A trip to Europe, looking at foundries: The 1840 Ordnance Commission

Last week’s post about foreign 6-pdr field guns was a “resource” post, if not an outright setup posting.  Sort of a background discussion leading me up to some points about European cannons and influences upon American designs.  What I am leading up to is this cannon:

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This cannon marks the battery position for 8th Indiana Battery at Chickamauga (Viniard Field).  At first glance this looks like any old bronze 6-pdr.

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Liège…as in Belgium.

And there’s this bit of service history proudly displayed on the muzzle:

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This weapon’s history takes us back to the end of the 1830s when Joel Roberts Poinsett was Secretary of War.  Aside from introducing the poinsetta to the United States, Poinsett had a very active life as a public servant – Congressman (1821-25), Minister to Mexico (1825-29), and Secretary of War (1837-41).  And, standing apart from many of his fellow South Carolinians, was a strong unionist during the Nullification Crisis.  So Poinsett is an interesting fellow to say the least.

As Secretary of War, Poinsett was a reformer.  In brief, Poinsett proposed many changes to the system of regular and militia forces, aiming for more formality and standardization.  At the low end of reforms, Poinsett pressed for new manuals and better weapons.  But at the high end, Poinsett wanted concentrated Army garrisons, summer training maneuvers that incorporated the militias, and expanded weapon manufacturing facilities.  Some of these reforms got through Congress.  But those on the high end didn’t.

Looking specifically at artillery, the Poinsett years are marked by a series of model numbers for field artillery, easily traced with the history of the 6-pdr guns – Models 1838 and 1840 along with the Model 1841.  And in-between were many experimental types.  Much debate among ordnance officers, and with Poinsett himself, in those days as the Army struggled to find a suitable field piece (arguably, much of that because the Army wanted the “perfect” field piece).

This came to a head in March 5, 1840, when Poinsett wrote the Ordnance Board that he was “…not satisfied that the corps, collectively or individually, posses that practical knowledge which the importance of the subject, both to the country and the reputation of the corps, would seem to require.” Very damning assessment from the boss.  But Poinsett didn’t just call out a problem, he also brought a remedy.  On March 16, Poinsett sent a letter instructing the Ordnance Department to detail a commission of three officers, and one civilian, on a trip to Europe with the mission of gaining the said practical knowledge.  In his letter of instruction, Poinsett wrote:

In the first place, it will be the duty of the board to acquire, as far as may be practicable, all practical knowledge which actual observation may afford upon the following objects, viz:

  1. The process of moulding and casting iron and brass cannon.

  2. The nature of the iron ores and pig metals used, and the treatment of the metal before and during the casting.

  3. The kinds of copper and tin used, and the proportions composing the metal for guns.

  4. The description of furnaces, and the kinds of fuel used in them.

  5. The modes and regulations for the inspection and proof of iron and brass cannon.

These broad objectives meant the board needed to gather information about the process of cannon production from the mines up to the foundry and out to the field.  Continuing with the instructions, Poinsett also authorized the purchase of samples:

The board will likewise obtain, by purchase, iron and brass guns, according to patterns which they are authorized to establish, in numbers sufficient to form a few field batteries; and they will give as much of their personal attention to their fabrication as time will allow, taking specimens of the metals in proof bars, of suitable dimensions for the necessary experiments and tests.

It is that paragraph which authorized the purchase of the cannon pictured above.

The commission consisted of Major Rufus Lathrop Baker, Captain Alfred Mordecai, Captain Benjamin Huger, and former ordnance officer, William Wade (who maintained partnership in a foundry in Pittsburgh, which later became Fort Pitt Foundry).   After spending the summer and much of the fall in Europe, the board returned to provide a very lengthy, detailed report. No doubt, that detail served to impress upon Poinsett that the desired “practical knowledge” was indeed obtained and retained.

In the report, the board provided a full accounting of all purchases.  Specific to the 6-pdr types, there were:

  • Two 6-pdr American pattern field guns, of iron, from Gospel Oak works, Birmingham, England.
  • Four 6-pdr American pattern field guns, of iron, from foundries in Sweden.
  • Two 6-pdr American pattern field guns, of iron, from the Liège, Belgium foundry.
  • Four 6-pdr American pattern field guns, of bronze, from the Liège, Belgium foundry.

Of that last quartet, two were cast in clay.  The other two cast in sand molds.  As you can see, the secretary’s intent was carried out.  There were sufficient 6-pdrs to outfit three batteries.  And that’s just the light field guns, not counting the heavier 12-pdr field guns and howitzers also purchased at the same time.

These weapons were, as alluded to in the letter, not intended for service use.  Rather these were earmarked for testing.  Most of that, tests to determine the weapon’s breaking point.  Destructive testing.

In a report from March 1844, on the extreme proof of a 6-pdr iron cannon cast at South Boston Foundry (Cyrus Alger & Company),  William Wade mentioned the foreign iron guns.  He compared the performance of the 1844 South Boston gun to tests of at least some of the foreign 6-pdr iron guns between 1841 and 1842 at Fort Monroe:

Of the six guns tried, three were cast in at different furnaces in Sweden, one in England, one in Belgium, and one in the United States.  Two of these burst with the charge of 3 pounds of powder and two balls; one at the 38th, and the other at the 39th fire of the series.  Three of them burst with the charge of 3 pounds and 3 balls; two at the 47th and one at the 49th fire.  The other, one of the Swedish guns, endured once the charge of 6 pounds and 7 balls, and burst at the second, being the 52d fire of the series.  The force of the charge last mentioned, under which the Swedish gun failed at the second fire, is computed to be less than that endured by all the [1844 guns]; the weakest of which, endured that force a greater number of times than the Swedish gun.

So that accounts for five of the eight foreign purchased iron guns.  It also indicates American cannon manufacture progressed smartly in just three short years. Some of that due to Wade’s “practical knowledge” and further experiments.

But what of the bronze guns?  I have not found any details of the tests.  But one of the other Belgian guns survives and is also on display at Chickamauga on the north end of the battlefield, at Douglas’ Texas Battery:

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This one is marked as registry number 4.  That at the 8th Indiana Battery is registry number 1.  In my next post, I’ll provide a walk around of these two historic pieces.  For closing now, let us consider these as “artifacts” which speak to a time of reform within the US Army.  These were “samples” used to derive “practical knowledge” in the art of cannon production.

(Citations from Report of Select Committee, to Inquire Into the Propriety of Establishing a National Foundry for the Purpose of Fabricating Ordnance, Report No. 229, 27th Congress, 3rd Session, US House of Representatives, 1843, pages 242-6; “Report of the Manufacture and Proof of 6 Pdr Iron Cannon Cast at the South Boston Foundry: 1844,” by William Wade, from Reports of Experiments of the Strength and Other Properties of Metals for Cannon, US Ordnance Department, Philadelphia: Henry Carey Baird, 1856, pages 16-17.)

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My vote for the best of the 2013 sesquicentennials: Ranger Young at Snodgrass Hill

I was not able to make the Chickamauga 150th this year.  My participation was simply watching and retweeting/reposting from others who were at the fore.  Mostly “wish I was there” activity.  But watching this video, featuring Ranger Chris Young at the 150th events at that battlefield, I felt goosebumps.

Powerful and moving.

In my opinion, this was most inspiring and memorable part of a year full of outstanding sesquicentennial events.  And trust me, there were a lot of those such events in 2013.

Special shout out also to the fellow who mixed the video.

Reed’s Bridge preservation effort: Chickamauga 2013 almost complete!

With all the activity of late, I almost forgot to highlight a preservation effort by the Civil War Trust at Chickamauga.  The effort targets 109 acres around the site of Reed’s Bridge, where the battle’s first actions took place on September 18, 1863.  As the historical articles on the Trust’s site indicate, this was an important clash that framed one of the war’s great battles.  The action involved Federal cavalry under Colonel Robert Minty (the best cavalryman you’ve never heard of) and Confederate cavalry under Brigadier-General Nathan Bedford Forrest.  Among the units deployed was the Chicago Board of Trade Battery, which was one of the best horse artillery batteries of the war.  Some time back, Don wrote a nice post on the actions of the 4th US Cavalry in the fighting at Reed’s Bridge.

All good historical background and justification to preserve the site.  As the Trust’s site also notes, the veterans recognized the significance of Reed’s Bridge and wanted it in the park’s original boundaries.  That didn’t happen.  So now over 100 years after the formation of the park, we have an opportunity to re-address that shortfall.

In recent days the Trust has announced they have made significant progress towards preserving Reed’s Bridge. The original price tag was $1.4 million.  But as explained in Jim Lighthizer’s introduction to this effort, grants have set this up as a 10-to-1 donation match:

…thanks to a matching grant of $700,000 from the federal American Battlefield Protection Program, and wonderful grant from the Williams Family Foundation of Georgia, another generous grant from the Lyndhurst Foundation in Chattanooga, plus additional major gifts from other local organizations such as our friends at the Georgia Battlefields Association and a former member of our Board of Trustees…

… we already have $1,260,000 in matching funds lined up and ready to go – which gives us fully 90% of the total funds needed.

If you and I can raise the final 10% – just $140,000 – to leverage and unlock this tide of matching money, we will save the most important unprotected ground at the biggest and arguably one of the most important battlefields of the entire Civil War.

Now, the Trust is reporting they are only $23,000 short of their goal. Once again, the Trust is closing in on a significant preservation purchase.  I urge you to consider contributing to this worthy effort.

Chickamauga 150th: Day Three

The real time programs at Chickamauga concluded on Friday.  As at so many of the sesquicentennial events the last few years, the programs started in the early hours of the day:

Even early, a sizable crowd gathered to hear the program:

Makes you wonder… is it the notion of “being there” 150 years later? The quality of programming?  Or a little of both?

I have not seen official numbers, but from appearances the attendance was on par with that seen at Chancellorsville this spring:

Lots of familiar faces among the attendees.  Folks I’ve shared a lot of sesqui moments with (but alas, I could not attend this one):

I’ve heard from several that the ranger programs were outstanding by all measure.

Some wrote after Gettysburg that the sesquicentennial was going to slack off, maybe finish with a little flair at Appomattox.  The gatherings over the the last week at Chickamauga say otherwise.

One of Friday’s activities included a re-dedication of the Memorial for Brigadier-General William Lytle, the “poet warrior” of the Civil War:

Well before the 100th anniversary, the cannon balls from the memorial started disappearing.  Some due to vandalism, but some due to maintenance staff drawing upon this remote monument to provide spares for the more visible monuments.  Good to see it restored.

Lytle is not as well known today as he was in the Civil War era.  The memorial was placed at a time when veterans of the war were directly shaping the battlefield by placing memorials, monuments, and tablets to show future generations what they had done and the importance of places on the field.  Ranger Chris Young brought that home in one of his presentations, captured by the social media team:

Next time someone nay-sayer to preservation says something about taking down the memorials to restore the battlefield, “if you are really serious about preservation,” then show them this video.

An outstanding 150th observance from Chickamauga, from what I see.  Just wish I had been there in person to see it!

Rebel bounty: Captured guns at Chickamauga

As the sun rose on September 21, 1863, the Confederates in the Army of Tennessee experienced a rare experience – possession of a battlefield following a clear victory.  Taking inventory of the debris of the battle, Confederate ordnance officers found a substantial amount of artillery equipment – on paper enough cannons to equip over six batteries.

In his report of the battle, Colonel James Barnett detailed the loss of 39 cannons and carriages.  By type these were:

  • Six 3-inch rifles
  • Seven 10-pdr Parrotts
  • Four 12-pdr Napoleons
  • Nine James rifles
  • Six 6-pdr field guns
  • Six 12-pdr field howitzers
  • One 12-pdr mountain howitzer

In addition, Barnett recorded the loss of 13 limbers, 30 caissons, and one battery wagon.  Oh, and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

On the other side of the line, Captain O.T. Gibbs, ordnance officer for the Army of Tennessee, recorded a different quantity and breakdown in his statement of stores received at Ringold, Georgia:

  • Six 3-inch rifles
  • Two 12-pdr Napoleons
  • Eleven James rifles
  • Eight 6-pdr field guns
  • Fifteen 12-pdr field howitzers
  • Seven 12-pdr mountain howitzers
  • Two 24-pdr howitzers

Fifty-one total.  The reason for the discrepancy?  Gibbs tallied the weapons received by his office, including old, worn out, or simply disfavored weapons.  Gibbs also appears to have included in his list guns captured by Federals on the field, then recaptured by the Confederates, and turned in for repairs.  Furthermore, in several cases, the batteries helped themselves to Federal guns and turned in their old weapons to the ordnance depot. (And in at least one case, a battery ‘horded’ a field howitzer without letting the ordnance officers know about it.) In short, Gibbs’ list is far from definitive for the tally of captured guns.  Although it does offer a wealth of details about those guns.

The numbers are interesting on both sides.  Looking first to Barnett’s tally, I consider three types to be “top notch” favored weapons of the Civil War – 3-inch Ordnance Rifles, 10-pdr Parrotts, and 12-pdr Napoleons.  The Federals gave up only seventeen of those.  Or enough for four four-gun batteries (or three six-gun batteries).  The remainder of the lost guns were of less favored types.

Many would return to action in the spring in a different guise – melted down by the Confederate foundries into 12-pdr Napoleons.  Gibbs’ inventory reads like a “who’s who” of ordnance manufacture, with vendors, both north and south, represented:

6-pounder bronze gun, with carriage and limber, made at Greenwood’s,  Cincinnati, Ohio. 1861….

12-pounder howitzer, with carriage and limber, Saint Louis, Mo., Marshall  &Co., 1862….

12-pounder bronze howitzer, with carriage, damaged, A. B. R. & Bro., Vicksburg, Miss….

3-inch iron rifled gun, with carriage and limber, Rome, Ga., Noble &  Bro.. 1862….

12-pounder bronze howitzer and carriage, J. Clark, New Orleans….

A substantial number of weapons turned in to the depot included early war Tredegar products:

12-pounder iron howitzer, with carriage. J. R. & Co., 1861

12-pounder iron howitzer, with carriage. J. R. & Co., 1862

3-inch rifled gun, with carriage, No. 1480, J. R. & Co

The foundry number of the 3-inch rifle matches one invoiced in May 1862:

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Although the receipt does not indicate, other weapons cast around that time were iron.  So it leads to the logical inference that #1480 was an iron 3-inch rifle. We might also presume that, just as in the eastern theater, the iron 3-inch rifle and iron 12-pdrs had fallen into disfavor among the gunners of the western theater.  So these were selected for return to the ordnance depot when nice new Yankee cannon were in hand.

With Gibbs’ tally, only three of the “top notch” guns were turned in to the ordnance depot – two Napoleons and one 3-inch Ordnance Rifle.  Two of the Napoleons captured on the field were immediately incorporated into Battery D, 9th Georgia Artillery (Captain Tyler M. Peeples), who turned in the two 24-pdr howitzers seen in Gibbs’ report.   All the Parrott rifles and five of the 3-inch Ordnance Rifles were put to immediate use.  The one 3-inch Ordnance Rifle received at Ringold had the detailed listing of:

3-inch steel rifled gun, U.S., No. 86, P.A. & Co., 817 pounds.

That gun is still around, but on another field.

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Where would that be?  Don’t click on the photo… no cheating!

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This gun stands today on Hancock Avenue at Gettysburg, representing Battery H, 3rd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery.

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Practically a world away from the woods of Northern Georgia.  I’ve long wondered if a swap arrangement might be appropriate.  But then again, every time I pass the gun at Gettysburg, I pause to recall that the war was not ONLY fought for three days in July 1863.

(Barnett’s and Gibbs’ reports are from OR, Series I, Volume 30, Part I, Serial 50, pages 237-9, Part II, Serial 51, pages 40-43.)

Chickamauga 150th: Day one and two happenings

Looking at the postings on the Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park, the 150th observances continue on in good style.  The real time events started on Wednesday, and from appearances were well attended:

And the events are receiving a lot of local media coverage:

And the tours “Marched to the sound of the guns”

Couldn’t resist, sorry.

During the day, the park’s Facebook page provided several “at this moment” posts:

All the more reason to head over there and throw down a “like” so you can follow along.

Last night, the park posted this video, which summed up the September 19th fighting from a personal perspective:

Looking forward to the postings for today as they continue with the sesquicentennial observances at Chickamauga.

150 Years Ago: “The value of this simple breastwork” at Chickamauga

Over the last few months, I’ve discussed earthworks which were substantial and elaborate.  In the parallels on Morris Island men could stand upright and work on some of the war’s largest guns.  Some of the forward trenches featured firing steps and raised parapets to allow the infantry to defend the line with musketry.  That was fine on a static field where engineers had time to lay out such formal works.

In a pitch battle, such as occurred 150 years ago today (September 20) at Chickamauga, the troops did not have the time for such formalities and engineering resources were scarce.  Yet, increasingly by the middle of the Civil War, infantry would transform an ordinary fence line, tree line, or even open field into a formidable work – with engineering support.  That happened in the early morning hours of September 20, 1863 in the fields of the Kelly Farm.  From Brigadier-General William B. Hazen’s report:

William Babcock Hazen. Library of Congress des...

On the morning of the 20th, the men were roused at 3 a.m. and directed to make coffee where they had water, and at daybreak a breastwork of logs and rails was commenced which was taken up on my right and left, and carried through our entire division and that of Reynolds on our right, and Johnson and Baird on our left. Wherever this work was done, the line remained the entire day with firmness and with little loss. At about 8 o’clock the attack commenced upon the left of this line and swept along toward the right, arriving at my position about fifteen minutes afterward, passing on but producing no effect until it had passed General Reynolds. This assault was kept up without intermission till about 11 o’clock with a fury never witnessed upon the field either of Shiloh or Stone’s River. The repulse was equally terrific and finally complete. A few light attacks upon this front were made from time to time up to 1 p.m., after which everything was comparatively quiet. The value of this simple breastwork will be understood since my loss behind it this day was only about 13 men during a period of more stubborn fighting than at Shiloh or Stone’s River, when the same brigade at each place lost over 400 men. Our left flank was twice turned and partially driven this day, but the enemy was easily checked and our lines speedily restored.

Hazen had seen some of the war’s bloodiest fighting, as alluded to in this passage.  Hard to say he was exaggerating the experience.  The effectiveness of the “simple breastworks” was not lost on the men. Such practice was repeated over and over at battlefields across Georgia and Virginia during campaigns of 1864.

My friend and infrequent blogger, Lee White discussed a demonstration of breastworks like these on at Chickamauga several years ago – sort of one part living history and one part experiment.  Interesting lessons learned.   Oh, and speaking of Lee, let me put a plug in for his new book, Bushwacking on a Grand Scale: The Battle of Chickamauga, September 18-20, 1863.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 30, Part I, Serial 50, page 763.)