offensive” obstacle… and in both senses of the word.  And for emphasis here, the crows-foot doesn’t actually block movement, it injures so as to debilitate – be that a horse, a man, or, in the modern sense, a vehicle.

The downside to crows-feet was the nature of emplacement.  Being sown, or basically scattered, and not pinned down, the crows-feet were not easily delineated for the defender’s convenience.  An alternative was a simple field expedient:

Boards, with sharp nails driven through them, may supply the place of crows-feet.  The boards are imbedded in the ground, with the sharp points projecting a little above it.

This, readers, is why soldiers need tetanus shots.  Embedded in the ground, the boards could be arranged in a pattern, identified for the defender, but with the nails concealed in the dirt or surface debris.  Junius Wheeler added another alternative in his post-war manual, mentioning the farmer’s harrow.


Buried upside down, the spikes of the harrow would likewise injure an unwary foot.

We don’t see many references to crows-foot or similar obstructions in the Civil War.  Not to say these were not used, but rather their use was not deliberately noted.  On the other hand, we see many references to small pickets with added entanglements.  We should start by explaining small pickets:

Small Pickets. This obstacle consists of straight branches of tough wood cut into lengths of two-and-a-half, or three feet.  They are driven into the ground, in quincunx order, about twelve inches apart, and project irregularly above it, not more than eighteen inches.

We have Figure 26 from Mahan’s manual to illustrate where the small picket might be used in the ditch:


Better yet, let us turn to Wheeler’s illustration:


The key point to latch on to here is the arrangement.  Unlike the stakes in military pits, these are arranged in close order with the aim to force the attacker to think about where his foot is placed, lest the small picket pierce the foot.  One might say the intent of the small picket was to discourage.  But the threat behind that discouragement was that of a skewered foot.   In function, the small picket was much like the punji stake from the Vietnam War:


So again we see the obstacle could be “offensive” in application.  But in the Civil War context, booby-traps of this nature were not widely used.  The need was for an obstacle that would stop a massed attack, not a trail patrol.  So we read in many accounts of an enhancement to the small pickets:

Interlaced with cords, grape-vines, brambles, prickly shrubs, &c., they form an excellent entanglement.

And in the 1860s, engineers would add one readily available material to that list – wire. Wheeler described the arrangement as, “… made by driving stout stakes into the ground from six to eight feet apart and connecting them by stout wire twisted around the stakes.”  This was an easy obstacle to set up, with materials easily obtained.


Fine point of observation here – Mahan’s entanglements were offered as a means to enhance the small pickets.  Basically, the intent was to trip the attacker onto the small pickets.  In Wheeler’s entanglements, which reflected wartime experience, the tripping on the wire itself was sufficient deterrent.  Thus the pickets could be spread out more. An excellent description of such comes from Major Thomas Brooks in his extensive journal of operations on Morris Island in 1863:

This obstacle was made by setting stout stakes, 3½ feet long, 2 feet in the ground and 7 feet apart, in quincunx order, and in three lines.  Around the top of these stakes, from 12 to 18 inches from the ground, in notches prepared to receive it, No. 12 wire was securely and tightly wound, and extended from one to the other.

Brooks reported laying 300 yards of wire entanglement on Morris Island, requiring 13 coils of wire (length unspecified) and an additional 890 feet of loose wire.

The function of Brooks’ entanglement obstacle was to deter by the threat of injury – lest the attacker be bruised and banged up from tripping.  Perhaps a little nicer than Mahan’s little impaling stakes.  But still an obstacle designed to injure.  And of course, with the perspective of history, we recognize Brooks wire entanglement as an evolutionary step towards barbed wire of World War I and later concertina wire. In those forms, we see the obstacle designed not just to trip and bruise but to draw blood.  Either way around, bruised, banged, cut, or impaled, the soldier was thus a casualty… and if lucky just placed on the disabled list.

(Citations from Dennis Hart Mahan, A Treatise on Field Fortifications, New York: John Wiley, 1852, page 48;  Junius B. Wheeler, The Elements of Field Fortifications, New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1882, page 173; OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, page 304.)

Summary Statement, 1st Quarter, 1863 – Iowa’s light artillery

The next state’s batteries listed in the first quarter, 1863 summaries was Iowa.  Yes, we have Iowa following Illinois and Indiana saved for the next set of pages.  The clerks at the Ordnance Department were not concerned with alphabetical order.  They wanted to maximize space utilization on the form.  After all there was a war on and must have been some paper shortage, right?

So that makes short work for us in this installment, just three batteries and a ‘stores on hand’ line to consider:

0100_1_Snip_Iowa All three batteries, and the referenced cavalry regiment, served in the lower Mississippi Valley that winter as Federals angled to capture Vicksburg:

  • 1st Iowa Battery: At Sherman’s Landing, Louisiana with four 6-pdr field guns and two 12-pdr field howitzers. Sherman’s Landing was near Young’s Point, where the battery supported First Division, Fifteenth Corps.  Captain Henry H. Griffiths commanded.
  • 2nd Iowa Battery: Reporting from Young’s Point, Louisiana with two 6-pdr field guns and two 12-pdr field howitzers. Lieutenant Joseph R. Reed commanded this battery, part of the Eighth Division, Sixteenth Corps.
  • 3rd Iowa Battery: At Helena, Arkansas with four 6-pdr field guns and two 12-pdr field howitzers. Captain Mortimer M. Hayden commanded this battery.  It was assigned on paper to the “new” Thirteenth Corps, but operated as part of the District of Eastern Arkansas out of Helena.
  • 4th Iowa Cavalry: Stores in charge, no guns tallied on the summary.  We’ll look at this entry in detail later.  The regiment served under Lieutenant-Colonel Simeon D. Swan during the winter, mostly operating around Helena.

So three batteries, all reporting a mix of 6-pdr field guns and 12-pdr howitzers.  We can make short work of this, right?


Smoothbore ammunition reported by battery:

  • 1st Iowa: 400 shot, 320 case, and 80 canister for 6-pdr field gun;  120 shell, 160 case, and 42 canister for 12-pdr field howitzer.
  • 2nd Iowa: 142 shot 160 case, and 111 canister for 6-pdr field gun; 120 shell, 120 case, and 74 canister for 12-pdr field howitzer.
  • 3rd Iowa: 375 shot, 299 case, and 85 canister for 6-pdr field gun;  95 shell, 66 case, and 32 canister for 12-pdr field howitzer.

I would point out the 1st Iowa’s quantities are the same as reported the previous quarter.  The other two reflect changes of ordnance on hand.

As expected, there were no quantities of rifled projectiles on hand.  I’ve posted the snips to prove it (here, here, and here).

So we turn to the small arms:


And find just nine sabers on hand:

  • 1st Iowa: Five cavalry sabers.
  • 2nd Iowa:  Four cavalry sabers.

A short discussion for those three batteries – ten 6-pdr guns and six 12-pdr howitzers along with well stocked ammunition chests and a handful of sabers.

But what of the 4th Cavalry line?  What “stores” did they have on hand?  Looking through the implements and equipment pages, there are three each – tar bucket, gunner’s haversack, gunner’s pincers, two wheel harnesses, lanyards, piercing wires, and tube punches.  So we might gather there were, or at least were at some time, three guns assigned.  And one more line item offers another clue – the regiment reported three 2.6-inch Wiard sponges.  As noted before, the ordnance clerks would sometime tally equipment associated with Woodruff guns under the 2.6-inch Wiard columns (or in some cases the “repeating gun” columns, to add to their inconsistencies).  And if we look to the regimental history, we get some conformation:

On the 8th of March [1863], a detachment of two hundred and fifty men of the Fourth Iowa, commanded by Major Spearman, forming part of a column under Major Walker, of the Fifth Kansas Cavalry… had a skirmish with the rebels at Big Creek, about ten miles west of Helena.  The creek was impassable, and the enemy were on the opposite side. Private Benoni F. Kellogg, of L, a popular soldier was killed, but no one else was struck.  Kellogg’s comrades, unwilling to leave his body, lashed it to one of the “Woodruff” guns, and so brought it into camp, where they buried it with honors.

A Woodruff gun used as an ambulance… some might argue that was the best possible utilization of the diminutive cannon.  But, let us be kind.  The regimental history continues to describe the guns and explain how the troopers used them:

The Woodruff guns were three small iron pieces, throwing a two-pound solid shot, which about this time in some way came into the hands of the regiment. They were placed in charge of Private “Cy” Washburn, of B, who had a few men detailed to assist him.  They were of no value, and were generally voted a nuisance.  They were never known to hit anything, and never served any useful purpose, except in promoting cheerfulness in the regiment. The men were never tired of making jokes and teasing Washburn about them; but he was proud of his artillery, and thirsted for an opportunity to justify its existence.  When the regiment left Helena he was not permitted to take it along with him; but he pined for a gun, and in the Vicksburg campaign he was given a small brass piece, captured at Jackson, upon which he organized another “battery” and considered himself handsomely promoted. An opportunity for glory came suddenly one fine day, but before it could be fully achieved the unfeeling rebels carried off Washburn, battery and all.

Poor Washburn.  I am certain readers can sympathize with this eager artillerist diligently working to enlighten the wooden-heads of the mounted arm as to the value of artillery.  Yet, when given a chance to demonstrate on the field of battle, his opportunity foiled.

But we do have some clean evidence to support speculations.  The regimental history mentions three Woodruffs.  We see indications of three “sets” of equipment with the regiment.  And we know the guns were employed in March 1863… though not in the manner designed for. Regardless, such fills in some blanks left on the summaries.

(Citations from William Forse Scott, The Story of a Cavalry Regiment: The Career of the Fourth Iowa Veteran Volunteers from Kansas to Georgia, 1861-1865, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1893, page 62.)

June 6, 1944 and now: Putting decisions under fire under fire

D-Day is to World War II what Gettysburg is to the Civil War… at least from the American perspective.  I could argue, with much justification, that Guadalcanal and the Bulge should occupy that place… but, with good reasons, the mountain of books focused all or in part on June 6, 1944 outweighs the other subjects.  Yes, movies catering to the general audience hit theaters to show us Gettysburg and D-Day.  But scenes from Vicksburg and “Starvation Island” are rare.

With that focus, we see the smallest details… minute to minute, minutest details… analyzed to a degree not allocated with other subjects.  We have experts who can walk us through every regiment’s experience at Gettysburg, at the step by step level.  Likewise for D-Day, though at the battalion level allowing for tactical shifts.  With that detailed focus, we see so may decisions analyzed and assessed.  Decisions that often proved pivotal within a larger pivotal historical event.  Decisions in focus… and under “fire” or review by historians… much more so than for other times in history.

If I recall an incident from my own experience here… one morning while chatting with a company first sergeant (senior NCO on the base in particular), he lamented the morning report was past due, again.  I remarked, half in jest, “you know, Top, some day a historian will find your morning report most valuable.”  The old sergeant responded, “I doubt it.  Most times historians are more interested in the things that don’t get into the reports.”  And as an example he referenced a “oh-five-hundred” decision by the Captain to dispatch men to a “hot spot.”  Point well made.

We, the historians, have the task of explaining what happened.  But we have the luxury of detachment from the happening.  We, and the consumers of history, live through the written word to gain appreciation for those times.  And with respect to places like D-Day and Gettysburg, the appreciation requires us to look at details of decisions made.

Thinking, as the day calls for, to D-Day, I look towards the actions of two generals on the beach – Brigadier-General Norman Cota and Brigadier-General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.

Consider Cota’s situation on Omaha Beach.  Leading the 29th Infantry Division (the “Blue and Gray” division, alluding to Civil War heraldry among the division’s regiments), Cota was with the second wave ashore but one hour after the first landings.  The situation was a shambles.  Pinned down under direct and indirect fire, the division simply could not attain more than a finger-hold on the beach.  It was “bloody Omaha.” Within that grim situation, Cota made a decision.  And as with any major decision within a battle which has been depicted on the silver screen, we have the moment dramatized in the film “The Longest Day”:


At one part, Robert Mitchum, playing Cota, rallies his men:

I don’t have to tell you the story. You all know it. Only two kinds of people are gonna stay on this beach: those that are already dead and those that are gonna die. Now get off your butts. You guys are the Fighting 29th.

As with any good Hollywood adaptation, the facts are conflated to make a good script.  The quote by Mitchum was actually the rally of Colonel George A. Taylor, 16th US Infantry.  Likewise,  Cota’s line, “Gentlemen, we are being killed on the beaches. Let us go inland and be killed.” was given to Eddy Albert, playing Cota’s aide, in the movie.  Such is the work of screen-writers wrangling with the facts to make an entertaining story less accurate….

My point is not that Hollywood provides misleading history, but to use that movie scene as a prop to illustrate a decision made.  Cota had options. None of which were really palatable.  Still, he selected a course of action – that of trying another assault up from the beach.  Historians can, and have, analyzed that decision, after the fact, in detail.  And Cota’s decision was vindicated.

To the west of Cota and Bloody Omaha, Roosevelt’s landing on Utah Beach met with much less resistance.  Roosevelt was the assistant division commander of the 4th Infantry Division.  And, famously, he was the only general officer landing in the first wave of the assault.  Again, another episode dramatized in “The Longest Day”:



While not facing a murderous fire, Roosevelt, played by Henry Fonda, likewise faced a critical decision.  Although meeting scant resistance, the 4th Division was in the wrong place.  They secured one causeway off the beach, but they were supposed to have two… and those a mile down the beach. Such threw all plans into disarray.  Roosevelt’s decision?  Move inland, to heck with the plan.  In the movie, we hear, “The reinforcements will have to follow us wherever we are. We’re starting the war from right here. Head inland. We’re going inland.”  Not far off Roosevelt’s actual words… or so the historians say.  And again, historians have been able to analyze and review Roosevelt’s decision in light of information at his disposal at that time, as well as information Roosevelt would never know, and have determined the decision was correct… and what’s more was decisive to the outcome of the battle.

Consider, in the cases of decisions made by Cota and Roosevelt on June 6, 1944, historians have the luxury of spending years, if not decades, to ponder.  The information gathered to explain those decisions might fill a book all by itself.  Thousands of words have, over the years, related the story of those decisions.  Yet, in it all, we have to remember those decisions were made under fire in an instant.  The “participant” of history often has but a moment to act.  Historians have forever afterward to discuss.

Still, we must keep the nature of the moment in mind.  Cota and Roosevelt among others on June 6, 1944… just like Buford, Chamberlain, Cushing, and others at Gettysburg some eighty years before … made quick decisions under fire.  As we review these episodes, we should not forget how little time the participant has to make those decisions.

These decisions under fire are often made within the space between half-seconds on the clock.

Fortification Friday: Chevaux-de-Frise, the relocatable obstacle

Consider the cheval-de-bois….


Yes, many a great cavalry trooper started his career atop those trusty steeds.  And how would one’s mother prevent the cavalier’s first charge from taking out the china cabinet?  Well an obstacle of course!  Maybe a table or chair in the doorway… or a nice gate.  But when play time was over, mother would simply move the protective obstacle aside to permit passage.

When the young trooper grew up and took to a taller mount, naturally there were “grown up” obstacles prohibiting his movements to places he should not go.  One of those was the chevaux-de-frise, which we know so well from Civil War era photographs.


We see here two cheval-de-frise (to use the singular form…) in front of works around Atlanta.  Of course by that time of the war the chevaux-de-frise were employed to prohibit infantry charges in addition to cavalry attack.

The “frise” part of the name derives from Frisia, or Friesland, which are low-lying coastal lands along the North Sea, in the Netherlands and Germany.  Residents of that region employed a removable, relocatable obstacle to obstruct cavalry in the 17th and 18th centuries.  And the name stuck.  The important element of the chevaux-de-frise to remember is that removable, relocatable bit.  We’ve discussed abattispalisades, fraises, pickets and stockades that all might work against an attacker.  But those were fixed in the ground. Chevaux-de-frise were not.

Describing chevaux-de-frise, Mahan wrote:

Chevaux-de-frise.  A cheval-de-frise consists of a horizontal piece of scantling of a square, or hexagonal form, termed the body, about nine feet long, which is perforated by holes two inches in diameter, and five inches apart; round staffs, ten feet long, and two inches in diameter, termed lances, shod with iron points, and inserted into the body, so as to project equally from it.  At one end of the body a ring and chain are attached; at the other, a hook and chain; for the purpose of attaching several together, forming a chevaux-de-frise.

We see this illustrated as Figure 30, from Plate IV of the lesson plan:


“A” on the right is the cross-section view.  “B” on the left is the elevation.  Note the chains, as described, on the ends.  Post-war, Junius Wheeler added the chevaux-de-frise could use wire or chains for connections.  His diagram featured a chain snaked around the body:


Perhaps an innovation based on some wartime experience.  But I don’t find documentation to support that conclusion.  Wheeler also noted that British practice was to employ chevaux-de-frise made entirely of iron.  Such would counter the most obvious anti-obstacle tactic – the attacker would need more than axes to clear the iron chevaux-de-frise.

A fine point about the points of the lances, but not mentioned by the instructors, is those building the chevaux-de-frise often dispensed with the specified iron points.  Sharpened points sufficed, as seen in wartime photos.

Mahan continued with some suggestions about construction:

The square is the best form for the body, it requires only five-inch scantling, whereas the hexagon will require twelve-inch timber.

Reflective of that advice, perhaps, we rarely see five-sided chevaux-de-frise in photos.  One other passing note, which Mahan added in his post-war edition, mentioned the use of sword blades as lances, making a “formidable obstacle.”

As for employment, Mahan did downplay the obstacle’s value:

The chevaux-de-frise is not much in use as an obstacle, owing to the difficulty of making it.  It is a good defense against cavalry, and on rock may supply the place of palisades; but even here an abattis would be more effective, and generally more readily formed.

What Mahan did not mention in the instruction is the value imparted by the relocatable nature of the chevaux-de-frise.  There were many places where fixed obstacles were undesirable to the defender.  For instance, roadways or other paths that might be needed for counter-attack.  Furthermore, there were places where obstacles were needed as temporary measures… say only at night.  Recall that was the requirement at Fort Sumter during the long siege.  The Confederate defenders placed chevaux-de-frise during the nights to deter Federal landing parties.  They removed the obstacle before daylight, as the Federal attacks were unlikely during the day and any exposed obstacle would be destroyed by those big Parrotts over on Morris Island.

But look at the chevaux-de-frise employed at Fort Sumter:


These are of a modified form.  The construction resembles a palisading with one set of lances, not four (or five).  These were also braced on the ribands to ensure horizontal orientation over the parapet.  These were relatively light-weight obstructions which could be stored inside the fort during the day and easily set out for the night.

The point being, we may apply the label chevaux-de-frise to any relocatable obstacle.  In fact, the basic function of the chevaux-de-frise remains today in the form of “Jersey barriers” used for base defense at entry points. There are numerous forms of wire obstacles, going by names like “knife rests” and “trestle apron fence”, employing barbed wire or concertina wire instead of the wood lances.  In fact, a coil of concertina wire, if properly staked, serves much the same purpose.  These can be pre-fabricated for quick employment.  And like the chevaux-de-frise of old, can be easily removed when the defender wants to take the offense for a change.

However, I would add the Civil War’s chevaux-de-frise were much “friendlier” in some respects than today’s obstacles…


… particularly if you were a soldier posing for a picture.

(Citations from Dennis Hart Mahan, A Treatise on Field Fortifications, New York: John Wiley, 1852, pages 47-8)