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.)

Case shot and practice of fire: A conundrum?

Consider this figure:

OwenPlate20Fig6

This particular figure appeared in “Elementary Lectures on artillery: Prepared for the use of the gentlemen cadets of the Royal Military Academy” by Captains Charles Henry Owen and Thomas Longworth Dames, published in 1861.  And as “Royal” implied, these were English officers and not Americans.  Still, the technology was the same and applied in much the same manner.  It is similar to illustrations appearing in American texts of the same period.  I simply chose this source because the basic illustration was cleaner.

Basically, this illustration explains the practice for firing shrapnel.  The target, on the far right, is a box labeled “Column of Men.”  And we see four examples where shrapnel was fired.  Only one of which was accurate and would achieve the desired result.  Labeled “a”, I’ll put a star on that point and show the respective coverage of the balls after bursting:

OwenPlate20Fig6A

The perfect shrapnel burst – at the right time of flight; at the right height; at the right angle of flight.  The momentum of the shrapnel shell (case shot… for us not subject to His Majesty) imparted forward progress to the balls after the burst.  So we see the expected pattern would place fragments and balls across the formation of infantry.

If the the fuse was set for too short a time of flight, then the shrapnel burst too soon.  At this case, point “b”:

OwenPlate20Fig6B

The payload falls well “short” of the target. Not to mention, and not depicted here, it was also possible for the burst to be “long”, with the payload landing well beyond the target.  So setting the fuse

But the fuse timing was just one of :

OwenPlate20Fig6C

Or if the projectile is fired too low:

OwenPlate20Fig6D

This brought the burst too low and well in front of the target.

Not illustrated in this figure is the angle of flight.  But you might get a feel for that looking at bursts “c” and “d”.  However, as case shot/shrapnel was fired primarily from guns, sometimes howitzers, and not mortar.  So this was somewhat a “goes without saying” consideration.

Still we see depicted two of the three necessary components of a proper shrapnel burst.  The right height being the darkest of the three trajectories depicted.  We see points “a”, “c”, and “d” being the right time of flight.  Allow me to “box” these to highlight:

OwenPlate20Fig6X

Hopefully nothing entirely new to artillery enthusiasts.  Just depicting the desired work of the shrapnel… er… case shot… in combat.  As we well know, the artillerist would need estimate the range to target.  From that, he would derive the necessary elevation.  That, of course, considering the desired height of burst.  And the artillerist would need to calculate time of flight to the optimum bursting point.  That being used to properly cut or set the fuse.   And…. goes without saying the artillerist would also need to point the gun toward the target (a factor not easily depicted in the two-dimensional world of the illustration).

Great!  So the artillerist had to do a lot of computations in the heat of combat.  One might think the manuals would have a lot of tables and guides as to how one should compute bursting height and time of flight.

Given such complications, one might think that manuals of the period would devote much space to instructions.  Well…. The brand new “Field Artillery Tactics” of 1861, from the minds of William French, William Barry, and Henry Hunt, mostly covered how to maneuver the battery.  Though unofficial, John Gibbon’s “Artillerists Manual“, with a wealth of insight for the gunners to consider.  Yet it also lacks any details on the practice of firing case shot.  Even Owen and Dames, from which these illustrations are taken, did not discuss the practice in any length.  They felt an illustration would suffice, apparently.

These references would offer elevations, range, and, perhaps but not always, time of flight for selected weapons.  But none would offer details of the ballistic behavior for shrapnel at the point of the burst.   Such was not simply derived by extending the trajectory out to the ground.  Rather one had to consider loss of momentum of those balls, fragments, and sub-projectiles, which fell off at a greater rate than a complete projectile.  And I’m just scratching the surface of the data needed for one to compute a “good” firing of case shot.

There are very few recorded experiments conducted at the time to learn how case shot behaved (Dahlgren’s experiments for boat howitzers come to mind, but there were some US Army and British experiments in this regard).  Yet, very little of what was learned went into the manuals.

That, I would submit, is a conundrum.

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.)

April 2, 1865: “As near as I can judge I expended about 1,000 rounds of ammunition” bombarding Petersburg’s lines

Victory at Five Forks on April 1, 1865 allowed Federal forces to sever the last major supply line – the South Side Railroad – into Petersburg from the west. With that, Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant put in motion his plan to shatter the Petersburg defenses.  Shortly after receiving news from Five Forks, Grant ordered a general bombardment of the Confederate lines.  This preparatory artillery fire started the last massed bombardment of the war (saving, perhaps how you want to measure things, the siege operations at Fort Blakely in Alabama).  And it was certainly one of the war’s largest.

For the final week of the Siege of Petersburg, Major-General Henry Hunt reported the Army of the Potomac had 202 cannon in the field batteries and 188 in the siege artillery.  These ranged from 100-pdr Parrott Rifles down to 24-pdr Coehorn mortars. And that figure does not include the artillery supporting the Army of the James or the Cavalry Corps, which was operating detached.  These weapons were spread out along the lines from Richmond, through Bermuda Hundred, all the way around Petersburg.  A mass of firepower and a tool to pry open the lock at the doors of the Confederate capital.

Grant’s orders were to commence a general bombardment along all the lines at 10 p.m. on April 1.  This was the spectacle observed by Colonel Charles Wainwright that night from Five Forks.  The artillerist maintained that bombardment until around 1 a.m. on the 2nd.  That was only the introductory verses to the main chorus to start later that morning.  At 4 a.m. the Federal batteries resumed firing to cover an infantry assault.  From that point on, the bombardment was general along all the lines.

Brigadier-General Henry Abbot, commanding the siege train, recorded:

My artillery was hotly engaged in the battles resulting in the capture of Petersburg, and in the demonstrations made to prevent General Mahone from leaving the Bermuda Hundred line, firing 5,560 rounds during April 1 and 2.

In perspective, this firing was more than on any three days during the Second Major Bombardment of Fort Sumter in the fall of 1863.  It was more than during two weeks of firing during the height of the Third Major Bombardment of Fort Sumter in July 1864.  And keep in mind that Abbot had a number of large caliber weapons in action – Parrotts and mortars in particular – as were used against Fort Sumter. But Abbot had a whole lot more field-caliber weapons in his batteries.

Brigadier-General John C. Tidball, commanding the Ninth Corps Artillery, noted:

At 4 a.m., the hour appointed for the assault upon the enemy’s works in front of Fort Sedgwick, the artillery upon the whole line promptly opened and was immediately replied to in the most vigorous manner by the enemy, and it is probable that never since the invention of gunpowder has such a cannonade taken place.

Tidball went on to say, “Fourteen thousand two hundred and fifty-one rounds is the amount of artillery ammunition expended during the engagement.” Think about that in terms of the logistical arrangements required just to get those projectiles and powder to City Point… and Tidball’s numbers are just for the Ninth Corps, and not covering that of the other three corps in the Army of the Potomac, or any of the Army of the James.  (Though I would point out that Wainwright’s Fifth Corps guns were silent on April 2.  They had fired their last shots in anger, and of the war, on March 31 at White Oak Road.)

In his report, Tidball highlighted the actions of the Seventh Maine Light Artillery, under Captain Adelbert B. Twitchell.  With four 12-pdr Napoleons, Twitchell’s gunners manned Fort Sedgwick.

FtSegwickArea_April2_1865

Twitchell’s battery contributed to the firing started during the night of April 1 by firing one round per gun every five minutes from 11 p.m. until midnight.  The battery resumed firing at the time appointed for the larger April 2 bombardment:

At 4 a.m., April 2, at the signal from Fort Avery, all my guns opened, firing rapidly for fifteen minutes. Ceased firing for a time as the infantry was gathering for the charge in our front. The rebel line was carried just before the break of the day.  The enemy threw shell and canister quite rapidly for a few moments, but gave too high elevations, as nearly all the missiles passed over our works.

Twitchell then sent some of his artillerymen forward to work cannons captured in the Confederate lines. The men, along with detachments from all along the Federal lines, serviced six Napoleons and two 3-inch rifles.  But Twitchell’s work from Fort Sedgwick was not over that day:

From Fort Sedgwick we observed two or three charges by the rebels during the day, and my guns sent shell and case-shot into their ranks with effect. About 8 a.m. I ordered that one 3-inch Parrot gun of Battery D, Pennsylvania Artillery, be taken from Battery 21 and placed on the left flank of my guns in Sedgwick, which, in connection with the left gun of my battery, could cover the left flank of Curtin’s brigade, Potter’s division.

These guns were well served and did good service during the day in checking the rebels, constantly threatening the left flank.  My men worked without intermission during the entire day of April 2 in serving their guns and in receiving and sending ammunition to the line occupied by our troops….

As near as I can judge I expended about 1,000 rounds of ammunition during the night of April 1 and the day of April 2….

Though Twichell’s tally of rounds fired likely included some of those sent forward to the captured guns, a thousand rounds is a large quantity by any measure.  And those were fired over two periods, accounting for somewhere between 18 and 20 hours total.

We often rush past the last assaults on the Petersburg line in haste as we read through in our rush to Appomattox.  But it must be remembered that the Confederates gave up the lines at Petersburg only after displaying the same stubbornness seen on so many battlefields earlier in the war.  To overcome the Confederate lines, the Federals used artillery on a scale seldom seen up to that time in the history of warfare.  If it was not, as Tidball seemed to think, the greatest cannonade ever, then it was high up on the list.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 46, Part I, Serial 95, pages 659-661, 663, 1072-3, and 1076-7.)

April 1, 1865: “This has been the most momentous day of the war so far”: Five Forks, Sheridan, Warren, and what Wainwright saw

Colonel Charles S. Wainwright was right place to witness many things on April 1, 1865.  And he minced no words as to his emotions that Saturday on which a campaign turned:

White Oak Road, April 1, 1865, Saturday: This has been the most momentous day of the war so far, I think; a glorious day; a day of real victory. But to begin at the beginning and tell what I saw myself. During the night, that is, soon after five o’clock and before daylight, I was awakened, and on joining [Major-General Gouverneur] Warren, he informed me that he was going to move to [Major-General Phil] Sheridan’s support with all his infantry; that [Major-General Romeyn] Ayres’s division had already gone down the plank, and he was just starting across country with the other two to try for the flank of the force opposed to Sheridan….

Thus Wainwright, and the Federal Fifth Corps, moved towards Five Forks on the morning of April 1, 1865.  Around 1 p.m. that afternoon, Warren called on Wainwright to support the flanking attack with two batteries.  The infantry was not, at that moment, joined with the Confederate line, but closing upon it.  Wainwright moved with two of his New York batteries.

When I got up to Warren the whole of the Fifth Corps was just about to attack at this angle, and along the east flank, swinging around to the west with its pivot of the White Oak road, Ayres’s division held the left, [Brigadier-General Frederick] Winthrop’s brigade crossing the road diagonally.  [Major-General Samuel] Crawford was on Ayres’s right, and [Major-General Charles] Griffin in rear of Crawford. Much of this I have, of course, learned since, mostly from Ayres, who gave me a clear account of the dispositions.

When I reached Warren, he was in conversation with General Sheridan, close behind Ayres’s second line. Our skirmishers were just engaging, the men beginning to advance, and rebel bullets coming over our way somewhat thick.  I waited several minutes for Sheridan to get through what he was saying before I spoke to Warren.  As there was nothing for me to do, I rode back out of the way of stray bullets, to an open ridge south of the road and not far from a small church, called Gravel Run Church, where our hospital was being established.

As our men passed through a narrow belt of woods, I could not see the actual charge on the works, only the smoke of the battle. The cheers of our men, however, told me that all was going well, and long files of prisoners coming in soon shewed that the works were carried….

Wainwright estimated, from the time he left Warren until the first prisoners came down the road, only twenty minutes had elapsed.  As for those prisoners:

These men all moved along cheerfully, without one particle of sullenness which formerly characterized them under similar circumstances. They joked with our men along the line and I repeatedly head them say, “We are coming back into the Union, boys, we are coming back into the Union.” It was a joyful and an exciting sight, seeming to say that the war was about over, the great rebellion nearly quelled.

Wainwright proceeded to Five Forks itself where an administrative duty became his task of the day.

At the Forks, I found two guns, three-inch, just in their works, and [Colonel Alexander] Pennington sitting on one of them.  I stopped here and had a talk with him and several other cavalry officers, formerly light battery commanders.  They told me that they had charged the works at this point and carried them with any number of prisoners. While there Crawford came down the Ford road, from the north, looking for Warren, and told me that there were more guns up the road which his men had taken.

Wainwright went up the road to find three more 3-inch rifles. Always concerned about propriety and not wishing to slight anyone’s honor, Wainwright didn’t want to take possession of any guns until everyone got their due credit.

I turned back and pushed along the White Oak road to find Warren. I must have gone at least two miles, and about one mile west of the end of the rebel works before I found him.  It was growing dark, the sun having already set; the bugles were sounding the recall; the pursuit was over, and the divisions getting together for the night. I told the General about the guns, and asked if I was to look after their removal.  For this he referred me to Sheridan, as he said there might be some jealousy on the part of the cavalry.

We rode back together looking for Sheridan, and found him with his staff about a fire near the west end of the rebel works. Here I waited while General Warren had a short conversation with Sheridan. Then I dismounted, reported to Sheridan the number of guns I had found, and asked if he wished me to remove them; at the same time stating that Pennington claimed to have captured at least two of them.  Sheridan was very pleasant, said that there was glory enough for all, and wished me to look after the guns.

With that, Wainwright rode off to tend to those trophies.  And note that Wainwright places Warren and Sheridan at the the latter’s headquarters apparently having a even tempered conversation.  Leaving Sheridan, Wainwright proceeded to catch up with Warren:

… Warren had ridden on with Bankhead. When I overtook them, they were both dismounted, and Warren talking earnestly. I also got off my horse, told Warren what directions Sheridan had given me, and inquired where the corps headquarters would be for the night. Warren replied that General Sheridan had just informed him that he had relieved him from the command of the corps, and turned it over to Griffin; that he had given no reason for doing, but referred him to General Grant, to whom he was to report for orders.

Wainwright was puzzled by the turn of events.  But his reaction goes to demonstrate some of the personality of Warren:

I was astonished at this news and could not imagine what the trouble was. The only thing that occurred to me was that Warren might have got into one of his ugly fits and said what he ought not to. But in that case he would have been relieved at once instead of it being put off until the fight was all over.  Besides which I had left them just at the commencement of the battle in apparently amicable talk.

Not until the next day did Wainwright learn the justification for Warren’s removal.  Crawford’s division had ventured too far to the right.  After sending staff officers to reign in Crawford, Warren went to the flank himself.  While tending to that task personally, Warren was conspicuously absent from the corps headquarters when Sheridan inquired “Where is Warren?”  Wainwright repeated the opinion of Brigadier-General Joseph Bartlett in that Crawford was to blame for the mix-up.  “[Bartlett] referred to Spotsylvania and one or two other cases where, by his bungling or what not, Crawford had brought him great trouble.”

But what was done was done.  Wainwright expressed his opinion of the new corps commander:

I do not exactly like the idea of serving under Griffin; we have never got along well together, and I do not like him.  It was one o’clock when I got to bed; up at that time and later there was a steady and very heavy cannonade kept up from dark along the old lines in front of Petersburg. We can see the shells burst at times and watch the flight of some of the big bombs.  We start again at daylight.

And they did start again that next day.

(Citations from Charles S. Wainwright, A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1861-1865, edited by Allan Nevins, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998, pages 510-5.)

“These forts must have their artillery”: Hunt directs battle handover and transition to maneuver operations at Petersburg

150 years ago, the ninth and final offensive was underway at Petersburg.  Brett Schulte has several posts up on Beyond the Crater discussing the details of this operation – including some excellent map resources.  In particular, one of his posts covered the period from March 24 to 28, in which Federal leaders worked out the details of the offensive and began movement.  The movement boiled down to a shift of forces to the left.  Among those units moving to “jump off” positions for this offensive was the Second Corps, Army of the Potomac at that time commanded by Major-General Andrew A. Humphreys.  As the Second Corps moved, elements of the Army of the James would assume positions on the siege lines.  In short, the Second Corps would perform a battle handover to the Army of the James, preparatory to the offensive operations.

What is a battle handover?  According to the book it is a variety of “tactical enabling operation” – meaning an operation designed to facilitate a separate offensive or defensive operation.  In this case a flanking maneuver on the Confederate right.  In order to get the Second Corps in position to participate in the flanking maneuver, Humphreys had to disengage from the line he currently held, keeping the Confederates in place.  Then the Army of the James had to occupy the position formerly held by Second Corps and assume the mission of confronting the Confederate line.

Sounds simple, but battle handovers are notoriously complex. There are many moving parts.   Two soldiers cannot occupy the same place at the same time.  Likewise two regiments, brigades, divisions, or corps cannot hold the same point at the same time.  So part of the “choreography” is to rotate formations, unit by unit, points on the line.  Nowhere is that more difficult than with crew-served weapons… or in the Civil War conventions, the artillery.

In the Petersburg siege lines, the artillery pieces were in place to dominate sections of the trenches.  Each gun tube had a specific field of fire to address a particular tactical need – be that an approach the enemy might use or an enfilade of an enemy position.  Moving a gun would require repeated surveys, sighting, and registration.  Leaving the guns in place could ease the process of battle handover.

That is exactly what Major-General Henry Hunt had in mind on March 28, 1865 when he wrote to Lieutenant-Colonel John Hazard, Second Corps Artillery Chief:

General [Horatio] Wright says you propose to withdraw your guns from Forts Welch, Gregg, and Sampson to-morrow morning. General Meade says that General Wright will hold the Sixth Corps here to-morrow at least, and these forts must have their artillery. Arrangements must be made accordingly. The forts on your line, A, B, C, D, E, you report March 26 as having twenty guns; General Ord can replace sixteen. You reported Welch, Gregg, and Sampson twelve guns; sixteen are thus required for the lines.

The section of the line in question, Forts Welch, Gregg, and Sampson, formed a “refuse” on the Federal left flank, and thus were rather important shielding the preparations.  To keep up appearances, and retain the pressure to prevent Confederates from shifting their forces, Hunt wanted the same number of guns in those forts after the battle handover.

SecondCorpsFortsMar28_65

On the surface, Hunt is pointing out a mismatch of forces.  The Second Corps plan was to remove thirty-six guns off the line (in the batteries and forts) along with a dozen surplus weapons.  The Army of the James, wold bring in sixteen guns to fill the void.  That math does not work.  So Hunt turned to creative math to resolve the problem… specifically asking Hazard to organize his artillery to support the planned maneuvers and leave the remainder behind:

You report forty-eight guns in your corps, of these I understand that twelve are of surplus sections. If these are all sent back it will take twenty-eight guns from your artillery, leaving you but five batteries, and General Meade directs that rather than strip the forts you take but twenty guns, five batteries, with your corps. I wish you, therefore, to arrange to keep the guns in Forts Sampson, Welch, and Gregg. If you can put two surplus sections in, you will keep your six batteries with the corps. The batteries you propose to Send to Colonel Tidball will therefore be left, four guns with General Ord and twelve with General Wright, which will remain with him until the Sixth Corps line is abandoned, and will then report to General Tidball, unless otherwise ordered. These arrangements must be made at once, and you will report to me what batteries move with your corps, and that provision is made to leave the sixteen guns on the line as directed.

Very creative math.  But what supports this is the transition to a new phase of operations. Sitting in the siege lines, the Second Corps, as had all the Federal formations, had acquired extra guns to meet specific needs on the lines.  Now facing the prospect of quick maneuvers in pursuit of the Confederates, should all turn well, the Second Corps only needed five or six batteries.

Hazard responded promptly on this matter, but with a slight modification to the design:

I have arranged to leave four guns in Fort Gregg: four in Fort Sampson, and four in Battery A, and to take six batteries with me. If General Ord brings with him sixteen guns it will be sufficient to arm the line to the left of Battery A. Shall take two of my guns from Fort Welch, leaving four in it belonging to Sixth Corps. I trust this arrangement will be satisfactory. Shall take with me Battery B, Rhode Island; B, New Jersey; K, Fourth United States; M, First New Hampshire; Tenth Massachusetts, and Eleventh New York, leaving on the line, in command of Capt. C. A. Clark, Twelfth New York, Sixth Maine, and F, First Pennsylvania. Please answer by telegraph as soon as convenient if this arrangement meets with your approbation.

While not exactly as Hunt specified, the arrangement would allow Hazard to retain some organizational integrity within the artillery brigade supporting the Second Corps.  Please note that of those six batteries retained with the Second Corps, only one of them had been under Hazard’s lead during July 1-3, 1863.  Little wonder after the many reorganizations of the Army of the Potomac during the intervening time.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 46, Part III, Serial 97, pages 227-8.)

Mortars and shells wanted at the front: Importance of vertical fires at Petersburg

We often read the Petersburg siege demonstrated the emergence of “modern war” in some fashion.  The “coffee table book” history draws the the comparison between Virginia trenches of 1864-5 to French trenches of 1915-8.  There is some resemblance, but no more than any functional nature would derive.  Men can only dig a hole in the ground for protection in a finite number of combinations.  Nice surface comparison, but for the most part the trenches are not exactly a mountain of evidence for the “modern war” argument.

If looking to draw positive connections between Petersburg and the tactical nature of warfare in 1915-18, there are two aspects I suggest we examine – the increased use of vertical fires and  changed operational tempo.  That latter point – what we call OPTEMPO in modern parlance – I’ll save for a later post.  But I have mentioned vertical fires earlier this year in relation to the Overland Campaign… particularly Cold Harbor.  And of course, mortars were heavily employed to support the assault after the mine went off.  In the late summer of 1864, the mortars took on added importance at Petersburg. A series of correspondence on August 14, 1864 demonstrates this. That morning, Brigadier-General Henry Hunt wrote to his capable subordinate, Colonel Henry L. Abbot in charge of the siege artillery, directing mortars to the front:

Four 10-inch mortars with a proper supply of ammunition are wanted in the battery near the Taylor house to control a battery of 32-pounder rifles just beyond the crest, distance from 1,200 to 1,500 yards. It would be well to get them out to-day ready to move; they may be ordered into battery to-night. I will inform you then whether to send them. Please answer.

Hunt’s request was to meet a specific tactical need – silencing a Confederate battery that occupied a particularly troublesome position.  The answer to this problem was not direct, or horizontal fire.  Rather he proposed using heavy mortars to fire indirectly, or vertically, onto the Confederate position.  Abbot answered almost immediately that morning and set in motion actions to place the mortars that night. Abbot later suggested a specific position for the mortars, based on earlier experience along that line:

If the 10-inch mortars are ordered forward, I would earnestly request that they be put in the fourteen-gun battery where Pratt’s 4½-inch guns were. The range is essentially the same. The approach to this battery is very good, and to the old battery very bad, a matter of great importance in supplying 10-inch ammunition on account of its great weight; and, moreover, this battery is well made and the old battery very ill constructed, constantly caving under mortar fire.

Looking back at Hunt’s map illustrating the artillery support during the Battle of the Crater, Pratt’s battery is indicated by the number “24” and circled in blue below:

PlateLXIV_3D2

The correspondence does not specify which Confederate battery was the target.  For the map above, I’ve highlighted one such battery, which would be “beyond the crest” and approximately 1,500 yards distant.  Notice the close proximity to the mine crater. The range cited was well within the capabilities of field pieces. The Confederate guns mentioned were indeed large caliber weapons.  But the Federals might have concentrated the fires of several batteries to damage the battery.  However, having read about the thousands of shells dumped on Fort Sumter, we must ask how long and at what cost would that be completed?

There is no mention if Hunt required the use of 10-inch case shot from the mortars, as used during the Battle of the Crater.  That particular projectile, of experimental nature, would have done well to silence the Confederate battery while field pieces demolished the earthworks protecting the guns with direct fire.

Concurrent with the correspondence with Hunt, Abbot also opened a request for more mortar ammunition… and not just a routine request… to Captain Theodore Edson, Ordnance Officer at Fort Monroe:

I am out of my supply of Coehorn mortar shells and the rebels are taking advantage of it. Please send me any shells and wooden plugs which you can possibly procure, on the mail boat, telegraphing me when they start. I don’t care for prepared ammunition. Time is very important.

Backig this up, Abbot further explained the pressing need for mortar ammunition to Brigadier-General George Ramsay, Army Chief of Ordnance in Washington and indicted this was a long standing request:

I have sixteen Coehorn mortars in position and not a shell in depot for them. The rebels keep up a constant mortar fire on us. I don’t care for prepared ammunition; all I want are shells, fuse-plugs, and paper fuses. These must be received very shortly or the army will suffer. I wrote on 15th ultimo, and telegraphed on 19th ultimo and 11th instant for a large supply. Please inform me at once whether I am to be supplied. Please also send 2,000 Parrott time-fuse plugs for siege guns.

The Confederates had also learned the value of vertical fire, and were now in position to employ some of the heavy mortars from Richmond along with some expedient weapons.  And at the same time, the Confederates were commencing production of their own Coehorn mortars.

Fast forward to 1917. When preparing the American Expeditionary Force for combat in France, American officers found themselves short of artillery in general.  But most acutely they called for howitzers and mortars capable of high angle fires.  Henry Abbot would have given them an “I told you!” look.  Vertical fires would become the dominant form of artillery support on the battlefield.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 42, Part II, Serial 88, pages 182-3.)