Gettysburg, Day 3: Cannon Shells and Logistics

Preface: Sorry this is posted a day late. Intended for this to go live yesterday, but was too busy with other matters. Readers, hopefully, will understand… and enjoy the refinement that an additional day of rumination brings.

We hear this quip a lot: Military professionals study logistics! And as my theme in this Gettysburg series of late has been aimed at the importance of staff activities in relation to the battlefield, only natural that we should shift from intelligence and reconnaissance to logistics.

If I may again send a jab at the armchair general ranks here, everyone will agree logistics is an important facet to military operations, but so few really grasp the nature of logistics as a discipline within the science of military operations. That’s because we are a lazy lot. Logistics requires a grasp of details. One really has to dive into the numbers in order to understand the nature of logistics. It’s a whole lot of “left brain” stuff. More so than the average attention span is apt to allow depicted in… say… a movie… or even a blog post. But we will give it a swag here.

We often see logistics depicted in wargames as if a tether restraining a unit to its base of supply. In the Avalon-Hill-type games, often the rules (and optional rules at that!) specify the need for a unit to trace hexes back to a road, and thence back to a point of supply. And that might be the unit’s headquarters, a dedicated supply chit sitting on the map, or a hex location presumed to be a big pile of stuff. Regardless of the particulars, the rule presumes logistics is simply a flow of things which is regulated by distance more so than the resources involved. True, distances are an important regulator when discussing logistics. But that’s not the only regulator, nor is it the most important.

To study logistics, one has to understand and eventually master a vast set of formulas. If not precise algebraic formulas, not something far off that. But at the base, there are three basic foundations to any logistical problem:

  • How long will it take to get the needed resource (supply) from source point to issue point?
  • What resources are expended in order to get the needed resource (supply) across the gap from source to issue?
  • What is the value for the gaining unit with the issue of that resource (supply)?

I don’t mean to make this sound all Mahan-ish on you. But these are the basic measurements we have to somehow quantify in order to really understand the logistics. I’m not going to say this is the only way to quantify logistics. Just saying this is one approach, easy for those without a great deal of direct experience to grasp… and one we might directly apply to Civil War situations.

So… we need to know the time taken to move the supplies, as that will determine the lead time… or on the need end of the logistics, the wait time. We need to know how much the movement of the supplies will cost in terms of man hours, wear vehicle, gallons of fuel… or is that pounds of hay…, and any other resource allocation which is needed just to move the “stuff.” And the top end determining factor is what will the force receiving the supply be able to do once in possession of that supply which they cannot do without.

Very important point that last one. Nothing worse than opening a box of fancy hats at the moment one most needs bullets

More to the point, if you narrow down the military science to the measure of how much “combat influence” or “combat power” has unit has on the battlefield, then we are talking about things like the number of bullets per man that unit has. We logically move to a discussion of how long that unit can expect to engage in combat with the bullets on hand, given an average rate of fire. That then translates to a “value” of every box of bullets sent from the depot, which if we are bold in the calculus might translate to the number of minutes a unit can stand in a fight. And we can also determine how frequently those boxes should arrive.

We might argue for the infantry and cavalry some combat power remains even after the cartridge boxes are empty. Cold steel is bold, often dangerous alternative to hot lead. And for the artillerists, edged weapons are rarely an option.

Because this is “To the Sound of the Guns” and also because day three of Gettysburg features that great cannon duel, let us think about this in terms of artillery projectiles. Working backwards in the questions, as that allows us to progress from a firm footing for even those with a passing acquaintance with the battle, what is the unit of measure for cannon ammunition? Practically speaking it is this:

Taking a 12-pdr Napoleon, as in the illustration, there were 32 rounds in each chest. But remember not all rounds are equal – A dozen shot; a dozen case; four shells; and four canister. Each type with a different purpose. Indeed, let us set aside the four canister right from the start, as those were only for use at close range and, docturnally speaking, mostly for self defense. The combat power of the gun was derived from placing shot, case, and shell on a distant target. So lets trim that to 28 projectiles.. or 28 shots to be fired out of each chest.

Under a standard allowance, each cannon had four such chests – one on the limber, three with the caisson. So a total of 112 “value” rounds per gun, under the standard allocation of ammunition. Yes, keep in mind that is the “by the book” numbers. We know things were not so tidy in wartime situations (and if you didn’t know that, well… see all those numerous posts under the heading of “Summary Statements” here on the blog). But I contend those are good numbers on which to base a discussion.

Can we translate 112 rounds into the number of minutes a battery can be engaged before running out of ammunition? Yes, but we have to accept some complexities here. Obviously, if the intended target is enemy artillery (counter-battery fire which was the focus both ways on the afternoon of July 3) then solid shot might be more preferable, though case and shell had their place. Likewise, against infantry case was more applicable, though shot and shell had effects. Those preferences noted and considered, let’s keep the equation to a high level and go with 112 rounds… but reserve this line of thought for injection into the tactical situation at Gettysburg in a moment.

A really motivated crew might fire as much as two rounds a minute, but that’s not a practical rate. Brigadier-General Henry Hunt and other good artillerists are known to encourage slow and deliberate fires. And often we see that expressed as one round every two minutes. Some will cite higher rates sustained during the “hell on earth” minutes, such as occurred on the afternoon of July 3, 1863. No argument here. But I would simply point out the higher rate of fire usually translated to less accuracy, and thus a higher number of rounds expended to achieve the same tactical purpose, or worse leading to the failure to achieve the desired tactical purpose… as we shall see from the experience on the field that day.

So if fully stocked, by the book, a Napoleon gun could stand in battery firing one round every two minutes for almost four hours before needing some resupply. If doubled up to one round a minute, that’s at best a couple hours. Still we have a rough measure of one chest providing one hour of one gun’s worth of “combat power” of a crew firing “calmly and coolly.” Just a rule of thumb… not an exact measure by any means. If we change that to “frantic” fire, then one chest equals… maybe… thirty minutes.

Change the numbers a bit for a 3-inch Ordnance Rifle or 10-pdr Parrott. Those weapons had 50 rounds per chest. Subtracting back the canister again, just 46 “value” rounds (and remember that most of these light rifled guns did not have solid bolts issued at this time of the war – usually just case, shell, and canister). Thus translating to six hours of “time in battery.” At first this seems like a quantitative game changer in favor of the rifle. But as with all things logistical, gotta look at the details. A 12-pdr smoothbore shell and a 3-inch Hotchkiss weighed nearly the same (a little over 9 pounds). But the allocation of payload is different. Smoothbore shells were cavernous compared to the interior of rifled projectiles, and thus carried more “stuff” to the intended target. If we really want to “true up” this logistical measure, we’d have to gauge things like the number of balls in each case shot, by weapon caliber. Or perhaps the weight of the bursting charge in each type of shell. But for this lesson, at the 101 level, we save that for the advanced classes.

Now consider what we have discussed as would be applied to the situation on July 3. The Confederate gunners were attempting to suppress Federal firepower (artillery and infantry) lodged on Cemetery Ridge. The type of projectiles favored for that work were shells. Shot might help, but required very precise placement for effect. Case, designed to scatter sub-projectiles over a wide area, would have an effect. But it’s advantages were negated due to the limited depth of the target area. Shells, on the other hand, could have fuses cut to impart effects on a specific part of the defensive line. Thus, for Colonel E. P. Alexander the discussion is not about “value rounds” to derive combat power, but rather “preferred rounds” to achieve the desired effect from applying that combat power. Due to the tactical situation and fire effect preferences, he had but 16 “preferred rounds” per 12-pdr Napoleon and likely around 24 per Parrott or 3-inch rifle. Such limited his part of the duel from the “value round” figure of four hours down to only thirty to forty minutes of “preferred rounds.” Sure, he could (and there is some anecdotal evidence this was done) stockpile more shells in anticipation of the bombardment. But that would only correct the supply needs in the short term. And would have the additional effect of disrupting the normality of the issue of ammunition… by the regulation chest.

On the other side of the field, Hunt had a different set of criteria facing his logistic calculation. The initial targets were, just as his Confederate counterparts, enemy cannon. And again the shell was preferred for the work to be done. But Hunt also had to consider what the bombardment was designed to setup. The infantry were coming across that field eventually. And if the cannon were to blunt that attack, the guns would need ample case shot handy to apply in short order. Thus the order to conserve fire after the initial response to the Confederate fires. Instead of expending the less preferential case-shot in an attempt to disrupt, if not drive off, the Confederate gunners, better to save those four dozen rounds per gun anticipating a time when those would be of more practical use.

Keep in mind the numbers and this rough equation of combat power – specifically the time that combat power could be applied – was not lost on the rank and file. At least one battery on Cemetery Hill recognized the number of rounds left in their chests directly translated to the length of time they would be held in position under enemy fire. And they emptied chests in a less than soldierly manner… just leaving rounds on the ground. One officer later counted 48 rounds of 3-inch rounds laying on the ground where a limber had previously sat. Clearly the crew had run some numbers of their own and determined a better way to weather the storm.

We are getting rather far along here, as things will evolve. Yet still have not gotten to the other two questions. Let’s digest the matter offered thus far, and resume in the next post. The key point to keep in mind is the combat power of an artillery battery is in direct proportion to the number of ammunition chests in possession. Numbers… and type of projectile.. matter.

Gettysburg, Day 2: The Services Demanded of a Reconnoitring Officer

In my interpretation, the second day of the battle of Gettysburg should be divided into two parts. Most written works and tours will focus on the second of those parts – the actual fighting from the late afternoon into the evening. I will not say that focus is misplaced, as the “event” of the battle itself turned within those precious hours. Stories of valor, alongside those of failure, intermingle with poignant, touching, and very human recollections from those moments. Indeed, if one wishes to study the fighting, that’s where it was at!

Working back, we can consider all the activities prior to the attack on the south end of the battlefield – moment when Law and Robertson’s brigades step forward at the lead of Hood’s Division – as the “run-up” to the fighting. To me, this is the “staff battle” phase of the day. Sure, the troops did the marching, maneuvering, and, in some areas of the field, skirmishing. But it was the staffs, on both sides of the line, which facilitated the preparation … or lack thereof … or improper preparations… for the actions that followed in the afternoon. Chief among those preparatory staffing activities was reconnaissance.

The most important reconnaissance conducted on July 2, 1863 from the Confederate side is that conducted around daybreak by several of Lee’s staff (augmented… or at least concurrent with some of Longstreet’s staff). Brigadier-General William Pendleton, Colonel Armistead Long, and Captain Samuel Johnson are the notables involved (again from Lee’s staff, with others from Longstreet’s staff joining… not to downplay that, but my intent is not to get too far down into the details here). It is Johnston, being the engineer, who provided the most information from this effort. And receives the most attention. Likewise on the Federal side, there were several staff officers conducting reconnaissances throughout the morning hours. Indeed, one has to wonder how the staffs of blue and grey managed to miss one another!

We spoke of intelligence gathering yesterday. And indeed, reconnaissance one method employed to harvest the wheat, under the analogy offered in that post. With that in mind, let us ponder this follow up question today:

Just what is a military reconnaissance?

Well let us consult with the professor of West Point, the esteemed Dennis H. Mahan, as we always should on such matters:

There are no more important duties, which an officer may be called upon to perform, than those of collecting and arranging the information upon which either the general, or daily operations of a campaign must be based.  For the proper performance of the former, acquirements of a very high order, in the departments of geography and statistics, are indispensable requisites; to which must be added a minute acquaintance with topography, and a good coup d’œil militaire for that of the latter.

However detailed and perfect may be a map, it can never convey all the information that will enable an officer to plan, even an ordinary march, with safety; still less, operations that necessarily depend, for their success, upon a far greater number of contingencies.  To supply these deficiencies of maps, an examination of the ground must be made by the eye; and verbal information be gained, on all the points connected with the operation over this ground.  This examination and collection of facts is termed a Reconnaissance.

Outpost, Mahan, page 105.

Unpacking Mahan, because that’s what I do…. we see the professor put great emphasis on the duties and obligations of the officer conducting the reconnaissance. After all, as we alluded to yesterday, much of the commander’s understanding of the situation, that picture in his mind – n So that officer must be a person of ability in particular fields of knowledge. Below this passage, Mahan insisted the officer be “cool-headed and truthful; one who sees things as they are, and tells clearly and precisely what he has seen.”

And what is this coup d’œil militaire? Ah… from Napoleon himself… “There is a gift of being able to see at a glance the possibilities offered by the terrain…One can call it the coup d’œil militaire and it is inborn in great generals.” But in this case, exhibited from a staff officer. But a staff officer who is painting the picture for his commander.

Mahan does not dismiss maps as a reference. Rather he points out the limitations of a map for practical applications. The Cheetos-eating armchair generals will say it… must go out and see the terrain to really understand it! (Irony implied for emphasis.)

Mahan offered several important practices and techniques to aid the reconnoitering officer. The officer must know the minutia of unit formations – particularly how much space might be taken up by companies, battalions, regiments, and brigades in various formations; space required to perform maneuvers; time required for maneuvers; etc. Estimation of distances was (is) critical, of course. And toward that end, Mahan offered some tricks:

A very simple aid to it is the following;—Upon the stem of a lead-pencil, cut square, and held out at a uniform arm’s length from the eye, and by means of a thread attached to it and fastened to the top button-hole, let the officer mark off, on one of the edges, the length seen on it by holding the pencil upright between the eye, and a man placed successively at different distances from it, as 100, 150—1000 yards.  This will give one rough standard for practice.  Another may be made by first ascertaining the average height of certain cultivated trees, as the apple, &c.

Ibid, p.107-8

Another requirement is placing all these details in the proper perspective, in relation to the physical appearance. An accurate sketch, if you will. Toward that end, more tricks:

For getting relative positions, a contrivance for measuring angles roughly must be used.  This is done by first folding a leaf of paper across, and then doubling it along the folded edge, as if to divide it into four equal parts.  The angle between the edge of the first fold and that of the second will be a tolerably accurate right angle.  Now by cutting off carefully along the fold, one of the pieces, we obtain a quadrant or 90°; then folding this at the angle, so that the two edges will exactly coincide, we get the half of a quadrant or 45°; and so on, by successive bisections, we can mark off smaller angles.  Then making a pen or pencil-mark along each of the folds, and numbering the angles successively from 0° to 90°, we have a rough protractor, that can be used both for measuring angles and setting them off on a sketch.  To measure vertical angles, a thread with a light plummet, must be attached to the angular point.  If the object is above the horizon of the eye, we hold the protractor with the angular point from the eye, so that the plumb-line will fall along the face of the paper just touching it; then directing the top edge of the protractor on the object, so that it is just seen by the eye sighting along the edge, and the angle formed between the plumb-line and the other edge, will be the same as the angle between the line of sight and the horizon of the eye.

Ibid, p.108-9

All great stuff! And certainly tricks I would suggest you employ when next out visiting a battlefield. It will enhance your understanding (trust me… these work).

Mahan also pointed out that guides were valuable for this work. Though there are pitfalls to employing guides. All in all, the officer is still responsible for accuracy of information even when guides are employed. So… choose wisely.

But let us step back from the “practice” and more so on the application of reconnaissance. Mahan specifically singled out the reconnaissance as a means to gather information about terrain, as opposed to the enemy’s dispositions. Sure, there are armed reconnaissances. But those retain the same objective. If seeking information about the enemy, the activity, according to Mahan, is “patrolling.” With differing objectives, of course, there are different practices and procedures. We historians should take note here the differences between a reconnaissance and a patrol within the “by the book” Mahan explanation. Indeed, words have meanings. But just how far do we carry those distinctions? Often the participants used reconnaissance where they clearly meant patrol. And vice-versa. We will often interchange reconnaissance and patrol in our interpretation of those events. More to the point, if one is out poking around near the enemy does it matter if the purpose is to gather information about the lay of the land or the enemy positions… or both?

I’d say it is important to our interpretation. We might not need to call “balls and strikes” here. A clear distinction between a reconnaissance or a patrol may simply be semantics. What is more important, and what I’d impress here in closing, is to know just what objective the commander imparted to the officer conducting the reconnaissance or patrol. What body of information was requested? To what unknown was the officer directed? And to what ends did the commander hope to apply that intelligence once acquired?

Clearly the products of a reconnaissance were critical to the commander’s view of the battlefield and thus important enablers for decisions to be made. A good reconnaissance made for a good decision… or at least set up a sound decision. So it is right for us to evaluate and assess the effectiveness of a reconnaissance, not only to the quantity and quality of the information gathered, but the relevance of that information to the operation it supported.

That said.. I want to see lead pencils and folded paper next time we are out on the battlefield!

Gettysburg, Day 1: Intelligence and how to get it

“It started as a minor scrap with a few militia. The next thing I know, I’m tangling with half the Union army.”

A lovely line from the book “Killer Angels” and then the movie adaptation “Gettysburg.” General Henry Heth’s summary of the donnybrook his division had initiated on the morning of July 1, 1863.

And most readers are familiar with Lee’s feather-light touch admonishment at that point, “Things will get out of control, Mr. Heth. That is why we have orders.” That’s right… follow orders next time! Though I’d offer the operative word that is in play was “intent” and not “orders.” And, well, the historian who sits on this side of the keyboard would offer some criticism of Martin Sheen’s… I mean General Lee’s … communication here. Commander’s intent is more valuable than a written order. Particularly in fluid situations such as occurred on July 1.

But I think the real lesson to be learned off this scene, and for that matter the entire first day at Gettysburg, is no army is complete without tactical intelligence. I know… duh… Captain Obvious here!

Yes, every single armchair general worth his weight in Cheetos is nodding in agreement. “Intelligence, got to have intelligence!”

But answer this: Where is this “intelligence” and how do we gather it?

The Grognards of Gettysburg are now frantically typing missives about Stuart and all sorts of ghastly tales of cavalry gone off gallivanting around. But all that misses the point. Lee could have had the whole of his cavalry there (sure… if they rode a magic carpet and somehow avoided the line of march and managed to arrive intact from Loudoun County into Adams County, well rested and prepared to go to work… sure… IN A PIG’S EYE!) …

Anyway … could have had the whole of his cavalry there, yet still not possessed the needed intelligence. You see, intelligence is much like grain in the field. One still must venture out there and gather that harvest. And even then, one has to separate the wheat from the chaff… or the corn from the cob. AND still it’s not edible, as milling, grinding, and other processing must be done to produce a flour. AND still it is not bread, as more ingredients are needed and some of that “baking” think must occur. You see, intelligence is a product of a process. Intelligence is not simply derived by placing a bunch of guys with dandy plumed hats, with leather gauntlets, out along the road. It must be worked for.

So where does one go to work for this “intelligence” stuff? Depends on the type of intelligence one needs. Intelligence, in the raw form, is information. Information is nothing more than a pile of facts. Some facts are useful. Some facts are not. Some are obvious. Others require great deal of rooting around. And there are “varieties” of information within those piles of facts. Information about enemy forces. Information about friendly forces (which, yes, should be obvious, but… have you ever argued with a clerk who is late submitting the morning report? Yea… rooting might be the word). There’s information about the weather… terrain… local populace… and don’t forget about the wheat and corn crops in the field (an Army has to eat, you know!). In short, sometimes a cavalryman is the guy to send rooting for it. In other cases, a staff officer might gather valuable information just reading the morning paper.

And gathering just gives us “information.” Someone has to process those facts and sort out the useful from that which is not. Then, before the bread is ready for the commander to partake, a staff should (MUST… because this is why staffs exist) coalesce this information, deriving conclusions from what may be contradictory reports, and produce a consumable package that the commander can wrap his head around. And I think that is the best way to put it – for those facts to process through as information and become intelligence, the commander must have it IN his head as part of the operational picture. No matter what – good picture or bad picture – the commander is going to make decisions based on that operational picture which is in his head.

In this specific scenario case, we are referring to Warren Burton’s… I mean Henry Heth’s … head, and not that of Marse Robert. It is Heth who is opening a fight in a situation where either, by his own admission things are very “confused,” or in which he has made a decision based on a bad operational picture, a.k.a. bad intelligence or a lack of intelligence (all kidding aside). I would argue this is not a case where Heth did not HAVE intelligence, but rather Heth had intelligence based on information of inferior quality and quantity.

So what could Mr. Heth done to improve the quality and quantity of information? No… Stuart is not the answer here. Sorry. Stuart was a Cavalry Corps commander. Cavalry Corps commanders work for the Army commander. True, a “slice” of that cavalry corps was detailed to operate in the area Heth was concerned with. And there is an argument to be made that Heth didn’t utilize that adjacent resource to the extent possible. Still this is not to say Heth had cavalry, nor should have controlled the cavalry.

On the other hand, I would make the argument that Heth had, within his division, the organic capability to gather information and distill that into actionable intelligence. You see, “intelligence gatherer” is not a military job title. It is a function. Such a function is carried out up and down the ranks. Doesn’t matter if the solider is an infantryman or a trooper or an artillerist. Some more so than the others, true. But everyone has part of that function.

Specific to Heth, the useful information his team needed most, which could be turned into actionable intelligence for shove into Heth’s head… I mean operational picture, from which Heth would make decisions, was that lingering question, “What is IN Gettysburg right now?” And we know, with hindsight, that questions was never answered correctly until… well… at the earliest the evening of July 1, though some might contend mid-day on July 2.

So what didn’t Heth do that he could have done, aimed at answering that question? In a word, contact. At the tactical level, the most useful information about the enemy is often gleaned from actual contact with the enemy. It’s a grim task, to be sure. But that’s the nature of warfare on the business end.

Flip this around to the other side. Did Sam Elliot… I mean John Buford… know about Heth and all the other guys in grey who were kicking up dust clouds around Adams County? Perhaps not a 100% accurate picture. But he knew what was coming at him. And he knew about Heth, and to a lesser degree the other columns, because his men maintained contact. And we might well draw similar examples from other campaigns (Sherman’s March for example) where non-cavalry forces were used very effectively to gather information.

Point being, tactical battlefield intelligence is a complicated aspect of the business of war. It’s not something easily done, by a wave of the hand. Intelligence is often won, among other means, by a hundred exchanges of musketry among pickets or patrols in a hundred skirmishes which will go unnamed, unmarked, and unheralded. And yet that often determines success or failure on those greater battlefields which go named, marked, and… heralded.