Canister and our silly notions about canister

It is my perception is that the average student of the Civil War latches on to some misconceptions about canister as used from field artillery.  And from that misconception, the student (buff, enthusiast, or even credentialed historian as it may be) carries forward to some misunderstandings as to how artillery was used on the Civil War battlefield.  Consider Paddy Griffith’s assessment:

The main effect of artillery came at what may be described as ‘canister range’ – the last 300 yards to the gun, sometimes extending to 500 yards. It was here that the flash and crash of the heavy Napoleons, firing two and a half pounds of powder with each detonation, could numb and stagger the enemy, even when they did not physically hurt him.

The sources provided for this observation is L. Van Loan Naisawald and Jack Coggins.  Now, Naisawald’s Grape and Canister is a good read on the artillery of the Army of the Potomac.  But it is dated (to be kind… I’ll leave it at that).  Coggins’ Arms and Equipment is a good premier for study, but not by any means authoritative on the subject of artillery.

I would say Paddy Griffith is not alone in this “weighted” assessment of artillery – and allow me to use “weighted” in two ways here.  Certainly weighted in the sense that canister was the artillery’s most effective projectile on the battlefield… and that the physical weight of the canister had some value against the infantry…. From that we see some historians attempt to devolve the tactical situation down to raw numbers:

Certainly the two Union artillery batteries had an impact, but the majority of fire came from the infantry. Artillery, even rapid firing double canister, would only be throwing 54 projectiles per tube per minute, (about 650 per minute for all twelve guns) and could keep that up only for a couple of minutes before they ran out of the proper ammo. 1000 infantry would add between 2000 and 3000 rounds per minute, assuming a normal rate of fire, and with 100 rounds apiece, and another 1000 men in support ready to step up when the front line emptied their boxes, the infantry’s fire could be sustained for a much longer time.

That quote is from a blog entry by Dave Powell from 2009.  In context, Powell was discussing a specific circumstance in the battle of Chickamauga in which the artillery was, due to the tactical setting, not employed in a location to take advantage of it’s full capabilities.  We might haggle over bad decisions by leaders on the spot, or discuss the finer points of the situation.  But that discussion starts with an assessment of what the artillery was there to do in the first place. That said, assessing the artillery’s potential killing power simply as a measure of the canister spread is to ignore 90% of the combat potential that artillery brought to the field.  And that, I would submit, is not how leaders of the time would weight their decisions regarding artillery employment.

Specifically toward that assertion, consider the standard load out of the 12-pdr Napoleon ammunition chest (since Paddy Griffith liked it) as configured according to Ordnance Department standards:

  • 12 solid shot
  • 12 spherical case (case shot as I prefer, but sometimes called shrapnel)
  • 4 shells
  • 4 canister

Multiply that times four, as a gun brought that number of chests into action between the limber and caisson, for a total of 128 rounds.  We see that canister constituted only 12% of the ammunition on hand, if we go by regulation.  However, we also know that in service many artillerists adjusted those quantities.  Henry Hunt, for example, before the Overland Campaign (and thus incorporating years of wartime service experience) suggested increasing the number of solid shot at the expense of case shot.  But at the same time he did not want an increase in canister.   So… if Henry Hunt, who we would all agree knew his business, felt that his gunners needed more solid shot, by a factor of four, than canister, what does that tell us about the preferences for projectiles on the battlefield? And furthermore, what does it say about how leaders wanted artillery to be employed?

Better still, let us turn to another authority on artillery… straight from the muzzle if I may … John Gibbon:

The kind of projectile to be used, will depend on circumstances.  Shot and shell should be fired against troops taken in flank or obliquely, against deep columns, and against artillery.  The horizontal fire should be used against troops advancing in mass to force a bridge or defile, or marching over very smooth ground.  Shot had better be used against infantry, and shells and schrapnell [case shot] against cavalry, as this latter arm presents the highest mark, and enables the pieces of the bursting shells to do more execution…. A charge, when within short range, may be received by firing from each piece a solid shot on top of which is placed a round of canister. the firing then as rapid as possible, sponging may be dispensed with, within 150 yards, and as the enemy approaches nearer, canister alone is used, pointing very low at very short ranges, so that the projectiles may ricochet and scatter more.  Canister should not be fired at distances greater than 300 to 400 yards. Shrapnell [case shot] should be used against troops deployed, or in column, by division or squadron.  Schrapnell and shells produce a greater moral effect, generally, than grape or canister.

Here we have clear guidance from one very well respected authority at the time.  We see “weighting” of the type of projectiles in the ammunition chest was indeed derived from the use preferences.  Those preferences were determined based on the intended employment of artillery on the battlefield.

Think about this – what was the artillery battery there to accomplish?

I’d submit that a short answer to that question is simply – to keep the enemy off targeted terrain.  Yes, the “ying-yang” of infantry and artillery.  Infantry was supposed to seize and hold terrain. Artillery was to keep the enemy off terrain (not necessarily to “drive him off” but where that tactical need was drawn…perhaps).  There’s more to it all, of course.  And I don’t wish to over-simplify where such carries perils.  But if we go back to the words of men like Hunt, Gibbon, Barry, and other artillerists from the war, we see that premise on exhibit.  Artillery was best used… intended to be used … in a manner to deprive the enemy of advantageous terrain.

We are coming up to an anniversary of a fine example of just how things “worked” in action.  Turn to June 30, 1862 and Battery G, 2nd US Artillery.  On that day, Captain James Thompson (another officer who knew quite a bit about how one uses artillery…) had orders to deploy his battery in what would become the battle of Glendale, or Frazier’s Farm:

In compliance with instructions from the general commanding the division the battery was posted on the right of the New Market road, supported by Berry’s and Robinson’s brigades, in order to be in position to open fire on the enemy advancing either upon the New Market road or upon the Central road.

Mission statement – Thompson’s battery would deny the use of those roads to the enemy. We may parse it all sorts of ways, but that is what the guns were there to do.  Not to hold ground.  Rather to keep the enemy from using specific terrain (roads) that would allow closer approach.

But… as in so much on the battlefield, not everything works according to plan:

About 400 yards in front was a dense wood, which approached within 100 yards on our right behind a small house. About 4 o’clock the enemy came upon us in line from this wood. I opened fire upon them with spherical case-shot, but they advanced to the débris of two fences I had caused to be thrown down in the earlier part of the day and about 100 yards in front. Canister was now used, and our supports opened fire on them with musketry, and they were stopped. The wood on the right was densely crowded with them in large force, and three successive charges to capture the battery were repulsed by the prompt and gallant supports deployed between the guns and by the murderous double canister from our guns, loaded without sponging.

So.. the Confederates were not so kind as to simply advance up the roads, but rather through the woods in front. But notice the selection of projectiles described.  Starting at 400 yards with case shot, the gunners only changed to canister when their adversary came within 100 yards.  It was self-defense range.  The frightful “double canister… without sponging.”

And the battery held its position, but not without great effort:

The battery was enabled to hold this position until about 8 p.m., after the capture of the battery on our left [Lieutenant Allen Randol’s Battery E and G, 1st U.S. Light Artillery, if memory serves], and until our supply of canister was exhausted, some guns having fired double spherical case-shot, cut to explode on leaving the gun.

To the point here, we can say canister was used with effect on that day.  But we also see that it was used for self-defense of the battery.  It was not the intent of Thompson, or any other artillerist on the field that day, to accomplish the primary mission by means of canister fire.  Just worked out the plan fell apart and weight of canister, along with some case shot, is what saved all but one of Thompson’s guns.

Likewise, we could roll forward one year and a few days to July 2, 1863 and consider several other batteries in tight situations using canister… some also employing double canister without sponging to speed the delivery.  But in all those cases we see a common underlying factor.  Like Thompson’s battery the year before, Captain James E. Smith’s 4th New York was not deployed on the Devil’s Den for the purpose of spewing canister at close range.  Rather it was placed with the intent to keep the Confederates off ground approaching the position.  Circumstances played out differently, as we well know.

Accounts from July 2 are filled with artillerists reporting canister at close range.  But that was an exceptional use on an exceptional day.  We need only say the words “Peach Orchard” and “Dan Sickles” to rejuvenate a 150 year old discussion of plans gone awry. You see, it was more exception than the rule that batteries would be “hard pressed” into self-defense using canister. Rather more often batteries would be employed to do as the artillery chief envisioned over longer ranges.  As such, the artillerists would accomplish their mission with shot, shell, and case. And, by design, that is what made up nearly 90% of the ammunition on hand.

(Citations, other than those linked above, are from  – Paddy Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989, Page 170; John Gibbon, Artillerist’s Manual, new York: D. Van Nostrand, 1863, page 359; OR, Series I, Volume 11, Part II, Serial 13, page 172.)