Mahan on Artillery Tactics, Part 5: Artillery Supporting the Attack

We’ve discussed at length that Mahan felt artillery was the “principal part” of the defense. But on the offense, did the artillery play a minor role? Not according to Mahan. We sometimes misconstrue the notions about supporting roles to be of lesser importance, or perhaps inconsequential. Mahan felt the artillery’s support was vital to staging a successful attack. So how to go about constructing a successful support? Turning to the classes of artillery in use at that time (pre-Civil War), Mahan proposed different roles for heavy and light guns:

In the onset of offensive movements, good positions should be selected for the heaviest pieces, from which they can maintain a strong fire on the enemy until the lighter pieces and the columns of attack are brought into action. These positions should be taken on the flanks of the ground occupied by the assailant, or on the centre, if more favorable to the end to be attained.

Mahan, 61.

Consider a generic scenario, what I call the “blackboard topography.” One might select good artillery positions on the flanks, or the center as Mahan proposes. But regardless it is the heavy, long-range guns that are chosen to open the attack. And we need to understand, tactically, why this is significant. Having the least mobile component of the army as the base from which the army can launch an assault makes good sense. More so having those long-reaching and hard-hitting guns opening the engagement at a range from which only the enemy’s peer heavy guns could respond.

And at what range should those heavy guns open? Mahan did not delve into the technical details in this passage. For the most part, he left those things open as such was the domain of the artillerists and subject to change as the technology evolved. Though we can say given the pre-war context, I would offer 1200 yards. That was the effective range of a 24-pdr field howitzer firing shell. And that particular caliber and class would be the shortest-ranged of what was considered “heavy” artillery in the 1850s.

Continuing on in that paragraph, we put some weight… emphasis… on that point. The enemy would certainly respond to this opening bombardment:

In all cases, wide intervals should be left between the heavy batteries and the other troops; in order that the latter may not suffer from the return fire which the assailed will probably open on the batteries. For the same reason, care should be taken not to place other troops behind a point where they would be exposed to the return fire of the assailed; when this cannot be avoided, the troops should be so placed as to be covered by any undulation of the ground; or else be deployed in line to lessen the effects of the shot

Mahan, 61-2.

Those heavy batteries are going to be magnets for the enemy’s attention. And that in mind, there appears an additional factor here beyond just the measure of range and weight of metal. Not only does the opening bombardment damage the enemy directly … “kinetically” as the modern military is fond of saying… but also by splitting the enemy’s attention in response. Again, “blackboard topography” here, but opening the engagement with those big guns ensures the enemy must respond and counter the bombardment… and thus redirects defensive firepower that would otherwise be applied to the infantry or cavalry.

And in the study of assaults staged during the Civil War, we see this play out time and time again in the form of artillery duels. Most students will recognize the preparatory effects to damage the defense. However, consider how those duels usually played out. Particularly where ammunition supplies factored into how long the bombardment could be sustained. Do we know of instances where a defender deliberately ceased counter-battery fire in order to save guns and ammunition to repel the infantry? Yes we have. So this is not just were the defender pointed those cannon, but also if he decided to fire them or not.

But what of the light artillery?

The artillery which moves with the columns of attack, should be divided into several strong batteries; as the object in this case is to produce a decisive impression upon a few points of the enemy’s line; by bringing an overwhelming fire to bear upon those points. These batteries should keep near enough to the other troops to be in safety from any attempts of the assailed to capture them. Their usual positions will be on the flanks and near the heads of the columns of attack; the intervals between the batteries being sufficient for the free maneuvers of the other troops, in large bodies

Mahan, 62.

This, readers, is about as close as Mahan comes to any notion of “artillery charges.” The notion here is to carry forward, with the assault force, an artillery component up to a point, while still out of musket range, where direct damage can be done to specific enemy positions. Since these light batteries at the time Mahan was writing would be armed with 6-pdr field guns and 12-pdr field howitzers, the idea range would be 1000 yards. Perhaps closing up to 700 yards if the commander wanted to push things. Closer than that and that safety clause comes into risk, as the enemy infantry might be able to close quicker than the battery could respond.

I would stress the fire effects desired here. While none were articulated for the heavy batteries, the light batteries were there to do damage specifically to selected points of the defense. It was the light artillery that was to beat a path for the infantry and artillery. Consider also the control of these two elements of artillery. While the heavy artillery was far enough back to receive direction from the army commander (or at least the commander of the field), the light batteries were so far forward that only the assault force commander could exert any immediate control.

Note also the emphasis placed upon keeping open maneuver space for the infantry or cavalry. Very important to ensure the attacking ranks arrived at the point of contact in an orderly formation.

Continuing on, Mahan wrote:

The maneuvers of these batteries should be made with promptitude; so that no time may be lost for the action of their fire. They should get rapidly over unfavorable ground to good positions for firing, and maintain those as long as possible; detaching, in such cases, a few pieces to accompany the columns of attack. In all the movements of the batteries, great care should be taken not to place them so that they shall in the least impede the operations of the other troops.

Mahan, 62.

This was the reason artillery batteries drilled hard on maneuver, being able to quickly place and unlimber. This point is lost sometimes on our battlefield walks, as we see the guns (if guns are indeed on the field to represent) sitting as if ready for action. I always stress this to any audience I’m leading on a battlefield tour. Maneuver of a battery was an intricate choreography.

As for a section or battery accompanying the assault force right into the attack? Some will contend here’s that mythical “artillery charge.” No, not so. These cannon were reserved to go into action once the objective was attained. A hedge against an enemy counterattack. And we might say, while such was fine for the 1840s and 1850s, during the Civil War rarely would such an accompanying battery move with the assault. At Belmont, early in the war, the Chicago Light Battery was thrown in with the initial Federal attacks. And later in 1863 on Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign, there were a few instances where artillery came into action with the initial infantry waves. But these were, I think, less so much U.S. Grant (or.. .gasp.. John C. McClernand) applying Mahan’s accompanying batteries to practice. More so that artillery in a mixed line of march were employed at the onset of a meeting engagement.

So why was the accompanying battery disused? Well, to be honest, we might also start questioning the notions about the heavy and light battery employments. In the first place, by 1861 the US Army was already shedding the designations of heavy and light within the field artillery. The 12-pdr Napoleon was the weapon of choice in what would become, basically, all-purpose batteries. Furthermore, the introduction of better fuses (Bormann, in particular for the smoothbore) gave better accuracy. Not in terms of aiming, mind you. Rather in the ability of the gunner to have the shell or case shot explode at the right time of flight in order to achieve the desired fire effect. With that ability in hand, why press the issue at any range less than 1000 yards? Double down with the rapid adoption of rifled guns at the start of the Civil War.

With that said, the question always arises of the impact of the rifled musket with respect to artillery use. I have always contended first and foremost that infantry musketry techniques didn’t change significantly with the adoption of the new technology. Infantrymen were not trained, as a rule, to engage targets out to the effective range of their weapons. Some sharpshooters, maybe. But not the rank and file. Nor were infantry commanders apt to open volley fires out beyond a few hundred yards. So how would that impact the use of artillery?

It didn’t. Rather, the reason we see a departure, particularly in regard to the offensive use of artillery, from the Mahanian concepts presented in Outpost was because of the advances in artillery technology. Taking advantage of lighter, longer-ranged, more accurate weapons, practitioners of the artillery (thinking names like Gibbon, Hunt, Barry, and others) began to relook the way their arm could be employed.


(Citations from Dennis Hart Mahan, An Elementary Treatise on Advanced-guard, Out-post, and Detachment Service of Troops, and the Manner of Posting and Handling Them in Presence of an Enemy, New York: John Wiley, 1861, pages 61-2.)

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Mahan on Artillery Tactics, Part 4: More on the Defense

Let us continue the discussion of artillery as used on the defense, according to Mahan. And we again turn to Chapter II, verse 151…..

Those positions for batteries should be avoided from which the shot must pass over other troops, to attain the enemy. And those should be sought for from which a fire can be maintained until the enemy has approached even within good musket-range of them.

Outpost, 60-1.

Common sense at play here. Fuses are not fail-proof, no matter how good the quality control is at the arsenal. Short rounds were a concern then as they are today. A further concern was the ballistic path of the sabot used behind many projectiles. Though made of wood, that could still injure or kill. With the introduction of rifled guns, another concern entered play – the lead or soft iron sabots often sheered off after the projectile left the muzzle. Those fragments took less predictable paths.

The other part of this is the desired effect of allowing the cannon to engage right up to… and inside of… musket range. The “skirmisher” community will note that Mahan was writing this passage before the rifled-musket was in widespread use. However, we should note that well into the Civil War, 100 yards was still considered the effective range of those rifled-muskets, as the practitioners were focused on volley fire effects as opposed to the effective range of individual weapons.

Where the wings of a position are weak, batteries of the heaviest caliber should be placed to secure them.

Outpost, 61.

Another sensible suggestion here. But one that must play with earlier passages that dictated the bigger caliber pieces be placed on “the more retired points” as opposed to advanced positions. Looking back at the “taking away a course of action from the enemy” mindset, those batteries assigned to support the flanks would be there to remove an option to attack on a flank. Such implies, generally speaking, that in the defense the flanks should be tucked in or refused. I would not argue against that as a general application, but certainly not submit flanks should always be refused. Given terrain or other factors, one might extend a flank position to cover the front of the main defensive line…. you know… like in those simple entrenchments that Mahan wrote of in other volumes.

Thus far, Mahan has placed the light batteries (shall we say the “mounted” batteries?) and the heavy (or “foot”) batteries. What about the horse artillery?

A sufficient number of pieces – selecting for the object in view horse-artillery in preference to any other – should be held in reserve for a moment of need; to be thrown upon any point where the enemy’s progress threatens danger; or to be used in a covering the retreat.

Outpost, 61.

Stomp your feet here to ensure all the cavalrymen hear and heed this. Horse artillery, in the defensive, was not simply attached to the cavalry for support of the troopers doing what ever it is they do on the defensive. Instead, the horse artillery was a reserve force to be used when pressed. If we turn again to “taking away courses of action” then here we are considering how an enemy commander would follow up behind initial success. If that assault has indeed achieved a lodgement on the main defensive line, the next step would involve pressing reinforcements forward to enlarge gains and break the line. The counter, Mahan proposes here, is the rapid, flying batteries of horse artillery introduced to seal that fissure.

And if that cannot be attained, at least have those horse artillery batteries in position to dissuade the enemy from following up with a close pursuit. A handful of well placed shells from the horse artillery should at least cause pause.

Everything thus far we might summarize as “use common sense and good judgement.” But the next paragraph is where the armchair generals will set up and start typing comments….

The collection of a large number of pieces in a single battery, is a dangerous arrangement; particularly at the onset of an engagement. The exposure of so many guns together might present a strong inducement to the enemy to make an effort to carry the battery; a feat the more likely to succeed, as it is difficult either to withdraw the guns, or change their position promptly, after their fire is opened; and one which, if successful, might entail a fatal disaster on the assailed, from the loss of so many pieces at once.

Outpost, 61.

Yes, at first glance, Mahan is laying out an argument against massing artillery on the battlefield. And our latter-day Stonewall Jacksons are quick to point out massed artillery is often the key to victory!

The important part of this passage is “large number of pieces in a single battery.” This is a “battery” not as an organizational unit, but as a position. Reading as such, this is a warning about putting multiple batteries in one contiguous position. If those guns are not arrayed as discussed at earlier points in this discussion of artillery on defense, then such a collection would be a vulnerable, tempting target. Placing the guns hub to hub is not “massing the guns.” But arranging those guns, in accordance to the guides presented by Mahan, is.

What I’d contend is that Mahan was not arguing against what Henry Hunt would do at Malvern Hill. Just the opposite. Prior to July 1, 1862, Hunt organized and emplaced the artillery into a fine example of what Mahan encouraged through these couple of pages on defensive arrangements. Go through the checklist – good engagement ranges, cleared fields of fire, complementing postings, light batteries advanced, heavy batteries retired, wings protected, infantry kept clear of the guns, and all well supported. And that arrangement allowed Hunt to introduce fresh batteries and withdraw tired ones, with relative ease. Thus, what Hunt had at Malvern Hill was not a “large number of pieces in a single battery” but instead a massing of combat power on a good position which maximized the capabilities of the artillery. Famously, one year and two days later, Hunt will accomplish the same feat on another battlefield while defending Cemetery Ridge. We might easily turn to the other side of the war and point to good use of massed artillery at Fredericksburg.

I think what Mahan is arguing against in this passage is actually instances like Missionary Ridge. One might say the Confederate artillery positions on that ridge were well placed for a siege in which their fire would be focused on distant Federal lines. The problem was no proper adjustment was made when that position transformed, due to the shifting of tactical situations, to a defensive one. And so that checklist that Hunt met on those hot July days was not met on that autumn day outside Chattanooga – dead space under the guns even past musket range, no complementary postings, no advanced or retired positions, infantry lines interspersed with the artillery, and little room to move the batteries around. And if we circle back to the “taking away a course of action from the enemy” notion here, I’d posit this counter-intuitive thought with a wry smile: the position on Missionary Ridge was so bad that it invited Federal commanders to accept and pursue a direct assault as a course of action. And as a demonstration, at that!

The last paragraph in this section on defensive arrangements for artillery strikes to the logistics of keeping those guns feed:

In all defensive dispositions the ammunition should be most carefully husbanded. A fire should never be opened until the enemy is within good range; and, when once opened, be continued with perseverance and coolness up to the last moment in which it can be made effective.

Outpost, 61.

I’ve mentioned this a time or two before, expressed as “staying power” of the guns. By this I mean the time for which the gun can remain at a position and actively part of the battle before having to replenish ammunition. Obviously many factors come into play here. Not the least of which is the number of rounds in the ammunition chests (in other words, the smaller-bore weapons had more rounds to shoot, all things being equal… yet another reason to have those big guns at retired positions). As we alluded to above (and at other places on this blog), Hunt and other good artillery commanders mitigated this with a good system to rotate batteries in and out of the line. Hunt also devised a very healthy system to push full ammunition chests up to the points where needed. Such adds another requirement here to those “good position” checklists, in that we must also consider allocating space to allow all the traffic needed in order to maintain a position “up to the last moment.”

And I stress “staying power” over perhaps the cyclic rate of fire. More so than simple weight of metal, it was the paced, deliberate, and measured fire which was desired. So let’s cast off these notions that artillery was just there to belch out canister, send smoke into the air, and make a lot of noise. The impact of those big guns, particularly on the defense, was to shape the flow of the battle… taking away courses of action available to the enemy.

(Citations from Dennis Hart Mahan, An Elementary Treatise on Advanced-guard, Out-post, and Detachment Service of Troops, and the Manner of Posting and Handling Them in Presence of an Enemy, New York: John Wiley, 1861, pages 60-1.)

Mahan on Artillery Tactics, Part 3: In Defense, artillery is the “principal part”

I started the examination of Dennis H. Mahan and artillery tactics earlier this year with an introduction and a word about the “place” of artillery. That latter referring to what artillery was supposed to do on the battlefield… not the physical place. Now resuming that conversation, let’s move from the somewhat theoretical side into how those ideas would be applied… again, according to Mahan. And that takes us from the “place” as in the role or occupation of artillery more towards “place” as in the actual position relative to the other branches. We start with the general guideline for placing artillery:

The manner of placing artillery and its employment must be regulated by its relative importance under given circumstances, with respect to the action of the other arms.

In the defensive, the principal part is usually assigned to the artillery; and the position taken up by the other arms will, therefore, be subordinate to those of this arm. In offensive movements the reverse is generally obtain[ed].

Outpost, pages 59-60.

Even the most pedestrian, non-tactical study of the Civil War battlefield reinforces this notion. But there is a pitfall here that some novices will fall into. This is not to say that artillery’s importance was weighed to the defense, and was simply an add-on for the offense. Rather, what Mahan indicates here is that the defense, if properly organized, will center upon and be dependent upon the artillery for its strength. While the offensive arrangements would place emphasis on the “moving parts” with the artillery arranged best to support that component. In either case, the artillery placement requires just as much thought. It is simply a matter of which component the commander needs to carry the battle…. or… “relative importance under given circumstances.”

With the central role of artillery in the defense at the fore, Mahan then spoke to how those guns should be arranged:

In defensive positions the security of the batteries is of the last importance. Unless the batteries are on points which are inaccessible to the enemy’s cavalry and infantry, they must be placed under the protection of the other troops, and be outflanked by them.

Outpost, 60

By “last importance“, I believe Mahan was saying the defender should not avoid placing guns on less than idea terrain. The guns should be placed where their firepower would best achieve the mission of the defender. After all, those other arms were there to prevent a battery from being exposed… or at least supposed to be there.

As in the defensive, we should be prepared to receive the enemy on every point; the batteries must be distributed along the entire front of the position occupied, and on those points from which they can obtain a good sweep over the avenues of approach to it; the guns being masked, when the ground favors, from the enemy’s view, until the proper moment arrives for opening their fire.

Outpost, 60

Finally, we are pointing to the places to drop trail! The point I would emphasize here is this notion of masking batteries. In 1861, “masked batteries” were somewhat a boogie man, particularly on the Federal side. The very nature of selecting a good position should bring the officer to place artillery in masking positions. In effect all good artillery positions should be masked. But in reality, when those commanders of 1861 were writing about their fears of “masked batteries” they were referring to positions where their columns might be surprised or ambushed by the waiting enemy using concealed cannon. But before we go down the route of saying all good artillery positions were ambushes and such, we’ve got to take a step back and recognize the same word was being used with different intents.

Mahan’s masked batteries were not necessarily in unseen places. Rather, they were in places where anything which could be seen was within engagment range. Given the range of a 6-pdr field gun (the standard light piece at the time Mahan was writing), that translates out to 1,500 yards, or 0.85ths of a mile…. fine, round it to a mile. That’s a lot of space to work with. And given the average human’s perceptions at the range of a mile, that does not need to imply the battery is camouflaged or excessively concealed. We might double that “round about a mile” space when taking into account rifled artillery. But that’s about as far as I’d take it… range, in the Civil War context, had much dependency on target acquisition.

Taking in mind my interpretation of artillery’s role on the battle – “to take away or deny the enemy a course of action” – then we can start quantifying the value of a defensive position based on how much of that rounded up to a mile range the gunner can see when looking over the breech. Does it give full visibility of everything out to a mile? Give it a score of 100. Is there a rise or depression that prevents engagements at less than a mile? Start taking points off. That gives some measure of how artillery might influence the battle… or not… from a particular point.

Mahan continued with details about placing the trails of those cannon:

The distance between the batteries should not be much over 600 paces; so that by their fire they may cover well the ground intervening between them, and afford mutual support; the light guns being placed on the more salient points of the front, from their shorter range and greater facility of maneuvering; the heavier guns on the more retired points. Guns of various caliber should not be placed in the same battery. A sufficient interval should also be left between batteries of different caliber; to prevent the enemy from judging, by the variations in the effect of the shot, of the weight of metal in the batteries.

Outpost, 60

This paragraph lands at the intersection of technological development and doctrinal evolution. First let’s look at that distance between batteries. The Army (modern version.. but I submit this would be timeless) taught me that an average person’s “pace” is 30 inches… or 0.83ths of a yard. And 600 paces thus works out to 500 yards. ( 600 x 0.83 = 500…. don’t you like how the professor turned that into clean numbers?) That 500 yards is roughly a third the range of a 6-pdr field gun firing solid shot. And 500 yards is roughly half the range of a 12-pdr field howitzer. Thus, if the 600 paces rule is adhered to, even the smallest, lest powerful field pieces could easily support adjacent batteries.

Not much to expand upon with regard to placing those smaller pieces out front. That speaks of common sense. We’ll get into discussions of horse artillery and building a mobile reserve later.

But it’s this warning about mixed batteries which cuts across some of the doctrine in place when Mahan was writing. From the earliest times, the Army’s practice leaned toward mixed batteries. Even up to the writing of the 1860 tactics manual, the Army’s standard arrangement were batteries with two sections of field guns and one of howitzers. That applied for both light (6-pdr field gun / 12-pdr field howitzers) and heavy (12-pdr field guns / 24- or 32-pdr field howitzers). Yet, we know that early in the war senior artillerists advocated for uniform batteries. Mahan gives us a good tactical justification for uniform batteries. And we know Barry and Hunt would weigh in on this during the war years. I think the persistence of the mixed battery on the tables of organization has more to do with forces outside the artillery arm – namely the Ordnance Branch and the other two combat arms branches – and their perceptions of what the artillery needed in order to accomplish a mission. Not as acute, but along the same lines as the internal debate over tank destroyer types as the same US Army rushed into action during World War II.

These notions in mind to answer the question about where to place the artillery in the defensive, let’s circle back to this “taking away a course of action from the enemy” thing I keep talking about. If a defense, featuring artillery, is laid out in accordance to the principles Mahan stated in these paragraphs (and, if time permitted, placed in some of those fortifications, that we’ve discussed at length in the past) then the enemy would find a killing field that he would not be anxious to cross. The direct frontal assault, which is always the easiest and most efficient maneuver for an attacker to perform, would be off the table. Or at least should be off the list of options. We well know of many instances where a commander did not… and his men paid the price. But let’s save the discussion dynamic and flexible leadership for another day….

(Citations from Dennis Hart Mahan, An Elementary Treatise on Advanced-guard, Out-post, and Detachment Service of Troops, and the Manner of Posting and Handling Them in Presence of an Enemy, New York: John Wiley, 1861, pages 59-60.)

Mahan on Artillery Tactics, Part 2: The “Place” of Artillery

Let us continue focused on this discussion of Dennis H. Mahan’s thoughts of artillery tactics, in the pre-Civil War context. In the previous post, we noted some of the context to the label of “tactics” in the Civil War-era manuals. But the key point was what Mahan called the duties of artillery – “… to support and cover the other arms; keep the enemy from approaching too near; hold him in check when he advances; and prevent him from debouching at particular points. ”

I offer a 21st Century sound-byte worthy summary of this as – to deny the enemy commander a course of action. And correspondingly, that would grant the friendly commander a different set of options. That’s my interpretation. So feel free to disagree, and drop a comment. To me, Mahan’s duties boil down to the use of artillery in a way that prevents the enemy from using particular pieces of terrain (in defense), opting to attack by way of a particular approach (in offense), or at least keeping the enemy at greater than musket range. Perhaps another way of putting it – forcing the enemy commander to adopt something other than the simple, apparent plan of action. (And with a complex plan adopted… the enemy commander leaves himself open to all sorts of criticism from later day historians who shall question his ability!)

Mahan continues on, later in his opening chapter, to describe the place of artillery on the battlefield, in his estimation. Initially he described the metaphorical place on the battlefield:

The artillery, which had for a long period, and even still, preserves the character of eminent respectability, has of late years begun to infuse a dash of the dare-devil spirit of the cavalier into its ranks. If it has not yet taken to charging literally, it has, on some recent occasions in our service, shown a well-considered recklessness of obstacles and dangers, fully borne out by justly deserved success.

Some will read this passage and begin shouting about the artillery charge and such. Not even close! Rather what Mahan is suggesting is that artillerymen of his time (the 1840s) were inclined to more aggressive placement on the battlefield, not simply running up within musket range to trade blows with the infantry. So what was that aggressive placement?

Well to start with, Mahan points out that artillery conformed to classifications – heavy and light (with divisions for foot and horse artillery) – each of which had places tailored to their strengths and weaknesses. Heavy artillery, which he categorized as 12-pdr caliber and above, was reserved for batteries of position and “is seldom shifted during the action” Light artillery, being 6-pdr gun and 24-pdr howitzers (!), included foot artillery and horse artillery. Foot artillery being those batteries with the standard allocation of horses, and which the crews marched alongside (usually). Horse artillery, of course, received sufficient animals to allow the crews to ride, and were thus more quickly moved on the field. Both were to “follow the movements of the other arms.”

However, as we well know, those classifications were soon blurred by technological advances – notably “light” 12-pdr guns and rifled artillery. And such brings to mind the “chicken or the egg” debate as to the technological advances driving tactical innovations, or vice-versa. I think Mahan argued “both”:

Improvements both in the materiel and the tactics of artillery have been very marked within late years. Formerly, considered only in the light of an auxiliary on the battle-field, artillery now aspires, and with indisputable claims, to the rank of a principal arm. Its decisive effects, at the late battles on the Rio-Grande, are supported by testimony too emphatic to be overlooked.

Worth noting, in this passage, Mahan left a footnote, not to Captain Samuel Ringgold as one might guess, but rather to Joel R. Poinsett. He gave the former, and late, Secretary of War credit for reforming the US Army and ensuring the the force was ready for the test of combat… and we have discussed his artillery reforms on occasion.

Mahan continued on, lauding the artillerists of his day:

From the studies required of him, the artillerist is well trained to maintained the characteristics of his arm; courage of the highest order, in which the physical is always under the control of the moral element, producing, as necessary result, unbounded devotion to the task assigned; a presence of mind that nothing can disturb; and that coolness which no danger, however appalling, can impair.

Ladies and gentlemen! I give you Marvel’s new super hero! Artilleryman! If nothing else, a description that we should all aspire to.

Turning back to serious matters, we have that question about “place” … not in the metaphorical sense… but as in WHERE to put the cannons. And Mahan got around to that:

The tactical applications of artillery on the field depend on the caliber. To the heavy are assigned the duties of occupying positions for strengthening the weak points of the field of battle; for securing the retreat of the army; for defending all objects whose possession might be of importance to the enemy, as villages, defiles, &c.; and for overturning all passive obstacles that cover the enemy, or arrest the progress of the other arms.

Although the distinction of “heavy” artillery would drop just over a decade after Mahan wrote this passage, the guidance remained valid. More to the point, we see examples of how the artillery might be placed to, as I put it, take away options from the enemy. In particular turning weak points into strong ones, retaining possession of key terrain, and countering passive obstacles.

As for the light artillery:

The light pieces, served by foot-artillery, follow the movements of the infantry; covering the flanks of its position, preparing the way for its onset, and arresting that of the enemy. It is of this that the principal part of the artillery in reserve is composed.

Employed directly to support the infantry, artillery prevented the enemy from arresting (not stopping… words have meaning) the friendly advance. Likewise on defense, the artillery arrested the enemy advance. In both cases, that translates to taking away options open to the enemy commander. Perhaps others will expand that role to MAKING options for the friendly commander… which would also be a good way to put it.

The horse-artillery is held in hand for decisive moments. When launched forth, its arrival and execution should be unexpected and instantaneous. Ready to repair all disasters and partial reverses, it, at one moment, temporarily replaces a battery of foot, and at the next is on another point of the field, to force back an enemy’s column. In preparing the attacks of cavalry, this arm is often indispensable and always invaluable; brought with rapidity in front of a line, or opposite to squares of infantry, within the range of canister, its well-directed fire, in a few discharges, opens a gap, or so shakes the entire mass, that the cavalier finds but a feeble obstacle, where, without this aid, he would in vain have exhausted all his powers.

Three “places” for horse artillery offered as examples: rushed to replace a pressed battery of foot; dispatched to break an enemy assault; or used to prepare the situation for a cavalry charge. In that latter role, the artillery moved forward within canister range… that’s C-A-N-I-S-T-E-R… not grape-shot. And that is considered between 200 and 400 yards. Musket range, before the wide adoption of rifles and mine-balls, was still considered at 100 yards. Arguably, even after technology allowed for more range, the infantry tactics still governed engagements with the musket at 100 yards.

Note that not once does Mahan suggest the artillery should, themselves, charge forward. None of these alleged artillery charges. It simply was not part of the doctrine which he described here. Artillery was not supposed to BE the attacker. Artillery was supposed to make the way easier for the attacker.

Another take-away from this passage is the alignment of the horse artillery. As Henry Hunt would argue during the war, the horse artillery was not simply assigned to support the cavalry. Rather the horse artillery should be a general reserve, used where the situation warrants. If that be supporting the cavalry in its mission, then so be it. But the horse artillery also had a role outside of that. And often that was far more important than simply aiding the defense of distant picket posts.

If nothing else, these passages, across but three pages in the manual, refute many preconceptions about how artillery was to be employed. The guns were not to be wasted simply standing in an augmentation of the infantry line, belching canister. Such would simply be employing the guns with their casualty-creation ability in mind. Instead the artillery was there to influence the battlefield situation, with focus on the cannon’s ability to exert control over a greater distance than capable with the other arms. In such way, we see the value of the artillery – its value as a combat force multiplier – in exponential terms.


(Citations from Dennis Hart Mahan, An Elementary Treatise on Advanced-guard, Out-post, and Detachment Service of Troops, and the Manner of Posting and Handling Them in Presence of an Enemy, New York: John Wiley, 1861, pages 45-7.)

Artillery on the Battlefield: Tactics according to Mahan

Looking back at last year, one highlight of, as the disciples of social media say, the “content offering” from this blog was the Artillery tour of First Manassas, held jointly with Harry Smeltzer of Bull Runnings fame. The objective was to analyze the artillery employment at First Manassas with an eye to what we call, in the modern terminology, the tactical doctrine. Not to say things like “I could have done it better” or even “this is where he/they screwed up.” But rather specifically to ask if the employment was “by doctrine” – as in what a commander was expected to do – or was there some innovation going on, either intentional or unintentional. The preface to that “on the field” discussion was a series of quotes from pre-war writings, mostly in manuals that the officers of the time would be exposed, about the use of artillery on the battlefield.

First off, when discussing Civil War tactics, we have to pause and recognize things called “tactics” then were not necessarily what we call tactics today. As such our discussion has to incorporate some translation. For instance, a book titled “Field Artillery Tactics” from 1861 tends to be more so a manual detailing drill of artillery (from the artilleryman up to the battery level). That sort of thing is important, as the complex choreography involved with moving and servicing a gun must be part of the context. But when addressing the question posed above, in relation to the placement and employment of the artillery, we are left wanting descriptions about how a commander should use the artillerymen and their wonderful cannon.

For modern times… pretty much anything since the dawn of the 20th century, I could point you to a series of Army manuals that take us through the entire spectrum – technical manuals, drill manuals, and tactics manuals, all labeled as such. More to the point, I could reference manuals for tactics at the squad, platoon, company, battalion, regiment/brigade, and division level… or for artillery, by gun, section, battery, and battalion. But for the Civil War, we lack such granular detail. I don’t take that so much as a knock on the discipline of military science as practiced at that time, but more so a shortcoming due to a lot of presumptions. The foremost of those presumptions was that a young officer would receive all the tactical training needed at his first duty station. More so, an officer would be “indoctrinated” to the nuances of handling a cannon, a section, or a battery under fire; and further along become aware of the manner in which those guns should be employed. That’s a peacetime luxury, of course. Rapidly expanding armies and the pace of the war outstripped such an indoctrination system.

Still, there should be, and was, a starting point for those discussions. And I submit if we are going to point to one manual that was the American starting point, that was Dennis Hart Mahan’s An Elementary Treatise on Advanced-Guard, Out-Post and Detached Service of Troops, and the Manner of Posting and Handling Them in Presence of an Enemy, with a Historical Sketch of the Rise and Progress of Tactics, &c., &c., Intended as a supplement to the System of Tactics Adopted for the Military Service of the United States, and Especially for the Use of the Officers of Militia and Volunteers. (Yes, I like to introduce that title when playing charades.) Or as many simply refer to – Mahan’s Outpost.

Right off the bat, we see from the full title that Mahan intended his manual to further the discussion based on the established system of drill, called tactics. And considering the original publication date, in 1847, this “system” was that defined by General Winfield Scott. Those were, arguably, tested by fire and deemed sound. But those focused, as alluded to above, on how to move infantry, cavalry, and artillery. Not much in that system as to the “why” one would want to select a particular movement over another… in other words, what we today perceive as tactics. The problem was that officers in the lower echelons were often never exposed to the theories and practices beyond drill. And in the American experience, where grand armies had rarely taken to the field, it was those same junior officers often entrusted with vital operations.

Mahan hit upon that gap in the preface to his treatise:

The suggestion of this little compilation originated in a professional intercourse, some months back, with a few intelligent officers of the Volunteer Corps of the city of New York.

The want of a work of this kind has long been felt among our officers of Militia generally, as the English military literature is quite barren in systematic works on most branches of the military art, especially so on the one known among the military writers of the Continent as La Petite Guerre, or the manner of conducting the operations of small independent bodies of troops….

Wouldn’t you have wanted to be a fly on the wall during that discussion in New York?

Mahan opened his manual with a chapter covering the historical evolution of military science. Then started chapter two with the definition of “tactics”:

Tactics may be defined to be the art of drawing up, and moving troops systematically. It admits of a classification into two divisions. 1. Minor or elementary tactics; under which head may be placed all that refers to the drill, and other preparatory instruction of troops, to give them expertness in the use of their weapons, and facility of movement. 2. Grand tactics; or the art of combining, disposing, and handling troops on the field of battle.

This explains, somewhat, that translation I mentioned above. What we’d call “drill” today, Mahan considered minor or elementary tactics. And it is those “grand tactics” which we want to consider here. Most specifically, how did the artillery factor into those grand tactics. What, according to Mahan, was the artillery supposed to do on the battlefield? Well we turn to page 39:

The artillery is placed third in rank among the arms. Its duties are to support and cover the other arms; keep the enemy from approaching too near; hold him in check when he advances; and prevent him from debouching at particular points.

There, in one lengthy sentence, is the role of artillery on the Mahanian battlefield. Mahan’s vision of this is not just some passage in a book. This was part of the curriculum taught to his students, and his student’s students. Indeed, the majority of Civil War generals had benefit of Mahan’s teaching, either directly or indirectly. So this is an important passage when considering how artillery was used or mis-used on a Civil War battlefield.

Looking at this deeper, consider the nuances here. In the Mahanian context, the infantry and cavalry have the first and second rank, respectively. Their roles are tied to objectives, be that a piece of territory or imposition of a situation. But we mostly think of them as seizing and holding terrain. We might add to that the cavalry’s capacity for gathering information (actively or passively, as in scouting or picketing, respectively). But in the grand sense, the infantry could do the same, but as in all things just slower than the cavalry.

But artillery’s role was not tied to those higher order objectives. Rather to support the infantry and cavalry in attaining those objectives. But how is that done? By effecting enemy actions and activities – keep that enemy at a distance; stop or at least weaken an enemy attack; and deny the enemy use of good terrain. I like to put it this way – and this is my translation of Mahan for our modern ears: The role of artillery is to deny the enemy commander a course of action.

Deny a course of action? Yes. Roll that around for a bit. Try this exercise for any artillery position you’ve considered on a Civil War battlefield – From that point, what influence did they have on the battle? In every case, that will devolve down to the artillery either preventing or not preventing an enemy from executing a course of action. Maybe that course of action was to move up a particular route to attack. Maybe that course of action was to form a defensive line. Or maybe the artillery simply prevented, just by being there, the enemy from selecting a road other path for use in battlefield movement. But either way, the success of the artillery at that position was measured in the impact it had on the enemy commanders’ actions, specifically the courses of action available. Or if you prefer, the enemy commander’s options.

I would submit that if that be a positive influence (for the “home” side of that artillery) then the guns were well placed, and Mahan would have been happy. Were that be a negative influence on the battle, particularly where the guns became the “objective” instead of being the support for the other arms, then Mahan would have contended his lessons went unheeded.

Don’t mix your Hotchkiss and Schenkl shells!

I always like to hear General Henry J. Hunt’s opinion about any artillery subject.  That’s because Hunt was more often than not offering blunt advice based on field experience.  On November 3, 1863, Hunt offered, by way of his Assistant Adjutant-General, Captain John N. Craig, advice and directions concerning ammunition handling and selection to Lieutenant-Colonel J. Albert Monroe, Second Corps Chief of Artillery:

Colonel: In reply to your note of this date, I am instructed by the chief of artillery to state:

1. There is no prescribed mode of packing the ammunition of 3-inch guns, as chests of different batteries are often issued marked, and not uniformly. When marked the ammunition should be packed accordingly. There is no objection to your prescribing the mode of packing, but when a mode has been adopted, and systematically followed, it would not be good policy during field operations to change it, unless there is a manifest fault in the packing, which produces injury.

2. For rifled guns, 25 shells, 20 shrapnel to 5 canister is a proper proportion, the shell to be increased to 30 at the expense of the shrapnel, if the commander of the battery desires it, There is too much shrapnel used. Fifty rounds is the load to each chest.

Here again, if I may, another knock on canister… at least with the Ordnance Rifles. The proportion of canister to shells and shrapnel (case) demonstrates the preferences of those directing the guns.

3. As both the Hotchkiss and Schenkl ammunition are provided, commanders of batteries can use either system, but in no case must two projectiles of the same kind be used in a battery. That is, no battery must have both Hotchkiss and Schenkl shell or both Hutchkiss and Schenkl shrapnel. They may have Hotchkiss shell and Schenkl shrapnel, or vice versa, but he recommends strongly that, unless they have a marked preference for special projectiles, all should be of one system, either Hotchkiss or Schenkl. He believes Schenkl to be best and safest in every respect.

4. The object of the latitude given to battery commanders is to make them responsible for the efficiency of their batteries. Ammunition to which men and officers are most accustomed is the best to supply them. There is an evil, however, in using two kinds of the same description in the same battery or in the same army corps, or even in the same army, but with two systems which have such strong supporters as the Schenkl and Hotchkiss, it can hardly be avoided without a worse evil.

We tend to overlook that Civil War artillerists not only selected different types of projectiles, but from projectiles with different designs and functional characteristics.  The projectiles designed by Andrew Hotchkiss and John Schenkl offered advantages and disadvantages.  Not mentioned were the projectiles from Robert P. Parrott for his guns, or those by Charles James which had fallen into disfavor.  Standardized issue offered consistency.  Hunt’s preference for the Schenkl is duly noted here.

5. There has been no authority of a general character given to depart from the book of tactics in the packing of light 12-pounder ammunition. Permission will, however, be given to increase the number of canister at the expense of shrapnel. The full number of solid shot, 12, and of shell, 4, must be carried. The shrapnel may be reduced to 8, and added either to the canister or shell or both. The use of solid shot is too much neglected. It is the most efficient of our projectiles. He would not object if the allowance were increased to 16 rounds. It was intended that a part of the spherical case should be used as solid shot. The proportion laid down in the tactics is, he believes, the best. If any change should be made it should be to increase the number of solid shot. On no account will a less number be allowed than that prescribed, and the chief of artillery desires that you would impress on battery commanders the importance and superior value of solid-shot fire in almost all cases.

The fifth paragraph, much like Hunt’s earlier comments about canister, seems to challenge “conventional wisdom” often offered up by those interpreting artillery use in the Civil War.  Increased allowance of solid shot?  Against a reduction of case shot, and certainly not in deference to canister?  Clearly Hunt did not feel his 12-pdr Napoleon guns should just set there firing canister at close range targets. All too often, those 12-pdrs needed solid shot during artillery duals.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 29, Part II, Serial 49, pages 413-4.)

Tactical Exercise: Analysis of yesterday’s “game”

First off, yesterday’s exercise went over better than I expected.  Thanks to everyone who commented and voted.  I’ll have to do more of such exercises.

Now what about the placement of those guns?

ArtyPositions1
Our Map

Of the responses, about a third preferred to put cannons on the flanks (positions 4 and 7).  Of the reset, the second most favored was alined, but within, the main infantry line (positions 5 and 6).  But massed to the front (position 2) and “Other” received their share of votes.

That “other” was perhaps a flaw in the exercise.  I didn’t build any way to provide a description of what “other” was supposed to be.  From the comments on the post, many folks were looking to mix and match approaches and positions. Part of that is due to the incomplete description I provided.  Not enough information on the enemy, the nature of the friendly force, or even the overall situation.  Just a stack of playing pieces on the chess board.

That leads to the real solution to the exercise – no “right” answer exists.  Rather there are preferences, alternatives and options.  So what would what were a good battery commander’s preferences 150 years ago?  Well billiard table flat chessboards aside, I would offer John Gibbon’s answer:

Batteries are usually placed at least 60 yards in front of the intervals between regiments and brigades, and upon their flanks, so as not to offer two marks for the fire of the enemy, or subject the troops placed in rear to a fire directed against the artillery….

I would translate Gibbon’s preferences to be positions 1, 3, 4 or 7.  But to be sure, Gibbon was not merely positioning guns where the supporting infantry were safe from enemy counter-battery fire.  The other part his selection was to “clear” the guns to allow the best possible field of fire.  He recognized that long before the infantry begins to engage, the artillery must bring fire upon the advancing enemy.  “The greatest cannonading takes place at from 800 to 900 yards.”  So placing the guns out in front of, or to the side of, the infantry line would clear the batteries for that long range fire.  It is line of sight the battery commander needs.  And in this unnaturally flat terrain offered in the scenario, we didn’t have to account for terrain.

Personally, I’m not much into armchair generalship. I wasn’t there 150 years ago, so how can I contend to have a better vantage over those who were.  However, what I get out of contemplating gun placement, in hypothetical exercises like this, is a template to lay across time and space.  It becomes a tool to help interpret the actions on the battlefield.  What was done and why was it done?  What were the factors driving decisions?  What turned those decisions into success … or failure?

Oh, but for a artillery version of Gray’s Cavalry Tactics!