On Small Arms… and Artillery

When studying the equipment used by artillery batteries, perhaps the one point most apt to spark a disagreement… saving, of course, those select discussions about mountain howitzers… is that of small arms. There always seems to be a debate about what the battery had or did not have. Furthermore, if one is part of the living history or reenactment hobbies, grist to be ground about what is suitable for an “impression” for public display. And as I post articles about the summary statements I try to be aware of that when listing the small arms reported therein. The problem with reading, strictly, the summaries is… well that word … context. Such is why I spend most of the time for the posts detailing the administrative state of the battery – who was in charge, where was it assigned, and what duties did the battery have.

Recently I commented on a post in a social media forum about this subject. More precisely, someone had posted one of those “here’s a situation” with the remark in a “that’s how they did it, and so should we” vein. And yes, twenty lashes for me… one should never discuss the nuances of history on a social media platform. There’s just no way to correctly address a historical subject in one of those forums. But I did. And the discussion, as those are apt to, suddenly became a discussion about everything from pistols to the price of tea in China. And somewhat disturbing, the other correspondent did well to pull examples from my blog, here, in an attempt to illustrate points. Kudos and thanks for the hits… but unfortunately I feel he was fishing for a context (there’s that word) that was not applicable.

Given the use of some of those summary statements in that discussion, I want to make a clear cautionary statement to readers who might look upon the small arms sections. A few points to keep in mind….

First: Before using them, one must understand just what the summary statements were there for. Back this up to the late 1830s when Joel R. Poinsett was Secretary of War. Readers will recall discussing his tenure in relation to the twisted (tortured?) evolution of the 6-pdr field gun. I have often compared Poinsett to the 20th century’s Robert McNamara. Not too closely, but in certain regards. Chief of those is that Poinsett looked to reform the system in which the military operated. Specific to ordnance, Poinsett cited the incompatibility between the various weapons then in service – the most glaring of which was between the regular Army and the militia units. At that time, there were an odd assortment of weapons, some dating back to colonial times, others the result of private purchase, and a good number not conforming to the patterns established by the Army as standard field pieces (ehem… and even “established” is taken with a grain of salt here). Had the nation called out the militia for war, whoever commanded that force would have a logistical nightmare. So Poinsett pressed for a degree of comparability, if not complete standardization. To enforce that down, Poinsett did the only real thing he could do, legally, for the militia system – asked for reports of what was “on hand.” And thus was born a report, separate from property accountability, to track down just what was “on hand” within a unit. But don’t confuse “form” with “report” as these were most often statements made by the State Adjutant General or other official.

Second: As time went on, standardization improved to the point that militia batteries could acquire directly from the vendor an approved pattern cannon. Great. But there’s one hitch to that. Some of those patterns were faulty. Not so much the bronze guns. More so the iron. So the Ordnance Department began using that reporting mechanism to track things like the number of shots fired by the cannon, bore and vent erosion, and other peculiarities. So then we start seeing the report took on more of the form of a questionnaire. And interesting to us artillery wonks, they listed the cannon on hand by registry number. Still, this was not a property accountability mechanism. Rather an operational report – what is on hand and how good is it? Nobody, as far as I can tell, ever was charged the cost of a cannon because serial numbers didn’t match (that, of course, would be a moral sin in today’s Army).

Third: In the 1850s, at least, the Chief of Ordnance began submitting more detailed yearly reports to Congress on these matters. Perhaps this was there before, but I have not seen it in the Congressional Records (and if it one thing our US Congress does well, it’s keeping records!). But certainly this changed a bit in 1855. Congress amended the laws and regulations pertaining to the militia, giving the US Army more oversight… or I should say involvement… in the equipping of the formations. Passed on March 3, 1855, I’ve seen this cited as “The State Militia Act of 1855” or simply as Revised Statute Section 1667. Well outside my lane (this is “To the Sound of the Guns” and not “To the Call of the Militia” by the way), but in context of the times there was much public discussion about the wants and failures of the militia during the Mexican War. Terms like “active militia” were being thrown around. And as result, this new statute apportioned funds from the Ordnance Department to be spent towards weapons for the militia (and we see this act cited on every Ordnance Report to Congress up through the 1890s). Of course many readers will start to see this click with their Civil War studies… yes this is also the mechanism being used by Secretary of War Floyd in the months leading up to the war.

Now that third point would be “high level political stuff” but for the fact that the Ordnance Department had to account for these things every year in a report to Congress. Congress wanted to know what was going out and if the problems with the militia were being solved. So the measure by which the Ordnance Department could track these things were those reports. And thus we see a demand for information listing ALL weapons. Not just what the Federal government bought. Everything. And this reporting, collected by the Ordnance Department fed into an annual report to Congress, as part of the War Department’s statements. And that’s where we get back out of the political layer – clerks gathering information, compiling said information, and offering that to the chief.

Fourth: As is apt to happen, this highly bureaucratic system rolled into the war situation much like a train running off the rails. Not only were militia units mustered, but whole new volunteer units formed. Many equipped by private means. Many more not equipped at all. And the Ordnance Department now had to support those units in the field. This lead to more reliance on the reports, which I’ve taken to calling “Ordnance Returns” based on the common usage by officers of the period. And it is important to keep that those were separate and distinct from the returns accounting for “ordnance stores.” The former was for tracking operational details. The latter was for tracking government property. And here’s where I think most folks get confused – the Army was not using the reports detailing cannon and small arms statuses as property accountability documents. Rather it was data, going into the summaries, to support the report to Congress. On the other side of the office, of course, there was some clerk looking at property accountability. But I’ve yet to see a report from the Chief of Ordnance to Congress discussing how many cannon, much less things like muskets and swords, were lost during a period of the war. That sort of thing was usually reserved for questions in front of the Joint Committee, coming from a quartermaster officer. So again – a summary of “all things on hand” that we are using in the war, instead of an accounting of government property. And by “all things on hand” inevitably, as we can point out with some specific batteries, privately purchased, state purchased, and government purchased equipment ended up tallied within the process. So vast was the war effort, compared to what had been handled pre-war, the Ordnance Department was forced to create a full form to aid the compiling of the numbers… and we then had by name the summary statemetns, which seems to have started around the second half of 1862.

Fifth: Even as the war situation “normalized” somewhat, the bureaucratic system did not. As I like to point out within the summaries, there is an important column to consider – the date received at the Ordnance Department. So, that opens Pandora’s box of possibilities. Was that a “post-dated” report for the quarter? Was it “as of this quarter, but submitted to cover the last one”? Not to mention, if the report was arriving late did the person filing it really put a lot effort into making it accurate? (Something I learned in my personal experience, the fellow in the foxhole is usually unimpressed with the line about “failure to report accurately could result in a courts martial.” Usually there’s something along the lines of “oh, yeah? Come get me!”)

Sixth: And this is perhaps the biggest bucket of cold water on those pursuing concrete conclusions – the records we have, surviving, of the summary statements only run from the forth quarter of 1862 to first quarter of 1864. There are some returns consolidated for the second quarter of 1864, but representing only about a third of the batteries. And if you are down at NARA looking at the files, you’ll see the ledger skips ahead to the forth quarter, 1870… and there are only blanks for those entries. What happened? This guy happened:

Alexander Brydie Dyer. Became Chief of Ordnance on September 12, 1864. You know, there was a war on and all, right? And the clerks at the Ordnance Department were waiting patiently for the second quarter returns. But right around that time, the format of the report to Congress changed. Perhaps by Brigadier-General Dyer’s initiative. Or as part of changes driven by the War Department. Or perhaps in response to different inquiries by Congress. Either way, the first report given by Dyer, through the Secretary of War, to Congress differed substantively from the previous decade of reports. So the reason the summaries “died” after June 1864 was because Dyer didn’t need the information complied in the manner we see in the summaries. A crying shame for us 155 years after the fact. Would have been a nice bookend to know who had what in 1865. But as it stands, a nice bit of administrative closure – the summaries outlasted their value to the men reporting on the numbers.

So what does that mean?

In a nutshell, the summaries are at best a mixed bag. I’m certain that some batteries only reported what they felt was necessary in regard to small arms. So if we went back in time to see their camps, we might well see things not detailed in their returns and thus not on the summary lines. However, the converse is also probably true in some cases – that a very efficient officer provided the required documentation to the Ordnance Department, indicating everything, right down to a couple of Sharps carbines (we’ve seen that in the summaries a time or two) that happened to be laying about camp.

Because of the mixed nature of the summaries, we can’t draw hard conclusions. I “might” say that “generally” it “seems” … and more quibble words as can be worked in where possible… that batteries assigned to the Army of the Potomac would “typically” report between six and a half dozen pistols and edged weapons. The eastern theater exception is the Horse Artillery, which almost consistently reports enough pistols and edged weapons to arm most of the mounted men – officers, NCOs, and crews. That those in the western theater varied a bit more, without the “horse artillery” exception. Batteries assigned to outposts, where non-artillery missions were likely the order of the day, often reported more small arms, particularly long arms. And Trans-Mississippi batteries, contrary to what some might think, tended to have less than those in the east. But… those are observations only, with all the quibble words attached. Again we go back to the value of the context… and more importantly that context being only relative to a specific battery at a specific time and place.

Bottom line – conclusions are meant to be based on facts. Without facts, conclusions are but speculations… maybe we soften that to suggestions. But at the top of the discussion we have to agree that the absence of information is only confirming the absence of information! More is then needed. Of course, that’s when some turn to pictures and accounts indicating so-and-so had this pistol and that sword. Great. Here’s what you have:

That might be a person in a hairy gorilla suit. It might be an unidentified creature. Or it might be my battery commander with a horse artillery saber in one hand and a Colt Army in the other! It still doesn’t confirm or disprove the numbers on the summary.

All kidding aside. My point is it’s folly to try to square and reconcile a bureaucratic report that is full of known errors and inconsistencies as we look back for concrete conclusions. We need to accept the summary statements within the context of what they were intended for, not what we want them to be. We can, however, take the summary statements as a starting point for discussion. Context – that happening around the battery being represented by the numbers – is vital. What do those numbers mean and how do they reflect a certain point in time situation…. if at all?

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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