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

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

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

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Liège…as in Belgium.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cavalry Tactics: Evolution of drill regulations

Going back to my “archives” to a post from the old days, let me mention Captain Alonzo Gray’s “Cavalry Tactics as Illustrated by the War of the Rebellion.”  That work has flaws, particularly from the stance of military professional reading (as in he completely missed a lot of important factors which would preclude the use of traditional cavalry just years after the work’s publication).  But considered as history, Gray was among the first to examine in detail the use of cavalry during the Civil War.  So “Cavalry Tactics” is an important waypoint in the historiography of the subject.

Such is a polite way of saying that you might not agree with Gray, but you have to consider his writings for any study of cavalry tactics.  As a long time student of cavalry actions during the war, I keep a photocopy of the book on my reference desk (dating to a time well before Google Books had a digital copy).  As part of my post-sesquicentennial threads to pick up, I’m going to pull out selected portions of Gray’s “Cavalry Tactics” for examination and interpretation – using some of those sesquicentennial themed posts for reference.

Before getting knee deep in cavalry stuff (bring your tall boots, by the way), let us consider the history of cavalry tactics, as they applied to the American practice.   And as we step off, we must explain “tactics” in context.  In the classic sense of the word, tactics are the actions and activities taken to achieve an objective.  Tactics embodies the “practices” of a military unit, or formation, as it approaches those objectives.  You see, tactics is a practical application towards an objective, while strategy involves planning, thus more abstract, to use those tactics in pursuit of the larger goal.

A significant subset of tactics is drill.  Drill defines the practices for forming and moving a military formation.  Often, with respect to the Civil War, historians overlook that drill was a subset, and not the whole of tactics.   This is prefectly understandable, as the regulations were often titled “Cavalry Tactics.” However there is a lot that fell outside the “drill regulations” which factored into tactics as practiced during 1861-65.  But, because those regulations were written, published, and widely used, the manuals receive a good bit of attention in our analysis 150 years later.

As there were variations among the drill regulations, both due to evolution of the arm and differences of opinion about the arm, there were several options available to the commander seeking to drill his cavalry.  And those differences translated, as an output of drill, to the flexibility of the unit of cavalry.  In his introduction, Gray briefly discussed the evolution of cavalry tactics in the American experience.

The earliest regulations cited by Gray dated to The War of 1812.  A publisher from Philadelphia offered “Colonel Harries’ Instructions for a Volunteer Corps of Cavalry” in 1811.  More substantial was Colonel William Duane’s “Hand Book for Cavalry,” which appeared in 1814.  As Duane was the Army’s Adjutant General, his carried a bit more weight.  Still, the Army lacked an “official” cavalry drill regulation.

A product of a moderate era of military reforms, a board of officers met in 1826 and drafted just such a manual, known as “A Complete System of Cavalry Tactics.”  These were published in 1834, as simply “A System of Tactics: Rules for the Exercises and Maneuvers of the Cavalry and Light Infantry and Riflemen of the United States.”  Since that is a mouthful, the manual was often attributed to the president of the board … Major-General Winfield Scott… as simply “Scott’s Tactics.”  (Keep in mind there were a similar set of “Scott’s Tactics” for the infantry.)  For the most part, the board patterned these drills on European standards. But this brought a much needed standard for reference.  Scott’s tactics introduced a double-rank system.  The manual also set the organization with two troops per squadron; and four squadrons per regiment.  While this organization would change just a few years later, Scott’s brought into use many common terms and phrases used in later manuals (and reflected even today in armored cavalry tactics, BTW).

Even more aggressive military reforms came during the tenure of Secretary of War Joel Roberts Poinsett.  The “Tactics of 1841” were largely a translation of French manuals.  Philip Kearny received credit for the organization, but the results were known to most as “Poinsett’s Tactics.”  These retained the double-rank system, but increased the number of squadrons per regiment to five (for a total of ten troops).  The extent of this set of tactics was so complete as to require issue in parts.  Part One was the “School of the Trooper, of the Platoon and of the Squadron – Dismounted.” Part Two covered mounted drill at the same levels.  (And note the links for those first two are for 1855 editions of the manuals.)  Last was Part Three – “Evolutions of a Regiment (1841 edition).”  (Here’s a link to the 1862 edition, if you wish to compare.) Poinsett’s became the standard for most cavalry drill during the Civil War.  The set received little revision right through the war and were republished in 1864 by order of the War Department as a single volume.

The ascendency of Poinsett’s Tactics was not complete.  In 1857, Captain George B. McClellan returned from his tour of Europe with some ideas about cavalry drill.  Those were later published, when McClellan had a much higher station in the Army hierarchy (in 1862), as “Regulations and Instructions for the Field Service of the U.S. Cavalry in Time of War.”  However, McClellan’s main influence was upon Colonel Philip St. George Cooke. The chief deviation from Poinsett’s was the use of a single-rank formation. And from that came variations in the arraying of the regiment in movement and while in position.  Not until November 1861 did Cooke receive approval for these revisions, and even then the revisions did not eclipse Poinsett’s during the war.  Cooke had Volume I covering the “School of the Trooper, of the Platoon, and of the Squadron” along with Volume II addressing drill at the regimental level.

With the need to create a large cavalry force from scratch, the Federals had no time to implement a new drill manual.  And at the same time, Poinsett’s was deemed too complicated for the rapid training of volunteer regiments.  To satisfy the need, George Washington Patten included “Cavalry Drill and Sabre Exercise” in the set of manuals he offered, starting in 1861.  Representing a “watered down” Poinsett’s, Patten’s were of little influence on further evolutions.

And those were not the only variations produced during the war.  Major James Congdon, of the 12th Pennsylvania Cavalry, authored “Congdon’s Cavalry Compendium” in 1864. On the opposite side of the lines, Major-General Joseph Wheeler authored his own set of cavalry tactics, which used the single-rank formation.  The Confederates also issued instructions for single-rank formations for use by partisan troops, sometimes also attributed as “Maury’s skirmish tactics for cavalry.” These were but a few of the variations seen during the war.

After the Civil War, wider adoption of Cooke’s ran afoul of reforms pushed by (then) Lieutenant-Colonel Emory Upton and a push towards combined arms tactics.  After Upton’s death, Cooke published a revised version of his drill regulations, incorporating wartime experience.  This work, becoming the standard for the last decades of the 19th century, came out in 1883.

Well beyond that point, the Army continued to revise drill regulations (as they were formally called after Cooke’s) well into the 20th century.  A new drill regulation came out in 1902, saw some tentative revisions in 1913, and finally were reissued on the eve of American involvement in World War I.   As late as 1944, the Army saw the need to update its manuals for horse cavalry drill.

And keep in mind the focus of my post here has been upon the drill regulations – just a part of the larger topic of cavalry tactics.  As Eric Wittenberg discussed a year ago on Emerging Civil War, there are many other facets to the topic beyond just drill.

Casting Tests: More Experimental 6-pdr Guns

Turning again to the chart of experimental 6-pdrs of the 1830s and 1840s:

The last two lines on the chart are two batches of trials and experimental iron guns from Cyrus Alger in Boston, Massachusetts.  While technically not “field guns” these two batches offer a glimpse of the Ordnance Department’s attempts to determine the best way to handle cast iron.

Perhaps the best place to start the story is in 1840 again, with the commission Secretary Poinsett sent to Europe.  According to the Congressional Report, Major Rufus Lathrop Baker, Captain Alfred Mordecai, Captain Benjamin Huger, and former officer and foundryman William Wade visited Europe in the summer and fall of 1840.  The commission observed foundries in Sweden, England, France, Russia, Prussia, and Belgium.  The men paid special attention to the iron handling in the European foundries.

The commission purchased several guns while visiting Europe.  In reference to the discussion of 6-pdrs, the officers acquired two iron 6-pdrs from Gospel Oak Works near Birmingham, England; four iron 6-pdrs from three different Swedish foundries; two iron and four bronze 6-pdrs from the royal foundry in Liege, Belgium.  All the foreign guns followed the “American pattern” according to the report.  The Army tested these guns, along with two West Point iron guns.  The Swedish guns performed a little better than others during the tests.  But as noted in an earlier post, the Ordnance officers concluded the European iron was not significantly better than American iron.

While bronze was the solution for field guns, the Americans needed iron for the siege and seacoast guns.  Toward that end, William Wade continued experiments focused on the properties of cast iron.  In February 1844, the Army issued a contract to Cyrus Alger to produce four 6-pdrs, each cast under different handling processes:

  • No. 1 – cast directly after the iron was melted.
  • No. 2 – cast after the iron was in fusion for one hour.
  • No. 3 – cast after the iron was in fusion for two hours.
  • No. 4 – cast after the iron was in fusion for three hours.

The pattern used, reproduced here from a diagram in the report, was noteworthy for its lack of adornments, rings, and muzzle swell.

Wade's 6-pdr Trials Guns

Wade reported the guns had the same weight and length as contemporary bronze types, but of course to a different form.  What appears as a “band” on the breech is really a thick reinforce and part of the casting.   As cast, the guns suffered many imperfections.  So Wade rejected those and had another set cast.

For the tests, Wade noted that standard round shot had a tendency to jam up in the bore when used with extreme charges or when stacked on the bore.  So he used a special dumb-bell shaped projectile.  None of the guns lasted past 38 fires:

Although extreme tests, these results were not consistent and not promising. But this did set the maximum proof test at three pounds of powder with sixteen balls.

So Wade tested another four guns.  Again, each handled a bit differently in casting:

  • No. 5 – cast after the iron was in fusion for half an hour.
  • No. 6 – cast after the iron was in fusion for one-and-a-half hours.
  • No. 7 – cast after the iron was in fusion for three hours.
  • No. 8 – cast after the iron was in fusion for three-and-three-quarters hours.

The guns suffered through similar tests.  Wade offered this table of the results:

Of the batch, No. 7 survived the tests. In his summary, Wade offered few conclusions, but did compare the test gun’s endurance with those of European origin tested three years earlier.

Wade continued tests with different castings in April 1844, this time of simple iron bars, at different temperatures and fusion times.  In this report he noted results of tensile strength.  Through the remainder of 1844, Wade continued experiments with heavier iron guns in production at Alger’s foundry and measurements of the specific gravity of the iron.  Late in the year, Wade subjected two old 18-pdr guns and the surviving No. 7 iron 6-pdr to hydrostatic tests to determine breaking points.

Alger continued to produce iron guns for experiments after those two batches.  Registry receipts indicate Wade accepted a ninth iron 6-pdr from Alger in 1844.  Perhaps Wade used that gun in a similar set of tests, but I have found no record of such.   Alger delivered two more iron 6-pdrs in 1848 for testing, likely to the same pattern as the 1844 guns.  A surviving gun, with a 1854 date stamp, at Newport, Rhode Island, produced to a similar form as the 1844 guns is rifled to the James system.  Apparently the “form” was good enough for repeated use.

Granted, these test guns were not intended for the field.  But the results of these tests provided the ordnance officers and cannon foundries with important data on which to build conclusions.  Certainly Wade’s experiments aided later heavy guns that saw service in the Civil War.  But in some small part, experiments with metal handling lead to procedures which gave the Parrott field guns the endurance to handle the pressure of rifled projectiles.

Steps along the way to build a better cannon.