Virtual Roundtable Meetings – TtSotGs Videos

Like many groups, the Loudoun County Civil War Roundtable’s schedule was disrupted by the response to COVID-19. With face-to-face meetings cancelled through July, we instead turned to virtual meetings as a way to continue our discussions of the Civil War. Nothing fancy to date… and no we haven’t zoomed to Zoom as others have… yet. But we have posted several presentations (by your humble scribe) as alternatives to the normal meetings. One advantage from the start is, with reduced logistical requirements, we can do these weekly instead of just monthly.

Thus far we’ve posted three of these. Or more correctly, posted them on To the Sound of the Guns Facebook page, with cross-postings to the roundtable’s Facebook page. Here’s the link, to the videos posted thus far:

To the Sound of the Guns – Videos

Those published thus far include:

Planned/considered topics for future episodes:

  • The Morris Island Campaign, Part 2 (In the can now, so to speak)
  • Siege of Fort Pillow and Naval Battle of Plum Point Bend.
  • Siege and Garrison Artillery – A Premier on the Big Guns

The videos are accessible on Facebook. Even if you don’t have a Facebook account, you can view the videos. Just can’t comment in the chat, that’s all.

Hope you enjoy those videos in lieu of formal posts here on the blog. If you have any topic suggestions, feel free to drop them in the comments here.

In the meantime as we wait out the pandemic, stay safe and follow good healthy practices. Hope to see you all out on the field when we get to the other side of this all!

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.)

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.)