Tag Archives: Parrott Rifles

“I am now lacquering or varnishing the interior … of the shells.” : Parrott offers remedies for Parrott failures

From the last weeks of June 1863 right up to the fall of Charleston in February 1865, the story of the siege was dominated by the sound of heavy Parrott rifles firing bolts and shells towards the Confederates.  The performance of these heavy rifles was extreme for its day, and duly noted by observers.  Just as noteworthy, however, was the rate at which those guns failed… sometimes dramatically failed.  As some went looking for explanations,  bad light reflected upon the weapon’s inventor – Robert P. Parrott.  On June 21, 1864, Parrott sent a letter to the Commander of the Department of the South, Major-General John Foster, offering his analysis of the problem and a solution… and a novel suggestion to use the big rifled guns in yet another manner:

Office West Point Foundry,
30 Broadway, New York, June 21, 1864.

Maj. Gen. J. G. Foster-

My Dear Sir: Though I suppose most of the points of importance in regard to the service of my guns are by this time understood, there are one or two that are of such exceeding interest that I am induced to mention them. The greatest difficulty now to be encountered is in the premature explosion of shells in the bore of the gun. The charge of powder they will hold is quite large, and owing to the elongated form of the projectile or to its being driven into the groves, there seems to be a tendency of the parts of the broken shell to wedge in the bore, thus carrying away muzzle or some other part, or, at any rate, giving the gun a violent strain which is afterward and perhaps by other accidents developed into the destruction of the gun. As a means of diminishing this danger, I am now lacquering or varnishing the interior surface of the shells.  Even when freshly put in it operates favorably. A little poured in at the fuse hole and then caused to run over the sides by laying the shells down and rolling it will answer.

The reason for this seems to be that on firing the gun the powder charge of the shells is violently thrown back, and explosion is caused by the friction or attrition of the powder against the rough surface of the bottom and sides of the shell. These are made smooth by the lacquer or varnish, &c.

I have used the 100-pounders as mortars by loading them with a very small charge of powder, 3 ¼ pounds, and setting out the ring of the projectile in one place only so as to nearly fit a groove, by this means, which admits of the shell going down, merely placing the expanded portion in one of the grooves of the gun, and have got a high-curve traveling, say a range of 2,000 yards, with 20 degrees elevation. I have no doubt that when such a fire happens to be desirable it can be obtained readily with the heavy rifles. The starting out of the ring in this way causes it to take the grooves with this low charge.

With the best wishes for your health and success, most truly, yours,
R. P. Parrott.

What Parrott described here, and in other correspondence, was the “rasping” of the shell powder within the shell itself when movement initiated on firing.  More so than in a standard smoothbore shell, the rifled shell was moving violently on two different plains of action.  This friction, he felt, caused the powder to ignite prematurely.

Throughout the long months of use on Morris Island, gunners greased, flushed, and cleaned their Parrott ordnance.  Though I’ve often noted in those wartime photographs, the shells seemed haphazardly lain in the beach sand.  Now, with Parrott’s advice, the ordnance crews preparing the shells had an additional precaution of lacquering the interior.

While a sound, logical step to take, nothing could repair the damaged reputation of the guns….  And at the same time, the faith of the ordnance department remained, for the most part, unshaken by the bursting guns.  West Point Foundry continued with deliveries of large caliber Parrotts.  And the Army kept using them – for decades to come.

And since I’m discussing Parrott and West Point Foundry, let me mention again a portion of that cannon production site is set aside in a park along the Hudson River.  Furthermore, Trudie A. Grace and Mark Forlow’s book on the history of West Point Foundry is in bookstores and available on line now.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 143-4.)

Photo Analysis: The east side of Fort Putnam

In a couple of earlier posts, I used this photo as a reference for Fort Putnam:

And as mentioned earlier, this photo compares favorably to a painting by Conrad Wise Chapman.  But the real treasure of this photo lies in the details the lens captured.  I suspect the photographer took this photo when the Federals were busy converting the works from Battery Gregg into Fort Putnam.  It is among the Haas & Peale collection, which helps with dating the photo to the fall of 1863.  I’ll offer further evidence for that case in the course of discussing the details of the photo.

Let me start on the right side of the works in view.  There were a couple of Parrott rifles on siege carriages in position here.


Based on shadows and reflected light, these appear to face northward toward Fort Sumter and Sullivan’s Island.  Looking closer, my take is there is a 20-pdr Parrott closer to the camera and a 30-pdr Parrott behind.  These are two 30-pdr Parrotts on siege carriages (see comment below).


If my dating of the photo is correct, a later photograph shows this battery cleaned up a bit and ready for action:

The gun crew appeared to know they were being “captured for posterity” here.


With the distance, nothing such as hat brass or other insignia stand out, save the chevrons of the NCO on the right.

The howitzer platform is not so clean as in the later photo.  But an observer posted there appeared to consider the Confederate fortifications in the distance:


In the foreground, behind the Parrotts, are limbers of some sort. Though these don’t stand out as standard type siege limbers:


There were a few boards running lengthwise between the axles here.  So I wonder if these were used to move lumber up to the work details.  And speaking of work details, these fellows appeared to be on break:


Just sitting in the sand, waiting for the call back to work, maybe?

A dapper looking fellow stands on the mound above them.


Notice the ventilation pipes extending up from the old bombproof, constructed by Confederates but then employed by Federals.

To the left of the work crew is another gun.  But this one lay on the berm.


The long trunnions and other external forms help identify this gun as a Confederate columbiad.  Several of these were turned against their former owners starting in the fall of 1863.  This columbiad was likely removed to make room for a Parrott rifle, for which a carriage stands in place above. And there is a second Confederate columbiad in view:


Just barely, that is.  Just the breech, but enough to see the mushroom cascabel.  The view of these two columbiads and the Parrott carriage shows two of the positions used to fire on both Charleston and Fort Sumter:


This compares favorably to a photo taken later:

The Parrott was in place by the time of the later photograph, but one of the Confederate columbiads remained in place on the left.  Note the large stacks of Parrott shells on the right of that later photo.  The “start” of that stack is seen in the earlier photo:


Another detail that helps “date” the photo are all the sandbags:


These are neatly stacked, by veterans of those long days of the summer siege no doubt.  The sandbags indicate the Federals were just starting the improvements when the photo was taken. Later photos show these covered with sod to prevent erosion and cut down on the wind blown sand.  Hard to tell with the shading, but it appears the workers have added sod to the lower half of this wall.  Or perhaps just stacked sandbags over what the Confederates left for them.

More sandbags around a bombproof entrance to the left of the columbiads.  Notice the implements laid in the sand above the bombproof.


Also in this view are three poles.  Looking close there are fine lines (hard to display without over pixelation in the screen capture) of telegraph wires.

Other than the circumstantial evidence of the sandbags and state of work, there’s nothing to pinpoint the date of the photo with accuracy.  There are no unit designations or signs to aid.  There are a few marks on the barrels laying about the works.  Several appeared to have a stencil featuring a crossed something:


Perhaps a stylized anchor and crossed hammer?

Another barrel head (center of view below) has some letters.  But nothing that makes a connection.


Those barrels are among large piles of materials and debris that laid about the rear of the works (which had been the “front” for the Confederates).


The boards are sharpened and likely part of the pallisades going up around the fort.  But some of the piles are nothing short of trash, likely put to good use in campfires later.


The palisade trace around the fort covers the rear, front, and presumably the other side of the fort.  At the far right of the photo, there’s a good profile showing the angle of the palisade to good effect.


And just above the palisades in view?  That’s a Confederate work on James Island.  Battery Simkins.


To the left of Battery Simkins is a Confederate observation and signal tower.  I’ll leave you to determine if that’s an observer standing atop the platform.  Maybe this is one of the rare wartime photos showing both Federal and Confederate in the same view?


To the right of Battery Simkins, some of the outer works of Fort Johnson come into view.


With those distant landmarks in view, I submit my thoughts about the location this photo was taken (E1) and the angle of view:


Looking back on Morris Island, the beach sand of the foreground show the tracks of wheels, indicating heavy traffic as the Federals worked on the captured works.


A few patches of grass.  But not much else than beach sand.

And if you look to the lower left, we find another observer…


Ah, the pesky flies of Morris Island.

6.4-inch and 8-inch Parrotts against Fort Sumter from Battery Reno

Moving forward with the examination of the “Left Batteries” on Morris Island, the guns to the left of Battery Hays were in a series of named works.


These were Batteries Reno, Stevens, and Strong, seen here in a closer crop from the map above:


Lieutenant Peter Michie directed the construction of these works, starting after the during the last week of July. From his official report:

On the 27th of July, I was ordered by [Brigadier-General Quincy Gillmore] to construct what were afterward known as the “left breaching batteries against Fort Sumter.” Their site was a sand ridge, and general direction making an angle of about 35 degrees with the gorge of Fort Sumter, and distant about 4,200 yards from that work. ….

On the 27th of July, the interior crest of a sunken battery for five 100-pounder Parrott guns was laid out, with arrangements for one magazine to hold 200 rounds per gun, and a traverse 12 feet thick on top, between each gun and the one adjacent….

The work progressed well, despite harassing fire from James Island. By July 31, Michie reported the interior revetments were complete. But by August 8, the armament of these batteries changed to one 8-inch (200-pounder) Parrott and four 6.4-inch (100-pounder) Parrotts. And by August 12, Michie had to find a place in the line for a 10-inch (300-pounder) Parrott, the largest on Morris Island. These big Parrotts were arranged as such:

  • Battery Reno – one 8-inch Parrott and two 6.4-inch Parrotts
  • Battery Stevens – two 6.4-inch Parrotts
  • Battery Strong – one 10-inch Parrott

Michie provided a wealth of detail in his report about the layout of these works:

The batteries (except that of the 300-pounder) were full sunken. The line of each interior crest made an angle varying from 30 degrees to 37 degrees with the gorge of Fort Sumter, depending upon the nature of the ridge at the different points. The width of each gun battery was 18 feet, the traverse between being 12 feet thick at top. The interior revetments were of sand-bags laid in the usual manner of headers and stretchers, and extended below the gun platform.

While originally the batteries could only point at Fort Sumter, later the traverse increased to allow fires on James Island, Fort Johnson, Battery Gregg, and Battery Wagner. At first Michie tried rawhide over the embrasures, but with little success. In the end, he settled for gabions filled with sandbags:

The method of anchoring them was to lay a piece of 6-inch by 8-inch timber parallel to the cheek, and some 3 to 4 feet back, having two stout anchoring stakes 6 feet long driven on the inner side. Each gabion, besides being well picketed to the fascine upon which it rested, was tied to this timber by No. 10 wire, stoutly enough to withstand the blast, and yet to give way if struck by a shot, without destroying the entire embrasure.

Regarding the exterior slopes of the batteries, the only preparation was a coating of marsh mud. A layer of two inches dried into a hard crust. This reduced the sand blowing through the battery. The map of the left batteries included a profile of Battery Reno, along the line C-D:


Michie described two bombproof magazines built for Batteries Reno and Stevens:

There were two magazines, one between Nos. 2 and 3, for the service of the two right pieces, and one on the left of No. 5, for the service of the remaining three guns. The former was 10 feet by 10 feet by 6 feet high in the clear, with a filling room 4 feet by 5 feet by 6 feet high; the latter was 10 feet by 15 feet by 6 feet high, with one return gallery 4 feet by 6 feet high. The magazine frames were of 4-inch by 6-inch stuff, placed 2 feet 6 inches apart, and covered with 3-inch plank and 8 feet of sand on the line of least resistance, and for sheeting 1-inch, 1 1/4-inch or 2-inch plank was used as could be procured.

Focusing for this post on Battery Reno, the three big Parrotts there came under the command of Captain Augustus W. Colwell, 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery. Company H, 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery and a detachment of infantry manned the guns (Brigadier-General John Turner states the 178th New York was posted there, but that regiment was still in the Washington, D.C. garrison at the time.)

The range to Fort Sumter from Battery Reno was 4,320 yards. Later as the traverse increased, the range to Battery Gregg was 2,950 yards; and to Battery Wagner was 1,860 yards. All well within the maximum range of the big Parrotts.

One of Haas & Peale’s photos recorded the layout of Battery Reno. Let me again turn to the Hagley Museum and Library collection of Haas & Peale photographs for the view of Battery Reno:


Not one of the best of the set, but at least a photograph to work with. The photo confirms the 8-inch Parrott was in the middle, to the right of the magazine. On the left of the magazine, somewhat hard to see, is one of the 6.4-inch Parrotts. The other is in plain sight on the right.

Notice the construction of the works, with sandbags, barrels filled with sand, and the gabions in the embrasures. The magazine, “between Nos. 2 and 3” according to Michie’s report, matches the provided description.

In the next installment, I’ll turn to Battery Stevens and then to Battery Strong.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 336-38.)