My friend Phil Spaugy passed along an interesting link from the Virginia Military Institute archives. The article, authored by L. VanLoan Naiswald and titled “Civil War Parrott Gun Met its First Successful Test on the VMI Post,” provides an overview of initial use of the famous Parrott rifle. It appeared in the Spring 1993 edition of the VMI Alumni Review.
Many readers will recall Naisawald’s Grape and Canister, first published in 1960, a history of the artillery in the Army of the Potomac. Grape and Canister is an excellent read – although on certain points the work is dated by information forthcoming in the fifty years since publication.
Naisawald’s Parrott gun article provides a good account of the first Parrott rifle which was tested at VMI in the fall of 1860. As Naisawald relates, the cadets manned the gun as Major Thomas J. Jackson directed the tests. With successful results, Jackson advocated purchase of additional Parrott rifles. That first Parrott went on to play a role at Big Bethel in June 1861.
But I have to question one portion of Naisawald’s article. In the opening paragraphs, he indicates a less well known origin of the composite cast iron/wrought iron Parrott guns.
Contrary to popular belief, the gun that served both sides during the Civil War was not named for its inventor. Its name came from its producer, Capt. Robert P. Parrott…. The gun was invented by Benjamin Chambers, Sr., who had a small factory in Northumberland County on the Northern Neck of Virginia.
Naisawald goes on to indicate that Chambers developed a design and received a patent in July 1849.
Chambers’ gun was unique for two reasons: It was a rifled cannon, something not used by any army or navy at that time, and, even more unusual, it was to be a breech-loading gun rather than a conventional muzzle-loader. It would have a cast iron gun tube reinforced at the breech by a heavy band of wrought iron shrunk about it.
Naisawald indicates that Chambers opted not to produce any weapons under his patent, instead selling it to Robert P. Parrott of West Point Foundry. Parrott in turn began experiments that finally produced a similar, but muzzle-loading, rifle. This leads Naisawald to conclude Parrott only furthered Chambers’ design.
While I cannot speak to Chambers’ personal connection with Parrott, his patent is now online thanks to Google’s indexes.
The patent matches to the cited date in the article, but indicates Chambers hailed from Washington, D.C. (perhaps a slight issue). Chambers design used a central barrel or mandrel, presumably cast iron but not specified, with wrought-iron rings or hoops added progressively to build up the gun. I would stress these are not “bands” as the terminology was used at the time of the Civil War. The Chambers gun is indeed a breechloader. And a somewhat cumbersome design from appearances.
However, Chamber’s diagram does not look anything like Parrott’s patent:
In fact, Chambers’ design reminds me of R.T. Loper’s patent of 1844, more than Parrott’s.
Parrott’s patent description describes use of a coiled iron bar which is hammered and wrought into a hollow cylinder. Parrott even stated he was not particular as to the method of forming the cylinder. Rather his patent specified that when the hot iron band was placed over the breech, the entire gun was turned and cooled internally in order to ensure proper fitting and shrinking.
So while I cannot establish or discount any personal connection between Chambers and Parrott, the patents lead me to retain the traditional interpretation – Parrott invented the guns that bear his name.