Mahan on Artillery Tactics, Part 2: The “Place” of Artillery

Let us continue focused on this discussion of Dennis H. Mahan’s thoughts of artillery tactics, in the pre-Civil War context. In the previous post, we noted some of the context to the label of “tactics” in the Civil War-era manuals. But the key point was what Mahan called the duties of artillery – “… to support and cover the other arms; keep the enemy from approaching too near; hold him in check when he advances; and prevent him from debouching at particular points. ”

I offer a 21st Century sound-byte worthy summary of this as – to deny the enemy commander a course of action. And correspondingly, that would grant the friendly commander a different set of options. That’s my interpretation. So feel free to disagree, and drop a comment. To me, Mahan’s duties boil down to the use of artillery in a way that prevents the enemy from using particular pieces of terrain (in defense), opting to attack by way of a particular approach (in offense), or at least keeping the enemy at greater than musket range. Perhaps another way of putting it – forcing the enemy commander to adopt something other than the simple, apparent plan of action. (And with a complex plan adopted… the enemy commander leaves himself open to all sorts of criticism from later day historians who shall question his ability!)

Mahan continues on, later in his opening chapter, to describe the place of artillery on the battlefield, in his estimation. Initially he described the metaphorical place on the battlefield:

The artillery, which had for a long period, and even still, preserves the character of eminent respectability, has of late years begun to infuse a dash of the dare-devil spirit of the cavalier into its ranks. If it has not yet taken to charging literally, it has, on some recent occasions in our service, shown a well-considered recklessness of obstacles and dangers, fully borne out by justly deserved success.

Some will read this passage and begin shouting about the artillery charge and such. Not even close! Rather what Mahan is suggesting is that artillerymen of his time (the 1840s) were inclined to more aggressive placement on the battlefield, not simply running up within musket range to trade blows with the infantry. So what was that aggressive placement?

Well to start with, Mahan points out that artillery conformed to classifications – heavy and light (with divisions for foot and horse artillery) – each of which had places tailored to their strengths and weaknesses. Heavy artillery, which he categorized as 12-pdr caliber and above, was reserved for batteries of position and “is seldom shifted during the action” Light artillery, being 6-pdr gun and 24-pdr howitzers (!), included foot artillery and horse artillery. Foot artillery being those batteries with the standard allocation of horses, and which the crews marched alongside (usually). Horse artillery, of course, received sufficient animals to allow the crews to ride, and were thus more quickly moved on the field. Both were to “follow the movements of the other arms.”

However, as we well know, those classifications were soon blurred by technological advances – notably “light” 12-pdr guns and rifled artillery. And such brings to mind the “chicken or the egg” debate as to the technological advances driving tactical innovations, or vice-versa. I think Mahan argued “both”:

Improvements both in the materiel and the tactics of artillery have been very marked within late years. Formerly, considered only in the light of an auxiliary on the battle-field, artillery now aspires, and with indisputable claims, to the rank of a principal arm. Its decisive effects, at the late battles on the Rio-Grande, are supported by testimony too emphatic to be overlooked.

Worth noting, in this passage, Mahan left a footnote, not to Captain Samuel Ringgold as one might guess, but rather to Joel R. Poinsett. He gave the former, and late, Secretary of War credit for reforming the US Army and ensuring the the force was ready for the test of combat… and we have discussed his artillery reforms on occasion.

Mahan continued on, lauding the artillerists of his day:

From the studies required of him, the artillerist is well trained to maintained the characteristics of his arm; courage of the highest order, in which the physical is always under the control of the moral element, producing, as necessary result, unbounded devotion to the task assigned; a presence of mind that nothing can disturb; and that coolness which no danger, however appalling, can impair.

Ladies and gentlemen! I give you Marvel’s new super hero! Artilleryman! If nothing else, a description that we should all aspire to.

Turning back to serious matters, we have that question about “place” … not in the metaphorical sense… but as in WHERE to put the cannons. And Mahan got around to that:

The tactical applications of artillery on the field depend on the caliber. To the heavy are assigned the duties of occupying positions for strengthening the weak points of the field of battle; for securing the retreat of the army; for defending all objects whose possession might be of importance to the enemy, as villages, defiles, &c.; and for overturning all passive obstacles that cover the enemy, or arrest the progress of the other arms.

Although the distinction of “heavy” artillery would drop just over a decade after Mahan wrote this passage, the guidance remained valid. More to the point, we see examples of how the artillery might be placed to, as I put it, take away options from the enemy. In particular turning weak points into strong ones, retaining possession of key terrain, and countering passive obstacles.

As for the light artillery:

The light pieces, served by foot-artillery, follow the movements of the infantry; covering the flanks of its position, preparing the way for its onset, and arresting that of the enemy. It is of this that the principal part of the artillery in reserve is composed.

Employed directly to support the infantry, artillery prevented the enemy from arresting (not stopping… words have meaning) the friendly advance. Likewise on defense, the artillery arrested the enemy advance. In both cases, that translates to taking away options open to the enemy commander. Perhaps others will expand that role to MAKING options for the friendly commander… which would also be a good way to put it.

The horse-artillery is held in hand for decisive moments. When launched forth, its arrival and execution should be unexpected and instantaneous. Ready to repair all disasters and partial reverses, it, at one moment, temporarily replaces a battery of foot, and at the next is on another point of the field, to force back an enemy’s column. In preparing the attacks of cavalry, this arm is often indispensable and always invaluable; brought with rapidity in front of a line, or opposite to squares of infantry, within the range of canister, its well-directed fire, in a few discharges, opens a gap, or so shakes the entire mass, that the cavalier finds but a feeble obstacle, where, without this aid, he would in vain have exhausted all his powers.

Three “places” for horse artillery offered as examples: rushed to replace a pressed battery of foot; dispatched to break an enemy assault; or used to prepare the situation for a cavalry charge. In that latter role, the artillery moved forward within canister range… that’s C-A-N-I-S-T-E-R… not grape-shot. And that is considered between 200 and 400 yards. Musket range, before the wide adoption of rifles and mine-balls, was still considered at 100 yards. Arguably, even after technology allowed for more range, the infantry tactics still governed engagements with the musket at 100 yards.

Note that not once does Mahan suggest the artillery should, themselves, charge forward. None of these alleged artillery charges. It simply was not part of the doctrine which he described here. Artillery was not supposed to BE the attacker. Artillery was supposed to make the way easier for the attacker.

Another take-away from this passage is the alignment of the horse artillery. As Henry Hunt would argue during the war, the horse artillery was not simply assigned to support the cavalry. Rather the horse artillery should be a general reserve, used where the situation warrants. If that be supporting the cavalry in its mission, then so be it. But the horse artillery also had a role outside of that. And often that was far more important than simply aiding the defense of distant picket posts.

If nothing else, these passages, across but three pages in the manual, refute many preconceptions about how artillery was to be employed. The guns were not to be wasted simply standing in an augmentation of the infantry line, belching canister. Such would simply be employing the guns with their casualty-creation ability in mind. Instead the artillery was there to influence the battlefield situation, with focus on the cannon’s ability to exert control over a greater distance than capable with the other arms. In such way, we see the value of the artillery – its value as a combat force multiplier – in exponential terms.

(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 45-7.)

“My proposition, approved by you…”: More from Henry Hunt

So far this week, we’ve seen, in detail, proposals offered by Brigadier-General Henry Hunt in regard to organization of the artillery in the Army of the Potomac in the winter of 1864.  Those proposals were not radical changes.  Rather changes that would improve the operational efficiency of the artillery, mostly achieved by adding regiments of heavy artillery, without their artillery, to support the field artillery.

All of these points bring light on how Hunt preferred to manage the artillery in the army.  A letter written to Brigadier-General Marsena Patrick, the army’s Provost-Marshal, on February 22, 1864 offers more insight into Hunt’s management of the artillery:

General: The artillery of this army consists of one brigade attached to each corps d’armée, two brigades (six batteries each) of horse artillery, which take turns for service with the cavalry, and the artillery reserve proper, consisting of twelve batteries (field batteries and siege guns). The general ammunition train of the army and the Sixth New York Artillery as its guards are also under the command of the commander of the reserve.

The brigade of horse artillery in reserve is placed under the orders of the commander of reserve artillery when not serving with troops. The whole command constitutes what in other armies would be called the grand park of the artillery, to which the reserve artillery is usually attached. The horse artillery is relieved by brigades, so that each brigade constitutes a unit. The brigades of horse artillery in reserve sometimes furnish temporary re-enforcements of batteries to the brigades in the field or when ordered for other purposes; but as a rule the horse artillery serves and is detailed by brigades.

The mounted batteries (reserve artillery proper) are, for convenience, divided from time to time into two or more brigades. These brigades are not like those attached to corps, independent; they vary in strength and composition, according to their numbers, employment, the number of disposable field officers, &c.

The important part of this set of paragraphs is Hunt’s description of the horse artillery.  It was part of the Artillery Reserve, detailed to the Cavalry Corps when and where needed.  But otherwise, it was used as other parts of the reserve, in the “grand park” of artillery.

Hunt went into some detail about the task organization of the mounted batteries from the Artillery Reserve.  While stopping short of describing how he would employ those guns, he did explain the practice of brigading the batteries.  But he leaves alone the discussion of artillery brigades attached to the corps and how those operated.

So why was Hunt explaining all this artillery “stuff” to Patrick?  Well, Hunt got to that in the next paragraph:

My proposition, approved by you, as I understood, was to give to each unit of force 1 sutler, and but 1, viz: To each brigade attached to a corps, 1 sutler; to each brigade of horse artillery, 1 sutler; to the Sixth New York Foot Artillery (a regiment of volunteers), 1 sutler; to the mounted batteries constituting the reserve proper and for the train attached to it, 1 sutler.

Look, if “The duties must be performed and men are required to perform them,” then the men deserve a little place to spend their hard earned money.  Right?  Beyond just giving a place to spend discretionary income, the sutlers offered a source for items not issued by the army but needed by the soldier.  Things such as tooth brushes, paper, pencils, combs, and such.  Oh, and if permitted, a bottle or two of strong drink.

Hunt went on to detail the assignment of sutlers, by name, to the commands under his charge:

The sutlers are as follows, as now recognized:
1. Mercer Brown, appointed sutler in December, 1861, of the Artillery Reserve by the council of administration. Appointment approved by me and, if I remember right, by General Barry, as chief of artillery, and General McClellan, commanding the army, under paragraph 214, General Regulations.
2. A. Foulke, First Brigade of Horse Artillery (Robertson’s).
3. John Nilan, Second Brigade of Horse Artillery (Graham’s).
4. Thomas McCauly, Sixth New York Foot Artillery (Colonel Kitching).

I’ll call attention to two of these.  There are a couple of photos of Foulke’s sutlery from the Winter Encampment:


Thanks to the Civil War photographers, once again, we know what these establishments looked like.

I’ll also call attention to the sutler, supporting the 6th New York Heavy Artillery.  A letter from Colonel John Howard Kitching, commanding that regiment, offers an interesting side bar about sutlers and soldiers, though not directly involving Mr. Thomas McCauly.  I’ll post that later today.

Hunt’s letter to Patrick was thus not some pontification about the use of artillery, but rather a letter of record to headquarters noting the assignment of sutlers to the artillery units.  In doing so, Hunt had to elaborate on the way he managed the arm.  That’s to our gain.  Closing his letter, Hunt returns to the management aspects:

Artillery from the reserve is detailed for temporary service by batteries, not by brigades. If to occupy a position its sutler must provide for it, if necessary. If permanently transferred to a corps it enters the brigade of that corps, and of course is supplied by the corps sutler. There is no artillery in this army outside of the organizations named.

Today we’d start a discussion of the military terms along the lines of attached, assigned, and OPCON.  The armchair general might organize the army by simply moving lines in the order of battle.  Out in the real world, task organization requires planning and adheres to procedures.  Such avoids confusion and ensure the unit is properly maintained to perform the assigned mission.  Infantry brigades are not apt to carry about extra 3-inch Hotchkiss shells.  So when a battery went to their support, a slice of the Reserve Artillery ammunition train had to go with it.  And if that arrangement were for more than a few days… eventually a sutler would follow.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, pages 583-4.)

Officers of the Horse Artillery… had a handle on their Napoleon

One of the interesting facets to the Winter Encampment of the Army of the Potomac in 1864 is the large number of photographs taken.  Anyone who was anyone posed for a photo or two as the photographers practiced their trade.  Among the many photos is this one showing the officers of the Horse Artillery:

The summary provided for this photo states, “Photograph shows Lt. A.M.C. Pennington, Lt. T. Riley, Lt. C.K. Warner, Lt. R. King, Lt. H.B. Read, Lt. A.M. Randol, Lt. S.S. Elder and another officer at artillery headquarters.”  In other words… a gathering of ace artillerists.

Out in front of the tent fly, we see three of those mentioned engaged in some map reading.


No jokes about lieutenants and maps, OK?

Of course, I’m drawn to the right where three others pose around this Napoleon.


The shading and light make it impossible to read any markings on the muzzle.  Hard to tell if it is more an effect of lighting, but there seems to be a lot of scratch marks in front of the carriage cheek.  And there’s a lot of discolor back to the rear where the vent is.  Perhaps the sign of heavy use.

No doubt you notice the handles.


Only the first batches of Napoleons cast by Cyrus Alger, Ames, and Revere featured these handles.  And notice the vendor stamp on the right trunnion.  Of those three vendors, Ames used a four line stamp on the right trunnion, as partially seen on this example located at Petersburg today:

Petersburg 4 Mar 12 276

Here’s a better view of the same type of stamp on a James rifle at Gettysburg:

Gettysburg 174

The trunnion vendor’s stamp was suppressed after 1861, with the manufacturer’s stamp added to those on the muzzle.  Story for another day.

Another attribute linking this gun to Ames is the shape of the handles and how they are molded into the barrel.  Looking to the Ames Napoleon with handles at Petersburg again:

Petersburg 4 Mar 12 277

Notice the rounded profile and cross section of the handles.  Also the round “pads” where the handles join the barrel.  This was Ames’ practice in regard to the handles.  Alger patterns used a square shaped pad.  Revere, while using a circular pad, kept the the the pads and the flair at the base to a minimum.

I submit the visible stamp and the handles identify this weapon as a 12-pdr Napoleon from Ames Manufacturing. Since only the first 23 or so from Ames had handles, the gun in the photo comes from a very small set, relatively speaking.  Nineteen of those survive today, most of which at Fort Niagara, New York.  So run the odds that particular Napoleon is around today.

Beyond just a simple weapon identification, the presence of the gun in the photo tells us a bit more about the guns in the Army of the Potomac.  No doubt that early production gun was issued prior to the 1862 season.  And we see it was in the field about the time the army broke camp for the 1864 season.  Despite the production of hundreds of new Napoleons, this gun remained on the line past two full campaign season… hard campaign seasons.  And apparently treasured enough to park at headquarters for a photograph.