Category Archives: Artillery

Sherman’s March, February 16, 1865: “I instructed him not to fire any more into”… Columbia

If you ask me, Battery H, 1st Illinois Light Artillery should be among the most recognized artillery formations of the Civil War. The battery served in many important campaigns of the war and played critical roles in several major battles.  Armed with 20-pdr Parrott guns, this volunteer battery saw action at Shiloh (those big guns in Grant’s Last Line), Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Atlanta (where the guns were lost and recaptured on July 22, 1864), and the march to the sea.  Captain Francis DeGress was the battery commander from the summer of 1862 onward, so the unit was commonly referenced in reports by his name.  And yes, the battery hauled the heavy 20-pdrs, which artillerists such as Brigadier-General Henry Hunt shunned, on light-order marches across Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.  If we could ever determine a surviving example from those allotted to the battery, those Parrotts would be among the most storied cannons from the Civil war.   Consider, those 20-pdrs fired on Vicksburg, Atlanta, Fort McAllister, Savannah, and, on February 16, 1865, Columbia, South Carolina.  The State House still bears the scars from DeGress’ guns:

More Battle Damage on the State House

A map of Major-General William T. Sherman’s dispositions on February 16, 1865 might simply have a solid line from Granby to a point above Columbia on the Broad River, simply saying “Sherman.”  At no time since early January were all the columns so contracted:

SCMarch_Feb16

In brief, the Right Wing moved, Fifteenth Corps leading, from positions near Granby forward to find bridges over the Congaree burned.  From there, Second Division of the corps leading, engineered a crossing of the Saluda and reached the Broad River before nightfall.  The Seventeenth Corps trailed, but went into camp along the Congaree opposite Columbia.  The Twentieth Corps concentrated behind the Right Wing.  And the Fourteenth Corps moved in from Lexington and took position to cross the Saluda River near Mount Zion Church.  The Cavalry Division moved to Lexington, with advances towards Wise’s Ferry.

Thus Sherman’s entire march force covered an area roughly eleven miles by six miles.  This disposition allowed Sherman to threaten entry into Columbia at several points, and if need be even continue flanking to the north.  Such compelled the Confederates to withdraw.  That’s the macro-view of the movement for February 16.  For the micro-view, let me focus on the advance of Major-General William Hazen’s Second Division, Fifteenth Corps, with the Ninth Illinois Mounted Infantry, detached from the Seventeenth Corps, assisting.

Throughout the night prior, Hazen’s division suffered from considerable Confederate artillery firing from positions outside Columbia.  Hazen reported the loss of one officer killed and two wounded from this firing (keep this in mind for later).  On the morning of February 16, Hazen advanced his skirmish line to find the Confederate positions from the day before abandoned.  Just after daylight, the skirmishers reached the Congaree Bridge, finding it burned by the retreating Confederates.  By 8 a.m. Hazen had his division alined along the river, and was exchanging fire with Confederates on the opposite bank.  At this time, DeGress’ battery deployed and began countering Confederate artillery and sharpshooter fire.  (And I’ll return to DeGress in a moment.)

At 11 a.m., orders from Sherman, passed down through Logan, directed Hazen to move to a bridge over the Saluda near Saluda Factory.  The lead of this advance was Colonel Theodore Jones’ First Brigade of the division, specifically the 13th Ohio and 57th Illinois.  Reaching the Saluda, Jones found the bridge there also burned.  But that did not stop the movement, as Jones later reported:

The Thirtieth Ohio and Fifty-fifth Illinois were crossed in pontoon-boats, and drove the enemy over the crest of the first ridge, where they remained, covering the working party until the bridge was completed. The rest of the brigade then crossed over the bridge.

Once again, the leading elements of a Federal advance had effected, engineered, a crossing and avoided delays.  The advance continued, wheeling onto the Broad River and the bridges into Columbia from the west, as Jones continued:

The command “forward” was then given to the skirmishers, who advanced, driving the enemy with great rapidity across Broad River, the enemy burning the bridge. The brigade then went into camp; distance marched, eight miles.

With darkness, the Federals halted, with preparations to throw a pontoon bridge over the Broad River the next morning.  Hazen reported three wounded in the day’s action.

Hazen’s aggressive advance put the Federals on two fronts against Columbia, but not yet in Columbia.  Again, Sherman was not interested in storming the defenses to gain the city.  Putting a premium on any loss of life, at least in the Federal ranks, Sherman was content to pressure the Confederates into conceding ground.   And a Confederate high command focused more on keeping an army in being, over retaining any control over geographic points, was content to give Sherman the city.

But back to DeGress and his 20-pounders.  Lieutenant-Colonel William H. Ross, Chief of Artillery for the Fifteenth Corps, described the deployment of DeGress’ guns that morning:

February 16, it was found necessary to put a battery in position on the extreme left in order to command rebel batteries, which were shelling the main road leading to the main bridge over Congaree River, and in order to accomplish this it was necessary to run the blockade of the rebel batteries, which I ordered and which was gallantly performed by this battery, Captain De Gress leading the column in sections. The position was gained without casualties; firing commenced and the rebel batteries silenced. Major-General Howard then ordered one section of this battery placed in the road at west end of bridgeway over Congaree River, commanding the main street in the city of Columbia in which the rebel cavalry were moving. The street was briskly shelled and made untenable.

The initial deployment of the guns, as indicated by both Hazen and Ross, was to counter Confederate batteries firing from the opposite shore.  After silencing the Confederate artillery fire, DeGress turned on the depots and other military targets within range.  Around that time, Sherman himself came up to take a look at Columbia from the same position occupied by DeGress:

Captain De Gress had a section of his twenty-pound Parrott guns unlimbered, firing into the town. I asked him what he was firing for; he said he could see some rebel cavalry occasionally at the intersections of the streets, and he had an idea that there was a large force of infantry concealed on the opposite bank, lying low, in case we should attempt to cross over directly into the town. I instructed him not to fire any more into the town, but consented to his bursting a few shells near the depot, to scare away the negroes who were appropriating the bags of corn and meal which we wanted, also to fire three shots at the unoccupied State-House. I stood by and saw these fired, and then all firing ceased. Although this matter of firing into Columbia has been the subject of much abuse and investigation, I have yet to hear of any single person having been killed in Columbia by our cannon. On the other hand, the night before, when Woods’s division was in camp in the open fields at Little Congaree, it was shelled all night by a rebel battery from the other aide of the river. This provoked me much at the time, for it was wanton mischief, as Generals Beauregard and Hampton must have been convinced that they could not prevent our entrance into Columbia. I have always contended that I would have been justified in retaliating for this unnecessary act of war, but did not, though I always characterized it as it deserved.

While DeGress’ firing on the city, specifically, ceased, the artillery fire in general continued against Confederate cavalry and sharpshooters, well into the afternoon. Major-General Frank Blair, who’s Seventeenth Corps moved up to the position, noted, “The enemy’s sharpshooters kept up an exceedingly annoying fire from the opposite bank of the river, which compelled us to open upon them and the city with artillery.”  While DeGress’ guns relocated to Hazen’s sector, other Federal batteries arrived to continue firing against the Confederates in Columbia. The Twelfth Wisconsin Battery fired 31 rounds that day.  Company H, First Missouri Light Artillery added 135 rounds.  While there is no breakdown, DeGress fired 110 rounds from both positions occupied during the day.  And batteries of the Seventeenth Corps no doubt added their weight.

It is said in some circles that DeGress fired upon the city with no justification.  What is clear, even before we get to Sherman’s post-war memoirs, is that the Confederates made Columbia a military target starting the night before and continuing through the 16th.  Quite the contrary, one would be hard pressed to explain why the Federals would not have fired on Columbia that day.

The final play for Columbia would wait until the next day.  But Sherman had already posted orders in regard to the occupation of the city.  A passage in Field Orders No. 26 read:

… occupy Columbia, destroy the public buildings, railroad property, manufacturing and machine shops, but will spare libraries and asylums and private dwellings.

That was the written intent.

(Citations OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 287, 372, 379; William T. Sherman, Memoirs of General Sherman, Volume 1, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1889.)

(Photo credit: Bill Coughlin, August 9, 2013, Courtesy HMDB.)

Light gun for inshore duties – 12-pdr, or 3.4-inch, Dahlgren Rifled Boat Howitzer

On September 15, 1864, Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton made a request for naval support to help picket the backwaters behind Morris and Folly Islands:

I have the honor very respectfully to request that, if consistent with the interest of the service, a navy launch, manned and armed with a rifled 12-pounder howitzer, may be placed on picket service in the creeks opposite Long Island and in Stono and Folly Rivers.  Such a boat will be of very great service there.

Although the Army’s forces had long patrolled and picketed the marshes in that sector, recent reductions in the force left them short of personnel.  Shifting light artillery to other sectors (such as guarding the 600 Confederate prisoners) meant the Army had few field pieces –  which were unsuited for duty in the marshes to begin with.  Aside from the little mountain howitzers, the Army’s system of artillery lacked anything light enough for handy operation in the boats used in the backwaters and bays.

The 12-pdr rifled howitzers were used often around Charleston during the war.  I’m of the mind these weapons were valued due to greater accuracy at long range when compared to the smoothbore howitzers.  Let me reach back to some charts posted several years back to demonstrate the characteristics of these rifled boat howitzers.  First comparing the different types of Dahlgren Boat Howitzers:

The Navy introduced the 12-pdr rifle (next to last column on the right) in 1861.  The rifle used the same bronze casting as the 12-pdr Heavy Boat Howitzer (second column from the left), but with a 3.4-inch rifled bore.  Early rifles had three groove rifling.  That was later increased to 12 grooves.  The smaller bore diameter translated to a slight increase in weight of the weapon to 870 pounds.  That meant the rifle was slightly heavier than a standard Army 12-pdr field howitzer.  But because the rifle used the Dahlgren carriage, overall weight remained lower than the Army type in action.

The 12-pdr rifle fired shot, shell, and case shot (shrapnel).  The Navy Ordnance Instructions of 1866 credit the 12-pdr rifle with a range of 1,770 yards at 5º elevation using a 1 pound powder charge (time of flight was 6 seconds).    That compared to 1,085 yards for the same powder charge and elevation for the smoothbore 12-pdr Heavy Boat Howitzer.

During the Civil War, the Navy received 423 of these 12-pdr Rifled Boat Howitzers.  The rifles saw frequent use during the war, particularly around Charleston.  Aside from the Army’s request, the 12-pdr rifles were used from the decks of the monitors to fire upon grounded blockade runners.

Having established the weapon’s importance at this time 150 years ago, let me turn to a pair of the fifteen survivors for a walk-around.  Two 12-pdr Rifled Boat Howitzers are on display today at Battery Jameson, part of Fort Lincoln, in Brentwood, Maryland… allowing me to bridge wartime activities at Charleston back to Washington, by way of John Dahlgren and the Washington Navy Yard!

Bladensburg 110

The two howitzers are registry numbers 211 and 250, both produced by the Navy at the Washington Navy Yard.  (Ames Manufacturing also produced 26 of this type in 1862.) From a distance, the rifles have the same appearance as the 12-pdr heavy smoothbores:

Bladensburg 122

Notice the location of the fixtures, particularly the lock-piece mount, rear sight base, and pierced knob.  Again much the same as with the smoothbore gun:

Bladensburg 111

The measure of axis for the lock-piece was the same as on the smoothbore:

Bladensburg 116

Looking at the muzzle, we see the difference with the rifle:

Bladensburg 121

Yes, 12-groove rifling:

Bladensburg 119

The rifle retained the front sight base.

Bladensburg 114

Markings on the barrel also give away the type:

Bladensburg 113

In this case – Rifled 12 pdr // Boat Howitzer // 1863 // J.A.D.  The later being Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren’s initials.  There are other markings on these howitzers, and some are rather interesting in regard to the “administrative” history of the guns.  But due to the years of exposure, many have been obliterated.

There are some interesting variations among surviving 12-pdr rifled boat howitzers.  Some were bored out from rifles to be standard 12-pdr smoothbore weapons.  The assumption is the Navy learned, as did the Army, that bronze was not good for rifled guns.  There are a few of the steel versions around, which I’ll show in a walk-around at a later date.  At least one 3-groove rifling version has survived.  At least one was converted to brechloading, either for experiments or as a saluting piece.  Also there were several steel guns cast by Norman Wiard.  Those should not be confused with Wiard’s “puddled wrought iron” rifles of the same caliber produced for the Army’s “Marine Artillery” and used in North Carolina.

Dahlgren’s 12-pdr Rifled Boat Howitzer was mentioned on several occasions in correspondence and reports.  All indications are the weapon served its purpose well.  But as with all bronze pieces of the era, it was eventually rendered obsolete with the arrival of steel breechloading weapons.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, page 289.)

August 19, 1864: “Receipt of heavy cannon by this department is insufficient” and the Ordnance Department wants more Rodman Guns

A theme I have researched for many years is wartime cannon production, on the Federal side, and how that reflected defense policy more so than wartime needs.  While the Confederate side of the story is largely “not enough capacity, make what we can,” the Federal side is much more complex.

One might guess, without consultation of the figures, that field guns would be in high demand during the war, with large numbers rolling out of the foundries throughout the war.  But the actual figures for weapons accepted by the Army point to a more complex story.  Field gun production dropped off after the second quarter of 1864, with no further Napoleon 12-pdrs accepted.  On the other end of the scale, production of large caliber weapons for seacoast defense increased greatly throughout the war.  Yet the Federals faced no direct, immediate threat of seaborne attack.  Only distant threats from Confederate raiders and ironclads… or the potential of European involvement.

On August 19, 1864, correspondence from Brigadier-General George Ramsay, Chief of Ordnance, to the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, provide some insight into the emphasis on heavy guns.

Sir: As the present receipt of heavy cannon by this department is insufficient for meeting the wants of the country, I desire to present for your consideration certain facts connected therewith, showing the propriety and importance of increasing the supply up to the maximum capacity of our iron foundries. As communicated to you in my letter of the 31st of December, 1863, the number of 8-inch, 10-inch, and 15-inch Rodman guns required for the proper armament of our fortifications on the coast and frontier is estimated, from the best data attainable, at 4,918. The capacity (Army share) of our foundries for this class of guns, in addition to their other work, was stated in the same letter at 612 for the year 1864, at which rate it would take seven years to produce the quantity required.

With no mention of a single Confederate threat, what are we to consider for the definition of “wants of the country”?  Certainly, as seen with requests for Rodman Guns at points like Pensacola, there was a need for such heavy weapons at points under threat of Confederate raiders.  Less threat, however, was present at far flung locations as California where more Rodmans were wanted.  The Army figured a need for nearly 5,000 of these guns to defend “the coast and frontier.”  And we have no mention here of a threat from the Confederates.  Ramsay’s letter is less about beating the guys in gray and more so about national defense policy.

Ramsay pressed to make sure the nation’s coastal defenses were well armed.  And at the rate guns were being accepted, he worried that would take many long years:

The following table exhibits the deficiency in the number of these guns expected to be received in the present year to date, and based on the estimated capacity of the founders engaged in the manufacture:

RodmanGunProd1864

And why was the Army behind in equipping the forts?

This deficiency is chiefly attributable to the fact that in consequence of the high prices asked by Messrs. Charles Knap & Co., C. Alger & Co., the principal founders, it was not deemed advisable by the War Department in March last to accede to their terms, and such guns as they have delivered in the present year were due on order given prior to January 1, 1864.

Messrs. Seyfert, McManus & Co., of Reading, Pa., accepted a contract for seventy-five 8-inch and 10-inch guns at 10½ cents per pound, which they have nearly filled. We are now paying 13 cents a pound for 8-inch siege mortars and howitzers.

Not only did Ramsay want to spread the work among multiple vendors, he also wanted to engage in what we’d call today “fixed priced contracting” as a measure to block profiteering and benefit to the government:

I inclose a memorandum from the Navy Ordnance Bureau showing the prices now being paid by them for heavy guns. As the magnitude of the work is such as will require years to execute it, and as its accomplishment is of vital importance to the defense of our harbors and sea-ports, I think no time should be lost in expending the money appropriated by Congress for the armament of fortifications, in order to avoid any further rise in the price of material and labor; and I request that I be authorized to make contracts for a definite number of guns to be delivered in specified times, and on the most favorable terms I can negotiate after due investigation, to be approved by you. As the want of a Government establishment of this kind makes us entirely dependent upon private parties, whose capital and experience enables them to exercise a monopoly of this kind of work, I consider the interests of the Government will suffer far more from the interruption in the supply of guns than from any dubious excess in the gains of the manufacturers.

Now there is a bit of a back story involving politics at the Ordnance Department.  I’ll offer the short version, as most readers are no doubt more interested in the guns themselves than bickering among cannon inspectors.  Ramsay was not on good terms with Stanton.  When he took the post of Chief of Ordnance in September 1863, Captain George T. Balch, whom Stanton preferred, was the de facto chief in many respects.  Within a month of this letter to Stanton, Ramsay would request to be relieved from the post.

But the friction between Ramsay and Stanton aside, the fact of the matter is heavy ordnance production increased substantially through the last year of the Civil War.  Those guns were not purchased with a mind to aid in the suppression of a rebellion.  Instead these were procured for “the wants of the country” as defined in engineering surveys of the coastlines.  The Civil War saw Federal military expenditures on a level never seen before in the United States (and at a level not exceed for another half century – during World War I).  And a substantial amount of that expenditure was to ensure the nation’s defenses were brought up to a healthy state… while the Congress was willing to keep writing the checks.

(Citation from OR, Series III, Volume 4, Serial 125, pages 626-7.)